How to Film Sex Scenes in the Era of MeToo

From making sure actors are comfortable to dealing with harassment allegations against your lead man, American-Israeli cinematographer Yaron Orbach of HBO's 'The Deuce' talks about seeing Hollywood through new and improved lenses

James Franco portraying twins Vincent and Frankie Martino in "The Deuce," an HBO series about Times Square in the early 1970s.
,AP

The opening scene of season two of “The Deuce,” one shot lasting nearly two minutes, was one of the most complicated challenges faced by Israeli-American cinematographer Yaron Orbach, who filmed the entire last season of the HBO flagship series – created by George Pelecanos and David Simon (who has to his credit the masterpiece “The Wire”) and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco.

This long shot, which centers on the character Candy, played by Gyllenhaal, actually consisted of a seamless combination of two cuts, reveals Orbach, and required the production crew to coordinate with perfection a large number of elements.

For purposes of filming, the production received special permission from City Hall to take a section of northern Manhattan – Amsterdam Avenue between 168th and 174th Streets, to be precise – and to close it to traffic and pedestrians for several days every two weeks over a period of several months, transforming it each time into the New York of 1978. 

“With 200 period cars and 250 extras, a lot of work on lighting and art – this means that each time we go into the neighborhood in a very intensive way,” says Orbach. “We have a department in the production with the sole function of coordinating between us and neighborhood residents.”

For Orbach, a 43-year-old former Israeli who has been living in New York for the past 22 years, “The Deuce” is the high point to date of a career that has been on an upward trajectory for a number of years. Recent credits have included the second season of another hit series, “Orange is the New Black,” and two seasons of “The Path.” 

Yaron Orbach on set. 'I especially loved David Attenborough’s nature programs about animals in Africa.'
Jessica Miglio

But Orbach had to deal with another major challenge at the heart of the work on ”The Deuce”: since this series is about the rise of the porn industry in New York in the 1970s, and since its main female protagonist is a veteran streetwalker (Gyllenhaal) who decides to become a part of the rising and flourishing film industry – “The Deuce” abounds with sex scenes.

This was a two-fold challenge. Not only was it necessary to root out any sexy atmosphere from these scenes and to emphasize the exploitation, in the age of MeToo they also needed to be especially cautious in dealing with this issue. 

This caution became even greater when, this past January, a number of women accused the male star of the series, James Franco, of sexual misconduct. 

Unlike films and series that simply got rid of actors who had been accused of sexual assault and harassment (recent examples include Kevin Spacey, whose scenes in the 2017 film “All the Money in the World” were reshot with another actor, and Jeffrey Tambor, who was dropped from the cast of the show “Transparent”), at HBO they decided to adopt a policy of “business as usual” and let Franco continue to star in the second season of “The Deuce.”

Franco denied the accusations against him, and in the wake of an internal investigation, Simon and HBO stood by him, made it clear that his conduct on the set had been completely professional during the first season, and announced that he would also star in season two. 

Maggie Gyllenhaal in 'The Deauce.' She told an interviewer recently that she and her colleagues had taken seriously the accusations against Franco.
Paul Schiraldi Photography / YES

Gyllenhaal, who is also one of the producers of the series, told an interviewer recently that she and her colleagues had taken seriously the accusations, which involved Franco’s work on other productions and in his personal life, and as a result, examined his work in the first season of “The Deuce.”

“We spoke to every woman on the crew and in the cast,” she told the satellite radio show “Sway in the Morning,” “to find out if they felt respected and what their experience of working with James was and everyone said that they had been totally respected by him.”

The decision to retain Franco in his role in the series – one of whose regular themes is sexual exploitation of, and violence against, women – may seem questionable and disturbing when one views the show.

However, Orbach says that the dark shadow of those accusations hovered over the set and led the production to deal with the issue with the utmost caution. “We are in a very fraught period,” he observes, “and the whole time we thought about whether we were dealing with the sex scenes in the best way possible. Above all, we took care to maintain a calm atmosphere with a lot of respect for the actors, who are often required to be in very uncomfortable situations. 

“We hired someone who was given the title of ‘intimacy coordinator,’ and her job was to liaise between the actors and the production and ensure that all the actors felt comfortable with what they were doing. She was there to check whether in the sex and nude scenes, the actors needed another layer of clothing, for example, or if they needed some kind of protection, and she would tell us what worked well for them and what didn’t.

What do you mean by “protection?” 

“In filming a sex scene, there is often use of a protective layer. That is, we put something on the pelvic area on an actor who is in a sexual position in order to create a separation between his sex organ and hers.” 

Obviously, the protective layer is supposed to be invisible on screen. Additionally, says Orbach, in filming “The Deuce,” they often used penile prostheses for the frequent scenes of oral or masturbatory sex. “In those cases, it was the prostheses that got pulled out of the pants – they look very believable.”

How common is the use of an intimacy coordinator on movie and TV sets in the  United States? Is this a new function?

“As far as I know, this is the first time there has been such a position in the production of a television series. Nina [Kostroff Noble], one of the producers, had the idea and since it worked so well for us and made the actors feel that someone had their back, it is now becoming standard for other series as well. 

'The Duece' co-creator David Simon on the set of 'The Wire' in 2002.
AP

“I as a cinematographer,” continues Orbach, “had to be very sensitive about this issue and remember that even if the setting of the series is the porn industry and I have to serve the story, I have to remember that at the end of the day of filming people have to leave the set and go home without feeling humiliated. So we would make sure to talk before shooting, in order to explain where exactly we would be placing the camera, how the lighting would be and what exactly would be done. This isn’t easy, but as someone who stands behind a camera, relatively protected, I have to have a lot of respect for those who are in front of it.”

