Let's talk about it, erotic cinema and filming sex scenes with Nina Sever

23 Jan 2019

Filmmaker and photographer, Nina Sever, talks to us about sexuality in the movies, her love of erotic cinema, the technicalities of shooting sex scenes and making her debut short Coffee With Pleasure commissioned by Erika Lust's XConfessions. Best to assume this one is NSFW! 

There's no foreplay when Nina Sever and I connect via Skype to discuss sex in filmmaking - we dive right in. In an article that could otherwise be littered with innuendo, there will be no more hereafter, as a reflection of the sincerity and seriousness with which Nina speaks about her work in erotic cinema.  

 

As the call begins, talk turns immediately to her most recent project, Coffee With Pleasure, and how she found the attention of Erika Lust through her photography on Instagram, before being commissioned to write and direct a short film for website XConfessions.

 

"On Instagram, I was talking about indie porn or erotic art. Erotica was always present in my art. I was talking about how sex can be beautiful and cinematic but how difficult it is to make. I mentioned Erika Lust in my Instagram stories as I was answering some fan questions, then she contacted me and said, "I saw your work on your website and your Instagram. I think you could potentially do a good job as a director." I said, "I've never made a proper film or worked proper video shoot." 

I wrote my first script, and then I started building my team and got through the casting process. It was six months of learning everything on the go. It was really stressful, but also really exciting. I realised by the end of this journey that you can have the best vision in the world, but if you don't have a good team working for you it doesn't matter. The fact that I never directed a movie before wasn't really an obstacle. It was more difficult because I had to learn everything quickly and maybe people were sometimes frustrated with me, because I was like, "Oh, how does this work?", but they were really patient. 

 

As a screenwriter, I've yet to write a love/sex scene. When Nina mentions that she wrote the script for the film, I'm immediately curious about how she went about that. How did she go about writing her first script which would have required, presumably, some rather specific instruction - and how specific did it need to be?

 

"I've always read the scripts of the movies I've liked, even if I never thought of myself as a director or anyone who would make a movie, so that helped me a little. It was really difficult to write the sex scene in itself and to reduce the dialogue because sex performers are not as good actors at delivering lines. It’s really different from an actual sex scene, which really depends on how much freedom you want to give to your performers.

In movies that are not porn, Love, for example, there’s real sex happening, but I think in that case you can be a little bit more controlling and ask for exactly what you want. Even Nymphomaniac, by Lars von Trier, he is really a control freak in what he does, in a positive sense. You cannot do that in porn because you don't have continuity, you can't run a sex scene again because you haven't captured the natural feelings to it. In that sense, I think that making porn is a little bit easier than making a movie that has (even real) sex scenes."

 

What certainly is more difficult when making porn is the preparation before filming. Namely, the ethical manner in which the production should be approached by and for the performers.  

 

"It was really nerve-wracking. You need to be really careful with the performers' boundaries. When you ask them specific things, you wonder if you are pushing their boundaries or just asking them to do their job? You want to deliver that natural feeling to the porn movie or the sex scene but it’s really delicate and really difficult. You have to discuss that in advance. You send the script over, you ask them to read it and to see if they're comfortable with every part that you want to get through. Then, if they're not, you need to re-think what you film or you need to be open to their suggestions for it. 

You talk about the date of filming, and then for women you need to talk about things like their period, even regardless of the sex scene, because your body is going through a lot in that moment. You need to discuss things like this. When it comes to any sort of nudity on set, on film or a photographic set, you need to talk about this kind of thing, so everyone knows, everyone is relaxed and happy and prepared, no one feels ashamed and everyone is comfortable. Then you need to just be respectful, and remember that they're doing something that is really difficult to do on camera. They're human beings and you should never push them or manipulate them into doing something they don't want to do on set. That happens a lot in the industry. In every industry, not just porn."

 

With all of this preparation now complete, it was time to make the film. Script written and actors prepared, Nina was clear on the story, and the feelings, she wanted to convey. In her eyes, the narrative exploration of the film was there to function far more than as just a coat-stand on which to hang a sex scene.

 

"I really wanted to explore cheating and bisexuality. Bisexuals are not seen really, not much is told about them, how they feel, what does it mean to like both genders? [In my film] There's an encounter between two really young women. One of them is more experienced in the script, while it's all new to the other one, but doesn't mean that she doesn't know what she feels, because with bisexuals or gay people it's like, "Well, how do you know if you've never tried? It's just experimenting," blah blah blah. All these cliches and taboos, I wanted to break them down and be like, "If you feel it, you know it." As for straight people, it's the same. You look at a woman, you look at a man, you know you want them and it's the same for gay and bisexual and queer people in general."

