Sex sells... so does lust, love, sensuality, romance, passion, and all things erotic.
Some day, spec script writers will figure that out, too.
I've got this crazy idea, see. Really wild. What I'm thinking is, people are genuinely interested in sex. The whole bizarre, painful and delightful mating dance. From flirt to exhausted afterglow. Yes, "The expense is damnable, the position laughable, and the pleasure fleeting." But whether it's curiosity or wish-fulfillment or just plain prurient interest, sex gets people's attention.
Amazingly, Hollywood doesn't seem to get this. For all its sordid reputation, Hollywood films are downright puritanical. Before you disagree, ask yourself: when was the last time you saw a truly sexy movie? A really 'glad you're going home with a date' seat-squirmer? Last year? Two years ago?
I bet it was a foreign film.
And if Hollywood is chaste, spec scripts are downright frigid.
Which makes no sense, really. Because script page steamy encounters have been known to generate another kind of heat -- studio interest. Lawrence Kasdan's BODY HEAT screenplay reportedly was passed around just due to the sex scenes. Yes, it's one of the best scripts ever written -- but people who didn't even have the ability to buy the script were told, "You've got to read this, it is hot." (Several of the encounters in script didn't make it into the final film. Including one scene where Mattie role-plays as a stewardess for Ned. I have a copy of the original script, if anyone's interested, the good parts highlighted.)
So, hey, screenwriters of the world, listen up. If people have to read bad slushpile scripts, at least let them be sexy bad slushpile scripts. Picture your average executive, at home in bed, sipping tea next to the to-read script pile. Write a story that makes 'em have to hold up the script with one hand... or toss the thing aside, roll over and attack their lover. When they wake up in the morning, they'll at least be in a good mood to read your Act III.
All right. I'm going to prove all of this, right here and right now. In this very column, I am going to demonstrate -- in dramatic fashion -- the power of sex to create and sustain reader interest.
I promise to relate to you, in detail, an actual, true, personal sexual experience from my past.
SAY THAT AGAIN? It's a wild idea, for sure. Would I really do such a thing? And does anyone care to read such a thing? Would anyone believe me, anyway?
After all, Wordplay is a screenwriting site. It's put together by timid, scholarly types who wear thick glasses, live in libraries, sip sherry and occasionally have spirited debates over story structure. We don't actually have lives. Heck, if we knew anything about sex, we wouldn't be writing scripts.
But this column is also about taking chances, and doing stuff you never see anywhere else. So... yeah. The topic of this column is sex. Along the way I'm gonna bring together a true personal experience, a grapefruit, a pillow, one very uncooperative diaphragm, Chuck Jones, a gypsy trailer, a cat, and something called 'the love rack.'
But... something tells me you're going to keep reading.
Right off, you should realize that when you talk about sex you've stepped right out into the middle of a minefield. Just doing this column, I know that every sentence, every word choice, every slight implication is going to be scrutinized and criticized. People take this stuff quite seriously.
So, should James Bond be allowed the usual variety of liaisons? Should there be a contraceptive in every scene? Must writers show the evils of promiscuity in this era of AIDS? Do men really fear the sexually aggressive woman? How much skin is erotic, and where do you cross the line into simply clinical?
Dealing with sex, a writer immediately confronts the question: do you embrace the social constructs of our times, or do you fight them?
An example. Suppose you want to do a story that details a polygamous marriage, along the lines of RAISE THE RED LANTERN. The sociobiologists say that cross-culturally, there is evidence to suggest that men are non-monogamous by nature, and that different forms of polygamy have been an effective evolutionary strategy for high-status men.
But clearly that's not the acknowledged position of our present culture. And it's sure a real romance-killer. So as a writer, do you reinforce cultural traditions, or attempt to break them? Especially when breaking them may result in hisses from the audience?
And what if those traditions deal with subjects such as interracial sex, gay sex, or simply that, maybe, just maybe, female-initiated sex shouldn't be a death sentence?
Some taboos are so strong that any inclusion in your story threatens to overwhelm everything else you're trying to do. Happily, cross-race relationships are no longer worthy of much note. But bisexuality, adultery, promiscuity, casual nudity, voyeurism, or the average menage a trois would still generate so much attention as to overwhelm your main story.
Perhaps, as filmmakers, we have a social obligation to say that anything that goes on in the bedroom between consenting adults is okay. And perhaps it is a function of movies to explore various aspects of sexuality -- even if advising, "Folks, don't try this at home." Or does this process in fact contribute to the moral decay of our culture? Artistically, you may wish to expouse a more rigid moral position, in the form of a cautionary tale or morality play. Or maybe that's what contributes to the moral decay of our culture!
