IFH 334: How to Direct a Sex Scene with John Bucher

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We have a special episode today. I wanted to discuss a topic that NEVER gets discussed until minutes before the cameras begin to roll, shooting sex scenes. Loving making or sex scenes is like walking through a field of landmines. I've shot these kinds of scenes in my life and it's just uncomfortable for everyone on set. Today we have a guest who literally wrote a book on the subject, John Bucher.

He is the author of six books including the best-selling Storytelling for Virtual Reality, named by BookAuthority as one of the best storytelling books of all time. John has worked with companies including HBO, DC Comics, The History Channel, A24 Films, The John Maxwell Leadership Foundation and served as a consultant and writer for numerous film, television, and Virtual Reality projects. The book that inspired this episode is A BEST PRACTICE GUIDE TO SEX AND STORYTELLING.

A great deal of storytelling in film and television involves narratives that include sexual situations and nudity. The increased amount of on-line and streaming content outlets has, in turn, increased the number of narratives that involve these once-taboo subjects. Often, even though directors and producers desire to handle such issues with professionalism, sets become awkward when producing these scenes. 

I hope this episode serves as a helpful tool for guiding creators through these waters.

Enjoy my conversation with John Bucher.

Alex Ferrari 0:00
Now today's episode is a special episode guys, because we're going to talk about something that I really haven't heard anyone talk about before, online or in courses or anything like that, because it's just generally something no one talks about. But today we're going to talk about it, how to shoot a sex scene, a love scene, how to do it properly, how to do it, where everyone feels comfortable, how to do it, where it actually works. And, you know, I've done I've done scenes like this in my career, and it is uncomfortable for everybody involved. And I wanted to put out a resource that could help everybody help filmmakers help actors of actresses help screenwriters on how to do this properly. And today's guest is an expert on it. My guest is John Bucher, who wrote the book The Best Practice Guide to sex and storytelling. Now John was a guest on the bulletproof screenwriting podcast where we go over storytelling, alchemy, and just go deep into mythology. And he's a mythologist. And it's a great episode, but I wanted to give this subject a specific focus because it was just so important. I just never heard anything about it. But if you want to listen to John's full interview on the bulletproof screenwriting podcast, just head over to indiefilmhustle.com/bps050. And you can download and listen to his whole interview there. But in this episode, we are going to tackle the very difficult and uncomfortable conversation of how to shoot a sex scene. So without any further ado, please enjoy my enlightening conversation with John Bucher. Now, John, you wrote a book called The Best Practice Guide to sex and storytelling. Can you tell me a little bit more about that book, sir?

John Bucher 3:31
Yeah, I have been someone that has been involved in a number of different productions, where sexuality or nudity has been a key part of the story that was being told in every time I've been a part of it. It's always awkward. There's always an inherent awkwardness that happens. Sometimes the awkwardness is with the actors, sometimes the the awkwardness is with the crew, but there's always something that's really awkward about it. Not shockingly, these are very intimate things, you know, that we are talking about. So it's not shocking that it's awkward. But what I wanted to do with this book, is trying to explore a way that audiences could could sense when they watched a scene that everybody involved in the production of that scene was honored. And oftentimes, I feel like when we watch material, we have a sense of what went on in the making of it, or maybe we envision we do. But those of us who work in the field of production, I think, are really interested in knowing some best practices around how do we shoot scenes like this in ways that honor everybody involved the actor that's going to be involved in this as well as the crew. So here are three quick things that you can do if you are going to be shooting a sex scene in order to assure The best possible outcome. Tip number one, the first thing is you need to communicate from the very beginning with the actors and with the crew that this is going to be an element of the production. So this should happen from the very beginning when casting an actor, you should let that actor know that there's nudity or sexuality involved, they should know from the very beginning of the process. However, it's very important and it's also against sag rules, you cannot ask the actor to get nude or to perform some sort of sex scene is part of the audition process. So do do not do that now is ethical, and that should be avoided at all costs. I think, you know, once you've established that in pre production that this is going to be an element of that is going to be a part of the production. Number two happens during production itself. And that is assuring the the crew and the actor who's going to be involved in the scene on the day of that you are only going to have the crew that is necessary to be involved in the scene, I've been amazed in crew come out of the woodwork to be on days when sexuality or nudity is going to be a part of the production. And so having a good first ad that really is insistent on keeping the crew to a bare bones minimum. And keeping anyone offset that doesn't absolutely need to be there is part of the contract of trust that you should have between the crew and the actors. And then number three, I feel like it's absolutely essential to keep joking completely off the page. When it comes to the communication between actors and crew. Sometimes actors will joke with the crew about something and you know, that's probably okay. If it makes the actor a little more comfortable. But crew should never make jokes with the actors, I was a part of one particular production that an actress was was nude in a scene and one of the crew members but between takes, you know, that was standing right there told the actress Just so you know, you look really good down there. And the actor was absolutely mortified by that statement, and rightfully so, there shouldn't be anything called to attention about what's happening. This should be a professional environment where everyone involved is acting professionally. And calling attention to the fact that the actor was nude, was completely out of bounds for that crew member to do. So assuring that sort of professionalism. On the day of production between the cast and the crew, avoiding jokes, and making sure that communication is occurring throughout the scene with the actor to make sure that they are comfortable with what is happening is really key. I go into a lot more depth in my book about even particular scripts that directors can have memorized as far as how to approach talking about the nudity or sexuality in a scene with actors. I also go over scripts in the book that actors can have memorized when they're asked to do something that they are not comfortable with, in a particular scene. So I think, you know, the book tries to go, I tried to go into a lot of detail in the book about how to make sure everyone is fully honored, in fully appreciated. And this is not only important from an ethical standpoint, but for filmmakers, this is also become a very big legal issue. And so you've got to really make sure if you're going to have this sort of content in your production, that you are up on your game, and you fully understand what the ramifications are and that you've done this the right way through the process. And I think the book is a great tool an asset for that.

