Sex scenes are a natural part of the filmmaking process. You write them, and eventually, they make it to the screen, and you might direct them too. There are many famous sex scenes in cinema, but they all started as an idea that made it to the page and the screen.
Learning how to write and direct scenes appropriately will not only further your career but also ensure you have a safe experience set, with everyone feeling comfortable and taken care of on a personal level.
Today, we're going to go over how to write and direct sex scenes. We'll include tips, tricks, intimacy coordinator details, and even hear from some directors on their processes.
Sound good? Let's begin.
'Eyes Wide Shut'Credit: Paramount Pictures
How to Write and Direct a Sex Scene in Film and Television
Let's get this out of the way right at the top—this post is not about directing pornography.
We are aware that many people in Hollywood make their bills by shooting, editing, and directing pornography, but those films have their own set of rules and regulations you can find elsewhere. We are focusing in mainstream film and television. We want to talk about the sex scenes you see on shows like Game of Thrones and in movies like Lust, Caution.
'Lust, Caution'Credit: Focus Features
What Is a Sex Scene?
In the traditional sense, a sex scene is where two or more actors simulate having sex on screen.
Why Do You Need to Handle Sex Scenes with Care?
The art of acting is already very vulnerable, but when you add sex and nudity into the mix, things can get a little tricky. You're asking adults to be intimate with one another, while lots of people watch.
You're also asking them to carry plot points or story beats and make everything feel natural and realistic.
There's also Hollywood's long history of being insensitive and exploitative. So when it comes time for you to direct a sex scene, there are lots of things you need to take into consideration.
'Game of Thrones'Credit: HBO
3 Tips on How to Direct a Sex Scene in Film and Television
When it comes to being on set and actually making decisions, we thought we'd bring you some helpful tips that will make everyone more comfortable. But before we get into all this, we strongly encourage you to hire an intimacy coordinator. It's someone whose specific job it is to help you choreography sex scenes and keep the set safe during them.
Build them into the line budget and give yourself extra help. You will thank us later. And so will your cast and crew. So much of shooting a sex scene is keeping people in good spirits and feeling secure during what can be a very revealing and vulnerable experience.
So what are some other tips for shooting sex scenes?
1. Keep a Closed Set
Sex is an intimate experience. A sex scene with 50+ people watching and lighting can be intimidating and the antithesis of art. So if at all possible, close set down when you shoot these scenes. Do them with a cinematographer and the cast, and yourself. Maybe a sound person too if needed. Pare it down to only the necessary people.
This gives the set a more intimate feel. Sure, it's always on camera, but this can make people less nervous.
2. Respect Your Actors
Have robes on set. Be respectful of their time and prep. Don't make them do endless takes. Prepare with your actors. Walk them through the scene and expectations. Make sure nothing surprises them about the scene. The time you spend with these people will pay off invaluably.
Also, work with them one on one, find out what they're comfortable doing, and work as an intermediary. And never pressure someone to do something they're not into, like extra nudity or extending a scene into other positions.
'If Beale Street Could Talk'Credit: A24
3. Be Direct with Your Direction
When the shooting begins, be direct. Tell them what you need and even how to do it. Directing a sex scene needs to be artful and emotional, but the direction you say should be to the point. You don't want any mistakes.
Be concise with what you want. Openness and directness ensure everyone will do what's needed when it's needed.
'Brokeback Mountain'Credit: Paramount Pictures
What Established Directors Have to Say About Shooting Sex Scenes
Lots of famous directors have shot sex scenes. And their advice is crucial to learning how to deal with specific situations and intentions. Like, let's say you're doing a comedic sex scene. Think about what Paul Feig had to say about it:
"You just have to face it like it’s any other highly choreographed scene and find the physicality. The only way we were able to get through it is by making each other laugh, so it became this hilarious wrestling match—if you really look at it, it’s less like a sex scene and more like a crazy fight. Jon was so game, and he and Kristen were literally just trying to crack each other up. We kept saying, 'Let’s get more absurd,' because we had the safety of knowing it would be ridiculously funny."
How about how you approach nudity? Well, if there ever was a person to have that conversation with, it's Wild Things director John McNaughton. When it comes to actors getting naked, he's very specific with his asks.
