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Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Filming Sex Scenes In Movies, But Were Afraid To Ask

It takes a lot of movie magic romance to make it appear as though actors in a sex scene are actually in the throes of passion. Most famous movie sex scenes are choreographed right down to each passionate kiss and every gentle caress (although, in rare cases, actors actually did have sex on camera). Ever wonder how sex scenes are filmed? Here are some juicy details on what it’s like filming sex scenes.

It’s best to think of an elaborate sex scene like a choreographed fist fight, with the director acting as cheerleader. “Put your right hand on her left boob, now kiss his neck, and slowly unbutton her shirt. Good.”

Although it all looks intimate and exciting once the raw footage is edited, filming sex scenes is usually pretty painful for the actors. Even on a closed set, there are still crew members present. And even if the final scene only runs for 30 seconds, it may take hours to film, while actors are in various states of undress. Thank goodness for flesh-colored privacy undergarments.

Read all about some of cinema’s most awkward behind the scenes moments and discover how sex scenes are filmed.

Details On Nudity And Sex Scenes Are Worked Out During Contract Negotiations

Photo: Summit Entertainment

Before production begins on a film, an actor signs a contract. On a film with scenes of a sexual nature, that includes a nudity clause, which is a legally binding document. A nudity clause includes all the specifics of what an actor will be asked to do, how the scene will be shot, and who will be on set. These specific details are not in the script. Actors also usually meet with a director before shooting, to discuss all the details of the scene (and, obviously, a lot of other stuff about the project).

The Set Is Cleared To Only Essential Crew Members

Photo: New Line Cinema

Usually, while filming sex scenes, only essential crew members who absolutely have to be onset are present. This skeleton crew typically includes the director, camera operator, assistant camera if necessary, boom operator, and script supervisor. Once the director calls action, if possible, crew members turn their backs to the actors.

Alcohol Has Been Used To Help Actors Lower Their Inhibitions

Photo:  Paramount

Just like in real life, movie stars use alcohol to lower their inhibitions. Fatal Attraction is known for its extremely R-Rated sex scenes between Michael Douglas and Glenn Close. Adrian Lyne, who directed the film, said the actors were “loosened up with Champagne and margaritas.”

Sometimes You Just Gotta Keep The Mood Light

Photo:  NBC Universal

The first two Fifty Shades movies are known for their erotic, explicit sex scenes which often featured some scintilating BDSM. But that doesn’t mean Jamie Dornan (Christian Grey) was always in the mindset of his dark character.

The Northern Irish actor revealed on The Graham Norton Show that he pranked his co-star Dakota Johnson while filming one of the more intimate scenes in Fifty Shades Darker. “My temptation is always just to try to make Dakota laugh, so sometimes I’ll do things like, when there’s a moment where I’m meant to, you know, orgasm, I’ll be like, [makes the sports game organ “Charge!” sound],” Dornan said.

The Sex Is Usually Tightly Choreographed

Photo:  HBO

How choreographed or spontaneous a sex scene is depends on the director. Lena Dunham’s Girls was known for graphic sex and almost constant nudity, which often came totally out of context. All of the sex scenes on the series were choreographed.

Actor Jake Lacy, who played Fran, one of Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) love interests explained:

“It’s handled incredibly professionally and delicately and that comes from the top, with Jenni and Lena from the get, saying like, ‘Here’s what’s on the page, here’s what the nudity is, here’s how we’re going to shoot it, here’s who’s in the room. There’s no freewheeling element, to like, ‘Take it off if you want to, show what you can, let’s just have fun.’ That’s not really how this goes down.”

 

The Degree Of Choreography Can Get Extreme

Photo:  20th Century Fox

David Fincher is known as an extremely meticulous, multi-take director. He often asks an actor to do a scene upwards of 50 or 60 times. That need for complete control naturally transfers over into the director’s bedroom scenes as well.

During an interview with Out, Neil Patrick Harris talked about the graphic sex scene between he and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl.

“We had to rehearse the sex scene with David [Fincher], like every inch of it—’Then you put your mouth on his d*ck here, and then this number of thrusts, and then you ejaculate.’ It was weird because we’re technically breaking down the sex scene, He wanted it to be almost robotic, that we know exactly where we are, position-wise, where everything goes.”

Paul Verhoeven, who directed NC-17 rated Showgirls, believes in very detailed choreography. He tells actors exactly what the camera will depict and where the camera is going to be placed:

“All sex scenes in my movies are precisely choreographed — there is no question of ‘Do I lick her nipple or not? Do I go down on her? How far, and what do you see?’ Every move is already clear before we start, because I talk with my actors and actresses in a very open way about what will be visible, where the camera will be, what the actions are. I do it in extreme detail, using words like ‘nipple’ and ‘vagina’ continuously to make absolutely clear to the actors how we are going to shoot that scene. And when we shoot it, we really stick to the script. I don’t come to the actors later with additional details that are perhaps unacceptable — it should be clear in the script what’s happening.”

Some Directors Are Okay With A Little Improv

Photo:  Paramount

One of the steamiest and most memorable sex scenes in cinema occurs in Fatal Attraction. During a 2016 cast reunion issue of Entertainment Weekly, stars Glenn Close and Michael Douglas talked about the thriller’s famous kitchen sink sex scene.

“Sex in movies is always a delicate line. Glenn was raring to go,” Douglas recalls.

“We got up there on the kitchen table, and she came up with this great idea with the sink, with the water running and making herself wet, which is always good… The only thing I threw in, I remember, was this moment where we were going at it, [and since] I like comic relief, I think you need a second [of it], and there’s a second where I had my pants down [while] carrying Glenn, then tripping, and then having to make this run for the bed. It kind of let the audience relax for a second.”

