Crafting Normal People’s sex scenes

Meet intimacy coordinator Ita O'Brien

Much like the rest of the locked-down population, we’ve been left breathless (and not a little bit horny) watching the steamy scenes of first love in Normal People. It’s perhaps no coincidence the woman behind them is the very same intimacy coordinator who worked on the brilliant Sex Education. By Sarah Bradbury.

If you’ve read Sally Rooney’s novel, which formed the basis of the recent BBC series, you’ll know not only that there’s a lot of sex being had in Ireland-set Normal People but that those passages are crucial to the evolving story between protaganists Marianne and Connell.

Any screen adaptation would have to navigate these carefully in order to do justice to the book…

But what is an intimacy coordinator? I hear you ask. In the aftermath of the #metoo movement, far more attention is being paid to how actors are treated and made comfortable while filming intimate scenes. The role of intimacy coordinator has therefore become more commonplace.

As Ita O’Brien, who has worked on wildly popular Sex Education, Watchmen and Gangs of London, as well as trained as a ballet dancer, explains to the Guardian, it’s much like the work of a stunt coordinator: “I’m trying to improve communication, streamline production, serve the director’s vision and bring my skill of choreography and dance to the set.”

In this Q and A with Dazed, O’Brien explains her craft and her role in ensuring all simulated sex, nudity and touch is consented to: “The focus is on making sure that they are personally safe and that they’re personally comfortable. So they can really stay free to act and are able to bring all of their skills, as an actor, to the scenes.”

She highlights the importance of bringing structure to choreographed scenes, where leaving it to improvisation can make the actors vulnerable: “The irony is that within a clear boundary, you actually create more freedom.”

She also shares how she thinks sex scenes have progressed on screen over time: “Before, I think there’s been a lot of abusive sexual content on our screens, and while, of course, it’s really important that art depicts life and, of course, in life there is a fair amount of abusive sexual content, we also want to really honour and show the best of our humanity…with a clear choreography put into the content, sex scenes have become more beautiful.”

And here’s where we come to what was achieved with the scenes in Normal People. There’s a precision in the naturalism of the encounters between Marianne and Connell.

Rather than glossing over the fumbly bits that are so often part parcel of the real thing, these are choreographed in – a bra stuck over a head, trousers stubbornly refusing to come off, the moment a condom is discussed and put on. It also offers a refreshing exploration of consent and boldly dabbles in the world of rough sex and fetishes.

And what’s most impressive is on top of all of that detail being left in, it still manages to be raw and raunchy as hell. Rather than distance you from the moment, it draws you in, like you are living it yourself or find yourself recalling nostalgically those first goes in the bedroom, with all its fervent passion and naive awkwardness in equal measure.

The excess of sexual content and nudity in the series hasn’t been everyone’s cup of tea – some have perhaps validly wondered if some of the nuance conveyed in the orginal text is lost in all the sweat and skin, others questioned if we needed quite so many shots of Daisy Edgar-Jones breasts and Paul Mescal’s penis – but it certainly seems to mark a shift in the way intimate scenes are portrayed on our screens.

And for many, the lust-filled drama has been a welcome escape from lockdown ennui.

What did you make of the intimate scenes in Normal People?