Everything for XConfessions is a fantasy and a safe place to explore a sexual fantasy. My fantasy is the cheating fantasy. When you think of someone else, even when you're in a happy relationship, is that cheating? What is it? I wanted to explore that and for everyone to feel comfortable talking about it, and how, if you have certain thoughts, it doesn't mean that you're a bad person. It doesn't mean that you don't like your partner anymore. It just means that you're sexually active, and your hormones react to things. Your mind is always ready, naturally and biologically. You shouldn't be afraid of that. XConfessions in general is all about not being afraid of your fantasies, but just freely thinking of what comes to your mind."

 

And how did the fantasy match up to the reality of filming?

"For my sex scene, I really was a control freak. I had in mind exactly what I wanted it to look like between these two women. Then that just didn't happen on the set. First of all, sex performers are not actors. As the scene is going you can't just be like, "Can you put that finger in a little bit more?" You know what I mean? [laughs]. You can't because you're going to interrupt the flow and everyone is going to feel embarrassed. You want to do that in one take, so that there is an emotional and sexual build up, so you cannot be as controlling as you can be in a simulated sex scene. That was a little bit frustrating for me. But, then you find yourself in between two cameras, and you realise what's happening. You're like 'This is insane, these two people decided to share such an intimate moment for my vision." It's a strong experience."

 

The final film ended up running about 20 minutes long, however, Nina has also cut a softer version of the film that she hopes might be able to find a home on the festival circuit. 

"The soft version without the explicit sexual content is about 10 minutes. We always need to discuss that with Erika and what we are all happy with doing with it. They sometimes submit to festivals. When those festivals are not strictly porn, but they allow sexual content, we need to be prepared. That's why the soft version exists. The distribution starts with XConfessions and then from there it will probably go somewhere else. It would be great to send them to LGBTQ festivals and things like that. That's the plan."

 

With the prospect of her film playing at festivals that are not strictly catered for porn, it begs the questions of where is the line between pornography and erotic cinema? It's a subject explored in both Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, and to a certain degree in HBO series The Deuce - video versus film. Whichever the format, Nina is clear on where the real distinction is for her.  

"For me, it's all about the intention. If you go on websites like YouPorn and Pornhub, you will see really functional videos, just for people to look at, masturbate and then never think about again. I think art comes in when there is more than just one emotion involved. Not just hormones or the feeling you have in the moment. it's about the intention, what you want to communicate with it. It doesn't matter if it's five minutes, if it's 20 minutes, if it's two hours, it's about what you want to communicate with them. What's the concept behind it? If you fail delivering that concept, that's another thing.

 

My movie hasn't been released yet and I'm already like, "Am I going to communicate any of what I put into that, or is it just gonna be a good looking, empty movie?" You need to ask yourself those questions. When you look at even really well done mainstream movies, some of them are really well done and they have a big production behind it, but they don't communicate anything. For me, that's not really art. Not because they failed in communicating that, but because you can see they didn't think of what they were trying to say other than, "This is sexual, look at it."

 

Discussion moves on to how sex is typically depicted/used in mainstream cinema. Not referencing stories about Lars von Trier's conduct outside of his work, Nina speaks only on his artistic expression of sex and sexuality, as an example of how filmmakers can capture more than just the sex in sex scenes.

 

"The one I mentioned before is Nymphomaniac. That was really terrifying, so explicit. It's not mainstream, but it's Lars von Trier. I don't think he's known for being soft in general [laughs]. Of course, if he makes a movie about sex it's going to be full-on and scary and provocative and terrifying at times. Sometimes you're like, "Why did I need to see that?", but I never had a doubt that he was talking about something that is so much more than what we think it is. When we think of nymphomania for women, we think it's just someone constantly horny all the time, but it's not about that. It's your entire life and it shades your life and it's not fun, even for them, especially for the person who suffers from that. I think he explores that in a really raw way, but with such grace and openness. He never tries to hide anything and I think that's so beautiful and so well done. 

Another one that's a bit softer, so it's not explicit in the sense that you didn't see much, is Carol. Again, there's the exploration of a lesbian story. It's so beautiful how they show the shame that comes when you are used or when your sexuality is used, and that's done with such grace in that movie. I don't want to spoil it for you if you haven't seen it, but basically at one point there is something sexual happening and someone else uses that to get somewhere. You have Cate Blanchett's face when she realises she's been used and... you feel it. You feel it so much and not because I'm bisexual or not because you have to be gay, but because you know how it feels when your intimacy is exposed and your boundaries are pushed or violated without consent. It doesn't have to be porn or explicit to show how much sexuality shapes our life and our emotions and how delicate it can be."

