Katarzyna Szustow: The Creative Process Is Never Safe
About the sense of safety and intimacy on a film set. About the requirement to introduce new standards in the Polish film industry. We are talking with Katarzyna Szustow, the intimate scenes co-ordinator.
Could you explain the term: intimate scenes co-ordinator?
Katarzyna Szustow: This is a new film-related profession. We work at the simulated sex scenes on film sets and in theatres. We make sure that the participating actresses and actors feel comfortable and that the original artistic vision of the director is maintained.
Intimacy on the set is a sensitive subject.
K.S.: Sensitive, broad and intangible. Intimacy appears in the zone between the body and the fantasy. It can be confusing. We cannot really talk about intimacy in Poland. We miss appropriate words as many spheres are considered taboo. The problem is additionally amplified by the distribution of power on the film set, i.e. mutual relations among filmmakers. The director is typically intimidating. Their charisma usually constitutes the spiritus movens of each film. This is very appealing. Furthermore, when the team follows the orders of one person it is not easy to say ‘no’. Actors and actresses often experience discomfort after leaving the set because they succumbed, crossed their borderlines. Borders are established for one reason: to protect us from being hurt.
Exactly. This year there has been much talk about the borderline situations, where film and theatre school teachers supposedly inflicted violence upon students. By the same token, such situations might happen on the set.
K.S.: I wouldn’t join the two problems. Teaching very young people is something completely different to working on the set. Let’s focus on specific examples. Most Polish scripts lack precise descriptions of the intimate scenes (‘they are starting to kiss… they are smoking a cigarette afterwards’). At auditions there are no clear guidelines or expectations concerning the protagonists impersonated by the actors. This is where the problems appear. Some directors don’t have time for rehearsals. Production people consider this to be another mundane task. Abuse of power happens. Yet, the definition of power itself has changed very much over the last 20 years. We have witnessed a dramatic generation change. Not everyone can find their ways these days. This is where we, the intimacy co-ordinators take the floor – all dressed in white! (laughter). Joke! Please write that I meant it to be a joke (laughter).
Then what is the safety that you want to assure?
K.S.: Good question! The creative process – especially one searching for new aesthetics and new forms – generates emotions. The emotions trigger actions and this all is happening beyond the comfort zone. The creative process is never safe. The question is how filmmakers are to transgress the comfort zone staying supportive in this search and not to hurt anyone. This is what the discussion is about. You need to bear in mind that intimacy co-ordinator is no labour inspector. As a coach I help individuals and teams to undergo difficult processes. You are feeling safe when you know that you are able and entitled to say ‘no’. For different reasons some people find it difficult to set their borders. It might be connected with the way they were brought up, with their social or economical position. You need to be attentive. Lack of ‘no’ does necessarily mean consent. On the other hand, ‘no’ is a gift for me – a very clear message which is a point of departure for my further work.
Staying in the topic of abuse and violence – are we able to estimate its scale?
K.S.: I am currently conducting research targeting all film-related professions. The fact that it is co-financed by the Polish Film Institute is a good sign (the survey will go live from 5 October 2021 at bezpieczenstwo-film.pl). I want to know the reality before I start working on possible solutions. There is no point in transferring foreign guidelines to the Polish field: our professional culture is simply different. We need to think about solutions and not about hindrances.
What solutions have been introduced in the West?
K.S.: SAG-AFTRA is a good example. This is the biggest actors’ labour union active in the USA. Actors and actresses represented by this organisation have provisions in their contracts that they have to be informed about the character and scale of a given intimate scene and they must consciously consent to it at least 48 hours before entering the set. There are no surprises as they are never good for anyone in this area.
It means that actors are aware of their right to draw the borderline. They can always say ‘no’ aided by their intimacy co-ordinators. It appears to be a new approach.
K.S.: One of the pillars of our work is the conscious consent which is based on five elements: discretion, reversibility, information, enthusiasm and detail. A conscious consent is always voluntary and stated – never enforced or implied. An actor or actress exactly knows what they are agreeing to – which scene and of what character. Above all, everyone knows that the consent may be withdrawn at any time. As you noted, our profession is strongly connected with cultural changes. In the USA and UK intimacy co-ordinators were active already before #MeToo. My mentor, Amanda Blumenthal was the first intimacy co-ordinator in Los Angeles (among other things, she has been responsible for Euphoria HBO series). Ity O’Brien from UK participated in creating Sex Education, Alicia Rodis started her work with the second season of The Deuce in 2016. Yet, the real breakthrough was 2018 and Weinstein’s case.
I’m wondering what qualifications you need to have to be able to perform this job.
K.S.: There is no definite prescription. We combine many versatile skills. You need to learn about intimacy co-ordination, power dynamics, psychological first aid, personality types, etc. You need to be able to assess the risk after reading the script, know and understand the actors. Your life experience is very important as well. And lastly – risking the ‘OK, boomer’ retort (laughter) – you need to have your own life experience before you are able to take care of someone else’s intimate life. You might encounter a mature filmmaker, not necessarily from Poland, whose culture has developed utterly different views on intimacy or emancipation. Simply, he or she was brought up in completely different times. You need to enter their imagination as it is their movie after all. There is no space for enforcing your vision of the world in this profession. Furthermore, you need to be aware of your own borderlines as we are working within the area of very difficult topics.
How does your work at film differ from working at the theatre? I know that you have spent half of your professional life in a theatre environment.
K.S.: I’m a graduate of the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw. Working at the theatre is completely different as you have much time. It is very comfortable. Working speed on a film set can be compared to the one at the Formula 1 pit stop. During theatre rehearsals there is space to talk about private stories and cultural references. We’ve got enough time to start an intimate relationship in order to be able to repeat the show every evening. Several days ago there was a premiere at Schauspielhaus, the most important Swiss theatre, of a play based on short stories by David Foster Wallace. I worked as the intimacy co-ordinator there. Yana Ross, the director, had the bold idea to combine the strong text by Wallace with live sex scenes and cowboy aesthetics to tell a story of loneliness. There were many ignition points there – starting from the fact that actual porn actors were employed (two with a well-established position within the team and another two as guest appearances). We managed to create a tender and important spectacle which has been widely acclaimed among the media. In fact, my job consisted in locating potential tensions and anxieties around this production. I worked not only with the creative team but with the entire theatre. I had meetings with more than 140 people. I managed to nip all potential conflicts in the bud.
Do you believe that with the current production heat there is space for such work on intimacy in the Polish film industry?
K.S.: Certainly. The Polish Film Institute, the Polish Women in Film Association and the Polish Audiovisual Chamber of Commerce (KIPA) are already working on introducing appropriate standards – not only in terms of intimacy. It is a matter of time. The question is how to work safely but also creatively, boldly and passionately without castrating the space for experiments (and potential errors). This is where a new aesthetic language may appear. We have set off on a very interesting journey by discovering that seatbelts are actually extremely useful.
The interview was conducted by: Mateusz Demski
Intimate scenes co-ordinator, coach for people from the creative sector, safe creative processes facilitator, owner of Szustow. Kultura i komunikacja consulting company, TOK FM journalist. Graduated from the Aleksander Zelwerowicz National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw and the SGH Warsaw School of Economics.
This interview comes from the KLAPS Festival Newspaper. The complete issue is available HERE.
Photo by Tomek Kamiński