How an Intimacy Coordinator Affects Story on a Film Set

We chat with intimacy coordinator Marcus Watson about how he shares the same mission as costumes, stunts, and production design. They're all there for the story.
Marcus Watson Intimacy Coordinator

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople in the industry. In this entry, we chat with intimacy coordinator Marcus Watson about how his job is merely another storytelling extension.

You wouldn’t improv a stunt, and you shouldn’t improv a sex scene. Imagine turning to Tom Cruise as he stands on the edge of some treacherous chasm and shrugging your shoulders. “You’ve got this, Tommy. No sweat.” You wouldn’t last much longer on set, and you probably wouldn’t have made it onto the crew in the first place.

Beyond safety concerns, action serves story. The manner in which Tom Cruise propels himself from one side of the canyon to the other communicates everything you need to know. A perfectly stuck landing equals a professional. A tumble and a crash equal a desperate individual meeting their limit. Abandoning the result to a whim is absurd.

Shooting intimacy is no different. There is no one kind of kiss. There is no single way to brush a hand upon a cheek. Body language is character. Character is body language.

Marcus Watson started out choreographing fights and other violent acts for the stage. Every once in a while, he would be brought on to coordinate a scene that contained sexual violence. In those moments, touch and hand placement became critical for the comfort of the actors as well as the storytelling execution. From action, his work evolved into other areas of intimacy, and he found himself recruited onto sequences for shows like Billions, The Flight Attendant, and Monsterland.

Coming up through gymnastics, dance, and mime, Watson had movement drilled into his imagination. The way he saw it, chasing specificity in gestures and motion, helped uncover the narrative truth. Reality exists in the tiniest of details.

“I’m a very physical storyteller,” he says. “The slightest move can tell a different story. That’s where I root a lot of my work.”

Regarding action and intimacy, scripts can offer very little for the actors and director to work with. Take this example from The Bourne Ultimatum:

EXT. Rooftop – – Continuous

Bourne and Desh spill out of the elevator and onto the roof…A brutal exchange. Matching each others moves like shadows. Relentless. Rolling – falling onto another roof level.

A brutal exchange? Three tiny words that sell an idea but require months of preparation and practice to execute on the day.

“There are so many punches,” explains Watson. “There are ascending punches that come from a low line, and there are descending punches from the high line, each can tell a different story with different power dynamics. The same thing happens with intimacy. When it says ‘They kiss.’ Wow. What does that mean? What story are we telling with that kiss?”

Films can succeed or fail through their lovemaking. Screenplays build circles within circles, thrusting their characters through torturous gauntlets, delaying audience satisfaction until demand can wait no longer. When heroes finally clash in the bedroom, the moment must deliver sincerity.

“There’s a difference between an inhale and a kiss where you’re holding your breath,” says Watson. “There’s a difference with an exhale, and a release of air, and a release of the kiss itself. Those kisses tell very different stories. It’s really important to think about those moments. We’re also looking at the quality of the touch as well. Are we using the pads of the fingers for this touch? Are we using the back of the hand?”

Since sex remains taboo in much of our society, discussion of it can go unsaid on film sets until the time arrives to shoot it. This lack of communication is dangerous, leading to frustration or worse. Watson’s presence as an intimacy coordinator guarantees an open avenue for consideration.

“There are many conversations, phone calls, and emails that happen before I get on set,” says Watson. “So that everyone is aware of who I am, how I work, and what I’m looking for. These are conversations with different departments, whether it’s costumes and wardrobe, or props, or set design.”

Watson absorbs the vision of the producers and the directors. He hears their ideas and grapples with the emotions they’re trying to capture on film. To achieve their desire, certain logistics have to be met. He reads through the nudity riders and the simulated sex riders and loops in the wardrobe department regarding garments and the necessary physical barriers to be worn by the two actors during their scene.

“I’m updating the consent with the actors beforehand,” he continues. “Where we are not in a conversation with directors or producers. Where I am talking with the actors to make sure that they are fully understanding what is expected of them and that they fully consent to show, or to do the things, that the production is wanting. Once I get on set, it’s about making sure that everything stays to the standard that we have all discussed previously.”

It doesn’t take much for a scene to go sideways. Watson has witnessed instances where it’s a really great set, and everyone is striving to achieve the desired result, but a small breakdown in communication can spiral quickly. If one actor misinterprets the trajectory of a movement, boundaries can break rapidly. And a director or producer doesn’t always notice when a breakdown occurs. The intimacy coordinator, however, is laser-focused on the body parts.

“Because I’m there looking at the monitor,” says Watson, “I’m looking for very specific things, where the director is looking at many things. I can say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t in the rehearsal. That was something that kind of popped up just now. I’m going to go see if the actors discussed this beforehand.’ I’ve been able to catch things before they become an issue. Sometimes without the producers or the director even knowing what’s going on.”

Realizing a sex scene is as challenging to accomplish as selling a punch or suggesting peril where there is none. One-takes and little thought won’t get the job done. Scrutiny and preparation are essential.

“I come to this work with a very extensive background in movement and storytelling,” says Watson. “Someone might say, ‘Oh, the rhythm is off.’ Or ‘It doesn’t look real. Make it more real.’ I can then say, ‘Okay, well, actually it’s the hips, or it’s the breath. Their breath is not syncing up with the motions that we’re using. Let’s look at connecting to breath, or moving the hips here, or changing this angle slightly so that we are telling a more accurate story. So that the story that we’re seeing on the screen and through the camera is correct to the story we want to tell.'”

An intimacy coordinator’s role is still a fairly new one within the industry. Mostly, Watson doesn’t spend much time on any particular series or production. He often comes in to manage a scene here and there, and then he’s off to the next set. Thinking over his time in the job, he can’t recall a director who had previously worked with an intimacy coordinator. As such, Watson believes there is still a tremendous opportunity to explore and evolve the position further.

“I would like to be thought of for all forms of intimacy,” he says. “Obviously, yes, there’s simulated sex, and there’s full nudity, but there’s intimate touch, there’s kissing, and there’s even familial touch. What does it mean whenever you have a scene between a grandmother and a granddaughter? What is that scene telling? What is their story? How does touch or lack thereof affect them?”

Actors need an advocate for their comfort on set, but so do the directors, the producers, and the screenwriters. Any position that provides more thought to story is necessary and should be welcomed. Marcus Watson shares the same mission as the rest of the crew. He’s making movies. He’s telling stories.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)