A candle sputters. A curtain sways. A woman arches her back, her limbs bathed in a golden light. The angles, the body parts, the visuals are all familiar.
That’s because viewers of TV and film have been subjected to this kind of rote sex scene innumerable times. There are variations, but the outlines are generally the same: A compliant woman’s body is displayed in soft focus as a curtain sways and a triumphant man makes her writhe in grateful ecstasy.
“The curtain drives me berserk,” sighs Ronald D. Moore, executive producer of Starz’s “Outlander.” “Why is there a candle in the foreground? Why is the curtain [moving]? Where’s that wind coming from? Why is she always on top of him like that?”
These are only a few of Moore’s complaints about how sex scenes are typically shot and edited, and he has a point. Looking across the landscape of television, no matter what kind of show is under discussion — a premium cable drama, a broadcast network potboiler, a basic cable thriller — sexually charged scenes between characters too often follow a numbingly familiar script.
There are exceptions, of course, and many of them (“Master of None,” “Catastrophe,” “Transparent,” “Orange Is the New Black”) have one or both feet in the comedy realm; the hybrids are often far more comfortable with the idea of subverting or ignoring conventions. There are dramas that occasionally use sex as a perceptive storytelling device, among them “The Americans,” “Billions” and “Mr. Robot.” But all too often, supposedly adult dramas resort to banal cliches borrowed from porn or feature sensationalist moments that bear little relation to the sex lives of most human beings.
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When he set out to adapt Diana Gabaldon’s series of “Outlander” novels, Moore says, he told the show’s directors, “‘We’re not doing TV sex. TV sex is not real sex. No one has sex like that.’ And they would all laugh and say, ‘Yeah, that’s true. So what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Just do it like the real deal.’ ”
For “Outlander,” pursuing a more realistic approach starts with the storytelling. Moore and his writers don’t necessarily mine every sex scene in the novels for the TV show: Every moment of intimacy between characters needs to be vital to the narrative.
“Why are we going to do this? What’s the story reason? What’s the character reason?” Moore says. “It’s not just about getting to see them naked again, because we’ve seen them naked, and they’re hot. We get it.”
The stars of “Outlander” are indeed mighty attractive, but what has won over many fans is the complex mixture of vulnerability and volcanic attraction that fuels the evolving bond between Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and Claire Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe). The couple’s wedding has been the apex of the “Outlander” saga thus far, in large part because the sexual moments in that episode functioned like the songs in a classic musical: They told us important things about the characters and moved the story along.
Sexual acts on “Outlander” — including the damaging ones between Jamie and his tormenter, Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) — represent important milestones for the two characters involved. They’re not there as decorations, to be easily forgotten.
Moore made sure that a woman, executive producer Anne Kenney, wrote the wedding episode, and another woman, Anna Foerster, directed it.
“I just felt, for whatever reason, a woman would approach the scene differently emotionally and intuitively, and probably differently visually,” Moore said. “It would be more about the meeting of these two people than it would be about eroticism or trying to make it look ‘sexy.’”
When sex scenes are on the schedule, the production endeavors to give the actors a “little space to actually experiment and play around and find the natural chemistry between the two [characters], as opposed to what you could script or talk about in prep,” Moore says. That helps the scenes appear natural and lived-in. As Moore puts it, the feeling that the characters are “in the moment” makes the encounters work.
Things have changed for Jamie and Claire this season; their intimacy is strained, in part because Jamie is still recovering from sexual assaults by Randall last season. But the fact that “Outlander” is taking a man’s recovery from rape seriously is just another thing that sets it apart. The series also has shown full-frontal male nudity, something most programs still shy away from, even in the supposedly adventurous realms of premium TV.
Moore says he’s heartened that his show has been praised for its sensitive — and, ultimately, sensual — approach to sex, but adds that it’s all just a byproduct of trying to be realistic about what adults want and need from each other in intimate moments.
The showrunner maintains that the reason “Outlander” is getting so much credit for prioritizing a woman’s point of view is because that POV has been so marginalized. “When you actually restore it, people go, ‘Whoa, this is a radical thing you’re doing! You’re blazing new ground!’ Where I’m not really trying to blaze new ground. I’m just trying to tell the truth and be honest about how these characters relate.”
