Intimacy director Ita O’Brien started her career in musical theatre as a dancer and actor, before becoming a movement teacher and director. After devising a play that explored the dynamics of abuse in society, O’Brien looked at how she could help keep her actors safe while dealing with such a challenging subject.
The intimacy guidelines and workshops that she developed have led to her working as an intimacy director in TV, film and theatre. In TV, she has worked on Netflix’s Sex Education, BBC One’s Gentleman Jack and Amazon Prime’s Hanna.
O’Brien produced the “Intimacy on set” guidelines. These offer advice on best practice when working with intimacy, simulated sex scenes and nudity. She also provides training for those wanting to follow in her footsteps.
What is an intimacy director?
An intimacy director is someone who helps with support, open communication and transparency about intimacy. They then put in place a process and a structure, [which underlies] agreement and consent for touching; and then choreographs the intimacy really clearly so that there is a structure. The actor can then act freely within that.
At what stage of production do you usually come on board?
It depends on the production. Some productions that I’m speaking to at the moment are in the pre-production stage, and they’ve called me in because there’s loads of sex throughout the whole thing.
For me, it’s way more rewarding to be part of a team right from the get-go, to be able to integrate the work and actually be understood and trusted.
How do you make people feel comfortable when they’re in these very intimate situations?
I’m from an Irish Catholic background and sometimes the bit of me that’s watching me has a bit of a smile about what I’m now doing.
With intimate content, it needs to be dealt with in a professional way, as you would with any other part of the script. It’s essential to talk about it in an open and adult way, dealing with everything on the nail, not pussyfooting around anything; using language that doesn’t infantilise, objectify or titivate.
Where do you fit in on set?
My work is absolutely to serve the director’s vision. I want to know “What’s your vision, what do you want from the scene?” Then [it’s about] having that open conversation with the director and the actors, so that we’re all on the same page. I then put together a structure and choreography to serve that vision, to give the director exactly what they want.
How can directors make your job easier?
I’d like them to look at the process and understand it. If there’s a dance in the scene, everybody knows they’re going to need to bring in a choreographer.
You need [certain] skills in order to be able to do a physical dance or to be able to have a sword in your hands. To learn how to look like you’re fighting without accidentally chopping someone’s head off.
With intimate content, the difference is that everybody does sex, so it’s not seen as a skill. We need to shift to understanding that it is, actually, a skill and those moments need to be choreographed in the same way that a dance would be.
What’s the advantage of having an intimacy director on set?
Once you get in front of the camera it’s way more efficient, the filming time is way quicker and you’ve got a structure that means, continuity-wise, that it’s absolutely repeatable.
In the past, when you have had people speaking about it, one of two things would happen. Either the director would say, “OK, this is what I want, you two jump in the bed and go for it” – and you have a situation where the actors feel really awkward because they don’t know what’s going to happen or what the other person’s going to do to them.
Or the director tells the actors to go away and work it out among themselves. There, you’ve got a situation where you haven’t got an outside eye, and it no longer really serves the writing, the character or the beats of the scene. You have two people trying to cobble together something in a private situation.
One of the new guidelines is that you always have a third person present, so that you keep it professional, not private.
What advice do you have for an actor who gets on set and finds themselves in a situation where they’re told to just get on with it?
If you see intimate content in a script, don’t just leave it. If you’re offered the job and you see intimate content and the director hasn’t already spoken to you about that, you need to have that conversation before you sign up.
Why is it important to have these conversations?
Sixty per cent of women have experienced some form of harassment or abuse by the time they get to 18. That means that, of the actors who come to work with you, a high percentage may have experienced something that can be triggering for them.
We don’t need or want to know what those incidents were, but we do need to put in place a structure that allows for agreement and consent. So, if a body part is off limits, we can say “that’s out of bounds” and choreograph something else.
Are there any misconceptions about your job or what it entails?
Just a couple of months ago, I tried to check in with this director and he gave me very short shrift on the phone. Then I came in and did the scene and we did a really beautiful, very full-on, intercourse scene.
When I checked back with him a few days later he said: “I thought you were going to be like Mary Whitehouse, coming in with your clipboard, but actually you enhanced the scene.”
In some articles about Gentleman Jack, I’ve been described as a “sex expert”. I’m not a sex expert. In the same way that a stunt co-ordinator isn’t an expert swordsman, but is an expert in how you pretend to be a swordsman, I’m absolutely an intimacy co-ordinator, not a sex expert.
Interview by Pippa Shawley