Alex Ferrari 9:16
And what are some of the legal aspects of that filmmakers should be aware of for this?

John Bucher 9:21
Yeah. Well, you know, one of the things that a filmmaker has to be aware of is the sag rules, even if you're not shooting your production as a SAG signatory production. Courts have tended to sign aside with the rules that are established by sag even when the production is not a SAG production. So if you think well you know what, we're not a SAG signatory. We don't need to worry about what the rules are. It is very important that you are familiar with what the rules are because should there be legal action. And legal action usually only occurs, if let's say, I'll give you an example of a legal case that did occur. onset an actor had contracted to only show certain parts of her body. In order to shoot the scene, the director asked, could we shoot the same this way, but I promise in post production, we'll make sure and not show you from this angle, we need to shoot it this way. But we're not going to show this that we agreed not to when that particular scene made it into post production, the editor was unaware of that onset agreement. And editor cut it a certain way, the director was fired from the project and a new director that was unaware of that agreement stepped in. And the the thing went to two distribution with that scene and tacked to the actor came back and sued the production company over that. These are things that happen in production sometime. And sometimes, you know, it's helpful to be familiar with At what point an actor can say, I am no longer comfortable. Even though I signed a contract saying I would do this, I no longer feel comfortable doing it up to the point of actually being nude or performing the scene on set, the actor can back out and say no, now once the scene has been done, there are certain rights that a production company has to use the scene depending on what was contracted in the beginning. And the things I do in the book, because I've got a long interview with an entertainment attorney who talks about specifics of what should be in a contract before you go in, which is another key element, make sure that everything that's going to be performed in a scene is in writing in an actor's contract, in detail detail. Yeah, it can be really uncomfortable to say, you're going to shift to the left and you know, the left nipple will be exposed, it can be really uncomfortable to make those statements in the contract. But going over the top as far as what will be expected, and what will be performed in a scene has to be written into a contract in advance. And this is really, really important for the protection of everyone involved in the creation of a scene like this.

Alex Ferrari 12:24
And then also, you know, for from a production standpoint, you should always have a body double ready, as well sometimes, because you just don't know that day, the actor or actress is not feeling it. And they're like, you know what, I just don't want to do it. Don't feel comfortable, that you have a body double who is willing to come in and do those scenes. You know, I know there was scenes in like Sin City where Jessica Alba, you know, had a bikini on and then digitally they added, removed it and chose it. But that was all agreed upon prior to the situation. The one very famous incident that when it comes to this is basic instinct. Yes. When Paul when Paul Verhoeven said, Sharon, don't worry about it, we cannot see anything. I know you don't have your underwear on, but we can't see it. And he's zoomed in on that scene, which is a very European director kind of thing. Yeah, and of course, it's the most infamous scene in the entire movie. How was that legally handled? You remember? Cuz I know she didn't Sue or anything like that. But she was pissed.

