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Sex in movies: how does it work?
July 6, 2011 10:49 PM   Subscribe

Sex in movies: how does it work?

While watching I Am Love a few weeks ago, I was struck by the scenes where Emma and Antonio have sex. It felt more real than the usual humping under a blanket one normally sees in movies.* Was it?

More generally, how do sex scenes in movies work? Do actors physically engage in sex in movies? Or is it just convincing smoke and mirrors? What about acts that fall short of full on intercourse, such as oral sex or passionate kissing over various non-genital erogenous zones: something like that seems harder to fake? Is there a difference between Hollywood and 'International/Foreign' cinema?

On a related point: how do actors deal with this, mentally (and physically)? Is it all part of their professionalism that they disrobe and engage in (simulated?) coitus with another professional in front of a (large?) crew?

I suspect there is no single approach and the answers likely fall on a continuum of real to not real, but I'm still curious about this element of cinema.

*By movies I mean movies that aren't porn. Although I imagine there is a degree of cross over.
posted by oxford blue to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
2 words. Body doubles.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:00 PM on July 6, 2011


Given the number of people usually present on the sets just outside the frame, only the committed exhibitionists can achieve arousal, I suspect. Good editing and shooting techniques, and bit of CGI should take care of the rest. I mean, you don't need to be naked to be made to look naked these days.
posted by vidur at 11:06 PM on July 6, 2011


It was heavily implied in the commentary of Original Sin that the sex scenes featured Angelina and Antonio having full on sex during filming.
posted by Mitheral at 11:07 PM on July 6, 2011


Chloe Sevigny gave Vincent Gallo unsimulated fellatio in the movie Brown Bunny. The French movie Romance also had unsimulated fellatio.
posted by dfriedman at 11:09 PM on July 6, 2011


I don't recall who it was, but I remember an actress saying that it's incredibly difficult to summon and maintain any sort of feeling of eroticism at all because 1) you're on set and surrounded by about a hundred people, 2) you're constantly going in short increments that are started and ended with "action" and "cut", and 3) it's not all shot in any sexually logical order, instead it's basically a collection of five second moments that would plausibly occur during sex so they can be edited together. And this all takes a day or two of shooting.

In other words, it really is all acting because it's basically impossible to have anything actually resembling sex while filming.

It was heavily implied in the commentary of Original Sin that the sex scenes featured Angelina and Antonio having full on sex during filming.

I suspect this is marketing more than actual gossip.
posted by fatbird at 11:09 PM on July 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


I've read interviews with actors, and I am sorry I don't have a link, that described it as a significant and unpleasant ordeal. Imagine doing parts of simulated sex, over and over, while obsessive filmic nerds fiddle with the lights and the cameras and the microphones, calling endless retakes, all day long, while you try to maintain the credible illusion that your character is overwhelmed by a moment of passion.

It's probably more comparable to a filmed fight, than in it is to real sex.
posted by thelonius at 11:11 PM on July 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


It might be worth noting that Chloe Sevigny's career was hurt, badly, by 'actually' performing oral sex on film. A lot of the commentary seemed to show that most actors thought actually having sex on set would be somehow undignified, and well beneath them.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:14 PM on July 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


List of films with non-simulated sexual activity
posted by vidur at 11:17 PM on July 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


This article is an interesting read about the movie Intimacy, in which the author's girlfriend (actress Kerry Fox) gives Mark Rylance unsimulated oral.
posted by hot soup at 11:22 PM on July 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


See also Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song; Melvin Van Peebles caught the clap in one of the for-realsies sex scenes, managed to get workman's comp for it, and used that to help finance the film.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:46 PM on July 6, 2011 [13 favorites]


I once knew a guy who was a regular in an old Australian soap opera (The Restless Years, for you Aussies playing at home.)

He told us that during a sex scene in bed with a hot blonde, he, ahem, rose to the occasion. She was disgusted and stormed off set, and the crew were equally unimpressed because they had to set it up and do it all over again. The crew were used to actors pretending, not actually getting physically ready to do the deed. This was plain-old-free-to-air-tv though, not an edgy movie.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 11:57 PM on July 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


malibustacey's anecdote reminded of an actor on Letterman who said how awkward sex scenes were for guys because it's a no-win situation. If you're "aroused," it's unprofessional; if not, it's a case of "What, I'm not arousing enough for you?" Can't remember who it was, though.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:27 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


When Atonement came out, James McAvoy said a lot about the sex scene with Keira Knightley, I think. But here's the only article I have time to find at the moment.
posted by firei at 3:02 AM on July 7, 2011


