Three years ago, right before daybreak, Elle McAlpine was taking the train back home after organizing a large group sexual activity. She had finished working on the set of the sci-fi show Brave New World, a night shoot that involved over 100 dancers engaging in sexual revelry.
McAlpine chuckles as she recalls her trip home, sharing the tube with her fellow commuters and reflecting on the situation she had just witnessed. She thought, “If only they knew what I had just experienced…”
It appeared completely authentic: a group of talented dancers gracefully moving on the floor.
McAlpine’s latest project to raise eyebrows is Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things: the multi-Oscar-nominated fantasy adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel.
The unique and fantastical appearance of Poor Things has been highly praised. However, the plot – which features Emma Stone portraying a mature woman with an infant’s mind, embarking on a worldwide voyage of sexual exploration – has sparked differing opinions.
In her role as intimacy coordinator for Poor Things, McAlpine was involved in the merging of these two areas. She was brought onto the team at a later point in the project, after Lanthimos and Stone had already determined its parameters. Her responsibility was to figure out the best way to portray them in a comfortable manner.
The director and lead actor have both commended McAlpine’s contribution in interviews, although Stone confessed to initially being skeptical.
According to McAlpine, the cast had already spent months rehearsing by the time this occurred. McAlpine explains, “They had developed a shared understanding … It was her way of expressing ‘I have myself, Yorgos has me, I am okay’.” However, as McAlpine mentioned to Stone during their first conversation, she was not the only one who could benefit from an intimacy coordinator. After all, it takes two to tango (with Stone’s main on-screen partner Mark Ruffalo portraying the deceitful lawyer who tempts her away from home).
According to McAlpine’s recollection, filming the orgy scene in Brave New World required 120 people and spanned two days. During a dance, the participants suddenly stripped off their clothes and engaged in sexual activity on the floor.
McAlpine collaborated with three additional intimacy coordinators for that specific scene. Each coordinator was responsible for a group of approximately 30 dancers, and a choreographer oversaw the final outcome.
McAlpine, who is also an actress, was actively involved in the filming process, showing how to effectively portray intimacy on screen. She shares her satisfaction with the results, saying that even small movements like arching the back or moving the coccyx can make a scene look incredible. She particularly enjoyed the orgy scenes.
After completing her studies at drama school in September 2017, McAlpine had already performed several kissing scenes and simulated sex in a non-penetrative manner for a short film. She then took part in a workshop led by Ita O’Brien, recognized as one of the leading experts in the field of intimacy.
The media was invited to the workshop and a photograph was taken of McAlpine, with her back arched and appearing to reach climax. This photo was featured as a two-page spread in the Sunday Times’ magazine. McAlpine was amazed not only by how convincing the choreography was, but also by the sense of pride she felt when she saw the final result. She described it as a mind-blowing experience.
According to McAlpine, while some directors do have conversations with their cast about sexual boundaries shown on screen, many lack the required knowledge. Additionally, the hierarchies on set can make it difficult for people to express themselves freely. McAlpine explains that there is a specific language used in this line of work that promotes professionalism and encourages individuals to think about what may make them feel uncomfortable.
Shortly thereafter, McAlpine started receiving guidance from O’Brien and collaborating on productions like Netflix’s Sex Education and It’s a Sin. (In numerous scenes involving sex in the latter, McAlpine is positioned off-screen, concealed behind furniture or in a closet, prepared to step in if necessary.)
Seven years ago, prior to the #MeToo movement, there was a lot of doubt within the industry about the importance of intimacy coordinators, according to McAlpine. She remembers having to promote the role just as much as the actors she was collaborating with, having to “pitch” herself and clarify their responsibilities.
Some directors were not open to the team’s suggestions. McAlpine mentions that their presence was seen as a hindrance to the production. Being predominantly female, there was also a sense of discrimination. “I definitely noticed it…especially as a young woman, collaborating with experienced individuals who have not encountered this type of bureaucracy before.”
McAlpine is currently 33 years old. In the early stages, when we were attempting to prove ourselves, I experienced a great deal of pressure: the performance had to be exceptional. McAlpine mentions that at times, the animosity was blatant and even aggressive. There was no margin for error or progress. “I was removed from a few sets because I was not contributing, obviously.”
During a particular project, she exceeded her role and exclaimed “cut” during a scene. She explained, “I was simply very uneasy because the actor seemed to be uncomfortable and I could sense it.”
After collaborating with O’Brien for 18 months, McAlpine joined forces with fellow actor and “movement director” Katharine Hardman to create their own company, EK Intimacy. With increased experience and confidence in her work, McAlpine has also seen a shift in the industry, as the Screen Actors Guild now requires intimacy coordinators on sets starting in 2020.
According to McAlpine, meetings with directors now have a chemistry read feel, and the role has shifted from primarily focusing on safeguarding to allowing for greater creative expression. While there are still a lot of risk assessments and paperwork to protect the production from potential legal action, intimacy coordinators are increasingly exploring the possibilities of portraying sex on screen.