There are harsh, violent sex scenes in the series. Were there actors who had a hard time coping with this?

“There were cases in which it was a bit unpleasant. You have to remember that they signed on to working in the series – it’s not that they didn’t know where they were going to be, but still, every so often it happened that someone felt uncomfortable, that it was too much for them, and they would ask if it was possible to moderate it a bit, to make it less extreme.”

Inspired by Attenborough

Yaron Orbach was born in 1975 in Ramat Hasharon to a father who managed a publishing house in the United Kingdom, and a mother who worked as a secretary. When Yaron was 3, the family moved to England for his father’s work. 

“Because of the weather, I watched a lot of television,” he recalls. “I especially loved David Attenborough’s nature programs about animals in Africa. I dreamed of filming such things myself.”

Even after the family returned to Israel, his father continued traveling to Britain, and always returned with video copies of acclaimed films. Thanks to that, says Orbach, by the age of 10 or 11, he had already been exposed to masterpieces by such directors as Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa.

He studied film at Alon High School of Arts and Sciences, in Ramat Hasharon, and already then began to focus on photography. “I wasn’t attracted to writing,” he says. “There was something quiet about being behind the scenes, as a cameraman, which I have always loved. I was drawn to telling the story through the the camera’s movement and the lighting. I like to think about where where it’s best to place the camera – angles, height, on my shoulder or static – and to tell a story as I move it.”

In high school, he says, he also became aware of one of the aspects of filmmaking that he loves most, “the cooperative teamwork, which to this day is one of the things that I find most satisfying in my work, beyond the professional and the visual aspects. This circus that’s created on the set, with so many people from so many different backgrounds working together, under quite pressured circumstances. We share a challenge, and we achieve results together.”

In 1997, Orbach moved to New York, where he began studying at the School of Visual Arts. For four years he shared “a small and dirty apartment” with another Israeli who was studying there, illustrator Tomer Hanuka. After completing his studies, he had several difficult years ahead of him, he says.

David Attenborough
freddie claire / מתוך "שו�

With no connections in the American film industry, and with no experience – he was not exactly snapped up for work. He recalls how he sometimes took non-paying filming gigs just to get a free lunch on the set. “I was like a fakir, like a starving artist, but I was young and I enjoyed it a little. I could live for days on end on canned goods, living off odd jobs and working almost for free just to accumulate experience.”

Orbach talked an NYU film student into letting him shoot his final project and was totally surprised when in 2004 that film won the prize for the best short at the Tribeca F Film estival.

From there he began his very slow climb up the ladder, photographing a number of other film-student projects, and then working on films with increasingly higher budgets – features made, first for $100,000, and then $200,000, and a million and $3 million – and upward. In 2006 he received the American entertainment industry’s seal of approval when he found an agent to represent him. “She could put me in front of projects I couldn’t get to on my own,” he explains. “Without an agent it’s almost impossible to get big projects.”

He was excited to film John Carpenter’s “The Ward” (2010), had the privilege of working with Peter Bogdanovich (“She’s Funny that Way,” from 2014), and enjoyed working with John Carney (“Begin Again,” 2013). Between one American film and the next, he also managed to work on two Israeli documentaries shot abroad – Nati Baratz’s “Unmistaken Child,” which he filmed mostly in Nepal, and Nitzan Giladi’s “In Satmar Custody,” which was filmed in New York State. Three years ago he filmed “Sing Street,” which Carney also directed and was a nominee for the Golden Globe for the best comedy or musical movie.

A shot from 'Orange is the New Black.' Orbach's breakthrough into the field.
MMXV LIONS GATE TELEVISION / Net

In recent years, though, Orbach has been working mainly on television shows. His breakthrough into the field came four years ago, when he was asked to shoot the second season of “Orange is the New Black.” 

“At that time I happened to be on a visit to Israel,” he recalls. “They interviewed me on Skype, and it was even before the [first season of the] series had been released, and no one knew just what a success it would be. The director warned me that it wasn’t going to be very challenging and he was right, because everything takes place within a prison: beige walls, with women wearing orange suits and fluorescent lights on the ceiling. There isn’t  much you can do with all that. However, it was fun with the actors and it was a great first step in the television world.”

Since then he has filed two seasons of “The Path,” the racially charged 2018 mini-series “Seven Seconds” for Netflix (by Veena Sud, who created the U.S. remake of “The Killing), and he is currently filming a new series for Amazon, “Modern Love,” which is based on the weekly New York Times column of the same name. 

In recent years Orbach says he has preferred to work in television, because it lets him spend more time with his family.“I have two small children now and many movies aren’t filmed in the city. So, mainly I film [TV] series that don’t require me to leave the city for several months.”

Television series today are also made with big budgets, so what in fact is the difference between working on a series and working on a movie?

“It’s still very different from working on a film. A series is a number of episodes and therefore it involves complex logistics – it’s a large operation with many parts.

There can be different directors for each episode, and even if you are filming something specific on a given day at the same time you are already busy planning what you are going to do the following week. The pace is entirely different from that of a film. For a movie, there is usually a lot more time to prepare – for five or six weeks before filming begins, for example, you make the rounds to see the various locations. In  in television, you often do this via photos. There is no time to go out to the field.”