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For filmmaker Sophie Hyde, directing Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack through a series of sex scenes for Searchlight Pictures' "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" was "heavenly."
The film, now streaming on Hulu, stars Thompson as Nancy, a widow determined to have good sex for the first time who enlists the help of a charismatic sex worker (McCormack).
The lessons they learn from each other are not entirely expected, for either the characters or the audience.
"Emma really needed somebody that she had a chemistry with," said Hyde of the decision to cast the "Peaky Blinders" actor. "Not like electric or sexual chemistry, but somebody where together they could sit opposite each other and find comfort and also surprise."
That chemistry was established early on during a week of rehearsals when the two actors worked through a series of body positivity exercises. "The rehearsal process was very simple in the sense that we had five days to block the film, run the lines and just explore the characters," said McCormack. "We did a bunch of different exercises; one of the first ones was just observation. And it really invited a nonjudgmental feeling into that whole process."
"The first day," Hyde said, "I had them lay on the ground and trace each other's bodies to separate themselves from the characters' bodies. And then we had a day where we introduced our own body parts to each other for what they did in our lives — not how they look — by removing pieces of clothing. Like 'I love my feet because I run every day.' So we ended up naked at the end of that workshop, and by then we were all very comfortable with each other and the two of them could go onto the set and own it."
McCormack said: "There was something about just seeing our bodies as opposed to commenting or judging them that really freed us up and allowed us to go into the depths of the intimacy that the characters had found. Because essentially we needed to make sure that, as actors, we weren't getting in our own way of portraying these people. And Sophie just did such a great job of making that rehearsal fun and light and free."
Joining her stars in stripping down "felt terrifying to me at first," Hyde said, "but also a challenge that I wanted to rise to. Because I believe really strongly in this idea that our bodies shouldn't just be ornamental billboards. They are our home, and they're there for all these other reasons. So I felt I had to put that into action.
"As a director, you do whatever it takes [to make] the actors feel more comfortable," she added. "It's very powerful to have that moment of vulnerability with other people. A closeness between us was built over the whole week, but that took it to a new level. So by the time we stepped onto set, we felt like we knew what we wanted to tell and could get there."
The film's most intimate moments were shot with a closed set in the final few days of production. "They had an approach where the crew would leave and they would go on set, remove their clothes, get comfortable and then the crew would come back on, which is kind of the opposite of how it often works," said Hyde. "Because we had done the material in the rehearsal room, I think they got there and were like, 'No dialogue, woo-hoo!'"
"We had grown so close at that point," McCormack said, "that by the time those scenes came around, it really felt like it was a celebration because it marked the end of the film and all the work we had done. To get into those scenes and feel totally at ease and comfort with each other felt right, and it felt right for the characters as well. So that day felt like a half-day at school. It just felt like one of those days where all of the hard work had been done and we could just celebrate."
The positions weren't choreographed; instead, Hyde called back to the work they'd practiced in rehearsals. "I think there were certain silhouettes that Sophie wanted to capture," McCormack said. "And a range of intimacy to be explored onscreen. It was more about the essence or the feeling of the intimacy and less about the positions or anything like that. It was more about capturing the mood."
"Instead of being like, 'Do this,'" Hyde said, "we would set up the shots, and I would give them a kind of exercise that they would lean into, and we would take little moments from that. So there was a whole section where they were laughing and tickling each other which we don't use in the film."
"Sophie has such great attention to detail," said McCormack. "And I think we needed a director like that to draw the audience's eye because a lot of the changes are subtle adjustments that can be missed if you're not paying attention. I think Sophie just had a great eye for what they would look like, how their body language would change, and she just kept us really safe in all of that."
Hyde made the decision to shoot without an intimacy coordinator because "on this particular project, I didn't feel that we needed it," she said. "I felt that I operate under a lot of the same kind of practices as an intimacy coordinator, and because so much of my focus was on these two actors, I felt we were being very frank with each other and checking in with each other a lot. And I think that's the core of that work, really. But I do think it's one of the best developments in the film industry."
"We all felt that there was nothing in the film that we couldn't do with each other," McCormack said. "And I guess that was just down to the level of trust that we had in each other. We would all agree that intimacy coordinators are very much vital and important, and their presence is long overdue. But we just felt like there was nothing in the film that we couldn't do on our own."
"I operate under a process with actors that [seeks] constant enthusiastic consent from them," Hyde said. "Emma will voice what she wants and needs at any time, but particularly with Daryl, I didn't want him to feel that he [had to do] something just to please us in any way. I wanted him to feel like he was making a choice. So I made sure to check in in different ways, much like Leo does in the movie."
"I also said to them both, 'Any day you can wake up and, even if you said yes [before], you can say no [now],’" she added. "'Even in the edit suite, if you don't want something in, you can tell me, and I have heaps of other ways of doing this.' But I was really happy that they were on board with me and they believed that those things were a necessary part of making the movie."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.