"When it comes to nudity, I always ask my actors a question, 'Have you read the script?' I’m not going to pull a trick on an actor: 'Oh, I know it’s not in the script, but do you mind taking your clothes off?' What I’ve found often with the actors is a lot of trepidation up front—they’ll say, 'Oh, I’m uncomfortable with this and I won’t do that, etc.'—but once they feel they’re not being exploited or tricked in any way, they start to get into it. Once they do that, the clothes start flying off, and things that they said they wouldn’t do at first, they really don’t have a problem doing them. They push it further once they’re in the comfort zone."
One of the most interesting things about the sex in a movie like Sleeping with Other People is how writer-director Leslye Headland actually write each scene.
"The way the sex scene was written in the script, it was incredibly graphic. I literally go through every single thing that they do to each other, from 'He kisses her here' or 'She takes off her underwear' down to 'He ejaculates inside of her.' But at the top of the page, right before the sex scene, there was this big disclaimer in bold print and underlined: 'You will not see any nudity during this scene.' So while you were reading something that was basically porn, you had been told right up top that there was no nudity. The reason I did that is because I knew it was never going to get as intense as what it said on the page, but I needed actors who were sort of almost willing to do that."
How to Write a Sex Scene
There’s lots of semantics, but for the purpose of this article, I’m only going to cover consensual love scenes. There are many reasons to do this, and I don't think I need to spell them all out. I just want the material I’m reading in Hollywood to be better.
That starts with you.
Now let’s get into learning how to write love scenes.
How to Write the Best Movie Love Scenes
Okay, you’ve gotten to that pivotal moment in your screenplay. It’s time for hanky panky. But how do you put that sex on the page?
First, some protection.
Why Are Your Characters Having Sex?
I’m dead serious. Don’t just say because you want to see nudity. Or because you’re European. Sex on screen needs to be motivated. So whether its the first time Harry and Sally hooked up, or some 50 Shades stuff, sex needs to make sense for the audience to buy in.
As a society, we’re kind of moving past the pointless Bond-girl hookup in movies. So unless this is done with some pastiche, I want you to reconcile why your characters are having sex.
And why the audience needs to see it.
Perhaps you’re writing a movie like Lust, Caution, where sex plays an integral part in this spy story.
Or maybe you need the sex to be fun and awkward like in Knocked Up.
Whatever the case, once you’ve justified the sex, you need to decide how it factors into the story. Because just like any other set piece, the love scene you're writing needs to fit within the overall tone of the movie too.
No one wants to see some hardcore stuff in the middle of The Wedding Planner, and if your characters are in a post-apocalyptic society and a war with the machines was just won... you also don’t want to see some PG-13 kissing.
So let’s take a look at a few sex scenes in screenplays and see how they work.
How to Write Sex Scenes in a Movie or TV Show
When I was researching this article, I kept coming across lists of the hottest Hollywood sex scenes. Those are totally fun. I read a few.
Sex scenes are crazy. I worked for Mickey Rourke for a little while (I’ll cover that another time), and it was hard looking him in the eyes after seeing 9 ½ Weeks.
But if you’re looking for a hot, softcore list, you’re barking up the wrong tree. I want to take you into the screenplay pages and show you what sets up those memorable scenes.
First, let’s take a look at the opening scene that started the spec screenplay sale explosion of the late 80s and early 90s.
I’m talking Basic Instinct. Take a look at Joe Eszterhas’ opening pages.
INT. A BEDROOM - NIGHT
It is dark; we don't see clearly. a man and woman make love on a brass bed. There are mirrors on the walls and ceiling. On a side table, atop a small mirror, lines of cocaine. A tape deck PLAYS the Stones "Sympathy for the Devil."
Atop him... she straddles his chest... her breasts in his face. He cups her breasts. She leans down, kisses him...
JOHNNY BOZ is in his late 40's, slim, good-looking. We don't see the woman's face. She has long blonde hair. The CAMERA STAYS BEHIND and to the side of them.
She leans close over his face, her tongue in his mouth...she kisses him... she moves her hands up, holds both of his arms above his head.
She moves higher atop him... she reaches to the side of the bed... a white silk scarf is in her hand... her hips above his face now, moving... slightly,oh-so slightly... his face strains towards her.
The scarf in her hand... she ties his hands with it...gently... to the brass bed... his eyes are closed... tighter...lowering hips into his face... lower... over his chest... his navel. The SONG plays.
He is inside her... his head arches back... his throat white.
She arches her back... her hips grind... her breasts are high...
Her back arches back... back... her head tilts back... she extends her arms... the right arm comes down suddenly... the steel flashes... his throat is white...
