Academic assistant and production student Lena Zechner spoke with mdw Magazine about Film Academy Vienna’s first intimacy coordination workshop

The #MeToo movement and especially last year’s debates in Austria regarding abuses of power on film sets have shifted a new, previously little-known job description into focus: that of “intimacy coordinator” (IC), for which EU-recognised training now exists. It is thus that the 2022/23 winter semester saw Film Academy Vienna hold a multi-level workshop with the Austrian stunt and intimacy coordinator Cornelia Dworak in order to provide students with background information and an impression of the work done by ICs as well as facilitate some initial practical experiences. On film sets, intimacy coordinators assume mediatory roles in which they accompany actors and directors as they develop scenes portraying sexuality and/or violence.

“Intimacy and fight coordination have a lot in common,” says Dworak. “A consensually developed fight choreography that conforms to actors’ capabilities is essential for their safety and also saves time thanks to its repeatability. As coordinator, I serve as a link between various departments and function as both a choreographer and a confidant, helping to optimally translate the directorial vision into visually impactful images.” Dworak says that it is time to approach intimate scenes “with the same professionalism as elsewhere while respecting actors’ physical and mental boundaries.”

To Lena Zechner, an academic assistant at the Film Academy and a third-year production student, structural changes in the film industry must happen—and this workshop, she says, was an important step that made it possible to experience a thoroughly reflected way of working: “You hear lots of stories about how things shouldn’t go—about the kinds of verbal and sexual abuse on set that the younger generation, we students, simply refuse to accept anymore. That’s not how we want to work.” For the IC workshop, a Film Academy screenwriting student wrote a brief erotic scene to be worked on by two actors and a director together with intimacy coordinator Dworak. “Our observation was that the way things ran seemed very technical at first,” recalls Zechner: “It was a choreography that got rehearsed almost like a dance. So it was technical and repeatable but consequently well defined. And when we screened it afterwards, it surprised me how none of that was evident.” The fact that processes are clearly defined and agreed upon in advance does nothing to diminish the artistic quality of the final result. “Precise rehearsal of a sensitive scene doesn’t render it ‘artificial’ in the movie,” says Zechner. “The typical criticism—to the effect that using an IC on the set would cause some sort of spontaneity or ‘authenticity’ of acting to get lost—is easy to disprove in practice.”

Zechner would like to see intimacy coordinators become permanent fixtures on film sets in the future—and while “safe producing” currently depends upon the good will of individual producers, she hopes that commensurate offerings as part of film professionals’ fundamental training will develop an awareness of its value: “If I learn to work together with an IC right from the beginning at the Film Academy, I’ll find it unsettling later on if such a person isn’t present on set.” It’s important to Lena Zechner that the intent here be to fundamentally change the structures of such work—which have been discussed and criticised from many angles over the past several months—and not simply to avoid abuses. “The point is to create a working climate—for which I bear some responsibility, as a producer—where project participants feel good. This applies above all to scenes that are unpleasant or difficult to film, as well as generally in on-set work with children or with people who have limitations.” Zechner hopes that the initial experiences now gathered at the Film Academy will lead to follow-up projects, be integrated more strongly into the training on offer, and thus also get passed on to younger students. For her part, she intends to include the professional mediatory work of intimacy coordinators in her own future film projects and, in doing so, generate further experiences for other film professionals, because: “We’ll only succeed in transitioning to a safer set if all those involved are aware that they can insist upon it whenever they need it.”

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