The Women at the Helm of Georgia’s Intimacy Coordinator Profession
When Amani Lyle became a writer’s assistant on “Friends,” she was told the job might involve listening to and writing down jokes of a sexual nature. Still, after her four-month stint came to an end, Lyle believed what she endured during her time there had crossed the line. She filed a suit for sexual harassment against the television show’s production company and some of the show’s writers. The suit alleged that male writers would regularly talk about their sexual exploits, discuss sexual acts they’d like to perform with actresses on the show, and more.
But could the discussions in the writers room be written off as a way to simply get those creative juices flowing? According to the 2006 California Supreme Court, yes. The court ruled that given the adult nature and themes of the show, all of the evidence in question could be viewed as “creative necessity” – part of the writer’s process.
“There’s a little friction between creative context and sexual harassment,” Ilene Berman, a partner at Atlanta’s Taylor English law firm who does sexual harrassment training for Warner Brothers, told Oz. “Because when the creative context has to do with sex, where do you cross a line into the unlawful, sexual harassment world?”
The same year the California Supreme Court ruled on Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions, activist Tarana Burke began using the phrase “me too” to raise awareness for women who had been abused. Eleven years later, actress Alyssa Milano used the phrase in a tweet, popularizing Burke’s movement.
Since then, Hollywood has been forced to reckon with sexual misconduct in a huge way, peaking with the Harvey Weinstein verdict this February. But while so many speaking out in support of the #MeToo movement were working on a public stage, a much quieter advancement was slowly becoming an integral part of mitigating sexual harassment on set: the intimacy coordinator.
Alicia Rodis, Co-Founder of Intimacy Directors International and later Intimacy Directors and Coordinators, credits the #MeToo movement with helping the industry begin to understand the need for a position like an intimacy coordinator. “The way I look at the #MeToo movement is that it was a realization for everyone,” Rodis said in an interview with Oz. “It wasn’t a realization of, ‘There are a few predators out here.’ It was a realization that the ways that we had been doing a lot of things have not been the best we can do.”
Intimacy coordinators work on movie and television sets to ensure that best practices are met while filming and help to cement the line between creative pursuit and misconduct. While it’s still a fairly new industry, intimacy coordinators have been used to wonderful effect on shows such as “The Deuce” and “Normal People,” and the Georgia-lensed shows “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country.”
Intimacy coordination is just now gaining traction in the mainstream film and television world, but it still isn’t quite as normalized in Atlanta as it might be elsewhere.
“Quite honestly, in the conversations that I have had with several professionals, the recognition of the role is not as accepted or understood [in Georgia],” said L.P. Watts, Intimacy Coordinator for film and television in Atlanta.
Intimacy coordination as an industry is meant to provide accountability on set. The presence of a coordinator can create a safe space and make sure the lines between work and reality are clear ㅡ not just for actors, but for everyone involved in the production. If those lines had been more clearly drawn in the 2000s, would Amani Lyle’s case have had the same outcome? Would there have been a reason for her to sue in the first place?
Those questions can’t be answered, but in the wake of movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, lawyers like Ilene Berman and the few intimacy coordinators who have begun working in Georgia are optimistic about the profession’s ability to mitigate harm in the future.
“I don’t think [intimacy coordinators] would ever have been allowed or even a concept five years ago,” Berman said. “No way. And now it's mandated on most major productions; which is great.”
The HerStory of Intimacy on Set
Before the #MeToo movement, intimacy coordination for episodic television or film wasn’t on many people’s mind. But Emily Meade, star of HBO’s “The Deuce,” decided she had enough.
According to Meade, she filmed her first sex scene when she was a teenager and is no stranger to playing sexualized characters, but “The Deuce,” a show that centers around the New York porn industry in the 1970s, presented her with unique challenges.
“There was no specific incident or anything outside of what I’ve been used to for the past 13 years,” she said in an interview with HBO. “The only thing that makes ‘The Deuce’ different is the story itself is about sex, and sex scenes are an integral part of the story.”
Looking back at her career, Meade remembered some instances on set where she said “yes” in the moment, but retroactively, felt uneasy about that decision, and Meade isn’t the only one.
Stars like Emilia Clarke, Maria Schneider, Rosie Perez, and countless others have expressed varying levels of discomfort while filming intimate scenes. For Meade, it finally got to be too much.
Meade went to the show’s creators, David Simon and George Pelecanos, and asked for someone to advocate not just for her, but for everyone on set who may be involved with a sexual scene. Soon after, Alicia Rodis was hired, and the intimacy coordinator revolution was born.
