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        甄传奇

        甄传奇

        Friday 10 July 2020 15:11
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        An intimacy coordinator afforded the actors in Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’ the power to explore sensitive topics in a safe and protected environment
        An intimacy coordinator afforded the actors in Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’ the power to explore sensitive topics in a safe and protected environment(BBC)
        I

        n 甄传奇I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s acclaimed BBC One series, a man gently removes his partner’s tampon. A Grindr date that begins with consensual sex culminates in rape. A condom is taken off without a partner’s permission.

        The show, which ends on Monday, explores the myriad sexual experiences of millennials. Following Arabella Essiuedu (Michaela Coel), an up-and-coming writer who is sexually assaulted after her drink is spiked on a night out, I May Destroy You has been heralded for its raw, dark yet humorous portrayal of taboo topics. But with its frequently traumatic content, it asks a lot of its actors – especially Coel, who writes, produces, co-directs and stars in a series that she based on her own experience of sexual assault.

        The show hired Ita O’Brien (previous work includes Sex Education) as its intimacy coordinator – and it shows. Coel has spoken about the benefits of working with O’Brien, acknowledging that having an intimacy coordinator afforded the actors the power to explore sensitive topics in a safe and protected environment.

        O’Brien has been busy: she recently worked on Normal People, another lockdown gift from the BBC, this time about two Irish teenagers, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), who find themselves unable to stay together – or apart – over the course of four years. It has been branded the “horniest”, “raunchiest” and “sexiest” show on television on account of its blisteringly emotive sex scenes – but as with I May Destroy You, the director’s sensitivity to the actors’ needs, coupled with the work of the intimacy coordinator, shines through.

        “I had rehearsals with Paul where we talked about Helen and Connell’s relationship,” says Aoife Hinds, who plays Connell’s university girlfriend Helen in the series. “We talked about what kind of sex they have, where they like having sex and what their sex is like. When choreographing the sex scene, we worked with the intimacy coordinator and director – you’re fully clothed and you agree on a safe word. Firstly, you establish consent, so for example, Paul would say: ‘Can I hold your hand?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, Paul can I hold your hand?’ Then it moves on to hand on shoulder, then to a peck on the cheek, then a hug, then a kiss.”

        They went into so much detail, says Hinds, “that my body knew exactly what it was doing when, so I could just focus on the emotion. I felt safe.”

        The show is proof of what can happen when actors feel comfortable on set. But are I May Destroy You and Normal People a genuine turning point, or just the exception to the rule?

        Normal People is produced by powerhouses Hulu and BBC3; I May Destroy You by BBC1 and HBO. The cost of additional rehearsals and an intimacy coordinator are luxuries that many productions don’t have the budget to afford. So what is it like to film a sex scene without that additional layer of protection?

        “You wouldn’t have access to that kind of support on a small production,” says Sarine Sofair, who played Braavos prostitute Lhara in seasons four and five of Game of Thrones (a series notorious for its explicit nudity and salacious sex scenes). “I’ve heard of contracts which specify what parts of your body you’re happy to show – and if you’re lucky enough to be in a situation where you can negotiate your nudity, then that’s great. But I haven’t experienced that.

        “People do push the limits, especially when you’re young,” she adds. “You don’t necessarily know what part of you is being filmed. Now, I wear bright pink knickers on set, so the cameraman knows where the line is. But when you’re young and starting out, there are a million things, including nudity and sex, that you end up saying yes to, for the sake of working and your career.”

        The exploitation of young actors is something we’re all too used to hearing about. In recent years, a number of well-respected celebrities have spoken out about their discomfort filming intimate scenes earlier in their career. Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke said she found filming certain nude scenes as Daenerys Targaryen “terrifying”. “I’d come fresh from drama school,” she told Dax Shepard on his Armchair Expert podcast. “I’m now on a film set completely naked with all of these people, and I don’t know what I’m meant to do and I don’t know what’s expected of me, and I don’t know what you want and I don’t know what I want.”