Maybe you just want to tell a hot story.
A minor bit of advice, for now -- if sexuality is a major part of your screenplay, then, whatever it might be, you must know the position you are taking, and know your theme. Recognize that nothing polarizes an audience quite like sex. You don't have to be politically correct, of course, but you should be in control of your audience response. And in this arena, it can get out of control in a hurry.
Sex is a touchy subject.
HOW TO WRITE A SEX SCENE
Okay, enough on sexual politics. Let's get down to the nitty-gritty.
Here's how you write a sex scene:
Two people kiss. Kiss some more. Lock each other in a major clench. They fall back out of frame, and you cut to your choice of:
a. the sunrise b. a train plunging into a tunnel c. waves crashing on the beach d. fireworks e. a steam whistle blowing
Okay, so maybe that's not how you do it. Those are cliches, brought about more or less in response to the old Production Code, or Hays Office code in the early days of cinema.
In the 1920s, Marlene Dietrich hit Hollywood. In the 1930s the MPPDA instituted a self-regulatory code of ethics under Will H. Hays, and directed by Joseph Breen. The code stated, among other things, that: "Scenes of passion should not be introduced when not essential to the plot" and, "Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embracing, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown."
And so we get our lusty steam whistle. Happily, these restrictions had the secondary effect of elevating sexual symbolism and made for some cracking good dialog. Filmmakers had to be very creative in navigating the code, which resulted some great film moments. My writing partner, Ted Elliott, often cites an example in SCARAMOUCHE. When Stewart Granger and Eleanor Parker start fighting in the gypsy wagon, we cut outside -- and see several seconds of the wagon shaking like mad. And you wonder, what exactly is going in inside there?
If the gypsy trailer's rockin', don't bother knockin'.
Ah, but times have changed a bit, and there's not so much a need anymore for that trusty cliche cutaway.
This is brought home in a great scene in THE PLAYER that's dead-on accurate. The development assistant is sitting in a spa with Tim Robbins, reading a sex scene from a spec script out loud. The scene is written in breathless purple prose, set in a haystack, complete with the reactions of various barn animals. And then the assistant drops the script, we see that she's naked. She swims over to make love to Tim Robbins, a moment that's much more erotic than what she was reading, because it's much more real.
Which leads us back to -- how do you write a sex scene? It's a daunting question, but I'll give it a shot. I'm going to offer four ideas: truth, the love rack, the big tease, and the unique detail.
Reality doesn't have much of a place in the Hollywood bedroom. Like Richard Dreyfus says in THE COMPETITION, "Face it, nobody looks that good in direct sunlight." Men will continue to undertake sex scenes without the benefit of a penis. Women will continue to be beautiful, backlit, make love on top, and sleep in those beds with the L-shaped sheets so post-coital bliss conversations don't reveal too much skin.
But while reality is often squelched, truth is always welcome.
Think of the great morning-after shot in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. Meg Ryan is snuggling up to Billy Crystal. She's dreamy and content... and the camera widens to reveal that he's petrified.
The truth of the scene (that sometimes men think, 'Oh, shit, what have it gotten into here?') was so compelling it superseded the reality of the scene ('Hot damn! I just had sex with Meg Ryan!')
So there should be some truth in even the most romanticized of sex scenes. This is why (I think) films such as SLIVER, DREAMGIRLS and STRIPTEASE aren't particularly sexy for a mass audience. The skin is there, but there's a falseness at the center of the stories that takes away from the truly erotic. A girl-next-door shedding her clothes to go skinny dipping (check out SUMMER LOVERS) will always be more sensuous than a plastic-enhanced stripper strutting under the bright lights.
As for men... perhaps the penis will forever be too much reality for moviegoers (or too little, in some cases). Tom Cruise offered a glimpse in ALL THE RIGHT MOVES, as did Tim Robbins in THE PLAYER. And in WILD AT HEART, Laura Dern does tell Nicholas Cage his cock is "sweet." So at least we know it's there, and that gives the scene a ring of truth.
People want to see the real thing. Truth is why studios pray for the lead actors to have chemistry. Truth is why amateur videos swept to popularity in the adult film industry. The audience's desire for real moments doesn't end at the bedroom door.
#2. The 'Love Rack'
James M. Cain coined the term 'love rack' in his essay on how to write a sexy thriller (published in "3 By Cain" back in the 1940s -- special thanks to reader Dixon Steele for this reference.)
