For many decades the easily shocked have been suggesting that Hollywood should reject explicit sexual depictions and go back to the hints and suggestions of the golden era. A flash of ankle here. A passionate glance there. All those sorts of things.
Directors UK, the professional body representing British screen directors, has now codified that argument into practical advice. Intimacy in the Time of Covid-19, issued this week, outlines strategies to keep sex scenes safe during the pandemic.
The document takes film-makers through writing, preparation, rehearsals and the actual shooting of the film. Directors UK asks screenwriters if it may be necessary to show sexual intercourse at all. “The build-up to an intimate scene can sometimes be more exciting than the scene itself,” the document states. “Emotional intimacy can be as engaging as physical intimacy.”
Now more than ever we need to delight audiences hungry for the intimacy of connection
The aims are noble and actors will no doubt be grateful that efforts are being made to further limit personal contact. But that last quote really does recall reactionary whinges by pearl-clutchers in the wake of the 1960s sexual revolution. Some greybeard was always suggesting that Claudette Colbert revealing her thigh in It Happened One Night was more erotic than all the huffing and puffing in Caligula. What do you know? Intimacy in the Time of Covid-19 goes on to make that precise argument.
“You may even find inspiration by revisiting classic films such as It Happened One Night (1934) or Casablanca (1943) – some of the greatest screen romances ever made and all filmed under the Hays Code, which prohibited the depiction of sex on screen,” the guidance suggests. “Consider what tools classic works offer for contemporary storytelling.”
The people at Directors UK, which has some 7,000 members, might have thought twice before bringing up the Hays Code. Instituted in the 1930s following a panic about supposed debauchery in the era’s movies, The Motion Picture Production Code – as it was officially titled – listed various “don’ts” and “be carefuls” as regards profanity, sex perversion, white slavery and anything else likely to turn heads in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Informal dicta emerged arguing that – as in professional snooker – one foot must always remain on the floor when characters found themselves on the same bed. The code is now seen as something of a prissy joke.
It is also worth noting that It Happened One Night was not “filmed under the Hays Code”. Frank Capra’s timeless comedy was released four months before the Motion Picture Association began enforcing its code. If it had emerged a year later Clark Gable may have been asked to tone down his topless innuendo and Colbert may have been required to keep her thighs to herself.
At any rate, the core of the Directors UK document is sound. Following up on an earlier series of guidelines protecting actors from exploitation during sex scenes – “intimacy co-ordinators” are increasingly common on movie sets – Intimacy in the Time of Covid-19 is packed with sensible advice on how to limit physical contact: more “point of view” shots, cheating angles to suggest proximity where none actually exists, using digital effects instead of live footage.
“Directors have a pivotal role to play in ensuring the film and TV industry restarts as safely as possible,” Bill Anderson, board member of Directors UK, explained. “Now more than ever we need to delight audiences hungry for the intimacy of connection, and contribute to a creative culture that has proven so valuable to us all during this pandemic.”