Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023)

Intimacy Coordinator: EK Intimacy

How Poor Things’ Intimacy Coordinator Made All Those Sex Scenes Possible

Elle McAlpine helped center Yorgos Lanthimos’s coming-of-age movie around female orgasm, modesty garments, and empowered sexual exploration.

When Elle McAlpine first met with director Yorgos Lanthimos, he wasn’t 100% sure he needed an intimacy coordinator on his upcoming film Poor Things. He’d never used one on any of his films, which often include bold sex scenes like in The Favourite, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Dogtooth. “I think he had the mindset that it would hinder the process,” McAlpine tells Vanity Fair.

It likely wasn’t the first time McAlpine had heard that. The role of intimacy coordinator is relatively new to the industry, but has become more common in a post–#MeToo era when there’s more demand for protection on set. Intimacy coordinators like McAlpine, who is the cofounder of the UK-based company EK Intimacy, function like stunt coordinators for sex scenes. They work with the actors on character, choreography, and movement, and ensure that intimate or sexual scenes are filmed with consent and comfort for those involved.

McAlpine got the job by sitting down with Lanthimos to explain her role on set. “At the beginning, this profession felt a little threatening to most filmmakers,” Lanthimos said at the press conference at the Venice Film Festival, “but I think it’s like everything: If you’re with a good person, it’s great and you realize you actually need them. She made everything much easier for everyone.”

Her initial pitch was that she would work with the actors who would be coming in and out of Emma Stone’s orbit in Poor Things. Stone plays Bella Baxter, a young woman who leaves her sheltered life in London to travel around Europe with a new boyfriend, Duncan (Mark Ruffalo). Along with learning about the world, she also embarks on a sexual awakening, first with Duncan and then later as an employee of a brothel in Paris.

At first, Stone, who worked with Lanthimos on The Favourite and has a trusting relationship with the filmmaker, wasn’t sure she would need help from McAlpine, so McAlpine offered to work with the other actors in those scenes, many of whom would only be coming in for a day or so of work as part of a montage of sex scenes. “My job would be in helping them in creating a space where the power dynamic is neutralized because I’m there—that they can talk with me as much as they want before getting to set and that I can hopefully work with them so that when they come to set, they’re not nervous or they feel that they’re able to do their job to the best of their abilities,” she says.

In the end, McAlpine would end up working closely with Stone. After performing in numerous sex scenes for the film, she told Vanity Fair that she felt “completely in a safe space and I had so much agency within it.” McAlpine’s secret recipe for getting to that point with filmmakers and talent that are apprehensive at first? “This role demands that,” she says, before correcting herself. “Well, we don’t demand because that’s not the energy that we bring—but effectively we’re asking people to trust us pretty quickly.”

There’s a lot of sex in Poor Things, but Lanthimos emphasized to McAlpine from the beginning that none of it is frivolous. As a woman whose brain has been replaced with a baby’s, she’s rapidly growing up and aging, and her interest in sex is an essential part of her coming of age. McAlpine began her work by studying the script, written by Tony McNamara, and also reading Alasdair Gray’s novel of the same name that it’s adapted from. “I felt that the sexual expression of her character and even of the men that were coming in, and that kind of grotesqueness of them mixed with this woman who just embraced it all and had no judgment for anything, was something so profound and so exciting,” she says.

Stone and Lanthimos already had a comfortable working relationship, but McAlpine knew it could be taxing to film so many sex scenes day after day. “It can make you feel quite vulnerable,” McAlpine says. “Your body is an incredibly smart vehicle, but it sometimes doesn’t register what’s fantasy and what’s not. So by default, you can sometimes come away from doing sex scenes feeling quite vulnerable.”

McAlpine would offer little exercises and techniques to Stone to “wash the day off” and says she would “bookend my days on that set with cold showers. We hold a lot of emotions and we hold a lot of space for people and you can take on energy that’s not yours.” They also discussed the female orgasm because, as such an empowered character, Bella navigates sexuality in a unique way in the film, with female pleasure at the center of the story. McAlpine found that aspect of Poor Things to be particularly exciting. “I think a lot of content that is made—it’s changing—shies away from female pleasure. You’ve got the kind of woman on her back having an orgasm, arching her back—it’s so unimaginative, it’s so glamorized,” says McAlpine. “This story was about that liberation and about that sexual freedom and about that experimentation.”

When Bella goes to Paris, she seeks out work at a brothel to get even more experience with sex. “The brothel scenes are, they were so beautifully written. Tony [McNamara] writes so well when he’s writing about intimacy—it’s quite funny,” says McAlpine, whose business partner Katharine Hardman worked on McNamara’s Hulu series, The Great. “There was a lot within the script—there’s a lot of juice and great kind of creative flair in reading that.”

McAlpine worked closely with the numerous actors that played the brothel customers for the montage scenes in this part of the film. She says each person approached the work differently, with some wanting detailed conversations about character and backstory. Others wanted to talk through what the sex would actually look like. “I said to them, ‘Yorgos hadn’t specified what kind of position we’re going to be using on the day. So it could be a plethora of positions that we try. I just need to know what you do not want to do, and I can hold that boundary and honor that boundary for you,’” she says.

She would offer exercises to the actors that would help them embody the characters or find context in the book. And she would also help assist them with modesty garments on the day of the shoot. “We got quite close quite quickly,” she says, “and they were all phenomenal, just amazing in their professionalism and in their openness to just take directed notes and go with it.”

Even with these characters visiting the brothel and seen only briefly, there’s no judgment of their choices—a theme McAlpine says runs through both Poor Things and her own work. “They’re who they are. They want what they want, and so does she,” she says. “Often in brothels and sex scenes, it’s always the women being done to, the women not enjoying it, the women doing it for survival. “But this woman, her choice to go and work, her innocent choice to be like, ‘Oh, I love having sex. This is fantastic…’ it was just so refreshing.”

Rebecca Ford (2024),How Poor Things’ Intimacy Coordinator Made All Those Sex Scenes Possible. Vanity Fair