John Bucher 13:24
Yeah, yeah. No, you know, at the time, again, it's cases like that that caused a lot of the legal ramifications and contracts to become much more detailed because the contract was so obtuse that Sharon Stone didn't have a lot of protection. More recently, you know, there was a case with Amber Heard the actor Amber Heard, suing a production. And I discussed that case in detail in the book. But the Amber Heard case, in many ways, is a result of the lack of legal protection that occurred in basic instinct. And I would also say, you know, there's something you brought up on the production side, I go into this in the book, if an actor is going to be performing in any way, with nudity, having someone whose sole job is to bring a robe over to the actor between takes and having a robe right there on set accessible having someone assigned someone that that actor is comfortable with who's bringing their robe it may be the makeup person it could be depending on how larger production is. You know, a an assistant to that actor, but someone who is able to keep them covered between takes and while setups are going on. It's very key, you know, assuming that an actor is going to be okay with being nude in a scene doesn't mean that they're going to be okay being nude between scenes or between takes. So trying to honor that and being prepared talking to the actor would you prefer Refer, you know, a terrycloth robe? Would you like to bring your own robe? Would you, you know, what kind of cover up? Would you like the real key. And the bottom line to all of this, to be honest with you, Alex is communication. And because this can be an uncomfortable subject, people tend to not communicate about it nearly as much as they need to. But it's far better to have these discussions and communication in the beginning and upfront, than wait until there's actually an incident that occurs onset.

Alex Ferrari 15:29
Bottom line is shooting a sexy and or nude scene is the most awkward thing from my point of view, as a director, whenever I had to do it, it is just not pleasant at all. It's not sexy, it's not sexy, it's unpleasant. And, you know, I know the 14 year old boy in me is like, oh, we're gonna go shoot this. And like, it is not that it is horrible. And, and it's and you do as a director have to set a tone on the set to make sure everyone is comfortable, especially the performers. They are first and foremost, they have to feel that they're comfortable and that they're protected. And that is the job of the director. So yes, I know, they're the crew, everybody wants to show up that day, there's no one taking a smoke break during that scene. But you clear the set and you only have essential personnel, generally, the DP will run the camera, you'll get maybe a first ad maybe if not, oh, just me, me and the cinematographer and the actors, and everything else is just set up and we just kind of roll with it. It's it's not, it's not so anyone listening or watching. It's not as fun as you might think it might be for anybody involved. It's an awkward situation.

John Bucher 16:39
I will also say to you know, in larger productions, like with HBO, they have begun hiring an intimacy coordinator who is on set and I interview and intimacy coordinator in my book, who's worked with a number of these productions. But HBO did a show, you know, this last year called the deuce. And there's a number of sex scenes in in graphic nudity. And that's show and they brought in an intimacy coordinator who works with the actors in his sort of an advocate for the actors, and who makes sure everything is done up to legal code on set. And I think, especially in this era, where we've we've seen a lot of abuse exposed, and in this era of sort of the Me too, hashtag, it's more important than ever, that we are all sort of on the same page about this conversation. And I do think you know, if you are in a production that has the size budget that can afford it. Approaching and intimacy coordinator to help you handle those things, is something that can be tremendously helpful. And even if you aren't to go and read some of the things that these animacy coordinators do and have said, may give you some insights into how to best handle these scenes in your own production.

Alex Ferrari 17:59
John, thank you so much for shedding some light on a generally taboo subject matter and it's something that is not really taught in film school as a general statement, so I do appreciate you taking the time out and, and helping the tribe out with this.

John Bucher 18:13
My pleasure.

Alex Ferrari 18:15
I hope this episode helped you guys out a lot. It did for me, because there was a lot of questions I had that got answered in this episode. So if you want links to this amazing book, if you want to go deeper into this subject matter, please head over to indiefilmhustle.com/334. For the show notes, I have links to his books, the other interview on the bulletproof screenwriting podcast and much much more. So thank you. So so much, John, for enlightening the tribe on this subject. And if you haven't already, please head over to filmmakingpodcast.com. Subscribe, and leave us a five star review on Apple podcast. It really, really helps the show out a lot. If you find any value at all in the show and what we're doing at indie film, hustle, please do this favor for us. It really does mean a whole lot. So thank you again, so much for all the support. I really really appreciate it. And again, if you haven't been to film shoprunner calm please head over to filmmaking business comm is a little hack to get over to filmtrepreneur. And there I will teach you how to make money with your film, new podcast new website if you haven't heard, check it out. I think you will not be disappointed. Thank you again guys so much. As always keep that also going keep that dream alive and I'll talk to you soon.

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