Earlier this year, SAG-AFTRA launched an initiative aimed at ensuring that the filming of sex scenes on television and film would be safe for its members through the hiring of intimacy coordinators. And now, showrunner and writer Lena Waithe is taking things a step further with a new promise that will guarantee safety on all of her sets.
In January, SAG-AFTRA announced the news that it had created a comprehensive guide to intimacy coordination and choreography to share with the industry in hopes that more productions would make room for the position on their respective sets. Intimacy coordinators are experts on the depiction of intimate moments onscreen; these certified individuals work with the cast and crew to make sure that everyone involved in the shooting of any kind of intimate scene is comfortable before, during, and after filming. They are trained to know the ins and outs of interpersonal relationships, the breadth of their knowledge spanning everything from basic cinematography to gender, racial, and sexual identity to acute trauma response.
"Intimacy coordinators have a skillset and a knowledge bank and that I don't — that no showrunner has," Waithe explained to Refinery29 during a phone conversation in May. "Sure, we can write an intimate scene, but we don't always know how to make sure that actors are really comfortable."
"We know that we want to make them feel safe and protected," she continued. "But we're not trained to understand things like trauma or even notice when an actor might need to take a break from filming a particular scene. Intimacy coordinators know all the things that you, the showrunner, don't have the privilege of knowing being you're doing so many things at once."
Almost more than any other current showrunner in the industry, Waithe is a passionate, vocal advocate for intimacy coordination. She's so dedicated to changing the landscape that she's leading by example, pledging that anything filmed under the banner of her production company Hillman Grad Productions will make room in its budget and on its set for an intimacy choreographer. That includes her current series The Chi and Twenties as well as all of the other projects she has in the pipeline.
In addition to the continued presence of coordinators across all of her sets, the multi-hyphenate is partnering with accomplished professionals in the field to train future intimacy experts. Mia Schachter (whose work includes Twenties as well as Issa Rae's Insecure) will lead the training process alongside fellow coordinators Yehuda Duenyas and Jimanekia Eborn.
What Waithe and Schachter hope to do with the program is to introduce people to the often overlooked field of intimacy coordination as well as create more opportunities for people of colour to work in these positions. As we know, representation matters, but it's not just who appears onscreen that's important. In the same way that we need to pull Hollywood's screenwriters, directors, producers, and crew members from a diverse pool of qualified professionals, the available selection of intimacy coordinators also has to be representative of the world we live in.
Take Twenties, for example. The show, which explores the professional and personal lives of three young Black women in Los Angeles, features a number of scenes that require its stars to strip down physically and emotionally. Schachter combined her knowledge of gender, sexuality, and race with her extensive training in sex choreography in order to help Waithe's scripts and vision come to life in the safest and most authentic way. At times, that meant stepping between the actors and the script to make sure that things were going well.
"In my experience, directors want actors to feel comfortable, but actors are kind of indoctrinated and conditioned to believe that the director is God," Schachter shared with Refinery29 in the same interview. "Or that you as an actor are going to be labelled 'difficult' if you're not willing to go the distance, even if you're not comfortable."
"Having an intimacy coordinator mediates that hierarchy and power dynamic so that actors have a neutral, third party person that they can talk this stuff out with without feeling like they might be risking the integrity of the scene."
It's far more than just making sure sex scenes are shot as safely as possible — the intimacy coordinator acts a liaison between the actors and the rest of the production crew.
In the off-chance that an intimate scene proves too much for an actor or that there's no safe way to film it convincingly, the production's official coordinator steps in to advocate for the needs of the cast — something that so many actors of the past undoubtedly wish would have occurred during their time on set. Schachter says that the presence of the coordinator works as a shift in the production's power dynamic, empowering talent to speak up about their needs without fear.
As intimacy coordination becomes an integral aspect of the conversation surrounding Hollywood's past and present issues with sexual harassment and abuse, Schachter and Waithe hope to inspire change in the entertainment space by showing just how effective the position can be when intimacy expertise is not an afterthought but a priority. You would never film a fight sequence without the input of a stunt choreographer — the same should be said of a sex scene and an intimacy coordinator. Shooting intimate scenes requires just as much care, nuance, attention to detail, and concern.
"I'm just grateful that intimacy coordination exists the way it does does," concluded Waithe. "It's easy to look back and point out things that people may have done wrong, but the truth is that we weren't having the conversations that we're having now. We have to own the fact that we might have been doing something wrong because we didn't have the tools to fix it — but we have them now."
"We're moving forward," said Schachter. "We have a new way of making people comfortable and safe on set that we didn't have before. It's a new language, a new vocabulary of moving through these content."