How Do You Direct a Sex Scene? 10 Directors Tell Their Secrets

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Nothing is easy when it comes to directing a movie, but shooting a sex scene may pose filmmaking’s most surreal challenge. Think of all the contradictions at play: Sex is one of the most real and messy things two people can engage in, but in this case, carefully choreographed movie stars are paid to fake it. And while the best love scenes often feel intimate and personal, it’s easy to forget that they’re reenacted in front of a director and crew standing just out of frame, then broadcast to (and screen-capped by) an audience of millions.

Just as everyone goes about lovemaking a little differently, so, too, do directors approach these tricky scenes with a different set of techniques, tips, and tricks. How do you put anxious and nearly naked actors at ease? What’s involved when it comes to negotiating for nudity? And when it comes to the MPAA — the shadowy ratings board that slaps a restrictive rating on the slightest thrust — what sort of double standards are at play? We surveyed ten directors for their own funny, intriguing, and illuminating stories of how they made onscreen lovemaking work.

Photo: Universal Studios

Paul Feig, Bridesmaids

In the film’s first scene, Annie (Kristen Wiig) hooks up with handsome, douchey Ted (Jon Hamm), and they’re not exactly on the same wavelength. “Cup my balls,” Ted orders her, before eventually bouncing Annie from bed: “I really want you to leave,” he admits, “but I don’t know how to say it without sounding like a dick.”

No one is less comfortable with doing a sex scene than me, and that’s why I knew the only way we could do this is by doing a funny one. It wasn’t me being the creepy guy — I wasn’t turning them into Coco from Fame. Although, I can tell you that one of the only days my wife visited the set was the day Jon Hamm was having his sex scene.

You just have to face it like it’s any other highly choreographed scene and find the physicality. The only way we were able to get through it is by making each other laugh, so it became this hilarious wrestling match — if you really look at it, it’s less like a sex scene and more like a crazy fight. Jon was so game, and he and Kristen were literally just trying to crack each other up. We kept saying, “Let’s get more absurd,” because we had the safety of knowing it would be ridiculously funny.

If you’ll notice, none of my other movies have anything even close to a sex scene, but when I was directing the TV show Weeds, there was an episode I had to do where Justin Kirk’s character gets involved with a porno shoot as a caterer. We had to shoot an actual scene from a porno — no full penetration, obviously, but we had to portray it realistically. When I got the script, I told Jenji Kohan, the showrunner, “I’m so uncomfortable, I can’t possibly cast regular actors for this. If we’re gonna do it, we have to hire real porn stars.” She said that was okay, so we got to have acting auditions with porn stars, which is so fantastic because they are wonderful, funny people. This one woman in particular was in the middle of the audition, trying to do these lines, and having a hard time. She stopped, put down the script, and told me, “Look, let’s be clear: I don’t act, I just fuck.”

Jenji Kohan made a T-shirt for me that says that. I really must wear it sometime.

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Catherine Hardwicke, Thirteen

After 13-year-old Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) becomes friends with her cool classmate Evie (Nikki Reed), she’s introduced to a wild new world of drugs, shoplifting, and sexual experimentation. Before too long, things have gotten out of hand as Tracy and Evie have a sexually charged encounter with much-older neighbor Luke (Kip Pardue).

One day when Evan and Nikki were here at my house, Kip came over to meet them and rehearse and he was stupefied when I said, “Oh, by the way, they’re 14.” He was shocked. Like, “What? They’re really going to be kissing me?” I’m like, “Well, yeah. The welfare worker and their parents will be there.” Nikki and Evan were laughing and trying to put him at ease, and I said, “Listen, I believe in rehearsal for everything and we’re not going to be there on the day not having rehearsed this … if you don’t want to kiss, I guess you can put your hand over your mouth.” He goes, “We’ve all kissed before. We don’t need to rehearse it.” Saying this to two 14-year-olds! But finally, he said, “Oh, come on. I’ll just do it.” So with the rehearsal, I basically forced everybody to get the awkwardness out of the way.

That scene was wild. The welfare worker gave us the rules at the beginning: She said, “They’re not allowed to get closer than three inches near his nipple zone. They can touch his pants, but not pull them down.” This and that. When we actually went to film it, I wanted the camera to do a 360-degree long take — I wanted you to feel terrified watching it, without letting us cut away or feeling like the editor was controlling it at all — so the welfare worker and I were hiding behind the couch and crouched over this little monitor. Here I am trying to do the take and then all of a sudden, she yells out, “Stop! Cut! Nipple violation!”

