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What You Need to Know About Shooting a Sex Scene

The director of 'Love and Other Drugs' dishes about climbing into bed with Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal.


Anne Hathaway is generating Oscar buzz for her risky turn in Love and Other Drugs. She plays Maggie, a 20-something with Parkinson's disease. But that's not what makes the role so flashy. It's the flashing. Hathaway goes to a place that few actresses dare to visit anymore: the bedroom.

Whoever said that sex sells must not watch movies. Once upon a time, back in the '70s, we had Last Tango in Paris and Shampoo. This year, Rachel McAdams is fully covered during Morning Glory, as was the entire cast of Valentine's Day. Even the Sex and the City sequel felt chaste, with its setting in Abu Dhabi. By the way, that series originated on TV, where characters are having the best sex ever: True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Hung, Californication, Cougartown. On Weeds, the actor known as Zack Morris recently got frisky in a bar.

The actor joins director Ed Zwick to discuss the making of their new romantic comedy, the chemistry between himself and Anne Hathaway, and the tools of the trade required for cinematic love scenes.

Why are the movies so prudish in comparison? "It's because of the writing," says Edward Zwick, the director of Love and Other Drugs, who also created TV's Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. "Studio movies are now designed to offend the least number of people possible, to open on 3,000 screens. Blockbusters, superhero movies, graphic novels, those are not about real situations. Sexuality is only interesting when it's real."

The sex in Love and Other Drugs actually does feel real: it elevates the film from a standard romantic comedy to a movie for adults. Hathaway falls in love with a pharmaceutical rep played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and their pillow talk is part of their relationship. We asked Zwick to talk about sex, and how to shoot a sex scene.

If you were teaching a class to film students on how to direct a sex scene, what would you tell them?
I would say the first thing to understand is what not to do. There's a kind of sex scene that's in the spy movie, where the spy meets the hot girl and one thing leads to another and they find themselves in an elegant hotel room. The movie stops. The camera travels lovingly over her body, and you know she's going to get killed in the next reel. There is no reason to show that sexuality, because it has no bearing on the plot.

How do you think of sex onscreen?
Sex is a way of communicating in life. Sex is expression. It should be understood in the context of a story, to be part of the narrative.

How do you direct that?
You understand that the scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a purpose. In this movie, sex plays an important role in the narrative arc of the characters—they fall into bed long before they fall into love. That was our guide.

Did you and the actors sit down and talk about sex?
We talked about what turned us on and what turned us off. We watched some movies together. On one end of the spectrum was Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillow Talk, the other end was Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs. I think we looked at something by Audiard, The Beat That Skipped My Heart, Last Tango in Paris, Sex and Lucia, some Almodóvar. The Europeans have traditionally been much more casual about sex than we are. How funny that we wouldn't consider sex part of a love story. In my experience, it's a rather central part of anybody's love.

Did the actors improvise?
Sure, in two weeks, we did try to improvise some things.

With their clothes off?
On. But you know, there is always so much you can do in a room, because when you get out to a sound stage and a set, everything is always different. It's colder. There are hundreds of people around you. There is the camera. The challenge is to have the power of concentration to shut that out. Unless you are the most lurid exhibitionist, I don't think having sex in front of other people is much of a turn-on.

What about the legal aspects?
There were conversations early on about what are you going to show in this scene, with lawyers and agents. They wanted that to be legislated. They were preparing documents—pages and pages—and I remember Anne and Jake and I talking, saying: how do we do this? At a certain point, they said, this is about trust. I pledged there would be nothing in the film they weren't comfortable with.

Are the actors completely naked?
It depends. There is something called a merkin.

A merkin—what's that?
A merkin is a phrase that I believe comes from 19th-century England. Because of the possibility of lice and crabs, prostitutes would shave their public hair, but then wear something to make it look as if they had pubic hair. That is a merkin.

Is it like a pouch?
It's a patch. Or a pouch. It depends on which gender you're describing.

Where do you buy it?
I don't know. I suppose you go to the merkin store. They're very scanty and flesh-colored. After a certain point, they may have become more trouble than they are worth.

Sometimes there's a string, or else you get rid of the string and it has to be applied with tape.

Isn't that painful?
Yes! I think it very well is. One might choose not to have the merkin to not have the tape experience.

Was Anne nervous about being naked?
Anne's anxiety had to do with the performance, much more with Parkinson's than with nudity.

Is it true that you jumped into bed with them?
I had been torturing them by doing these scenes over and over again. I finally said we should all take a picture together. I climbed into bed and took my pants off under the covers.

Were you wearing a merkin?
No. I was merkinless.

Ramin Setoodeh is a senior writer at NEWSWEEK who covers movies and pop culture. To learn more about merkins, check out this article from The Daily Beast.

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