Monday, February 15, 2010

Lie back and think of the lunch menu

The less-than-sexy truth about filming lurve scenes (from the Irish Independent's Review on Jan 30 last)...

Grab her thigh -- now
Sex scenes sizzle on screen but Neil Jordan says that filming them is embarrassing for all involved. SUSAN DALY talks to actors and directors about the passion-killing work that goes into faking it.

FILM directors can be very precious about their work. There is a reason why the ‘director’s cut’ tends to only make it as an added extra on DVD – only diehard fans can sit through their full, ass-numbing vision.

Neil Jordan, then, has gone against the grain by voluntarily cutting a lengthy sex scene involving Colin Farrell from his new movie Ondine. Far from shedding tears in the editing suite, Jordan was unsentimental about losing the scene. “Sex scenes are embarrassing for anyone involved,” he said.

Not all erotically-charged scenes are as disposable. The plot of Jordan’s Oscar-winning The Crying Game pivots around that scene of mind-bending nudity.

Back when the Hays Code confined Hollywood within a chastity belt of legislation, actors didn’t have to worry about preserving their modesty. Now that sexual matters can be depicted so much more freely on screen – the 1927 Code decried any kiss lasting over three seconds as “excessive” - love scenes are all in a day’s work for the actor.

Getting paid to lie naked with Johnny Depp sounds like a dream job. We, the audience, see beautiful people writhing in a symphony of slick limbs and soft lighting. Just out of frame, however, is the soundguy holding the boom mike, the make-up girl waiting to panstick the actors’ bottoms and the director yelling: ‘Grab his thigh – now!’

Actress Victoria Smurfit has acted out her fair share of love scenes in a career that has spanned TV dramas and movies from Cold Feet to The Beach. The reality of filming them, she says, is not sexy at all. “Usually by take three, I’m wondering what’s on the lunch menu,” she laughs.

“They can be awkward. You talk about it beforehand, who’s going to put what where, and you get on with the physical bit. Then you realise that you have lines to say – there’s the bloody dialogue to think about! It’s more like stuntwork than anything.”

Like any stunt, sex scenes are heavily choreographed. This has two purposes: so that the camera can be in the right place at the right time, and secondly, to make the actors feel more secure.

When actor James McAvoy spoke to me about kissing Angelina Jolie in the thriller Wanted – not as nice as “kissing someone you love” - he referred to the rather more steamy scene he shared with Keira Knightley in Atonement. It wasn’t fun, he said, but director Joe Wright made it easier by directing their every groan and grind.

“Joe was great because he set the boundaries very clearly. When you have boundaries you can totally go for it, you can get totally committed. Whereas if there are no boundaries, touching your hand to theirs might be too much, you know what I mean?
“You don’t want to get too into it, you don’t want to violate someone - and I don’t want to be violated either!”

As with McAvoy’s experience of having to cling precariously to a bookshelf while ravishing Knightley, not all actors are afforded the luxury of filming their sex scenes in a bed. A new Irish film, One Hundred Mornings, has an uncomfortable scene where two of the actors have a loveless tryst up against a tree. Actress Kelly Campbell is looking forward to the film getting an airing at the upcoming Jameson Dublin International Film Festival – it will certainly more enjoyable than filming that outdoor romp.

“Invariably, it’s always first thing in the morning when you film these scenes, it’s half-eight and you’re in the nip,” she says drolly. “My experience though is that directors are very respectful. Weeks before we shot the scene, we discussed it. I would approach it as a dancer would – you break it down into movements and look at it in a mechanical way.

“Conor (Horgan, the director) was very specific which was helpful. He would shout, ‘More vocal, less vocal, move your leg that way’, and it’s taken out of your hands and makes it easier.”

Campbell certainly had no trust issues during the making of another film she has just finished shooting. In Sensation, she has a sex scene with Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan and a good friend of hers in real life. The director is Tom Hall, who happens to be Campbell’s husband. Awkward, much?

“Because we have worked together and we are very clear cut about our relationships, it was actually easy,” says Campbell. “I had more of an advantage because the scene we shot was outside the intensity of the schedule. We did it two months after filming finished because we all agreed it was needed for the plot.”

Kate Winslet’s husband Sam Mendes was more squeamish when he directed his wife in Revolutionary Road with her old Titanic squeeze Leonardo di Caprio, apparently removing himself to another room to watch their love ‘action’ on a monitor. Victoria Smurfit also found that familiarity breeds embarrassment. “I once filmed a scene with a guy where his brother was the director,” she remembers.

“Every time the actor reached over to pick up his script, his brother saw a lot more than he probably ever wished to see. It was awkward. It can be fine sometimes just to meet someone for the first time, shake hands, on with the flesh-coloured pants and get on with it.”

This chimes with an anecdote recounted by actor Simon Callow about the practicalities of a on-screen “quickie” for his character in Shakespeare in Love. “The furniture was quickly adjusted and, like a couple of mating dogs, we leaped on each other, our orgasm hailed by the director shouting: ‘Cut!’ Great satisfaction all round, hands shaken, off we went… A typical one-night stand, in other words.”

