Directors on Sex

All four candidates in last fall's presidential election probably agreed on one thing--that there is too much sex in movies," says James Toback, director of films like Two Girls and a Guy and Black and White, both of which contain controversial sex scenes. "My question is, what movies are politicians talking about? They are outraged by something that doesn't exist." Toback is right.


Almost 10 years ago, I surveyed the films of a number of directors who had been uncharacteristically bold in their treatment of sex, and since that time, horizons have narrowed. As budgets balloon and teenage boys call the shots, studios increasingly shun anything as outré as adult sexuality. But sexuality is fundamental and far too dramatic a part of life to be chased from the big screen entirely. So once again, I asked a group of directors to talk about sex in the movies, particularly in their own work. Their responses prove that celluloid sex is a dependably fascinating topic, however under siege it is at the moment.

A number of directors are far more squeamish about shooting sex scenes than moralizing politicians might guess. "I was raised in the '50s, and I'm still such a prude," says Don Roos, who directed the wry 1998 comedy The Opposite of Sex. In preparing to film a sex scene between Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow in Bounce, Roos reports, "I just said. Action!' and left it to them. I was a wreck during the scene, but they were fine about it. Gwyneth was like, 'Who is this nervous queen behind the camera?' Of course there was the added element that they had been a couple in real life, which made it even weirder for me. I thought I was where I shouldn't be, next to their bed whispering words of encouragement."

Ang Lee, the director of The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm _and the new _Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, shares some of Roos's trepidation. "I'm a shy person," he says, "so it's never easy for me to direct sex scenes. I try to block my mind, just give directions, and pretend that I feel no embarrassment. In The Ice Storm, there was a scene between Joan Allen and Jamey Sheridan in the front of a car. It was supposed to be freezing, but it was actually 80 degrees and they were in this tiny space. There were so many other things for them to focus on that it took their minds off the sex."

In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee wanted to set aside his own discomfort and have some truly steamy sexuality in the scenes between the young lovers played by Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen. "I wanted a passionate explosion," Lee says. "But she was only 19 and he was 21, so I had to be very explicit and tell them how to move their hands and exactly what to do. My approach is to encourage the actors to go as far as they're comfortable and then push them one stage further. A kiss is one of the hardest things to film because it is so difficult to photograph. The trick is finding where to place the camera. A real fight would look like a phony fight on-screen, and the same is true of a kiss."

Anthony Minghella, the director of The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, has reasons other than personal unease for being less than eager to do sex scenes. "I'd love to avoid shooting sex scenes because they can become very stock," he says. "The English Patient was a story that investigated different kinds of love--platonic love, love of country, love of exploration--so of course I had to include physical love. I made a few personal rules. If a scene was about intimacy, the actors would be naked. But if it was a sexual scene, they would be clothed. So when Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas repair to a back room during the Christmas party, they kept their clothes on. I still think it's a pretty steamy scene." For the film's sexual scenes, Minghella instructed his actors in minute detail on exactly what he wanted them to do. "Usually I create the space for the actors to be free," he says. "But in the sex scenes I dictated every move. And I did that because I never forgot an interview I read with a stage actress talking about her first film. She said she had had all this classical training, and on her first day on a movie set, she found herself in bed with a total stranger, left to her own devices, and she felt totally abandoned. I didn't want that to happen to my actors, so I would say, 'Put your hand here, move your head there.' That removed responsibility from the actors, and the actors must feel protected from their own sexuality."

The question all directors face in doing a sex scene is whether audiences will go along with them. "We all go through life in a modified state of high school," says Neil LaBute, director of In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty. "No one wants to be an outsider. So when people see a film, they think, 'What's the norm?' If it seems outside the norm, they feel uncomfortable watching it. We're all too desperate for normality."

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