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How to direct a love scene

First, you tell ”Friends With Benefits” stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis to get (almost) naked. And that’s when the real work begins

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I never went to film school. I learned most everything I know by working on failed TV shows I created. A lot cheaper for me, but a whole lot more expensive for the networks that funded those misses. In retrospect, Fox and NBC should have just sent me to NYU and saved themselves millions in production costs. And that way I might have taken a class in how to direct a love scene instead of finding myself in virgin territory (ahem) on the set of my new movie, Friends With Benefits. Whether I did it right is for the ticket buyer to decide — hopefully on the opening weekend of July 22. The other movie opening is Captain America, which, if you think about it, is really just a retread of No Strings Attached. But I did learn a lot and I’ll share it with you in case you have to film a love scene anytime soon. Legitimate or not.

Make sure your film stars genetically perfect specimens like Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis so you don’t have to waste any time lighting. There is not one angle in any kind of backlight, top light, sunlight, or klieg light in which this pair does not look stunningly gorgeous. I could have filmed them with a Flip camera and a headlamp, and they would have still looked amazing. If you’re not lucky enough to have Justin and Mila, use candlelight, put the camera as far away as possible, and shoot through a piece of cheesecloth. This new HD format is very unforgiving.

Give your actors time to get to know each other. Justin and Mila had never met before, but instead of making them do trust falls or a ropes course I decided to shoot the first half of the movie in New York City. I figured spending 16 hours a day working together out in public, surrounded by 8 million people, would give them time to foster ”chemistry.” What I didn’t figure was how hard it was going to be. Tourists in Central Park, Grand Central station, and Times Square don’t exactly ”respect the creative process.” To say it was a zoo would be unfair to the Bronx Zoo. When you see the movie, try to picture thousands of people screaming and taking pictures right outside the frame of every single scene shot in New York. (The upside was we didn’t need to send the studio dailies; they could just go on YouTube and watch the footage from the day before.) Thanks to this, the actors were thrown together in a surreal experience the likes of which only the other could understand. By the time we were ready to shoot the sex scenes, they were sufficiently chemistried.

Closed Set
Make your actors feel comfortable. Hollywood protocol is to limit the number of crew members on hand when shooting naked actors. That means we went from 150 people on set down to about 15 for the love scenes. You’ll see that the scenes look exactly like the rest of the movie, which raises the question, why couldn’t we have shot the entire movie with a skeleton crew? Answer: unions. That was a joke. I love unions. The crew actually has to work harder on a closed set to prepare for every contingency. A bed leg broke once, and a swarm of crew members rushed the set and built a new one in under a minute.

Let pasties be your guide. Even though Friends With Benefits is a comedy and the sex scenes are meant to be funny, they are still sex scenes. Which means our leads had to be almost naked. I say almost, because the only thing keeping them from ”completely” was the tiniest amount of fabric affixed to their R-rated bits. If we could see any of this fabric on camera, we had to adjust to cover it. I was like the opposite of a porn director: ”Stretch your foot over his butt.” ”Raise your left arm half an inch higher.” ”Arch your back up. Too far! Now hold it for a 20-minute take.” Something I thought was going to be sensual quickly became physical and mathematical. Which leads me to the most important tip of all: Make sure your actors are incredibly good sports. I hit the lottery with Justin and Mila. All they wanted was to try to make a good movie. Because there’s nothing sexual about shooting a love scene. It’s technical, embarrassing, and exhausting. Wait a second. Maybe it is like sex after all…