Sex Scenes Are Not That Sexy For The Actors

Photo: HBO

Because sex scenes are often so technical and crew members are present, filming them is never as erotic as the final product. Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed several graphic sex scenes in HBO’s Big Little Lies (hello Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård!), said he has never seen an actor with an erection in any of the sex he’s filmed. However, that doesn’t mean actors don’t get a little aroused. “It’s so technical, but we’re humans, and they’re naked, and they touch each other,” he admitted.

Actor Michael Shannon may have described filming sex scenes the best. “I always say sex scenes in movies, it’s just like having sex, except without any of the pleasure, but all the horror, fear, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness is all there to enjoy, just none of the pleasure part.”

The Director Sometimes Turns Into A Cheerleader

Photo: 20th Century Fox

Some directors choose to remain quiet during a sex scene, to give the actors a chance to disappear into the moment. Others, such as Adrian Lyne, who helmed several notoriously sexy movies (Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful, 9 1/2 Weeks, Flashdance) turn into a sort of cheerleader. Lyne has been known to shout, “Good, good, good. Give me a little more of that. Show me your beast. Water, water! Great!” during a sex scene.

“I think it`s kind of difficult for two actors to be going at each other in total silence while four or five people are watching,” explains Lyne. The English filmmaker says directing a sex scene is like participating in a “bizarre kind of menage a trois” with the actors.

A Director May Choose To Use A Master Shot

Photo: THINKFilm

Director Atom Egoyan was contractually obligated to ensure Where the Truth Lies, his 2005 film noir starring Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth, received an R-Rating. However, Egoyan said he had difficulty “trying to choreograph extended scenes of sexual activity without seeing the prolonged thrusting associated with the act.”

Typically, the difference between an R-Rating and an NC-17 Rating is decided upon how much in-and-out action there is during a scene (beyond obvious stuff like full-on shots of erections or vulvas). A few seconds of thrusting is usually okay; anything more than that will bring the film into dreaded NC-17 territory, killing its commercial potential.

Egoyan decided to use a master shot to film the sex scene in Where the Truth Lies, in an effort to make it seem as natural as possible. A master shot is a long take (uninterrupted, with no cuts) that keeps all of the actors in view. Egoyan needed to be able to show the actors having sex without the act of thrusting. He even rehearsed the scene with dolls to see if he could get what he wanted while maintaining an R-Rating. Unfortunately for Egoyan, his efforts were unsuccessful; the movie got an NC-17 and was released unrated.

Master shots make things a lot more awkward for the actors, because there are no breaks during filming. You can’t film a few kisses, take a break, remove your co-star’s shirt, take another break, and so on and so forth. The whole scene must be performed continuously, like theater.

Unsimulated Sex Happens Sometimes

Photo: Alchemy

Believe it or not, sometimes sex on the big screen happens for real, and not just in porn. Most of the time these films receive an NC-17, so distribution is limited. However, it has occurred in movies with actors and directors that you’ve definitely heard of before.

An controversial example of this is Lars von Trier’s two-part melodrama Nymphomaniac, which features several instances of unsimulated sex. Rumors surfaced that Shia LaBeouf and Stacy Martin had real intercourse onscreen, and von Trier said the film would depict actual sex. After the film premiered, however, it was revealed the actual act of sex was performed by porn actors. LaBeouf and Martin’s bodies were later superimposed with CGI.

Vincent Gallo’s film The Brown Bunny depicted Chloë Sevigny giving Gallo’s character a blowjob. Many thought the act didn’t actually happen, though Sevigny confessed fellatio did indeed take place. Gaspar Noé’s 2015 film Love and erotic drama Caligula also featured actual onscreen intercourse, the former in 3D.

Actors Need Their Space

Photo: NBCUniversal

Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who shot Fifty Shades of Grey, says he sometimes films sex scenes using the same technique wildlife photographers employ to not scare animals – keep a safe distance. “It was on the end of a zoom and we’d let them move,” he says. “And with that tighter lens sometimes you can get a more impressionistic, abstract view of bodies.”

When McGarvey had to get a close shot of Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan during a sex scene, he used a remote control device that afforded the actors plenty of space. “The camera is being operated off of a device 20 feet away from where the camera is, just so the actors don’t have a hairy old operator breathing down their backs,” he explained.

Actors Aren’t Usually Naked, They Just Look It

Photo: New Line Cinema

The wardrobe department is often an actor’s best friend, especially in regards to shooting a sex scene. Often, an actor who looks naked onscreen is actually wearing some kind of flesh-colored undergarment. Unless a scene is especially explicit, a privacy garment covers most of an actor’s privates. This garment is especially important to prevent any actual contact between the performers.

Male performers will often sport what is aptly called a “cock sock” for shooting the climax of a sex scene. The actor wraps his privates in a cloth, which is shaped like a sock, to ensure that all the private areas are covered.

What’s A Merkin?

Photo: 20th Century Fox

Ever hear of a merkin? Pubic hair style has changed a lot through history. Today, the current trend may be for an actress to make regular appointments for a Brazilian wax to take off most, if not all, off her pubic hair. However, if an actress or actor is in a period piece set in a time during which that clean look was not en vogue, then a merkin, which is basically a pubic wig, is used. You’ve probably seen merkins before and were not aware. A few recent ones of note include Evan Rachel Wood in Mildred Pierce, both Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal in Love & Other Drugs, and Olivia Wilde in Vinyl.

Rosewater and Glycerin Spray Are Used For That Sweaty Look

Photo: Paramount Pictures

The goal of any sex scene in a movie is to make the act look as real and natural as possible. That goal is usually accomplished by adding the small details. The production team will often spritz actors with spray made of rosewater and glycerin between takes, which looks like real sweat to the movie camera.

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