He bucks, writhes, bucks, convulses...It flashes up... it flashes down... and up... and down... and up... and…
Okay, what can we take from this one?
This scene gives you the blow by blow, and definitely gets incredibly descriptive, but look at how it uses sex to mirror the violence. That becomes a theme for the film, so it’s incredibly smart to add it to the first pages.
Also, this movie love scene isn’t so hyped up on describing the sex as much as building a mood. We’re getting this guy tied up, we’re disguising his assailant, and then we get him dead.
This is also a dynamic opening scene.
So what if we want our movie love scene to be a little more chaste?
How about the movie love scene from Titanic?
Learning From the Titanic Love Scene
James Cameron has been putting sex scenes in his movies since the beginning. He has a very hot one in Terminator, a hot one in True Lies, and a weird hair one in Avatar that also is kind of hot. But the sex scene he is most famous for probably comes from his most famous movie, Titanic.
PUSHING IN on the rear window of the Renault, which is completely fogged up. Rose's hand comes up and slams against the glass for a moment, making a handprint in the veil of condensation.
INSIDE THE CAR, Jack's overcoat is like a blanket over them. It stirs and Rose pulls it down. They are huddled under it, intertwined, still mostly clothed. Their faces are flushed and they look at each other wonderingly. She puts her hand on his face, as if making sure he is real.
The writing here is all about the moment. On a boat full of thousands, it’s just Jack and Rose for this moment. Instead of being completely caught up in the actual sex, this movie love scene keeps it completely personal.
Since Cameron wrote and directed it we can see how he wound up shooting it. Also shot for shot what’s on the page.
The Moonlight Sex Scene
So far we’ve looked at a lot of scripts with characters who are comfortable with their sexuality. But how do you write a sex scene that’s about the discovery of that sexuality?
I feel like we are in great hands with Barry Jenkins.
Moonlight is a masterpiece. It’s so complicated to balance timelines and emotions, but this movie does it with incredible aplomb.
Let’s take a look at this beach love scene from the middle of the movie.
Their eyes meeting here, Kevin slowly working his hand along Chiron’s neck, small movement, with feeling.
Slowly, nearly subconsciously, Chiron going weak, leans toward Kevin, their weight supporting one another here on the dune.
All sound drowned by the echoing ocean, the night covering these two as close as they’ve ever been.
Both sit up again, facing each other and still close, noses nearly touching.
These are waters they’ve never charted, the culmination of invitations they’ve been sending since day one.
Kevin smiles, his open lips brushing Chiron’s. Chiron startles and... leans in.
Heavy this kissing, much deeper than just the meeting of lips. A moment more of this heavy petting then...
...the sound of a buckle being undone, Kevin’s hand disappearing down below, a gasp from Chiron and...
Pressure and rhythm as Chiron’s breath catches in his chest, head fully leaned to Kevin’s shoulder, free hand grabbing at the sand as Kevin takes hold of him, a caressing and a pulling and a soothing as....
...Chiron comes, holding onto Kevin for dear life, choking on the sea breeze.
Kevin removing his hand, looks at the cum there before wiping it on the sand.
Kevin looking at him with the kindest, most open face:
What you got to be sorry for?
Chiron considering that. Honestly so. The sound of the ocean.
I included this scene because it’s the pinnacle of coming-of-age movies. For this movie, it’s Chiron letting himself be truly open with someone. The writing here is poetic, it really builds the tension before the love scene begins.
Both characters here are becoming who they will be, and fostering their love. Look at the way the action is written.
I particularly love this line:
All sound drowned by the echoing ocean, the night covering these two as close as they’ve ever been.
We’re put in the mood, we understand there’s tension before the love can proceed. As the scene builds, the action takes us through each person’s emotions, and that reflects upon us. It’s universal and beautiful.
Summing Up "How to Write and Direct a Sex Scene in Film and Television"
All right, let’s towel off and see what we learned about writing and directing the best movie love scene and sex scenes. There's so much that goes into these things, like the acting, the climate, and also how you can make set safe. If we didn't stress it enough the first time, consider an intimacy coordinator.
Romantic scenes of love aren’t easy to describe on the page, but I think you now understand that your work needs to match the tone, have a point to it, and consider every side. Make sure your writing takes the audience through the emotions and gives them all the information they need to know.
Above all else, movie sex scenes need to have a point.
Let us know what you think in the comments.