Faking It: This Is How Sex Scenes Really Get Made

Photo: Designed by Isabella DiMarzio.
Welcome to Faking It, our new bimonthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs, violence, and more.

We all have our favourite sex scenes. The best ones make you feel. The bad ones make you cringe. I remember having an extremely visceral reaction to True Blood 's Bill and Sookie rolling around in the cemetery dirt after he'd been buried alive — yuck.

A great sex scene erases the incredible amount of effort that goes into making everything look and sound perfect on set. You forget that these are actors, paid to pretend to fall into a spiral of lust, love, and/or hate, often in front of a large crew. The audience never sees the multiple takes, the bloopers, or the staging. In films and on TV, awkward, unscripted moments can be edited out — or enhanced — for dramatic effect.

But on stage, there's no yelling "Cut!" when a graphic sex scene goes awry. Everything needs to be carefully plotted and managed beforehand. That's where Yehuda Duenyas comes in.

A self-described "sex choreographer," Duenyas found he had a knack for making performers leap outside their comfort zones, when in 2007, he directed a particularly graphic play by Thomas Bradshaw.

And then, in 2015, he got a call from Bradshaw about signing on to help director Ethan McSweeny with the particularly graphic sex in Bradshaw's latest production, Fulfillment. The story, about an alcoholic African-American lawyer in an all-white firm who struggles with his boss' disapproval and a really loud upstairs neighbour, required the actors to simulate sex on stage, naked in front of the audience. (A sample stage direction: "As he glides his penis gently in and out of her.”)

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Great," Duenyas says. "I'll be a sex choreographer."
So, what exactly does that mean? There's no official definition. Westworld used one to create the orgy scene in episode 5, as did Martin Scorsese when filming The Wolf of Wall Street. But it's not a clear or strictly delineated role. Directors can choose to forego the extra help and use their own judgement and vision to set the scene — and many do, to great result.

Duenyas describes his role in stage productions as a kind of layer between the director and the cast, someone who handles everything from the actual blocking of the scene to the mental health of the players. Pulling from his experience as a burlesque dancer — he once went on tour with Dita Von Teese — and as a director and choreographer, Duenyas sought to create a secure environment for the actors to experiment.

"If you're going to be fighting with people on stage, you need someone to come in to make sure that that fighting is safe," he explains. "And you need to also check in so that you know that you're physically connected and on the same page and you're not going hurt each other. I think the same thing goes for sexuality and sexual choreography. There's so much opportunity to get it wrong, to hurt someone's feelings, to blow through someone's boundaries, to trigger past things."

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Photo: HBOGo/Girls.
Jemima Kirke and Adam Driver in "Girls"
Today, Duenyas works as an award-winning virtual reality and experience designer — his company, Mindride LLC, won Outstanding Commercial at the 2016 Creative Arts Emmys for "Love Has No Labels," a PSA promoting diversity and inclusion — but sex scenes are never far from his mind. He says he would definitely reprise his role again, hopefully for TV. He has his favourites: Girls and Transparent are at the top of his list, and if by any chance Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are reading this, call him! He has some great ideas for the next season of Westworld.
Still curious as to how all this works? Duenyas ran us through his process for choreographing a sex scene.
Step 1: Realise that this is a role you're playing.
Yehuda Duenyas: "The first step, [is] to acknowledge what it is that we want to do, and what our mission is. We have a goal here: Making the show amazing. It's all wrapped up in the contained safety that this is a show. This is not your real lives. And so that sort of starts to create a bumper between, 'Oh my god, I'm going to actually be naked on stage rubbing up against this other person,' as opposed to, 'I'm playing a role.'

"And once you kind of have that mental footnote, now you're playing a role in doing this, and you separate a little bit from yourself. It is you doing it, but you're doing it as part of your job, as a role. I feel like it creates the right kind of frame and container [and] you can be more free inside of that. You're sort of taking the onus off of yourself."