9 Songs was famous for showing real, unsimulated sex (though I haven't seen it). It was a mainstream film - by which I mean not pornography or a R-18, it was still very much an arthouse film.
posted by mippy at 4:13 AM on July 7, 2011


I remember a brief clip about this on some Entertainment Weekly type show, years ago. The segment has similar questions as this post and went sort of behind the scenes with a no name movie that had a sex scene, talking with the director, actor and actress. It all came off as a production trying to get some free publicity, but what I remember most is something the actress and actor said and did as the camera recorded them walking towards the set of the sex scene:

The actress was feeding a handful of mints to herself and the actor with one hand, while carrying a large bag of mints in the other.

"The shoots always last a while," she said as she held up the bag to the camera, "So we're having a contest to see who can eat the most."
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:03 AM on July 7, 2011


I've seen 9 songs - via Netflix streaming. I wouldn't rush to add it to your queue.
posted by COD at 5:09 AM on July 7, 2011


The 1989 film Wild Orchid, features a sex scene between Mickey Rourke and Carré Otis. It's long been the rumor that the sex was genuine, though it's never been confirmed, one way or the other. It's certainly graphic enough to have been real and, in fact, earned an initial X rating, before the director made substantial cuts to the scene in order to get the rating down to an R for release. The DVD contains the uncut version.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:11 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


>Do actors physically engage in sex in movies? Or is it just convincing smoke and mirrors? What about acts that fall short of full on intercourse, such as oral sex or passionate kissing over various non-genital erogenous zones: something like that seems harder to fake?

Generally, intercourse is fake, oral sex is fake (with exceptions noted above), kissing non-genital areas is real.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:13 AM on July 7, 2011


Salon had a great series about the making of the movie Shortbus. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Don't Look Now is a classic movie which also features allegedly unsimulated sex.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:37 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Men typically wear a kind of flesh-toned crotch patch to cover their genitals.
posted by mkultra at 5:43 AM on July 7, 2011


Don't know how accurate this is, but the movie Love, Actually includes a couple of body doubles/stand-ins as characters, with a few scenes where they are simulating sex for the purpose of getting the lighting right for a movie love scene. The two are pros, so fairly nonchalant, but also attracted to each other for real, so it's kind of awkward in a sweet way. Not exactly what you asked, but a bit of a (fictionalized) window into the process.
posted by libraryhead at 6:07 AM on July 7, 2011


It's behind a paywall but Rolling Stone's article about True Blood last September talks about sex on that set, and Anna Paquin quote-unquote "rockin' the patch" and Alexander Skarsgard apparently thinks wearing "the sock" is ridiculous.

If you can get hold of a physical copy of the magazine, the article is really good, and I don't even give a damn about True Blood.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:11 AM on July 7, 2011


malibustacey's anecdote reminded of an actor on Letterman who said how awkward sex scenes were for guys because it's a no-win situation. If you're "aroused," it's unprofessional; if not, it's a case of "What, I'm not arousing enough for you?" Can't remember who it was, though.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 4:27 AM on July 7


I remember an interview with I think Seth Rogan for Knocked Up that sounds like this. He was trying to joke about it by telling the actress he appologized in advance if he became arroused but also appologized if he didn't become aroused. The actress (katherine heigl I believe) was apparently somewhat flustered/insulted by it. I also remember him saying he stole the joke from Sean Connery.
posted by Green With You at 6:19 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


The films I work on aren't blockbuster huge, but here are some general "Industry Standard" facts about the practical aspects of shooting sex scene (there are exceptions, crazy people, etc.):

Sex scenes aren't done in front of hundreds of crew members (how would we all fit??). Rather, a sex scene is a "closed set," meaning everybody leaves the room/stage except the bare essentials, director, camera and boom operator. Hair, makeup, wardrobe and lighting stand nearby ready to come back in as needed. This is done for respect to the actors, and also I suspect to keep grainy cellphone pics of what may be someones left nip from appearing on the Internet.

These scenes aren't usually sexy to watch, for a variety of reasons. Real sex takes a while, movie sex might be on screen for 60 seconds. Therefore, a sex scenes goes like this: each whole take is about one minute of foreplay stuff, thirty seconds of humpy looking stuff, then everybody cums. It's very condensed. It might take an hour to shoot the scene, might take six hours. Remember that most movies are shot with a single camera, so every new angle involves stopping everything, putting robes on the actors, moving the camera, changing the lights, swapping a lens, and so on. It would be hard to maintain any level of arousal through all that, I think.