Part one of my “Outlander” conversation with Moore is here. The full text of part two of that interview, which is condensed above, is below.
I don’t think this is one of those journeys where it’s like, “Which man will the lady choose?” That’s not what defines her.
Yeah, it really doesn’t define her. It’s not the dominant theme. One of the things I did respond to in the books is their marriage. Now that they’re married, it’s not about breaking them apart, putting them back together, and [they’re tempted by others] or there are those kinds of misunderstandings. It’s a very solid marriage. It has its problems, it has its issues. But there’s never really a doubt in your mind that these two are together, and they’re not going to just get thrown apart for the convenience of the plot or just to give us some juice in the romance. The romantic tale between them is a love, is a soulful one. It’s unusual because that’s not generally where those stories go.
One other show that did that was “Friday Night Lights,” where Jason Katims said, “We’re not going to break up the Taylors.” And I think a relationship’s evolution is just as interesting, if not more interesting, than the whole idea of, “Are they going to break up?” A show gets to do that once, maybe twice. And then I don’t care.
And people tend to [play] that card very early. You just met them and then they’re the Bickersons and then they’re splitting up and he’s moved out.
Suddenly he’s got eyes for someone else. What?
It just happens, always. It’s the easiest card to play. It’s nervousness. I think people get afraid and lose faith in what it is that attracted themselves to tell that story.
Critics have written about how “Outlander” is actually really transgressive and form-breaking in terms of how it treats women and how it treats sex on TV. Like with sex, I just don’t understand — why is it shot the same way on so many other shows? Why is there always a curtain in the background?
Why is there a candle in the foreground? Why is the curtain [moving]? Where’s that wind coming from?
Why is there wind?
Why is there wind coming in here. Why is it cold?
Somebody close the door.
Why is she always on top of him like that? Why is she always arching her back?
What is that thing on the camera that makes everything glow like it’s a Nivea commercial?
We could probably do a half an hour just on our pet peeves about sex scenes.
Oh, easily. Easily. The curtain drives me berserk. In fact, I specifically talked about the things we weren’t going to do when we were approaching the sex scenes.
That reminds me of the show bible that you wrote for “Battlestar Galactica,” which was partly about, “No to this and this.”
Yeah, “We’re not doing this.”
Do you have a similar document for “Outlander”?
I didn’t write one down, but I had the talk with all the directors, and we went through a chapter and verse. All this crap. I said we’re not doing TV sex. TV sex is not real sex. I would say to them, “This is not how you and I have sex. No one has sex like that.” And they would all kind of laugh and say, “Yeah, that’s true. So what do you want to do?” I said, “Just do it like the real deal.”
A lot of it was also giving time for the actors to rehearse, carving out that little space to let them actually experiment and play around and find the natural chemistry between the two of them, as opposed to what you could script or talk about in prep. That informed how we shot those scenes, because it was so much about chemistry and being in the moment, and how two people could actually come together.
In those scenes, they’re physically naked but they’re emotionally disrobing as well. The sense I got in those moments was that you can feel the connection between the characters, because there was a sense of trust.
You’re not shooting it trying to get the audience excited by it. You’re not trying to shoot it in a way that highlights her breasts or her ass or whatever, [with the idea that] that’s sexy and we’re going to show the audience something erotic. You’re trying to tell a piece of the story for a reason.
There’s a lot of sex in the book, and we talk a lot about when we’re going to do it in the show. And each time I go, “Well, why are we doing this particular one? Why is this sex scene in the show?” “Well, it was a great scene in the book.” “Okay, but set that aside. Why are we doing it this week? Why are we going to do this? What’s the story reason? What’s the character reason? What does this mean to the story?” It’s not just about getting to see them naked again, because we’ve seen them naked and they’re hot. We get it. What’s the point [of the scene], you know?
I still see a lot of shows where it just feels like it’s put in there to fulfill some mandate. “Well, we’re about 25 minutes into this episode, and we’re a cable show. There should be some sex.”
I know. “Time for some sex.” “We should just cut in and she should have her top off as she walks from the closet to the bedroom and have a conversation topless, for some particular reason.”
“There should be 30 seconds and she should have an orgasm.”
Yes. There’s no fun in that.
That’s my favorite dumb trope. “Thirty seconds? Really? OK.”
