AskMen.com solicited advice on how to shoot a sex tape from director Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau responded with tips he used while shooting the sex scenes from his cult hit “The Room”. “You need certain chemistry.” said Wiseau. “I believe that Johnny and Lisa in The Room had great chemistry, that’s my take. Yes, maybe some of the stuff — people have different opinions — but how you define making love to anybody?”
All right, so unless you want to make a sex tape that looks like this, Wiseau’s ten suggestions might not be particularly helpful. And maybe he’s not the “best” person to tell you how to shoot a sex scene (or to teach a sex ed class, for that matter). But here’s the thing: if you’re an aspiring director (or just a curious fan) looking for some genuine advice on the topic there’s not a ton of it out there on the internet. Some master directors are baffled by the subject too — even Martin Scorsese’s on record admitting, “I don’t know how to shoot a sex scene.”
The best article on the subject online is from a 1988 issue of Premiere. The piece, written by Margy Rochlin, features a bunch of quotes from directors and actors talking about the, um, ins and outs of shooting sex scenes. “Fatal Attraction” director Adrian Lyne describes his part in the process as that of a “demented cheerleader [in] a bizarre kind of menage a trois” who shouts encouragement and directions from the sidelines (“Good, good, good. Give me a little more of that. Show me your breast. Water, water! Great!”).
An anonymous director in the same article has a really interesting comment about how he or she likes to build sexual chemistry between actors. “If the actors become romantically involved, all the better. A clever manipulator can play matchmaker between the actors. But you can only grow things where the soil is fertile.” I’ve never before heard a director admit they actively try to get their actors together offscreen for the purposes of sparks onscreen. And I’m not sure how practical this suggestion really is; in a lot of the famous examples of this phenomenon –Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe in “Proof of Life,” for instance — the publicity surrounding the affair overwhelmed the movie itself.
Though it sounds counterintuitive, one way for a director to get what he wants out of a sex scene is to let the actors decide what he shoots. In a 2001 interview with Nerve.com, Marc Forster talked about his approach for the sex scene in his film “Monster’s Ball.” “When I talked to Billy Bob and Halle at the beginning,” Forster said, “I told them very clearly what I had in mind. My main concern at the beginning was Halle; I wanted to make sure she felt comfortable with it and so I allowed her to have final cut over that scene… [She] said, ‘Either you tell me every angle of the shoot’ — which would make it very stiff — ‘or you just give me final cut over the scene.’ I said that was fine. It was better because they didn’t have to worry about it and so we had more freedom. We shot the scene and then three of us went through the dailies. Basically it was decided from there what they wanted to cut or keep. When they saw the final scene, they were both very happy with it.”
Earlier this year, Kristin Scott Thomas offered a journalist her perspective on what makes a good sex scene while promoting her film “Partir.” “It’s all about choreography. The director and the cameras dictate what and how you have to act. Just like they instruct you how to make a blow look like it hurts during a fight scene,” Thomas said.
Choreography was definitely on the mind of director Atom Egoyan when he shot the explicit sex scene in his film “Where the Truth Lies.” Egoyan was contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film and in a piece entitled “The Thrust of It All,” he described the difficulty he had “trying to choreograph extended scenes of sexual activity without seeing the prolonged thrusting associated with the act.” In Egoyan’s opinion, “the best way to shoot a sex scene and make it seem real is to use a master shot — an uninterrupted sequence with no cuts. I wanted to see the bodies. The overwhelming challenge was how to show two (and in this case even more) people having sex without depicting the act of thrusting.” Egoyan “rehearsed” the scenes with dolls, trying to figure out a way to get what he wanted without pissing off the MPAA Ratings Board. It didn’t work; the film received an NC-17 and was later released unrated.
Finally, for some less practical but more hilarious musings on sex scenes, check out this video of John Turturro, speaking with remarkable candor at public interview at The New School in January of 2009. Turturro has an interesting perspective on the subject — that sex scenes require a narrative obstacle otherwise “there’s nothing to play” — but he gets that out of the way in the first 30 seconds of the nine minute clip. The rest of the time he shares some great anecdotes about directing Kate Winslet simulating sex on a yoga ball in “Romance & Cigarettes” and getting bitten on the nipple by Emily Watson in “The Luzhin Defense.”
So let’s recap. To make a great sex scene you should:
1)Scream at the actors from behind the camera.
2)Get them to hook-up offscreen.
3)Let them dictate what you shoot and how you edit it.
4)Have them suck on each other’s nipples.
Hm. Maybe Tommy Wiseau’s advice wasn’t so crazy after all.
[Additional Photos: “Monster’s Ball,” Lionsgate, 2001; “Where the Truth Lies,” THINKFilm, 2005]