Cain maintained the love rack was the most important part of any sex scene. It's the element that ratchets up the heat. The love rack is the reason why the couple must make love, and the reason why they must not make love... and it's the same reason.
Say a mobster is suspicious of his sexy wife. He hires a Bodyguard to make sure she stays faithful. But because the Bodyguard is with the woman 24 hours a day, he falls for her. Tension. Suspense. Yearning. Building desire. The reason they must make love is also the reason they must not make love. The love rack pulls them in all different ways.
A great example is in the film TITANIC. Kate Winslet lays out nude to be sketched by Leonardo DiCaprio. She's the rich girl with everything, and he's the poor boy who can offer little, just his talent. She's unhappily engaged to be married, which is exactly why she wants to be sketched. And so the reason they must make love (and they are making love in that scene) is the reason they can't make love.
Without the love rack, an erotic thriller is just an actor with a sock on his thing, wrestling in slo-motion with an actress wearing a sticky patch in a strategic place. With it, you've got excitement, anticipation, and drama.
#3. The Big Tease
Truth be told, Ted and I have not written that many sex scenes. It's one minor drawback to being basically heterosexual, and having a guy writing partner -- what good does it do to sit in a room and get all steamed up with a bunch of erotic details? Perhaps this explains why there are so many explosions in films these days.
But for one script, Ted and I did invent a fun sequence I wish had made it to film: 'strip-hide-and-go-seek.' The idea was, one partner would hide and the other would count and then go search, just like regular hide-and-seek. But when you found the person hiding, they had to remove an item of clothing. The longer you play, the greater the reward. Filmically, we condensed the sequence by cutting to a series of hiding places, each with a single item of clothing left behind. Which leads to the pleasant image of someone crouched in a closet somewhere, bare-naked, not entirely unhappy about at the prospect of being 'found.'
We were hoping strip-hide-and-go-seek would sweep the country. Become a national pastime. Hey, it was our small attempt to contribute a little something to American culture.
The sequence plays on the idea that anticipation holds powerful sway over arousal. And there's nothing wrong with recognizing that there's a whole gender out there, over half the audience, that revs up on a slightly gentler curve than we guys do.
There's more of an opportunity for creativity and character revelation in the buildup stage. To quote my brilliant writing partner: "Be as explicit as the story demands. But, let's face it -- in the most explicit part of the sex act (let's say that last 20 minutes or so), there's really not a lot of character development going on. My personal philosophy: Just like in real life, foreplay is where character is revealed."
#4. The Unique Detail
Okay, here I'm stealing from the animator Chuck Jones. Might as well steal from the best, and give full credit. Jones's book "Chuck Amok" is highly recommended to all screenwriters, whether you work in animation or live action.
Jones makes a point about finding the unique detail that creates a memorable character. One of his examples is from personal experience: he owned a cat that loved to eat grapefruits. The cat would play with them, attack them, and rip them apart. Ever since reading that book, I haven't been able to forget the cat who loved grapefruits.
For a sex scene to be memorable, I think it also works to find the unique, particular detail. With the variety of sexual experiences there are to choose from, it's unconscionable that sex scenes in films are so uniform and boring.
Consider the use of unique detail in the following scenes:
- "Make oral love to me," from PULP FICTION. (Yes, oral sex is a common sexual technique -- but amazing how rare and unique it was to see a major male star do it in a movie.)
- In BULL DURHAM, the slosh of the water putting out the candles alongside the tub.
- The fake-orgasm scene in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. (Does it say something about the eighties that the most famous orgasm in the movies was a fake one?)
- The hand-job -- and the look of ecstasy on Ellen Barkin's face -- in THE BIG EASY. Yes, people use their hands when they make love.
- The food that induces orgasms in LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, including the naked running girl getting swept up by the horseman.
- In TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, when Debra Winger asks her husband, "You made me wet. How can you do that, with just your voice?"
- Robin Williams drawing the happy face on his wife's stomach when he finds out she's pregnant in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. (Yes, sex actually exists for a purpose: sometimes it makes babies.)
And since erotica is not just about intercourse, more possibilities open up. Consider the bull-riding scene in URBAN COWBOY, or the infamous pottery scene in GHOST. In BACK TO THE FUTURE, when Marty's girlfriend is writing down her phone number, you can see him affected by the smell of her hair. It's a delightful little touch, just right for the movie.
