Whistler Film Festival, Dec. 4 to 8, Whistler, B.C. Festival screening 86 films and hosting Content Summit workshops featuring over 1,000 industry professionals participating in sessions on cinema, broadcast, digital and music.
Driving through the morning fog on her way to the North Shore, Capilano University instructor and actor P. Lynn Johnson reflects on her new job title: intimacy co-ordinator.
“It’s really quite new,” she remarks. Even professionals in the film and television industry aren’t yet familiar with the term, she adds. In fact, neither was she.
Last spring, a few Capilano University student films were set to feature sexual content. After some discussion, one faculty member suggested the movies should only be green-lit if Johnson handled “intimacy co-ordination.”
“Intimacy co-ordination?” she recalls asking, initially bewildered. “Oh, that’s what I’ve been doing.”
In broad strokes, Johnson’s job is about nurturing a community of respect. And while the job is new, the need is old.
Years after filming Last Tango in Paris, actress Maria Schneider recalled the horror of filming the movie’s rape scene.
Speaking with reporter Linda Das of the London Daily Mail in 2007, Schneider voiced her regret over the last minute addition to the script.
“I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that,” she told Das.
As intimacy co-ordinator, Johnson’s job is to make sure other actors aren’t similarly manipulated.
“There’s the power in saying ‘No,’” Johnson explains. “We can find another way to tell the story.”
Growing up in a small town in southern Saskatchewan, Johnson started teaching as soon as she had something to teach. As a little girl she taught letters and numbers to her preschool-aged neighbours. When she was a little older, she coached racquetball. But her calling seemed to be as an acting teacher.
“I get to be the viewed and the viewer at different times,” she says. “I hope it makes me a better actor. I hope my acting makes me a better teacher.”
She’s still acting but following some time working with Ita O’Brien – a pioneer in the intimacy co-ordination field – Johnson has thrown herself into her new role.
“I seem to have this approach where I don’t know that I can’t do it, so I just jump in,” she says.
With a career that stretches from The Beachcombers to The X-Files to Supernatural, Johnson understands that actors often find themselves in tender spots.
“I think the biggest challenge for an actor is being given new material just before you go to camera,” she says.
If the scene suddenly requires nudity or sexual touching, it’s crucial someone is looking out for the performers, Johnson explains.
As intimacy co-ordinator, Johnson first needs to know the story, the scene and the larger context. She consults with wardrobe people, chats with the director or producer, and watches filming to ensure the plan is followed and agreements regarding nudity are honoured.
If there’s a kiss, the ground rules are simple. “We just start with: there are no tongues,” Johnson says.
If the actors are supposed to get especially passionate, they either find something they can agree on, or, they get creative, Johnson says.
Johnson has heard criticisms (“More from the male population than the female population,” she notes.) that her role might stifle spontaneity. But there is plenty of room to create and explore but in a context. It’s not unlike an actor experimenting with the dialogue in the script.
“It’s always been a contractual agreement,” Johnson says. “This is just taking it a step further so there aren’t last-minute changes and that everybody feels like they have a choice.”
It also helps the performances, Johnson says, noting that she’s seen intimate scenes that spoil a movie because the actors look uncomfortable.
Oftentimes, what the actors are filming is less important than how they feel about what they’re filming.
“It doesn’t always have to be comfortable,” Johnson allows. “But there has to be agreement and consent.”