3 Language Tips for Directing Intimacy


So much of directing is communication. What language do I use with actors? What words do I use to communicate my vision to cast and crew?

I think it’s safe to say that human beings, though, aren’t naturally good verbal communicators. We’re not born with language. Language has to be learnt. 

This extends to learning language for directing content that includes intimacy, nudity and simulated sex scenes.

How Language Makes a Difference

When DEGANZ was joined by NZ actor and intimacy coordinator Tandi Wright to talk about what intimacy coordinators do, she shared that actors more commonly have bad experiences “because communication and planning is often poor or non-existent.”

“Directors, actors and producers are often embarrassed to talk about the intimate material, which I know sounds ridiculous but that is true.”

Like stunts, intimate scenes have inherent safety risks – people can get hurt physically and psychologically. You’d never take a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude with stunts, so why would you with intimate scenes? When we shy away from talking with our team, it leaves each person to deal with stress, anxiety and even trauma on their own if they have a bad experience on set or have experienced sexual harm in their own lives.

A game changer has been the adoption of intimacy coordinators on a whole range of productions, big and small, here in Aotearoa within the space of four years, along with Equity NZ’s invaluable Intimacy Guidelines for Stage and Screen.

“Intimate scenes have seldom been creative spaces,” says Tandi. But they can be “robust and playful like any other scene.” Being really specific and detailed about what you want and what’s involved will make filming scenes a positive, collaborative experience where actors feel safe and respected. It’s just professional.

DEGANZ has been running Directing In the Intimate Zone, a one-day practical workshop introducing directors to intimacy best practices, tools and language, because awareness and education is still needed. Recently, we ran Directing In the Intimate Zone in Auckland tutored by actor/intimacy coordinator Jennifer Te Atamaira Ward-Lealand.

From observing that workshop, I thought I’d share a few gold nuggets from Jennifer on professional language that you can learn for directing intimate scenes.

Use Consent Language

In the workshop, Jennifer demonstrated the touch consent process with the actors, which a few directors in the class later practised in breakouts. If a director knows how, they could facilitate this process without an intimacy coordinator present for less demanding scenes. (Here’s a guide by Intimacy Coordinators Aotearoa on when to hire an IC.)


Actors using the touch consent process with Jennifer Ward-Lealand (left). / Photo: Tù Studios


Basically, the touch consent process has actors standing facing each other, fully-clothed, and taking it in turns to ask for the other’s consent to touch a specific body part – in relation to the context of the scene. The third party (the intimacy coordinator and/or director) guides the process.

For example: 

Jennifer: Laura, can you ask Sam if it’s okay with him if you can hold his hands?’

Laura (to Sam): Is it okay with you if I touch your hands?

Laura can indicate on her own body where she will be touching.

Once Sam has verbally agreed to the request, Laura will touch Sam’s hands, and then Jennifer will have Sam ask the same question of Laura.

The process is methodical and simple to follow, covering all areas of the body that will be touched during the choreography. It creates trust and sets clear boundaries for where each actor has agreed to be touched and where is off limits. Moreover, there is no expectation on the actor to divulge personal reasons for why they don’t like being touched in a certain area.

Note that Jennifer had the class use “Is it okay if I _____?” over “Can I touch your _____?” The difference may seem subtle but the latter is a more open request for consent.

Desexualise Language

Another key takeaway for the room that felt like a eureka moment for me was Jennifer’s lessons on desexualising the language around the work. One major way intimacy coordinators professionalise the filming of intimacy or sexual content is getting cast and crew to use anatomically-correct terms, like buttocks, breast and even gluteal cleft (that’s a butt crack, by the way!).

Such language is not emotionally loaded, but helps separate the professional from the personal. And is really important because actors should feel ‘personally safe’ to be ‘professionally open and vulnerable’, which is central to their craft.

Intimacy coordinators also use desexualised language for actions. For example, instead of a director saying, “You’re going to grab her arse”, they could say, “Okay, so this is when we’re looking for a firm squeezing of the buttock.”

During a rehearsal at the workshop, Jennifer also suggested using the words “Close the distance, one of you maintaining eye contact and the other avoiding eye contact every now and then” instead of “Move towards each other in a flirty way,” which in the end is a very generalised instruction and brings to mind certain obvious tropes.

If seeing directors pause in the workshop before specifying a body part or action is any indication, a bit of rewiring of the brain is likely required at first. But from her experience, Tandi Wright says the sense of professionalism is almost immediate. If you don’t know what term to use, don’t be embarrassed to ask your IC!

You might be thinking that desexualising intimate scene work might seem contradictory. But it felt incredibly liberating for the performers and directors in Directing In the Intimate Zone. Actions become technical choreography, like a dance or a stunt, and with your IC and actors, you can hone in on choreographing really specific beats and tell the story of the scene in a much more creative and deeper way.

Ask for Performance Level and Placeholders

During the process of choreographing the scenes, which involves repetition, actors don’t have to give 100% every time. You can ask them, “Are you okay to go with performance level kissing or would you prefer to use placeholders for now?”

A placeholder for a kiss might be touching hands or leaning in and turning heads away from each other.

So those are a few language tips for directing intimate scenes. If you want to go deeper into language, tools and processes with the helpful aid of seeing the work in action, we are holding Directing In the Intimate Zone, a workshop with Jennifer Te Atamira Ward-Lealand in Rotorua on October 16.


Tema Pua
Events & Marketing Manager

Last updated on 30 September 2022