Step 2: Talk. A lot.
YD: "The second step [is to] talk about what we want to do. We talk through the scenes, we talk about our goal and our mission. [We] also just start to define, character-wise, what those people's sexual personality is. You [think] so much, when you're an actor, about your character: Who is this person? What do they do? And it's interesting that, as human beings, we all have specific and personal sexual personalities. Because these sex scenes are going to be such a major part of the show, we started to really talk about who these people are, what is their level of sexual experience? How did they approach their own sexuality? So we start creating a history for these people, in terms of what their sex lives are like. And that's really helpful, because that starts to define the behaviour and the action, how they're going to relate to each other."
Step 3: Figure out traffic patterns.
YD: "Then, totally clothes-on, we'll just kind of go through, trying to do a real loose sketch of what the traffic pattern of the scene is going to be. And it's completely not sexual. Like, as mundane as possible — it's like handshaking. There's no feeling, no emotion, no clothes off, no real touching. Another thing that was really important to establish was how we're going to communicate, how they're gonna communicate with each other. Especially in rehearsal. A lot of times, you can blow through someone's personal boundaries. And so, [you have to set up] personal boundaries. Like, 'I have a bubble around my body and if you want to come into my bubble, my boundary, you need to ask permission.'"
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Step 4: Consent. Consent. Consent.
YD: "And so there's a lot of back-and-forth consent giving. If they're on the bed in a certain way and he wants to try something different, he's like, 'Do you mind if I put my hand under your waist or your back here?' Or, if I say: 'So, grab her breast there,' he needs to say, "Okay, I'm gonna touch your breasts now." She needs to say, 'Okay.' We set up this real communication and consent between the two actors. I've seen [plays] where, you know, one actor is gung ho — and this could be male or female — and is just going for it. And it kind of blows through personal boundaries and makes the other person feel like it's going too fast, or uncomfortable. And if you get into that really uncomfortable place, it's actually a lot of work to unwind that."
Photo: HBO.
Emilia Clarke and Jason Momoa in "Game of Thrones"

Step 5: Red means no-go.
YD: "We had safe words. [They] were basically, red light, green light, yellow light. Red light was: 'I'm really uncomfortable, I need to pause.' Yellow light was: 'I can continue going but I'm uncomfortable.' And green light was: 'I'm totally fine.'"
Step 6: Let's get physical.
YD: "The next level of the choreography is [to] get a little bit more physical. There was some very deep, intense kissing in this. And so I kicked everyone out of the room, and it was just the three of us and I said, 'Okay, why don't we try, why don't you guys try kissing?' Everyone makes out differently, when you kiss someone for the first time, you have to learn that person's body, and what their mouth shape [is], and what it's like to kiss them. If you're showing a first kiss on stage, that awkwardness is actually a great, very realistic thing to include. So really, I'm really watching their connection and their intimacy, and sort of how they connect with each other."

Step 7: The clothes come off.
YD: "I made everyone leave the room and said, 'We need exactly 20 minutes alone in here; set a timer.' That [way] the actors know that this isn't going to go on forever. We actually all got naked together on stage and just hung out naked for five minutes [and] just got comfortable with the idea that we were going to be naked in front of other people, and that we're human beings, and that everyone in the audience has a body. We inherit so much shame about our sexuality, about wanting to feel loved, about giving and receiving pleasure, about sexual preference, so I wanted to create a space, at least with these people that are in the room at this moment, where shame breathes out. Like, this is you, you can be yourself in here for these 20 minutes with no one else in the room. I feel like that really helps, and that makes the actors get really comfortable with each other and get into a really trusting place with each other."
Photo: Focus Features/REX/Shutterstock.
Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in "Atonement"
Step 8: Time for naked touching.
YD: "This is like a next rehearsal, after we've broken the ice. You're going be naked, you're going to have to touch, so let's at least just hug each other naked and see what that feels like. And then from there, the ice, in my opinion, has been broken. They understand the language of consent. They understand that they're going to be naked. They've kissed. They've touched each other naked. And I feel like a lot of those really hard obstacles [have been] mentally overcome. For me it's all about just making it comfortable, and eventually, fun. [It's] getting them to a point where they're like, 'Oh my god, would this be funny if I did x, y, z?' Or, 'Can I shake my leg here when this happens? As I'm having an orgasm?'"


Step 9: Establishing intimacy.
YD: "When [you're] naked, there's a whole different level of things to deal with. You're not actually penetrating, so we need pillows and blankets to hide things in certain ways. And you want to see just enough. Like, there was a thing in the beginning where he's standing naked; she's on the bed on her knees, and he's standing with his back to us, wearing a robe. And then she reaches under his legs and holds his butt. If you see actual connection in the beginning, you start to project a lot of stuff in your mind. And the stuff that you start to project in your mind is much more powerful than anything I could show you on stage. So then, when he's on top of her and he's holding his dick, and her legs go up and she's moaning — even though there's a pillow and some blankets in the way — we've established that actual intimate connection. [The] mind just completely fills in all the gaps and paints that picture of that penetration — it's a very powerful thing."
Step 10: On to the nitty-gritty details.
"And then there's some real nuts-and-bolts stuff. Like, 'When you lie down, and she has to put her knee right in between your legs, and you need make sure that your balls and your dick are up off the bed so she doesn't crush them, so you need to hold them with your hand.' [It] becomes very technical in that way.

"And then once all of that technical stuff is handled and understood, then they can start bringing the emotion and the passion."
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