I often talk people through the sex scene. I give them running commentary to get them going, saying all kinds of things: “Doesn’t it feel good when somebody kisses your neck? Really try to find that beautiful spot and look how the person responds.” It’s funny, the last time I talked this through to adult actors, one was like, “Would you please come with me home tonight and just talk us through while me and my husband have sex?” But in the editing room, I can’t stand to hear my voice talking actors through sensual things. It ruins it — the editor has to get my voice out first before I can even watch it. I don’t want to hear the instruction manual, and I think nobody does. We want to just think it’s natural.

Leslye Headland, Sleeping With Other People

Love addict Lainey (Alison Brie) just can’t quit her affair with OB/GYN Matthew (Adam Scott), even though he’s an emotionally distant creep who’s already in another relationship. In one early scene, she shows up to his office and things quickly get sexual. We don’t root for Lainey to be with this icky dude, but Headland makes it a point to show that their hookup is still kind of hot.

The way the sex scene was written in the script, it was incredibly graphic. I literally go through every single thing that they do to each other, from “He kisses her here” or “She takes off her underwear” down to “He ejaculates inside of her.” But at the top of the page, right before the sex scene, there was this big disclaimer in bold print and underlined: “You will not see any nudity during this scene.” So while you were reading something that was basically porn, you had been told right up top that there was no nudity. The reason I did that is because I knew it was never going to get as intense as what it said on the page, but I needed actors who were sort of almost willing to do that.

One of the financiers actually asked me to revise that scene when we were having trouble getting money. She said, “You know, these sex scenes are just too graphic. If you’re not going to use nudity and if you’re not going to be that graphic in actuality, why do they have to be that way in the script?” But if you just write, “They have sex, period, fade out,” the actors will start dictating what the sex scene looks like, you know what I mean? And what was really important to me about these characters was to say, “No, this is the kind of fucking they do. He may be this super-boring cold fish, but he can fuck. He has a dick made of gold.” And once we had the actors signed on, both Adam and Ali were like, “The reason I’m doing this movie is for the sex scene.”

A lot of this movie is based on real-life relationships I’ve had, so I definitely had an out-of-body experience watching Alison and Adam pretend to have sex with each other. I was going through a weird Charlie Kaufman-esque moment about re-creating this whole thing — it was like I’d created this whole diorama of what it was like to have sex with my ex. That made me uncomfortable a little bit, but I think everyone else was really exhausted by that day, too. Afterward, the crew was like, “Man, we just shot a sex scene for 12 hours,” and the next day was a little tough. So my advice would be to shoot sex scenes on Fridays, and then just go home and go to bed and curl up in a little ball.

Photo: Columbia/TriStar

John McNaughton, Wild Things

In this notorious crime thriller, guidance counselor Sam (Matt Dillon) has a naked, Champagne-soaked romp with students Kelly (Denise Richards) and Suzie (Neve Campbell). But with all sorts of hidden agendas at work, who’s playing who?

I like to pour a cup of lurid into everything I do. The intent of that picture was to be shocking and sensational, although Neve Campbell was still in Party of Five at that particular time and she was under contract that she couldn’t do full nudity or even partial nudity. So, if you watch the threesome scene again closely, you only see Neve’s back. It’s not as salacious as you might remember it.

When it comes to nudity, I always ask my actors a question, “Have you read the script?” I’m not going to pull a trick on an actor: “Oh, I know it’s not in the script, but do you mind taking your clothes off?” What I’ve found often with the actors is a lot of trepidation up front — they’ll say, “Oh, I’m uncomfortable with this and I won’t do that, et cetera” — but once they feel they’re not being exploited or tricked in any way, they start to get into it. Once they do that, the clothes start flying off, and things that they said they wouldn’t do at first, they really don’t have a problem doing them. They push it further once they’re in the comfort zone.

