Hint: Think wildlife documentaries
Nobody signs up for a movie like Fifty Shades of Grey without understanding that they’re going to have to do a few things that they wouldn’t normally do in public. But there’s a big difference between knowing that you’re going to have to strip down in front of a camera crew and actually doing it.
“I don’t know if you can ever truly prepare someone for the actual time when it comes around,” says the movie’s director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who has herself been naked in front of cameras on multiple occasions for her fine art photography. She decided to save the more intimate scenes between the movie’s two stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan until closer to the end of filming so they knew each other — and the crew — a little better.
“But when it came to the day, it was the sudden realization of, ‘Oh, this is the day we’ve been discussing,'” says Taylor-Johnson. “I think the most important thing really was the sense of trust. The trust of how [cinematographer] Seamus [McGarvey] and I were going to shoot it. And the trust of Dakota in Jamie that he would take care of her, and the trust of Jamie in Dakota that she would take care of him. And that between us, this would be something not graphic — not porn, but much more sensuous.”
Neither of the stars are shy, per se. Dornan was an underwear model; meanwhile, in two of Johnson’s prior movies, The Social Network and The Five Year Engagement, she has bedroom scenes with Justin Timberlake and Jason Segel, respectively.
“I’m not afraid of nudity. I think women are beautiful,” says Johnson. “But it’s not easy to take off your clothes in front of a ton of people. It doesn’t become easier, but everybody understands it. Nobody’s weird about it. At least, not on set.”
McGarvey says he occasionally shot the sex scenes using the same techniques wildlife photographers use to not spook animals: keep your distance. “It was on the end of a zoom and we’d let them move,” he says. “And with that tighter lens sometimes you can get a more impressionistic, abstract view of bodies.”
To reduce the number of times the actors had to try and simulate an intimate moment, McGarvey also shot with two cameras wherever possible. On particularly close work, he’d shoot it himself, or use a remote control device to give the actors some space. “The camera is being operated off of a device 20 feet away from where the camera is, just so the actors don’t have a hairy old operator breathing down their backs,” he says.
Another important requirement for successfully shooting intimate scenes? Keep your sense of humor. “I took a great picture: the two of them in bed together, everything going on, with this great big bearded guy standing next to them with a reflector,” says Taylor-Johnson. “It’s a very unsexy moment.”