        Emilia Clarke said filming her ‘Game of Thrones’ nude scenes was ‘terrifying’?(HBO)

        Léa Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, the stars of the 2013 lesbian romance film Blue Is the Warmest Colour, spoke out about their allegedly “horrible” treatment on set by director Abdellatif Kechiche, saying they had felt like “prostitutes” and were made to “fake orgasm for six hours”. Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown-Findlay, meanwhile, felt manipulated into showing her breasts – when her character lifts up her top to convince a newsagent to sell her cigarettes – in the 2011 film Albatross. She was 20 at the time. “To be honest, Albatross was naivety and not knowing that I could say no,” she told Radio Times two years after the film came out. “I had no idea what was going to happen and thought I was going to be shot from behind.”

        It’s a sentiment that Sofair agrees with. “When I was 22 and somebody asked me: ‘Are you comfortable with this?’ I wouldn’t necessarily have the answers because I wouldn’t have tried it before,” she says. “I’d find myself on set, trying it out for the first time. A lot of things are momentary discoveries, and they’re not always ones you can go back on. I wouldn’t have known when I was younger that I could ask to wear modesty garments or that I could call people out on situations where my contract hadn’t specified that I needed to perform nude.”

        In late 2019, Directors UK released a set of guidelines for filming simulated sex and nudity, prompted by the emerging emphasis on safeguarding actors following the #MeToo movement. The guidelines sought to eradicate the grey areas that have previously left actors vulnerable to exploitation.

        The document pinpoints castings as one of these “grey areas”, stating that “auditions are based on power imbalance” and that “some performers can feel obligated to agree to uncomfortable requests to get a job”. It advises that all castings take place in a professional space within working hours and that no full nudity be required.

        Michaela Coel in ‘I May Destroy You’(BBC)

        Unfortunately, the guidelines are only a resource, not a prescriptive list of dos and don’ts – there are no repercussions for individuals if these professional expectations are not upheld. So how likely are they to have a difference in an industry with an inherent imbalance?

        For Sofair, castings have been where “most things have gone wrong”. She says: “I’ve been to huge hotel suites ... and we all know about hotels … where the lines have very much been blurred. I’ve met up numerous times for coffees or meetings, which you quickly realise is not about business. I had a casting where I had to basically grind and dance in the director’s lap. I felt sick to my stomach afterwards. If you’re being asked to do something uncomfortable – and the motive has nothing to do with the script – that’s basically abuse.”

        It’s not just castings that can force actors into vulnerable positions. On low-budget sets, performers can also find themselves in exploitative situations – working for productions that evade standardised guidelines and regulations.

        “Low-budget indie sets are ripe environments for abuse of power,” says True Blood actor Sarah Scott. “I’ve been sexually harassed on multiple sets, and while working on a TV pilot in 2018, my co-star sexually assaulted me under the covers in front of the crew.”

        In 2018, Scott was filming the indie TV show The Mogulettes when her co-star Kip Pardue allegedly took her hand and placed it on his genitalia. Scott also claims that later, in the dressing room, Pardue exposed himself to her.

        The Los Angeles Times reported, in 2019, that Pardue had been found guilty of “serious misconduct in violation” of the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) constitution. He initially received a fine of $6,000 (?4,700), with the option of paying $3,000 if he took an online workplace sexual harassment training module. Initially, Pardue apologised for putting Scott’s hand on his erect penis while on set but denied her other allegations. However, Pardue’s attorney told The Times that his client “never engaged in any non-consensual behaviour”.

        “I think he possibly saw working on this independent project, where he was more of a name than the rest of us, as an opportunity to prey on people who were less famous and powerful than him,” says Scott.

        It’s a tale as old as time. Scott has worked in the industry for more than two decades and her experiences of exploitation i the course of her career. “The power dynamic on set needs to change,” says Scott. “I did this scene for a film called The Grind where I had to get out the shower and stab someone. Mid-shoot I heard: ‘Take your bra off.’ I was wearing a white tank top, where if I did that, you would have seen my nipples, and I would have basically been topless.

        An uncomfortable back and forth ensued. “I didn’t want to do it and I had explicitly said before that I would not do nudity,” she says. “There was so much pressure. We were already shooting the scene, everybody was looking at me and I was branded as difficult for saying no.” The desire not to be branded as “difficult” is something which actors constantly battle against. It can lead to performers agreeing to do things that they are uncomfortable with.