That said, there’s another famous nude scene in the movie that everybody refers to as “Kevin’s Bacon.” That was a complete and utter accident — we did eight takes where Matt throws a towel to Kevin Bacon in the shower, and seven out of eight takes, the towel covers him. But one particular take, there was a little mis-coordination, and when I went to see the rough cut, guess which take my editor cut in? I said to her, “Elena, that’s not what’s in his contract,” and she said, “You’ve got all these scenes where women are naked, and the one time there’s a man naked, we cut it out? That’s not fair.” So I said, “We’ll call Kevin and see if he’s okay with it.” He had no problem whatsoever. Out of all the actors in the movie, the one who was probably the least inhibited about his body was Kevin.

We had the first test screening of Wild Things in Pasadena with about 300 people, and there was an African-American couple in the audience who were probably in their 50s. I remember her husband’s name was George because during the threesome scene, the wife shouted it as she was running out the door. All of a sudden, we saw this large woman jump up and come storming up the aisle, and she turns around and goes, “George! George, are you coming?” And George was nowhere to be seen. George was enjoying the show, as far as I could tell.

Photo: Universal Studios

Mary Harron, American Psycho

The sociopath Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is very specific about his turn-ons, and during a threesome with prostitutes Christie and Sabrina, he toggles between a dissertation on his favorite musician Phil Collins and a list of deadpan sexual orders: “Christie,” he says shortly after extolling the merits of the band Genesis, “get down on your knees so Sabrina can see your asshole.”

With Bateman, I thought he was trying to learn how to be a human being, so if he wanted to learn how to have sex, of course he watches porn. I talked to Christian a couple days before we shot it and he decided that because Bateman had watched pornography, we would watch pornography, so he got one of the PAs to get us a couple of videos and we both took notes. He came in the next day before rehearsal and he had done these little stick drawings, and there was one where two girls were giving Bateman a blow job at once. We were laughing, thinking, That’s ridiculous and it doesn’t make logistical sense, but we’ll do it anyway.

When we came to rehearse the thing, the little room they had given us happened to have a mirror on the door. When I saw that, I said, “Christian, watch yourself in the mirror as you’re having sex,” and then he really went with it and was so hilarious. But the thing I said to the actresses playing Christie and Sabrina is, “For your characters, it’s just a job. You just have to get through this.” I think that’s where a male director would have directed it differently. When does the prostitute ever find these things sexy? It’s a job to suck this guy’s dick. He’s having his fantasy, and their faces are adding a sort of counterpoint.

There’s not a lot of nudity in the scene — Christian wore a sock, and I think the girls were wearing underwear — but there was definitely a lot of digital removal if you saw this or that. Still, it was a very lengthy process in the editing room of taking out frames. The MPAA was okay with the violence, but they really objected to that three-way sex scene where it looks like there might be rear-entry sex. At the time, I had very young children, and the studio was sending me VHS tapes of the latest cuts of the sex scene. I had one of those VHS tapes next to a children’s video from the library, and I remember I put the wrong one in the envelope. Fortunately, I checked it before I turned it in, and I was like, “Oh my God, it’s the American Psycho sex scene! This is not Barney.”

Photo: New Line Cinema

Gina Prince-Bythewood, Love & Basketball

In this classic 2000 love story, high-schoolers Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) are longtime friends bonded by their love of basketball, though they’ve got chemistry off the court, too. When they finally have sex with each other, the scene is not just romantic but realistic.

I remember writing the scene and I knew I wanted to be authentic to a girl’s first time … which, contrary to popular belief, is not always that great. I wanted to play the realness of it, that it hurts, that he asks if she wants him to stop. That was really important in terms of his character as well, how attentive he was to her. I think a great thing to put into the world is that if she’d said, “Yes, I want you to stop,” he would have immediately. Also, the use of a condom was a big deal. They were still in high school and they were smart about it: Even though the sex was spontaneous, he took the time to be safe.

This is a girl who has not dated at all, and to have her undress in front of someone for the first time, I wanted to show how this woman who we’ve seen be so bold and confident can become shy in this situation that’s so foreign to her. I told Sanaa to play that anxiety, and for Omar, I said, “You’ve been with a lot of girls, you’re a player, but this is different. Protect her, and be open with your emotions.” It’s not just sex for him: He’s admitting his feelings and his love for her by the way that he looks at her. A good sex scene has that kind of story to it, and it’s not gratuitous. It has a beginning, middle, and end. That’s ultimately what determines if it works or not.