See, that is robbing America’s men of the truth and doing a disservice to the American male, let me tell you. Don’t let your kids grow up watching this.
But seriously, I think part of the reason people are into it, not just the book fans but newcomers too, is that it actually is hot if there’s an emotional basis for the sex. It’s not just, “Let’s show bodies!” There’s a lot going on emotionally and psychologically. It’s not just the show with a lot of sex.
No, it’s really not. But I’ve been encouraged. I think the [media] coverage has been pretty fair and pretty good. I don’t think we’ve been mistreated in terms of how the show is generally covered or perceived out there.
Going back to the wedding episode. You had a female director and a female writer for that episode.
I just thought it was important. I just thought, it’s a wedding night. It’s going to have a lot of sex in it. I deliberately assembled the writers room half with [people who knew the books well] and those who were just reading them for the first time. And for this one, it was the wedding night. [The writer] had to be someone who really knows the book, who loves that component, because it’s going to cover a lot of really important ground. It should one of the [“Outlander”] fans and it should be a woman [and that was] part of the selection of Anne Kenney as the writer. And this was going to have the big sex stuff [from the book] and I just thought, let’s have a woman shoot it. In my gut, I thought, it’ll be a good way of avoiding the curtain and avoiding it being…
The curtain and the sputtering candle.
Yeah. Shooting it like every [sex scene ever] felt wrong. I just felt, for whatever reason, a woman would approach the scene differently emotionally and differently intuitively, and probably differently visually. It would be more about the meeting of these two people than it would be about eroticism or trying to make it look sexy. Just don’t make it look “sexy” and make it how people have sex.
Watching that, just as a viewer, I just realized how much I’ve been trained to see women through men’s eyes. In some ways, it feels like in the popular culture, I haven’t been trained to see men the same way through women’s eyes. It’s very rare.
We’ve gotten to the point where if I said, “There’s a sexy ad out on Melrose,” you know it’s a woman. It’s like, sex equals women. If you’re going to see some sex, it has to be. It doesn’t even have to be her whole body. It can just be her shoe. It can be any part of her body. It’s not going to be a man. We have defined “sexiness” visually, and it has to be a woman. It’s going to be about her body in some way, shape or form. That’s just our visual language. How we got to this place is a whole other conversation. But this is where we are.
Well, it’s refreshing that “Outlander” is not like that. This is a popular piece of entertainment in which a woman’s desire is not curbed or judged. She makes mistakes, some sexual, some are not sexual. It just feels like the show never judges or shames her for being who she is.
In fairness, a lot of this goes back to the book. Diana did a lot of this for us. It is Claire’s story — she is the character. It’s her tale. My job was to try to deliver her story as best I could. It would ring so completely false to suddenly have her desires, her wants, her fears or her sexual desires become inverted and be all about what Jamie wants, because it is her story. So my job was about just making sure that we’re always figuring out, what does Claire want in this scene? Where’s she coming from? In the sexual scenes, [we talk about] where’s Claire in this? What is she getting out of it or not getting out of it? What does she want or not want? You have to keep coming back to the focus being on her.
In both “Jessica Jones” and “Outlander,” there are sexual assaults and rapes that are part the narrative, but they are in many ways shows about consent. They’re all about the women’s points of view. And they’re very populist mainstream entertainments. It’s just interesting to me that these ideas are being talked about much more in these popular piece of entertainment.
Oh, definitely. I agree. We get a lot of credit for promoting a woman’s point of view and giving the female gaze [priority] and [how we portray] sex scenes and all that. That is not something I really talk about internally, I never have. What I kept talking about was, “Make it truthful, make it truthful. What’s the reality? What’s real sex between two people? How would she really behave in this situation? What does she really want?”
My joke is that when you say, “Make it truthful,” it becomes the woman’s point of view. It’s interesting that we get all this credit for promoting that agenda, but in reality, I’m just trying to make it as truthful as we can. You realize that if you step back from that, then you say well, [the fact that we are getting so much credit for prioritizing women’s point of view] must be because a woman’s truth has been so marginalized. When you actually restore it, people kind of go, “Whoa, this is a radical thing you’re doing! You’re blazing new ground!” Where I’m not really trying to blaze new ground. I’m just trying to tell the truth and try to be honest about how these characters relate.