The emergence of the intimacy coordinator role in film and TV

Kirsten Wiltshire (she/her) // Crew Writer
Alina Sandu (she/her) // Illustrator

“The number one thing is that everybody feels safe, and that they have consented to what’s going on,” says P. Lynn Johnson, an intimacy coordinator, actor and instructor at Capilano University. “The intimacy coordinator is the advocate and the go-between. So that the actor doesn’t have to say, ‘I’m not comfortable with that’.”

An intimacy coordinator (IC) on film and TV sets ensures the emotional safety, comfort and communication of the cast and crew. They coordinate physically intimate scenes between actors or scenes involving nudity or even violence. They bridge the communication gap between the actors, the director and the crew. The goal is to make informed consent a cornerstone of vulnerable scenes. The IC can make suggestions and tweaks, essentially choreographing simulated intimacy safely while maintaining authenticity in the scene. 

ICs go through various levels of training along with hands-on industry experience. ICs and intimacy directors must acquire certification through a SAG-AFTRA accredited program, such as “Intimacy Directors and Coordinators.” 

The role of IC originated from the theatre, where practitioners are called intimacy directors. The Weinstein scandal in 2017 exposed the grave lack of emotional and physical safety within the film industry, showing a dire need for advocates of actors in vulnerable positions. The emergence of the #MeToo movement, started by Tarana Burke, highlighted the breadth and depth of the issues associated with informed consent and lack thereof on set. At the time, the industry didn’t have appropriate or effective safeguards for actors on or off-screen. Enter Ita O’Brien, pioneer of the IC role. In 2014, O’Brien developed and adapted the role of intimacy director (from the theatre) to intimacy coordinator (specifically for film and TV). She wrote the first industry-standard guidelines for scenes of intimacy in the film and TV industry. In 2018, HBO committed to having an IC on all projects that included intimate topics or scenes, setting a precedent for the industry.         

Johnson described a regular series of events as an IC. After receiving a request to join a project she receives the script, where she gets context about the scene from the director. Her job is to understand the director’s vision so she can appropriately choreograph the scene. Then she’ll reach out to the actors and go through the scene with them together and individually to discuss logistics, scene specifics and boundaries. She then confirms with the director that the actors are ready for, informed about and consent to the scene. “We talk about a safety word. Somebody could get a cramp in their leg, and we have to stop or [say] ‘tomato, tomato, tomato!’” explains Johnson. 

She makes sure the wardrobe department is able to provide all of the right garments, such as shorts, special undergarments or tape. She’ll then write a risk assessment of the scene and get a rider—a legal document stating the performer’s requirements for the scene—in place. The scene is shot with the IC on set adding input, notes or communication between actors and the director. A day or two after the shoot, she reaches out to the actors and checks in regarding the scene. To tie it all up, she writes a production report so there’s a record of it. 

Johnson says, “it’s to just really have clear, clear paths of communication so that on the day, in the moment, the actors can be fully engaged and not second-guessing themselves.”

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