One of my favorite small details is in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. The young son is wise in the ways of mom and dad, and knows that when they start rolling around on the bed together, it could take a while. So he goes outside to wait, sits on the stairs, and clicks his heels twice. That little gesture is the perfect detail that makes the scene real, and memorable.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
All right, so here it is, the long-promised sex scene. Congratulations, you made it through a very long column -- and shame on you if you've skipped ahead!
For the record, I missed out on the streaking craze in the mid-to-late seventies. Now stand back and watch while I do the equivalent here, and go column-streaking. As David Niven said at the Academy Awards... no, no, let's skip that quote.
As you read this, keep an eye out for the four ideas previously mentioned -- truth, the big tease, the love rack, and the unique detail. Truth is easy enough, since this actually happened... although a few unimportant details have been changed, to protect the innocent...
My girlfriend was 18, dark-haired, quiet but not shy. We were at her house, in her bedroom, and it was late -- her parents and two brothers had long since gone to bed. Or at least we thought, as we hadn't heard any sounds for the last hour or so of passionate kissing. We'd reached that delightful stage of making out where we were down to just underwear. Our blue jeans lie entwined together as if involved in a tryst of their own. (Is there a better sight in the world than a pair of girl's Levi's sprawled on the floor, with the girl sprawled next to them? I don't think so.)
Another bout of passionate kissing, and soon her underwear was off. I glanced at her bedroom door.
"Um, don't you think we should close that?"
She shook her head. "I'm not allowed to have a boy in my room with the door closed," she explained. The utter logic of this I found completely persuasive at the time. If she closed the door, her parents might come and investigate. If she left it open, we would be left alone. (It was only on later reflection it hit me how thoroughly the intent of the rule was being ignored.) But like I said, it made sense at the time.
More kissing. She stood up from the floor. A drawer was opened. A diaphragm and a tube of cream taken out.
Now, the process at this point is relatively simple. What you do is apply the cream to the diaphragm, and insert diaphragm. And then resume where you left off.
But this diaphragm was determined to be uncooperative. For one thing, it looked far too large (to my inexperienced eyes) for its intended destination. But happily, my girlfriend seemed equally and utterly determined to maneuver it into position. I watched with interest as this titanic struggle took place. It was man vs. nature, the height of human willpower and inventiveness against the evil forces of chaos. Her brow was furrowed in concentration. She squatted down, stuck one leg out, arched her back a little. Then she switched legs, doing this little balancing thing on her toes. Tried a new line of attack, coming in from behind.
It was one of the sexiest things I'd ever seen.
Finally her efforts paid off, and the diaphragm was somehow not there anymore. She got up, climbed up onto her bed and pulled a pillow out from under the covers. I thought she wanted the pillow because the floor was hard, and that she was going to lie back with her head on it. I didn't think about it, I was busy -- just the sight of a naked girl crossing the room was more than enough to overload my brain circuits.
So, she didn't lie back on the pillow. She just looked at me shyly, and set it aside. So maybe the pillow was for later? Who knew. We went back to kissing, and then quite naturally started making love.
The way the house was laid out, I was very aware of the fact that her parents were asleep just on the other side of one wall, and her brothers asleep just on the other side of another wall. And as an added consideration, I happened to know that her brothers were, in fact, skilled in martial arts.
This meant, of course, that we needed to be very quiet. Trying to do what we were doing and trying to do it quietly was part of what made it so intense. But rather quickly our efforts to be quiet become more and more ineffective. (You think you're being quiet, of course, until afterwards you realize the ringing in your ears had to come from somewhere.)
My girlfriend's breathing grew faster and deeper. Her mouth and eyes shut tight. I knew there was no way she could stay quiet. Suddenly she wrenched herself sideways, grabbed the pillow, pressed her face into it and screamed -- loud screams of pleasure, more or less muffled by the pillow.
Now, it was sexy enough that she was so daring as to have sex in her room, with her parents just beyond one wall and her brothers just beyond another. It was amazing enough that she chose to leave her door open, according to her parent's rules. It was nice that she simply couldn't keep quiet, and so had to press her pillow into her face to muffle her screams.
But what really struck me that night was that she'd anticipated the need for that pillow ahead of time, and so had it in place, ready for when the need came.
That's what amazed me the most.
So there you go. The open bedroom door. The uncooperative diaphragm. Keeping quiet so as to not wake the family. And pleasure screams muffled by the within-arm's-reach pillow. Those are the types of particular details that, perhaps, can make a sex scene memorable.