McAlpine explains the importance of grasping the tone of a story and how it relates to each character’s intimate storytelling. She also mentions the value of considering nuanced and exciting positions for these characters. One actor shared that to fully embody a character, he imagines their behavior in the bedroom. This does not necessarily reflect the actor’s own experiences. McAlpine believes that discussing a character’s sexual expression can lead to incredible performances, as it fuels their creativity.
If a scene requires an actor to show more than they are comfortable with, there are items such as modesty garments, cushions, and protective layers available. According to McAlpine, it is possible to create the illusion of an actor being naked in a bathtub even when they are actually fully dressed. He adds, “There are numerous techniques that can be utilized.”
For her, the role also carries an educational aspect, where there is a responsibility to portray sex as it truly occurs in real life – including pubic hair, lubrication, and awkward fumbling – rather than an idealized version.
In a recent report, the Children’s Commissioner discovered that 10% of children had been exposed to pornography by the age of nine, and the number rose to 27% by age 11. This exposure has been linked to lower self-esteem in young adults. Additionally, a 2017 YouGov poll revealed that 32% of young individuals had never witnessed a condom being used during sex scenes in media, which may contribute to their low usage rates.
I remember as a child watching Grease and feeling confused by the scene with the broken condom. It was a missed opportunity to teach me something important. We should take a closer look at the way we portray sex.
The portrayal of sex in the film Poor Things has been heavily scrutinized. Lanthimos has expressed confusion over the societal taboos surrounding sex in cinema, especially considering the ease with which violence is depicted, even for younger viewers. McAlpine notes that this even extends to sexual violence, as society is more accepting of watching rape on screen than a consensual and unconventional sexual encounter. This raises questions about our societal values.
Poor Things presents a different perspective in many aspects. Bella’s exploration of her sexuality, both alone and with others, plays a crucial role in her growth, on par with other pleasures such as food, music, and dance. According to McAlpine, the character’s innocent curiosity and enthusiastic pursuit of her primal desires are admirable. He believes that our society tends to prioritize the intellect and neglect the physical aspect.
Tony McNamara’s screenplay prompted her to consider the idea of paying attention to our physical instincts, particularly in regards to sex. She believes that the release of orgasm is similar to the experience sought after when taking drugs – a feeling of complete loss of consciousness that we are constantly in pursuit of.
However, the discussion surrounding the movie’s depiction of sex cannot be solely attributed to prudishness. While some have voiced concerns about Bella’s eagerness for sex (or “furious jumping”, as she calls it) being a “male fantasy”, the main controversy centers around the middle portion of the film. This is when Bella becomes financially strained and ends up working in a brothel in Paris.
The darker side of her passion, involving violence and hatred towards women, is brought to her attention, as she struggles to come to terms with it while still having a child’s perspective. According to McAlpine, the idea behind this transaction is that she agrees to it and desires it – until she changes her mind.
She sees Bella’s stint in Paris as a dark, violent reality check, and “typically masculine” contrast to the “free and fluid” feminine essence that she has embodied thus far: “Culture, and society, are imposed on her.” Of course, McAlpine adds, the reality of leaving sex work is “much harder than this film suggests”. But “it had other places to go”.
She acknowledges that filming scenes involving Bella’s character development posed a challenge: “We have a baby’s brain, in a woman’s body, and we’re doing ‘furious jumping’. How does that make me feel as a person?” However, McAlpine clarifies that she did not feel judgmental and saw her role as an intimacy coordinator as simply serving the director’s vision.
However, she disagrees with the portrayal of Bella as a sex worker with the cognitive abilities of a young child by some individuals. McAlpine envisioned Bella as a 16 or 17-year-old.
Was it necessary for her to consider that for her own protection? While she didn’t talk about it with Lanthimos or Stone, McAlpine believes that subconsciously it may have played a role. “I think, at that stage, there was a level of independence that children don’t typically have. She was making choices…I could understand where she was in her growth, and it didn’t seem too abrupt.”
The conversation sparked by Poor Things, which can be challenging and discomforting, at least acknowledges the difficulty of portraying sex on screen. While intimacy coordinators can help ensure a comfortable environment on set, this does not guarantee the same for the viewers.
The movie received an 18 rating in the UK, but only after alterations were made to a scene where a father takes his two sons to a brothel for a lesson on sex.
The intimacy scenes between the boys’ father and Bella were shot without the child actors in the room, says McAlpine, making certain shots “quite difficult” – but they were approached with the same care, constant communication and strenuous attention to consent as the rest of the film.
McAlpine chuckles as she remembers a previous conversation with the parents of the youngest boy, explaining the details of the scene: “They said, ‘He’s always watching Game of Thrones, so it’s not a problem’.”