Depending on what the camera sees, the actors will be wearing some sort of underwear/coverings. Could even be that if most of their bodies are under the covers, they are wearing their pants the whole time. If more is seen, a girl might wear a nude colored thong, maybe nipple pasties. Guys mostly just wear regular underwear, but if we see their butt, they will be wearing a "cock-sock," which looks like a tiny nude colored bathing cap that covers the area. Nothing sexy about any of this, so far.

These types of scenes are very mechanical and involve lots of apologies and jokes to ease the obvious tension. I shot a sex scene with a famous actress who had recently given birth and she apologized to the crew during the scene, saying "I'm sorry about my boobs. I'm breastfeeding, so you know, they are all vein-y. Jesus, they look like the Hulk's forearms."
posted by stephennelson at 6:20 AM on July 7, 2011 [43 favorites]


Stage rather than screen background here, and yeah, it's simulated there too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:45 AM on July 7, 2011


There's a documentary called This Film Is Not Yet Rated (avail on Netflix streaming) about the MPAA's opaque and byzantine process for rating sex in movies.

Lots of movie sex looks fake because directors are terrified of getting an NC-17 rating, which often signals commercial death because many theaters won't show an NC-17 movie. There are bizarre unwritten rules like "showing more than one thrust gets you NC-17". Under these rules, there's an incentive not to make sex look very real, to the point that having actual sex on the set might be avoided just on the grounds that it's too convincing.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:46 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


It might be worth noting that Chloe Sevigny's career was hurt, badly, by 'actually' performing oral sex on film.

Cite? I know that there was a lot of sputter and outrage in the media about it, but if you check out her IMDB page you can see that she has worked consistently since then, on projects large and small, indie and otherwise. Last year she won a Golden Globe. Sevigny has never aspired to broad-spectrum appeal, so the only roles she may have edged herself out of getting are ones that she never would have pursued in the first place.
posted by hermitosis at 7:55 AM on July 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


It might be worth noting that Chloe Sevigny's career was hurt, badly, by 'actually' performing oral sex on film.

Cite? I know that there was a lot of sputter and outrage in the media about it,


This is usually a reference to her having been dropped by William Morris Agency at the time, I think. (You're right that her resume shows she weathered the storm, though the business with Gallo and The Brown Bunny is still one of the first things many people think of when her name is mentioned.)
posted by aught at 8:10 AM on July 7, 2011


Another rumored-to-be-real-sex: the opening scene in Betty Blue.
posted by scody at 9:33 AM on July 7, 2011


I don't know why I keep mentioning In the Realm of the Senses lately here, but it's my favorite movie with unsimulated sex, even beyond Romance or Shortbus or any of the other notorious ones, maybe because the actors involved weren't already notoriously out-there sex-positive icons (the guy in Romance was a pornstar IIRC, Chloe Sevigny was already known as edgy, etc.). On the bonus features for the disc it's interesting when they talk about filming the sex--Oshima would make everyone he possibly could do without leave the set, it was surprisingly private and he tried to be sensitive to the actors. And the male actor says something about how when Oshima considered cutting out the most overtly political scene in the movie he told him he wasn't comfortable being so out there in the movie without it intact.
posted by ifjuly at 9:41 AM on July 7, 2011


malibustacey's anecdote reminded of an actor on Letterman who said how awkward sex scenes were for guys because it's a no-win situation. If you're "aroused," it's unprofessional; if not, it's a case of "What, I'm not arousing enough for you?" Can't remember who it was, though.

Julianna Margulies said something similar on Letterman, from the opposite perspective: If you're doing a sex scene and the man gets aroused, you're creeped out. But if he doesn't, you're offended. It was a long time ago, and I think it was in the context of a Woody Allen movie.

I have no idea why weird things like this stick in my head with people who aren't otherwise on my radar.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:33 AM on July 7, 2011


There was a Canadian movie called "Lie With Me" that involved real sex...at least, the consensus here was that it was - they leave little room to think otherwise. I think I heard somewhere that the actors had some discussions and just decided it was more important to the material to go for it. Isn't there also a famous rumor about real sex in Last Tango in Paris?

Anyway, a large majority of the time the sex scenes are, usually, smoke-and-mirrors.
posted by buzzkillington at 11:51 AM on July 7, 2011


You might want to check out the movie Sex is Comedy, which is all about the physical and psychological gymnastics that actors and directors go through to make a movie sex scene feel real.
posted by milk white peacock at 12:16 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sorry, I don't have a cite, I just remember the furor about it at the time. As far as I can remember, she had been appearing in bigger films, then after Brown Bunny, no one would cast her, and she had to go back to indie films. Now that the shame cycle has exhausted herself, she's been appearing in more films and television, yes.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:18 PM on July 7, 2011


I remember reading an article where Demi Moore was talking about this. I don't remember what year, but it was during one of her sexier movies.

