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How to Have Sex (Scenes) – Don’t Look Now

By September 7, 2016Screenwriting IQ

After Edison zapped Topsy the elephant with 6,000 volts of electricity on film, folks were wondering what’s next? Sex of course! Morality rules governing the sex act – or the depiction of sex via a metaphor was set in motion. The Production Code prohibited “excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures.” So now that lustful kissing and suggestive gestures – S.E.X – isn’t censored, how the hell do you write it?

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“DON’T LOOK NOW” or in my case, having watched the flick with my parents over Christmas break, a better title may be “CAN I LOOK NOW???”

Well, DON’T (if you happened to be sandwiched on the living room couch between Ma and Pa) because that sex scene goes on for… what feels like forever.

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But what a glorious what-feels-like 69 minutes!

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The scene is so honest, so painful, and so perfectly conveys the disruption that the couple, played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, undergo with with the recent death of their red-coated daughter. No wonder why so many film-goers insisted that there was real sex in the scene.

One Paramount executive at the time, Peter Bart, fueled the fire (and perhaps was trying to get a rise out of Warren Beatty, who was dating Christie at the time) when he said in his book “Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob, (and Sex), that he was on set and could clearly see Sutherland’s penis “moving in and out of” Christie. Warren Beatty actually flew to London to visit the UK distribution arm and demanded of overseer Michael Deeley to cut the sex scene from the film.

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That’s how powerful this scene is.

Of course, Sutherland’s publicist said Bart wasn’t even on set. Other production players (producer, Peter Katz and actress Christie) also stated that the sex acts were simulated.

The fact that we’re even having this conversation (DID they or DIDN’T they) demonstrates the effectiveness of this scene.

And here, I’m cheating. This HOW TO HAVE SEX (SCENES) series is about HOW to write a sex scene. In fact THIS SCENE wasn’t scripted at all. It was improvised and slapped together near the end of production.

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Why was this sexy scene added? Director Nicolas Roeg said that the onscreen married couple were arguing too dang much. He wanted to see a nice moment of them together, enjoying one another.

And although this is an unscripted scene – it of course demonstrates the power and process of storytelling. This scene could have been written, with cross cuts and all, although that would have been a bit cumbersome to read.

INT. HOTEL BEDROOM – AFTERNOON

CLOSE ON – CHRISTIE LICKS SUTHERLAND’S NIPPLE.

CUT TO –

INT. BATHROOM – EVENING

CHRISTIE removes tube of LIPSTICK from purse.

CUT TO –

INT. HOTEL BEDROOM – AFTERNOON

SUTHERLAND wipes SWEAT off brow as he MOUNTS CHRISTIE.

CHRISTIE smiles, bites lip.

CUT TO –

INT. BATHROOM – EVENING

CHRISTIE paints lips RED.

…doesn’t read quite as well as one would imagine.

Why does the Don’t Look Now sex scene work? Why is it a pivotal function in the story, particularly with the fragmented cross-cutting? The rationale for this scene is obvious. The couple just lost their kid. They’re in the city of Venice, trying to work through their grief. Shit happens. Life happens. You have to get dressed and walk out the door. But in between those moments… If you’re lucky, you have someone you can share intimacy with – and hold onto – a partner that can keep you from crumbling apart in those moments you don’t want to be alone. Sex and death go together.

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Charles Bukowski said, “sex is kicking death in the ass while singing.” This scene in a way is an attempt to celebrate life, and perhaps bring their child back to life.

And get this – strangely, we wouldn’t have this profound scene without censors. Yep, this is one instance where censors IMPROVED a film. Yes, you read that right! American censors told Nicolas Roeg that “We cannot see humping. We cannot see the rise and fall between thighs.” Brilliantly, Roeg resolved the Humping Question with inter-cuts of the couple getting dressed, post-humping.

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Imagine! In trying to accommodate the censors, Roeg made perhaps the greatest sex scene in film EVER. Says Roeg upon previewing the final cut: “they scrutinized it and found absolutely nothing they could object to. If someone goes up, you cut and the next time you see them they’re in a different position, you obviously fill in the gaps for yourself. But, technically speaking, there was no ‘humping’ in that scene.”

Roeg cut nine frames from the sequence and earned an “R” rating by the American censors.

This sex scene is the manifestation of the couple’s process working through their grief. It functions as a visual touchstone for the entire film. This is how you have sex (scenes).

Written by: Mich Medvedoff

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