Grab her thigh -- now
Neil Jordan says sex scenes in movies are embarrassing for everybody involved. Susan Daly reports
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 the DVD -- only diehard fans can sit through their full, ass-numbing vision.
Neil Jordan, then, has gone against the grain by 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 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 actors.
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 sound guy holding the boom mike, the make-up girl waiting to panstick the actors' bottoms and the director yelling: "Grab her 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 stunt work 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 be 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."
Intimacy between the actors -- whether familiar with each other or not -- 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 to get out of bed naked, and within 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 the TV series Pure Mule, the art department had to make sure the kitchen table on which two characters were to have sex wouldn't collapse.
Most directors are happy to do whatever it takes to limit the scope for embarrassment. And while some A-list actors can afford to write no-nudity clauses into their contracts, most 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.
Irish actress Pauline McLynn, best known for her role as the tea-mad housekeeper Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, this week appeared au naturel in the cult Channel 4 drama Shameless, where her sex-mad librarian got it on with anti-hero Frank Gallagher (played by David Threlfall, who also directed the episode).
"It's an odd experience, pretending to have sex with a strange man, and with another 17 people lighting your bottom and whatever else," McLynn told one internet showbiz website. "And you don't want to frighten the audience with the wrong angles!
"So I'd never been asked to do sex scenes before, and we did the one where the kit was off. Because that annoys me, when you watch shows where you think 'Why have they got their underwear still on? They've already had sex how many times?'
"So we did a nude one. It was possibly the least glamorous thing I've done in my whole life."