Once it was shot and we cut it together and showed the studio, one note came back from a male exec that he wasn’t enjoying it enough, which was kind of hard to hear and against what the scene was about. Even though I disagreed with the note, it gave me the opportunity to shoot a little more footage and the couple of shots I got when I shot it again made the scene even better. But when we went to the MPAA, they gave us an R just for that scene. The argument was that it was too real, which was kind of striking to me … if it didn’t look as real, would we have gotten a PG-13? They said the fact that you could tell it was her first time was troublesome for them, and one of our arguments about that was Meet Joe Black had just come out, and there was a scene in this PG-13 movie where Brad Pitt loses his virginity and that was okay. We found that double standard kind of fascinating.

Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

Paul Verhoeven, Showgirls

This famously campy, NC-17 bacchanalia doesn’t lack for wild sex scenes, but the most memorable encounter happens when sleazy entertainment director Zack (Kyle McLachlan) beckons our showgirl protagonist Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) to join him in his pool at night. In no time at all, she’s mounted him, and while in the throes of orgasmic pleasure, Nomi writhes around like a flopping fish, continuously slamming her body backward into the water. It’s a strong look, to say the least.

I might have said, “It’s not enough. Perhaps it needs more movement.” But the actors knew exactly what they were going to do. 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.

I never shoot a sex scene if I feel that what I’m proposing is fantasy. I always use my own experiences with sex throughout my life, with different women. I use that as a source of reality, and I don’t want to go beyond that: If I ask an actor or actress to do something, I want to be sure that it’s not my fantasy leading me but what has actually happened to me and what I really know. Of course, that being said, everything in Showgirls is a little exaggerated. The lights, the colors, the dialogue, the movement of the camera — I took things one step further than reality. That’s a reflection of what Vegas is, this extreme accentuation of real life.

The pool scene was choreographed in a different way, of course, than the sex scene between Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct where the style was much more classical and Hitchcockian. The scene in Showgirls was done in a style that is … let’s say, “more hyperbolic.” But then, the whole movie is that way.

Photo: Amazon Studios

Park Chan-Wook, The Handmaiden

In order to woo the wealthy Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) under the nose of her controlling uncle, a con-man forger hires Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as a housemaid who can tout him to Hideko. But while the men conspire, the women fall in love, and eventually into bed.

When it comes to those bed scenes between the two women, can you imagine how much I tried to make sure they didn’t come across as the male gaze? How much consideration I put into creating those bed scenes so that they seemed like genuine love scenes between the two women? This film basically takes the male gaze as its subject matter: It’s all about this woman trying to escape from this situation, and the only way she is able to liberate herself is by finding another woman, forming a solidarity, and fighting together to escape male oppression.

First of all, I made it clear to the actors what they were getting themselves into with this scene. I made sure it was the first scene I would storyboard, and it was as detailed and specific as I could possibly could make it so that if the actors were looking at the storyboard, they could see which part of their body would be seen and in what way. I would give all this information to the actors and they would give me feedback: “I don’t like such-and-such angle, or this and that.”

When it comes to the day of shooting, I would have every male member of the crew off the set. For this scene, I would bring in just the female boom person, and we would use the remote head on the camera crane so that there was just the two actors there. We would put on some quiet music, light a fragrant candle, and have some wine so the actors could truly get some rest in between takes and have complete peace and quiet on set. At the same time, I would try to get everything done as quickly as possible, only doing one or two takes and making sure there’s no other business going on apart from concentrating on getting this done.

It’s true that when it comes to these scenes, if you get a glimpse of the breasts or buttocks even for a quick moment, this sometimes can become the sole focus of the scene. So I focused on making sure we showed the faces of the women. There’s a level of intimacy and emotional connection I wanted to portray between them, which is why you need bed scenes in the first place, but I wanted to make sure that the emotion was expressed in their faces. I tried, as much as I could, to place emphasis on that.

John Krokidas, Kill Your Darlings

In his first big post-Potter sex scene, Daniel Radcliffe plays the writer Allen Ginsberg as a young college student on a voyage of self-discovery: Obsessed with the beautiful best friend (Dane DeHaan) who strings him along, Ginsberg ultimately strikes out on his own and loses his virginity to a man he meets in a bar.