 

Not many indie filmmakers, particularly short filmmakers, opt to shoot complex sex scenes. For those thinking about writing/directing such sequences, or even those considering performing in them, Nina offers her advice on how both roles should be approached - both before and during production.

 

Filmmakers first...

"My advice is to remember that you’re talking to human beings that are not being asked to do something that's simple. It's not just asking an actor to walk down the corridor and then look in the camera. Remember to always explain everything you want, don’t hide anything. You need to ask peoples' boundaries and be open to suggestions. Never put something in the script you are not comfortable with and you don't know inside out, because you're not going to be able to tell your actors what you want to see. When you're done writing the scene, try to imagine yourself in front of the camera and how you would feel. Would you do this, would you turn that way, and if yes, how do you think it would feel? You also need to remember these people are more exposed than an actor who's completely dressed and not doing something sexual, so that's my advice to people who are approaching sex scenes.

 

Then when on set, always remember to talk to your performers or actors. Ask if they're fine, how they feel, show them that you care. Then remember to have wipes and towels for the sex scenes - even the simulated ones. Depending on how intense they could be, people sweat. We are full of fluids and things happening apart from sex, so it's always better to have a shower on set or just to make sure that the performers can clean themselves. Think of all these little details as well, but always check on them emotionally and always ask yourself, "Am I ready for this?" Don't forget to take your own moment to be like, "Wow, I'm about to film something really intense and I’m in control of everything and this is my responsibility. I can’t fuck it up."

 

And advice for performers...

 

"I’m actually on Erika Lust's list as a performer. I've never done a sex movie before. I maybe did something simulated or posed for photos, but never a full movie. When I had my interview with their talent manager, she asked me so many questions - and that's what you should expect from anyone who wants you in their movie. From talent manager to production manager, director, everyone should ask you a question, because that means they care.

 

Also, you need to be really open about what you're comfortable with and how you think you might feel. If you feel scared, you need to tell them, "Listen, I'm really excited for this, but I am a bit scared. Can you describe for me how it will work on set?" Even if it feels a bit awkward. however weird you think it might sound, it's really not. I was doing my first movie as a director and I told everyone more than once this is my first movie. If you feel like something's off, you come to me and you tell me. Not my producer, not my crew, come to me and we can discuss it, because I'm completely open, I'm learning."

 

Nina's journey as a filmmaker is a very different one to most. Her work into photography gave her a running start to make erotic film, but what is it about erotica that attracted her to create it in the first place?

"I think that with every artist at some point, you just find yourself doing that and you don't remember how it happened. I was studying photography at school and I never had models for my ideas. My ideas always included half naked women [laughs]. I didn't ask my friends to pose for me, I was too embarrassed, but I knew I wanted to do that. I took self portraits and I presented them at school. They were implicit, but it was obvious I was naked, so it was really awkward. I didn't know you could hire a model or anything like that. Then I decided to publish some of those and photographers started asking me if I wanted to pose for them. I discovered that could be a job, so I did more of that. I did some fashion editorials as well, but it was not really my thing. I don't like going through clothes and choosing what I should wear for a photoshoot. I like when I just get my bag and then I get undressed on set and it's just me, to show who I really am. If I want I can play a character.

Then I just became more aware of what I was doing and why I was doing it. I found some male photographers could get really controlling and manipulating. They felt the power they could have over a naked woman, half their size and sometimes were not respectful. I posed less and less, and started creating more. I just wanted to express myself and it felt more natural to be behind the camera than in front of it. I'm glad that I had the experience and know the boundaries that can be pushed. That helps me to be really be caring on set. I really don't know why I do this. It feels like it's the only thing I can do and I think, in general, nudity is beautiful and sex can be beautiful. It explores the emotions so much, because sex is on our mind constantly for one reason or another."

 

It would be easy to think that the next step for Nina would be more work in pornography, however, as we already know, her journey as a filmmaker thus far has been anything but orthodox. There is no reason to think her next projects will walk a predictable line.  

"I'm really clear in my mind that I don't want to do porn anymore. As beautiful as it can be, I'm really a control freak on set and porn doesn't allow that. I still want to explore more sex in film, but to reduce the explicit content and to add more emotional content to it. That's something I'm really interested in, nudity, but without showing intimate parts or anything. I don't have to show too much to deliver that sexual feeling."

You can follow Nina on Instagram: @NinaSever

Check out more of her work and photography at her website.

 

Coffee With Pleasure BTS photos by Kris Barvsson.

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