As Fifty Shades of Grey mania’s swept the country, film and television production companies have fallen all over themselves, first to snap up the rights to E.L. James’ erotic trilogy, and then to find the next Fifty Shades, whether it’s YA riff Beautiful Disaster (bought by Warner Brothers) or ABC’s efforts to develop Dress To Kill, an erotic mystery set in the fashion world, as a series. There’s just one problem: movies and television in particular are often terrible at depicting sex compellingly, even without the addition of floggers and sub-dom power dynamics to navigate and ratings systems to accommodate. But if television’s determined to get serious about sex, and networks want to compete with cable, which has far fewer restrictions on what it can show but still often demonstrates a basic cluelessness about what makes a scene genuinely erotically charged, here are five tips for how to shoot sex scenes that can pass Standards and Practices and still get viewers hot and bothered.
1. Leadup Matters: Short scenes in television often mean we see couples on a straight route from the front door to the bedroom. Hot and heavy’s fine, but it cuts out one of the most fun things about watching characters prepare to get it on, whether this is the first time they’re sleeping together, or whether they’re an established couple going to bed prepared to surprise each other all over again. Two instructive examples come from The Hour and Parenthood. The former spent its third hour on a number of plots, but the through line was rising sexual tension between Bel Rowley, the producer on the news magazine program The Hour, and Hector Madden, her married anchor. As they flirted on the drive up to London and wandered the halls of Madden’s wife’s palatial country home during a game of Sardines, watching Hector catch Bel’s hand or move in for an early kiss was as tense and thrilling as a full-on sex scene, and we didn’t even have to see them take off their clothes. In the second season of Parenthood, in the episode “Amazing Andy And His Wonderful World Of Bugs” Julia and Joel Graham end up delaying having sex until Julia is ovulating because they’re trying to get pregnant. Watching Joel lust after Julia is half the fun, in part because Sam Jaeger conveys longing so well. You don’t have to worry about what acts you can and can’t broadcast if you have actors who can plausibly sell desire even when they aren’t touching each other.
2. People Should Have Fun: Pop culture sex often looks so deadly serious, choreographed rather than spontaneous, attentive to the audience’s expectations rather than conveying the impression the people involved are actually enjoying themselves. The reason that the first sex scene in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair is so effective (once you get beyond the stair-sex, which no one will ever convince me could possibly less than extremely uncomfortable) is that the characters get to be silly, and enthusiastic, and awkward. They laugh, fall off things, vamp a little. It’s actually plausible that they’re all wrapped up in each other, rather than thinking ahead to what they’ll look like when the editing bay gets done with them.
3. Don’t Be Afraid To Look Goofy: A corollary to number three, and a problem that’s exacerbated sometimes by the nudity clauses in actors’ contracts. But often, sex scenes look heavily choreographed, either to make the participants look elegant and graceful, or to cover up an actress’s breasts with sheets if she doesn’t do toplessness and it doesn’t work in the scene for her to wear a bra. The latter is actually less of a problem than the former: it might actually be more natural to show actresses semi-clothed if a sex scene is spontaneous—the sex scene between Jax and Tara in the clubhouse bathroom in the first season of Sons of Anarchy is a good example of how to keep actors relatively clothed and still have a scene have some heat. The former is trickier. Zack and Miri Make a Porno has a terrific riff on the difference between what we’ve been conditioned to find sexy when we look at it and what actually feels good when we’re in the middle of it: in that movie, when Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks have sex for the pornographic movie they’re shooting, it feels like a revelation to them, but doesn’t look as dramatic as everyone else expects. The key is to bridge the gap between experience and expectation, and that sometimes means sacrificing choreography for more-awkward but more genuinely warm interactions between actors.
4. The Sex Scene Should Tell You About The Characters or the Characters’ Relationships: I think there are a lot of missed opportunities in Entourage, but one thing I think the show did well was to give Vince, the spoiled star at its center, a characteristic sexual position, the woman on top, facing away from him. It was a smart illustration of both Vince’s laziness and tendency towards womanizing. The least important part of these women to Vince were the thing that made them individuals or that could provide some sense of how they were feeling during sex. Then take the scene in Casino Royale in which James Bond, after recovering from the torture he suffered in Montenegro, is reunited with Vesper Lynd. While they’re initially tender with each other, given Bond’s extreme fragility, one day, they run in from the rain, crash onto a hospital bed and over it onto the floor. It’s a sign that Bond is back, or at least on the way back, to his old reckless self.
5. Faces, Not Bodies: This is of particular concern for network television, which is never going to be able to compete with cable television in terms of what it can depict. The answer is not to try to get into a sex race while also trying to navigate with standards and practices, as some networks are doing with violence in shows like The Following, which premieres on Fox in the midseason. The solution? Focus on character’s faces, rather than what their bodies are doing. Brad Pitt’s face in Meet Joe Black, an otherwise terrible movie, when his character has sex for the first time is a better expression of what he’s feeling than any shot of what his body is doing. Both The Hour and Sons of Anarchy feature prominent sex scenes where their male leads’ bodies are exposed while their faces are hidden, and their female leads’ bodies are obscured, but the expressions on their faces are clear. If those expressions are clear, they do all the work of bodies in the shot. If the goal is communicating intimacy, characters’ faces are you really need to get that point across.