Before beginning work on “The Deuce,” Rodis had already been an important figure in the world of intimacy coordination. The first film she served as an intimacy coordinator on was in 2015. In 2016, she helped found Intimacy Directors International with Intimacy Director Tonia Sina, who has been credited with starting the groundwork for the profession back in 2006. The day Rodis got the call to come in for “The Deuce,” the line producer on the phone fumbled over words, unwittingly proving just how important the intimacy coordinator position would become. Rodis said it sounded like he was requesting services from a sex worker.
“He couldn’t even say the word intimacy,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m working on a show and we need … something. I see that you provide … services on this website.’”
After the awkwardness of that initial phone call, Rodis came in for an interview and met with the showrunners, HBO’s legal team and production executives. She said she was struck by their vulnerability and willingness to admit that they didn’t know what they were doing.
“I truly think it was courageous of them to say, ‘We need something and we don’t know what it is.’ Let’s work on this together,” she said. “And we did.”
Just a few years later, Rodis is now the in-house Intimacy Coordinator for HBO. The network declared in 2018 that all of their television shows that featured intimate scenes would require intimacy coordinators.
Just this year, SAG-AFTRA mandated the hiring of intimacy coordinators for sex scenes. This mandate happened within weeks of media mogul Harvey Weinstein being found guilty of rape.
“This came off the back of the concern of our members for their safety,” SAG-AFTRA President, Gabrielle Carteris, said in an interview with the BBC earlier this year. “Actors, and women in particular, spoke out to tell their stories; not just about Weinstein, but many others.”
Rodis and HBO have helped popularize the use of intimacy coordinators, and while other major players have followed suit – Netflix recently hired its first intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, for the show “Sex Education” ㅡ not everyone has been as quick to jump on board. In younger film and television markets, like Georgia, intimacy coordinators are only just starting to become visible.
“I am extremely honored and humbled every day to be a part of this work,” Samantha McDonald, an Atlanta-based Intimacy Coordinator who has worked on shows like “Ozark,” “P-Valley,” and “The Outsider,” told Oz. “To be part of the conversation as we continue to educate as many people as we can about what this job is and how it can be so beneficial not just for performers, but the production as a whole.”
Jessica Bennett, an Atlanta-based Intimacy Coordinator who has worked on shows such as HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” said that while working with Rodis and HBO is usually a smooth process, working with those who are less familiar with the job can be difficult to navigate.
“A lot of times, we have to fight for our protocols to be upheld,” Bennett told Oz. And sometimes, that means coordinators standing their ground at their own peril when advocating for an actor. “We have to be such strong advocates that we really do have to be kind of okay with losing our job.”
L.P. Watts, who is a licensed therapist as well as an intimacy coordinator, also said the advocacy part of the job can be difficult. To be an intimacy coordinator, she said, one needs to be comfortable using their own voice and stepping up when something goes wrong. “If someone’s on set and they feel uncomfortable, or they feel like things are not going the way they planned them to go or discussed them to go, the intimacy coordinator is going to step in,” Watts said.
“It’s a fine line. You are part of a production, but in some ways you are also brought in to be
this neutral party who is not included in the power dynamic. This is where training and emotional maturity certainly come in handy.”
-LP Watts, Intimacy Coordinator
“It’s a fine line,” she continued. “You are part of a production, but in some ways you are also brought in to be this neutral party who is not included in the power dynamic. This is where training and emotional maturity certainly come in handy.”
In a market where the intimacy coordination industry is so new, the stepping in part of the job can be difficult. Intimacy coordinators like Watts and Bennett have to feel comfortable doing the uncomfortable thing. And being in a market where the profession is so new, Bennett feels responsible for making sure she carries out those protocols appropriately.
“It’s so important to uphold really high standards,” she said. “We are setting the groundwork for those who come after us and those who are training now.”
Lights, Camera, Action: A Day in the Life
Lucky for Bennett, she’s used to keeping her standards high, and she has no problem stepping in on set. She was recently working on a set where it was clear the intense nature of the scene was not just getting to the actors, but getting to everyone on set. The atmosphere was strained, to say the least. The tension had bled from the actors to the crew, with everyone’s shoulders gradually rising to their ears with discomfort. In Bennett’s words, she looked to the head of the network, and said: “Are you going to shut it down or me?”
This type of on-the-job decision-making is common in the day-to-day of an intimacy coordinator. Part of the role is being an advocate for actors, someone neutral in the power dynamic that exists on set, who’s there to make sure everyone is comfortable – and it doesn’t hurt if they make everyone look good while they’re doing that.
“My job is to make everyone look awesome, and we can’t be awesome unless we understand that we are inherently safe,” Bennett explained. “If people understand they’re safe and that they’re going to look awesome and that someone’s got their back, especially when [they’re] doing the vulnerable work of being naked and simluating sex – once we feel comfortable in that, we can go home.”
Doors are just now opening to incorporate intimacy coordinators on set. Due to the intense and new nature of the position, these coordinators can assume a lot of different roles depending on what the director, producer and actors all require. But whatever role they take on or whatever techniques they implement, creating a safe space and limiting the potential for misconduct remains one of the most important goals. That requires a high level of communication.