Growing up with queer films, there was always some sort of stigma attached to gay characters or gay sexuality, and I didn’t want the sex scene to feel like that in any way. I wanted the arc of the scene to go from nervousness to a place of pure enjoyment to a realization that this would ultimately become a formidable part of his identity. Allen Ginsberg was one of the most renowned gay artists of the 20th century, and I felt that not including his sexuality as part of the story would be a crime. He wore it unabashedly on his sleeve and helped establish queer sexuality as something you could even talk about in art and literature, so the scene was incredibly important to capture right.

Dan had no issue with doing the scene whatsoever. His only question was, “Just so I know, how naked do you want me to be … movie-naked, or Equus-naked?” I said, “I hate when people block sex scenes in order to play hide-the-genitalia — that feels so forced. So let’s just block it, and if it falls into frame, we’ll shoot it.” But then I remember going, “Oh shit: You’re British, and Allen Ginsberg is one of the most famous Jews of the 20th century. On second thought, I don’t think we’re going to go Equus-naked.” And Dan said, “John, my mother’s Jewish and I’m circumcised. Play the scene any way you want.” God bless Daniel Radcliffe, he commits to all of his actions.

I knew we needed to nail the blocking. If we got that down and rehearsed it enough times with clothes on, there would be less time having to put two naked men in awkward positions with certain body parts pressed up against each other in a way that would make the actors feel self-conscious. I could tell people were getting a little bit nervous and antsy, so in my attempt to bring some levity to the situation, I said, “Let’s do this with stand-ins, and I’ll be one of the stand-ins.” And I asked Reed Morano, my cinematographer — I was very close to her by that time — to do it with me.

They always say to directors that your actors will follow you if you do whatever you’re asking them to do, and ultimately, it was really helpful: By doing it ourselves, we could show the actors exactly what we needed from their blocking … although I thought that when I was the top and Reed was the bottom, it could look a little wrong, gender-wise. So I let her take the dominant position, and in the middle of this blocking, with my legs in the air and Reed on top of me, that was when I really realized we were feigning intercourse in front of our entire crew. We both looked at each other like, Is this the moment we’re always going to remember from this set? But it’s also the moment that cemented our friendship. Once you’ve simulated sex with your director of photography, what else do you have to hide from each other?

Photo: A24

Drake Doremus, Equals

In a futuristic world where sex and emotions are verboten, Silas (Nicholas Hoult) feels unfamiliar stirrings that he comes to realize are feelings for his co-worker, Nia (Kristen Stewart). When the two of them finally get together, neither person has so much as kissed someone before, and their first rendezvous is a liberation.

First and foremost, I approach the scene from a voyeuristic standpoint. I’m guiding the actors by making them feel like they’re completely liberated and in the moment, so that risks are okay. Rather than saying, “Stand here, touch her here, do this,” it’s more of an exploration, and the intention is that they should lose themselves and let the scene sort of take over. If we’ve done our job right, it should feel like maybe we shouldn’t even be there because it’s so intimate and personal.

For Kristen, the direction was pretty simple: You know you can’t touch him, you know you can’t be touched by him, but then there’s this exhilaration. So it’s a really interesting arc in that scene, and I’ll guide those specific beats, but everything in between those moments is completely and utterly about the exploration of getting to those moments. A lot of it has to do with how we schedule the shoot, to be honest. This scene in particular, we’d been shooting for weeks, and they really hadn’t touched at all until this moment. The anticipation and the tension boiling over between them just naturally finds its way into the scene, so sometimes you can just schedule things so that they pop at the right time, you know? You want to get something when it’s at its fever pitch.

Music is a huge part of it as well. Oftentimes I’ll be playing music just before a take if it’s a dialogue scene, or even during a take, if sound doesn’t matter. I’ll just hide a speaker in a cupboard or in a wall and the actors won’t even know it’s there on the first take, and then all of a sudden, we start rolling, and music will come up. I’m kind of DJing from the monitor, so it’s almost as if I’m directing them if they just follow the music, in a way. So there’s little tricks and things like that.

I’m more interested in textures and skin and eyes and looks and moments, rather than all-out nudity. To be honest, on my other film, Like Crazy, we shot a lot more explicit stuff and once we got in the edit room, it just didn’t find its way in. To me, a love scene isn’t really about the sexual nature of their experience — it’s a lot more about the emotional experience. It’s about realizing what it’s like to fall in love.

10 Directors Explain How to Shoot a Sex Scene