Hollywood's hot topic: How steamy love scenes in movies and TV will survive the COVID-19 pandemic
Even director Spike Lee says pulling off these scenes is a major question mark.
"Love scenes, intimate love scenes, that's number one for me," Lee tells USA TODAY. "Maybe we just do what they used to do back in the day, where the couple kisses, then you fade to black."
Actually, even the kissing part is a challenge. So are intimate close-ups of any kind while the highly contagious COVID-19 remains a health threat — and with the surging pandemic still threatening to derail tentative plans to broadly resume movie and TV production.
"It's common sense," says Dr. Daniel Uslan, co-chief infection prevention officer at UCLA Health and a medical consultant on the COVID-19 production plan produced by Hollywood studios and entertainment unions in June. That industry blueprint urged "amending scripts" to avoid love and action scenes for safety reasons.
"Any scene that would require close prolonged contact is challenging, and intimate scenes are the most obvious example," Uslan says.
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Whenever production rolls out across the country for an industry that has been shut down since March, TV and movie producers will have to take significant steps to keep these intimate scenes, if they implement them at all.
"We're not saying goodbye to them. The big message is not that entertainment production is now going to be sanitized of all emotion and romantic scenes, and it's going to be boring," says Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief operating officer for SAG-AFTRA, the actors' union. "We're just saying that producers need to be judicious and do these scenes as safely as possible."
Crabtree-Ireland was part of the task force that completed a separate, detailed 36-page "Safe Way Forward" plan on resuming production in June.
"Safe Way Forward" was created with top epidemiologists and a wide range of industry professionals (including significant contributions from "Contagion" director Steven Soderbergh). It calls for stringent set precautions with a COVID-19 safety coordinator, mask-wearing at all times when not on camera and frequent testing. To shoot intimate scenes, the report urges the highest level of caution with minimal crew and preferably rapid testing for actors within 12 hours beforehand.
"The shorter the better," the report says.
Although most of the industry remains on standby, Zendaya revealed this month that she will star in "Malcom & Marie," a relationship drama with John David Washington, secretly shot during California's quarantine. Directed by Sam Levinson, filming was preceded by a two-week quarantine for cast and sparse crew before they headed to an isolated 33-acre property in Carmel Valley, California, where they stayed secluded through filming, adhering to strict health protocols.
Set quarantines will become more common for health safety. Even "The Bachelorette" season with Claire Crawley has moved away from the normal Bachelor Mansion (with dramatic excursions) to taping in a secluded Palm Springs resort. Tested cast and crew will remain in the bubble, ABC reality chief Rob Mills says.
Productions will seek experts like Deven MacNair, an "intimacy coordinator" whose job consulting on professional love scenes in the #MeToo era has expanded to safety in the COVID-19 era.
MacNair will work with Joy T.J. Riley, director and producer of the indie romantic drama "The Empty Walls," overseeing the films' intimate scenes to supplement existing health staff.
"We realized we cannot navigate this situation without Deven's expertise," says Riley, who plans to complete the Atlanta shoot in August (pending the COVID-19 situation in the state).
"Walls" author Tawana A.H. Chisley, also an executive producer on the project based on her book, says, "We were not going to change the story, so we're doing everything we can to make sure everyone stays well."
Daytime dramas have served as a key testing ground for TV productions. Soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" returns with new episodes on CBS July 20, after resuming production in Los Angeles late last month with a hygienic set and regular COVID testing for cast and crew.
Denise Richards, who plays Shauna Fulton, was given an option to shoot her racy scenes opposite on-screen husband Thorsten Kaye, who plays RIdge Forrester, with a mannequin stand-in or her real husband, Aaron Phypers, to limit exposure.
"There was no question whether it was going to be my husband or a mannequin," Richards says. "Aaron said yes; he was more than happy to step in. Obviously, we're married and have a lot of chemistry, which is very helpful."
Other "Bold" actresses made the same choice.
"It’s actually been really sweet to see all the husbands on set," Richards says.
"Days Of Our Lives" producer Ken Corday says he doesn't want to use mannequins ("No, please, we're not kinky") or husbands as stand-ins for romantic scenes when he plans to restart production in September. He's still waiting to see the full extent of the precautions required in the "Days" fictional town of Salem, Illinois, but the passion scenes will be written "softer."
"The shows will be every bit as romantic, perhaps not as – what's the right word? – explicit," says Corday, promising editing and camera tricks and other set magic. "We'll fool them with footwork, mirrors and lights, as they say in show business."
For more romantic scenes, it will be up to the actors and the set COVID-19 medical consultant to determine how close the couple gets, Corday says. But he will fight to preserve the highest level of heat.
"People watch your show not to see sex," he says. "They want to see romance. The guy looks across the room at the girl, she looks at him, The woman at home goes, 'They're so much in love.' That's what we want, as opposed to getting under the sheets, which is kind of the cherry on top."
With the COVID threat, special effects firms are being eyed to help replace human love scenes digitally. Two-time Oscar-winner Paul Franklin, creative director and senior visual effects supervisor for London's DNEG, concedes filling this gap would require next-level industry growth.
"It's a real challenge. I don't think anybody has a magic bullet yet," Franklin says. "Filmmakers will have to make choices carefully about exactly what they want onscreen. They don't have the freedom like before COVID-19."
Franklin says he's been inundated with inquiries from studios and producers who want to get films with amorous scenes going again.
"Anything is possible with modern visual effects, but the real question is, how much do people want to spend?" he says adding that a special-effects love scene can easily go wrong. "While the average audience member wouldn't quite know what was wrong, they'd know something was wrong."
One inspiration source for digital assistance comes from Eddie Murphy's 2000 comedy "The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." A scene in which Buddy Love smooches Granny Klump – both played by Murphy – involved the actor shooting each role separately, holding a stick with a tennis ball.
Using intensive computer graphics, the stick embrace became a real embrace between the characters.
"It's complicated, and that scene was played for laughs," Franklin says. "If you want to have a serious romantic scene, that's going to be even more difficult."
Franklin predicts there will simply be less on-screen passion for the near future, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"We're going to have a lot more films about platonic friendships, or at least people won't be getting hot and heavy," he says. "That tasks filmmakers to be more inventive telling stories without these scenes. If you think back to cinema history, things taken for granted were not allowed, even kissing and embracing.
Still, people managed to make great films. Filmmakers always find a way."
Contributing: Gary Levin