        The industry is not only dominated by men, it is also disproportionately white, resulting in the erasure of the narratives of people of colour, and especially Bame women. A recent UCLA study revealed that only 8 per cent of characters were played by Bame women in the top 200 films of 2017 (selected by box-office statistics).

        Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos in ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ (Wild Bunch)

        Women of colour have pinpointed that the lack of representation has led to their over-sexualisation within the television and film industry – especially when there is a white, male director looking through the lens.

        “Men in the industry have a way of subordinating women into thinking they have no power, especially when it comes to unnecessary intimacy on screen, what women wear, what they show,” says Jennifer Podemski, an indigenous Canadian actor who appeared alongside Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in Take This Waltz. “Many white men who direct indigenous content try to tell the indigenous person how to act more indigenous, and most of the time, this means to be dirtier, sluttier, more victimised, more emotional or more stoic.”

        In 2017, Emily Meade, who plays a sex worker turned adult film star in the HBO series 甄传奇The Deuce, asked for an intimacy coordinator when she was asked to simulate oral sex. The show granted her request. This pivotal moment led to the rise of the intimacy coordinator in Hollywood. But the role only became popular four years ago – a small amount of time in an industry reluctant to change. Some productions still have issues with using an intimacy coordinator. A number of others use them simply for legal protection.

        As such, even in the presence of an intimacy coordinator, actors can still be vulnerable. Interrogation actor Morgan Campbell-Taylor has felt voiceless when filming even when she’s had access to an intimacy coordinator. While shooting a sex scene for a TV show that she’d rather not name, “the directors wanted me to wear underwear”, she recalls, “but we kept losing footage because the pants kept showing in the shots”.

        Although an intimacy coordinator was present, Campbell-Taylor believes that they “didn’t have enough power to make the director change his mind. Legally, a production wants an intimacy coordinator as a buffer to prevent anything from going wrong, but the coordinators aren’t being taken seriously. It just feels like a legal logistic for a box to be ticked.”

        Sex scenes or shoots involving nudity are supposed to take place on a closed set – which means that only essential crew members are present while filming. Part of an intimacy coordinator’s job is to ensure that the set remains closed. However, on large sets, the number of “essential crew” needed can still be hefty.

        Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in ‘Normal People’(BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu)

        Sofair explains: “The reality of a closed set on a production like Game of Thrones is that it still looks like about 150 people. And they’re mostly men and you do wonder, ‘Is this really closed?’”

        Still, a number of actors have had positive experiences filming sex scenes, including Campbell-Taylor, who shot a number of intimate and nude scenes in The Orchard: “I love sex scenes – and I think I feel so comfortable doing them because I’ve had extensive, professional training.

        “When shooting a sex scene,” she continues, “I communicate directly with the other actor or actors and create a pact. I’ll discuss with them emotional barriers, physical barriers, words they can and can’t use during improvisation – for example, I don’t want to be called a bitch. I’ll tell them they can touch my breasts, but not my nipple and they can touch my bum, but not my pubic bone. I get nitty gritty specific because it leaves less room for error. It is so important to discuss these things with people who you are doing intimate scenes with, who you are not actually intimate with.”

        Sex is an intrinsic part of the human experience and it would be to our cultural detriment to censor it from art. But intimacy and nudity need to be handled sensitively – with comfort, care and autonomy. In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and with the recent rape conviction of Harvey Weinstein, the industry is equipped with the knowledge and armour to deconstruct its current power hierarchy and forge an alternative, safer future.

        “It’s a landmark case that Weinstein was brought to justice,” says Scott. “He ran Hollywood for many years and is now a convicted rapist behind bars. His conviction is revolutionary. He was convicted on a Monday, but by Wednesday everybody was focused on the threat of this pandemic. Culturally, we haven’t had time to unpack his sentencing. We haven’t understood the amplification of that. And we have to go back and do that.”

        Shows such as I May Destroy You and Normal People are proof that the industry can be different, and successful – but as we scuttle back to normality post-lockdown, the question remains – will the shows’ success spark a revolution or remain the exception to the rule?

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