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Sundance: Barry Jenkins remembers directing intimate ‘Moonlight’ scenes

Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins took the stage at the Egyptian Theater in Park City on Sunday afternoon to share the spotlight with author Lisa Taddeo, celebrity intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien and Relationship Therapy star Dr. Orna Guralnik to talk about intimacy before an official Sundance Film Festival panel, Power of the story: about intimacy. But before he could get deep into the subject, Jenkins had to clear his throat with a compliment.

His partner, award-winning filmmaker Lulu Wang, is a big fan of Relationship Therapy, and she’s seen all three seasons (more than once), and she’s “slowly” gotten him to watch the Showtime series. Once he arrived at Sunday’s panel, he realized that the moderator was the same therapist from the series, so he immediately texted Wang. “You have to tell her how much I love the show,” Jenkins said of Wang’s reaction.

With that compliment in the air, Jenkins answered Guralnik’s first question of the day, an important question about what intimacy means to them on a personal level. When it came to Jenkins, he joked that “as the live-in guy on the panel, I feel like I should say intimacy takes out the trash and does the dishes,” to generous laughter from the crowd.

“For me intimacy in my current relationship is I know what I want to say, I know what I think I should say,” he said, adding, “but in here I know what I feel and the most direct way is to watch your damn show multiple times.

Jenkins shared a story from the set of the best picture winner Moonlight, where he directed the first kiss between actors Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome. The pivotal scene on the beach marks the first exploration of Sanders’ character Chiron’s sexuality. “None of these kids have been in a movie or kissed anyone in a movie,” said the director, who had to ask as the pseudo-intimacy coordinator. “They have to kiss for all these people and all these grumpy dudes in the grip department.”

Jenkins remembered that Jerome had some trouble understanding the scenes and talked him through it by explaining that it was Chiron’s first sexual experience, but not for Jerome’s Kevin. “He trusts you, help him do that,” Jenkins recalls of what he told Jerome, and the actor understood from there. “The frame was set and the scene directed itself from there.”

“The problem with making a movie is you can’t know what’s going on in each individual actor’s head,” says Jenkins, who noted that he didn’t have an intimacy coordinator on Moonlight or If Beale Street could talk. “It can be dangerous if one actor’s presence is here and another actor’s presence is here. It’s really great to have these guidelines.”

Speaking of an actor’s presence, at the climax of the event, it was announced that scheduled panelist Dakota Johnson had to drop out, citing a “family emergency,” according to Joana Vicente of the Sundance Institute. The panel also had other problems, most notably a “technical problem” that delayed the start by more than an hour.

Once it got going, the foursome contributed to an enlightening conversation about changing protocols on set, their approach to intimacy, consent, and the mechanics of how things work today in the wake of major changes brought about by the #MeToo movement.

“It’s very important that the actors have the autonomy to stop the action,” says O’Brien, who has worked on projects like Watchmen, Normal People, The Great, I May Destroy You, Industry, It’s a Sin, Sex Education, The Last Duel and the upcoming Magic Mike’s Last Dance. She shared an example of recent work with an unnamed actor who, after having conversations with his partner, said he wouldn’t touch anyone’s breasts or nipples and that he didn’t want other actors touching his chest or nipples. “Any inspiration you think you’re going to get checked out, so they don’t have to worry about that. There is freedom [in that].”

Jenkins caused a lot of laughter as he brought up sex scenes from previous decades. Jenkins said that if you watch movies from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, “you watch these movies and the sex sucks.” It’s so damn bad. It’s real, huh? This is how you thought this should be filmed and framed?”

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