As a coordinator, Watts encourages creating specific recreatable choreography in scenes that include intimacy. She says that doing so can create specific boundaries and maintain a level of comfort for the actors involved.
“I think that choreography is pretty much one of the most important pieces here,” Watts said. “If talent shows up and there’s no choreography, you can only imagine the room that leaves open for misunderstandings, miscommunication and potential damage.”
McDonald also places an emphasis on movement and gathers as much specific information as she can from actors to create a “boundary map” to navigate in rehearsal.
For example, a seemingly simple kissing scene can have many moving parts – is the actor comfortable with kissing on the mouth? Closed or open? Tongue or no tongue? Where is the actor comfortable being touched during the scene? These and so many other questions are integral to coming up with choreography that works for everyone.
“It is really important that I can get as much information ahead of time from the actors about what their boundaries are so we can work within them,” McDonald said. “It’s not me creating boundaries, it is me listening, respecting and upholding the boundaries of the actors.”
For Bennett, one of the most important things she does on set is create a sense of community. Bennett said she strives to make everyone feel comfortable, so they know if they have a problem, they can go talk to “that intimacy lady” and she can bring some calm to the storm.
“Creating a sense of community I would say is one of my biggest superpowers,” Bennett said.
Building community, extremely detailed planning and communication all help these intimacy coordinators create a set that is safer for everyone. More than that, if actors feel comfortable with the movement they are given and don’t feel in danger of misconduct, they’re bound to give stronger performances.
“The more we can prepare ahead of time and really create a safe space, the more we can free up the actor’s headspace to really allow them to focus on the acting.”
-Jessica Bennett, Intimacy Coordinator
“Being able to communicate and prepare early allows us to come into the rehearsal, whether that rehearsal be days before or on the day of shooting, and talk our way through the scene from an informed and comfortable place,” said McDonald. “The more we can prepare ahead of time and really create a safe space, the more we can free up the actor’s headspace to really allow them to focus on the acting.”
Film and the Law In the Aftermath of #MeToo
The #MeToo movement has changed the sexual misconduct conversation everywhere from major productions to smaller, independent sets. Along with intimacy coordinators becoming more integrated on set, film companies are putting more policies in place to prioritize the needs of their employees.
“There’s a business side to this, and there’s art and creativity that’s generated from this work. There’s a balance and there are boundaries,” Berman told Oz. “I think that the intimacy coordinator certainly helps protect that both from the creative side and from the employees.”
Berman also leads sexual harassment training for Warner Brothers productions. “I started doing that eight or nine years ago, which was pretty novel, believe it or not,” she said. “Now it’s routine.”
Berman’s work, has contributed thoroughly to changes in the industry. She has seen how the the combination of reworked policies, the introduction of intimacy coordinators and the #MeToo movement have worked correspondingly to ensure safe sets. “All the [training] that I’ve done for Warner Brothers over the last eight or nine years ㅡ they’ve never had a sexual harassment complaint [in Georgia],” Berman said. The #MeToo movement particularly impacted Berman. Over the years, Berman’s work has provided support for movements like #MeToo in the industry. Pair that with the work of intimacy coordinators, and there are two parts coming together to create a safer environment on set.
“Where I think it’s so beneficial for production studios to have an intimacy coordinator on set is to make sure that the consent and the parameters in the participation of these graphic sex scenes is continuous,” Berman said. “When you go outside of the consent and the expectation of the role or the scene, that’s where hostile work environment and sexual assault would come into play.”
There Is Still Work To Be Done
As Georgia’s importance increases in the global film industry, it’s important to keep up with the rest of the field. And despite the efforts of these women laying the groundwork, the Peach State might not be there yet.
“The biggest part of it is explaining the job,” Bennett said.” A lot of people don’t know what we do.” She said she thinks the majority of actors generally understand what an intimacy coordinator does once she’s explained it, but directors sometimes have a harder time. “You explain the job, and they get to set, and they’re not sure what the crap to do with you.”
Nevertheless, while the profession isn’t as normalized as its proponents might hope, strides have been and are being made.
“For myself, it would be great to have this role accepted and included and integrated onto sets the way other roles are,” Watts said. “Like a stunt coordinator, or wardrobe, or make-up.”
The industry certainly appears to be on that path, even if the position isn’t yet mandated in Georgia, leaving the market a little behind the curve. And with proven success at making actors more comfortable in vulnerable situations and finding innovative solutions to safety, that’s a good thing.
“I love this position because it allows such creativity. I’m never scared of a no,” said Bennett. “If nothing else I’m like, tell me no! Tell me, because we’ll figure it out. I’m not scared to be like, ‘That won’t work.’ There’s always a solution.”