She said that guys wear this flesh covered sock on their junk. You can't see the goods, but you can still feel them. And she said that sometimes the males in her scenes get aroused and sometimes they don't. She said something about respecting them as actors and treating it as a professional situation regardless of whether they are or aren't aroused.

True story: After reading that in my high school, I wanted to go into the movies to work with Demi Moore who would treat my teenage condition like a professional.
posted by hal_c_on at 6:50 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I imagine it's a lot like being a gynecologist or a massage therapist or giving bikini waxes for a living. Yes, it's weirdly intimate, but... it's just a job. And after the first week of doing it, you just sort of get over it.

(Also, while yes, sex scenes are usually a "closed set", still. You're still at work, and there are still hundreds of people around, even if they're not personally in the room with you watching everything. It's not sexy or anything.)
posted by Sara C. at 7:25 PM on July 7, 2011


I think what this thread proves is that a number of films are salaciously rumoured to contain actual sex, as a marketing gimmick, and a lot of otherwise sensible people fall for those rumours. If your film is not on the Wikipedia list, you are in that gullible category.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:34 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


The wikipedia list is far from complete because to be included a film has to independently meet the wikipedia notability guidelines.
posted by Mitheral at 12:07 AM on July 8, 2011


I remember an interview with I think Seth Rogan for Knocked Up that sounds like this.

Yes, that's exactly what I had in mind. The gag was how flattering the line was from Connery, but it didn't have quite the same effect coming from Rogen. I give him credit for even telling that story, though. I think the line was something like, [connery]"I apologize in advance if I'm not aroused.... And I apologize in advance if I am."[/connery]
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:42 AM on July 8, 2011


And the male actor says something about how when Oshima considered cutting out the most overtly political scene in the movie he told him he wasn't comfortable being so out there in the movie without it intact.

As an interesting factoid, the appearance in the movie by this male actor--Tatsuya Fuji--in Oshima's movie mattered not a whit to his later career; the impact was minimal-to-non-existent. He's a wizened, Gregory Peck-esque actor these days, appearing as the lead or costar in many Japanese films and turning up in magazine interviews. Chalk up this success to rigid censorship laws. People in Japan knew about Realm of the Senses at the time, but it flew under the radar in Japan, most likely with no public showings in theaters.
posted by Gordion Knott at 3:04 AM on July 8, 2011


From my recollection, Kubrick closed the set of Eyes Wide Shut during the sex scenes with Cruise and Kidman so that it was just the two actors with the director behind the camera. No other crew on-set for those takes.

The group sex scenes, not so much.
posted by firstcity_thirdcoast at 9:29 AM on July 8, 2011


This is usually a reference to her having been dropped by William Morris Agency at the time, I think. (You're right that her resume shows she weathered the storm, though the business with Gallo and The Brown Bunny is still one of the first things many people think of when her name is mentioned.)

So, basically, aught, you're confirming that her career wasn't much hurt, except for having to change agents... And, since all publicity is good publicity, the notoriety is a plus.

"Chloe Sevigny's career was hurt, badly" is a fairly ridiculous claim, given that she has a successful career, and there's no way of knowing what it would have been otherwise.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:31 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


it was just the two actors with the director behind the camera. No other crew on-set for those takes.

This isn't really how making movies works. At the very least there would probably have had to be at least one camera operator and at least one sound person (boom op, maybe?) in the room, and an entire team of other people (additional sound folks, a script supervisor, the cinematographer, hair, makeup, possibly wardrobe, a grip, etc) directly involved and able to see/hear the proceedings even if not in the room with them. You probably wouldn't have the full on band of hundreds that is on a film set any other given day, but you'd have at least a dozen people who absolutely needed to be involved.

My understanding is that films use "closed sets" more because the actors feel awkward, and perhaps because of the possibility of seeing people naked. Not because it's too sexy and the actors need to be alone.
posted by Sara C. at 6:16 AM on July 9, 2011


to be fair, Gordian Knot, the female lead was shunned and villified afterward (i don't remember if she was an actress prior to the film or not) and wound up leaving Japan for Rome, at least according to Donald Richie on the criterion site. i always look for that--it's not surprising for male actors to survive these sorts of things but not female ones, grr.
posted by ifjuly at 12:05 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


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