Intimacy between the actors – whether familiar to each other – is almost a moot point when the fake lovers are surrounded by a film crew. Even a so-called ‘closed set’ can be crowded.

“You have to have a camera operator, a focus puller, a boom operator, and if the
camera is moving, you have a grip,” says Dubliner Dan O’Hara, who has just directed an episode of the risqué Channel 4 drama Skins, which returned to our screens this week.

“You could have someone from the costume department standing by with a dressing-gown. I had one scene which called for an actor get out of bed naked, and within the two seconds of me saying ‘Cut’ and coming out from behind the monitor, he had his boxers on.”

Victoria Smurfit’s first love scene was filmed in a bog – she has a clear memory of lying in the mud on her back, staring up at the soles of the electricians’ boots as they adjusted lights up in the trees overhead.

Daisy-shaped plasters for nipples, careful editing, nude-coloured thongs and spray-on perspiration: the sweating flesh we see on screen is a game of smoke and mirrors. Kelly Campbell says that most performers use a protective barrier: “Only the most gung ho actor will say, ‘Whatever’.” If you’re Marlon Brando, you might plump for underpants and Wellingtons. That’s what the star insisted on wearing while filming a sex scene with Stephanie Beacham in The Nightcomers in 1971, forcing the cameraman to keep calling ‘pants’ or ‘Wellington boots’ every time they came into shot.

And what about this for a passion-killer – the need to adhere to health and safety laws. When director Declan Recks was preparing a scene for sex-drugs-and-the-Midlands TV series Pure Mule, the art department had to get involved to make sure the kitchen table on which two characters were to have sex was reinforced so it wouldn’t collapse.

“And there’s definitely nothing sexy about it when you’re doing it on a concrete floor in a building site,” says Recks. “There is all the practical stuff to think of, that a pair of jeans aren’t so tight that when the scene calls for them to be ripped off that nothing else comes down too.”

Most directors are happy to do whatever it takes to limit the scope for embarrassment. While some A-list actors can afford to write no-nudity clauses into their contracts, most working actors have to trust the director to get them through sex scenes with minimal trauma.

“Most Irish actresses won’t reveal a nipple or part of, for television and I wouldn’t blame them in the least. It’s a small audience - and they’re not getting paid enough!” says Recks.

Booze, laughter and practical jokes are some of the tricks actors use to defuse the discomfort of a sex scene – although some admit that they enjoy it…

CHARLIZE THERON: Lesbian love scenes with Christina Ricci in Monster made Theron crack up on set. “We drove the sound guy bananas by giggling into his mike,” she said. “It was OK kissing Christina except for the dental implants I had to wear and
which sometimes came loose.”

KATE BOSWORTH: Superman actress Bosworth says can’t even remember filming a love scene in 21 with co-star Jim Sturgess. “We were both so drunk,” she said. The pair had downed shots of vodka to calm their nerves.

NAOMI WATTS: In We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Watts decided to lighten the mood during an outdoor romp with her co-star Mark Ruffalo. He explained: “We were up against the tree, completely naked, trying to act this scene in front of all the crew and cameras. And then Naomi, to ease the tension, had a fart maching going… Instant defuse.”

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: Knightley dispelled her nerves while filming The Duchess by laughing at her co-star Dominic Cooper. “The director did actually come over and said: ‘Come on, pull yourself together, this is serious work here’ but I could not help it – Dominic standing there in a skin-coloured nappy! It’s the most unsexy thing ever.”

ANGELINA JOLIE: Never one to shy away from a love scene, Jolie said filming with good friend Ethan Hawke in Taking Lives was the best. “The first few times he backed me against the wall we just burst out laughing. When it’s a friend it makes it more comfortable.”

EWAN McGREGOR: McGregor says he is comfortable with sex scenes. “I’m never aware of the crew – you shouldn’t be,” he said. “I could have a soundman lying under the bed and I wouldn’t notice him.”

SALMA HAYEK: Her stunning turn in Desperado made Hayek a Hollywood star – but she cried all the way through what were her first movie love scenes. “I nearly got fired. I cried throughout the love scene. That’s why you never see long pieces. It’s little pieces cut together. I didn’t want to be naked in front of a camera. The whole time, I’m thinking of my father and my brother seeing it.”

JOSH HARTNETT: The Sin City and Black Hawk Down star says that sometimes a male actor just can’t win… “The biggest problem is if you don’t get aroused then the woman is mad at you, and if you do get aroused the woman is mad at you!”
And… there’s always one:

HUGH GRANT: Grant may have had tongue firmly in cheek when he said that he has always enjoyed sex scenes. He elaborated: “The classic answer is, ‘Oh, it’s not sexy at all because there are so many technicians standing around’. But I’ve always found them extremely arousing.”

1 comment:

  1. Film sets in and of themselves aren't sexy -let alone filming sex scenes! Thanks for the great info on dispelling the ooh-ahh myths. Smoke & mirrors indeed... (ps didn't know about that Brando point... hilarious!)