It might have taken a while for Shonda Rhimes’ first Netflix series to premiere, but it certainly made an impression when it landed on the streaming service Dec. 25. Bridgerton, a steamy Regency-era drama about a large, well-to-do London family — and, in the first season, the eldest daughter’s romance with a seemingly carved-from-marble Duke — wasn’t necessarily a family-friendly option for Christmas Day entertainment.
While the series has a “Jane Austen-meets-Gossip Girl vibe,” as The Hollywood Reporter TV critic Inkoo Kang wrote in her review, the drama takes just as many cues from the romance novels on which it was based as it does from Shondaland’s trademark combination of melodrama and humor (see Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal). The first four episodes are relatively safe to watch in mixed company, but once Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) tie the knot in episode five it’s decidedly an adults-only affair.
The most mature moment comes when the duo begins to christen every room of their new estate, a sex montage featuring the couple having sex in the library, in the gazebo, in the rain, on a stone patio, against a statue, all set to an orchestral version of Taylor Swift’s 2015 single “Wildest Dreams.”
And while the sequence only lasts for about three minutes (no jokes about the Duke’s prowess, promise), the preparation and production took months of collaboration among series showrunner Chris Van Dusen, episode six (and pilot) director Julie Anne Robinson, intimacy coordinator Lizzy Talbot and stars Dynevor and Page.
“I don’t think I’ve ever spent as many days on set as I have on Bridgerton,” Talbot told THR. She’s been working as an advocate and intimacy coordinator since 2015 in film, TV and theater. Her process for every sex scene on the show included phone conversations with the creative team and the actors, rehearsals in advance as well as day-of, and facilitating conversations about what the actors felt comfortable doing.
Rehearsals are key to her job, she said, “because there’s nothing worse than having to decide in the moment what your boundaries are.”
Robinson had never worked with an intimacy coordinator before, and was nervous that it would interfere with her autonomy as a director. After working with Talbot, however, she’s a convert.
“The more I learned about the role, the more I became absolutely convinced that this is the way forward. I think it’s absolutely essential that we embrace this person on set, not find it a threat but find it an enormously helpful intermediary to make the set a very safe place,” Robinson said.
Broadly, Van Dusen says, the process of crafting the love scenes began with a discussion among him, the director of each episode and Talbot during which they would discuss their expectations and vision for the scene, particularly the emotional beats.
But it was up to Talbot and the actors to figure out how to pull it off.
“It would just be herself and the two actors in a room together coming up with the choreography and working out the details, and then they would present what they were thinking to myself and the director,” Van Dusen said. “It was a conversation and it was collaborative. It was a wonderful process working with the intimacy coordinator, and it was it was an evolution. All of those scenes, I think, were an evolution.”
While Daphne and Simon are in the throes of newlywed bliss during the “Wildest Dreams” montage, a lot of the scenes were filmed early in production — and the first scene of that sequence took place on the very first day of production in one of London’s most staid institutions: the library at the Reform Club, a private gentleman’s club with members that include prime ministers, authors, academics, politicians and other great thinkers.
For context: Housed in the library where Dynevor and Page were pressed against shelves is one of Shakespeare’s First Folios.
“It was so much fun that that’s what we were shooting there. It seemed like it was blowing up the conventions of that place, by the way, which was until very recently a male-only club,” Robinson revealed.
The other scenes were filmed at Castle Howard, a stately historic home in York with era-original furniture and artwork that required extra supervision and presented extra problems for Page.
“A lot of the time we were working on Regency-size beds, and although that might not seem an issue, Rege is quite tall,” Talbot said. “We’d have to be very careful about how we positioned him so that he wasn’t hanging off the end of the bed. And also a lot of the beds were quite narrow, so if we ever had a lot of scenes where people were rolling off each other, which we did, we had to position them really carefully otherwise it would be very easy to roll off straight onto the floor. We were working with sometimes original four-poster beds that we had to be quite careful with. There were often lots of very expensive original items surrounding us. The curators at Castle Howard had to be in the room wherever we were filming, and so I’m sure that they had a very interesting time working on Bridgerton too.”
That’s on top of the entirely incorrect concept of bodice-ripping, which, Talbot explained, doesn’t actually happen since it takes quite a long time to get into and out of Regency-era costumes. “Anyone who’s been in a corset will know that doesn’t happen very often,” she said, and was something she and the actors had to take into consideration when choreographing the scenes. (Robinson’s biggest challenge was what to do with the men’s boots, which were cumbersome and did not allow for easy trouser removal.)
The biggest challenge, however, was the rain.
“You’re working with actors that are wet; you’ve got to be very careful about wigs; you’ve got to be very careful about costume,” Talbot said, which meant the scene where Daphne and Simon run through the rain and proceed to resume their marital activities in the gazebo was particularly difficult. Plus, “We did a lot of work up against hard surfaces, so we’ve got to be able to protect the actors because that’s essentially a stone floor. Also, the scenes are happening in the middle of the night and even though it’s August, it’s still the U.K. so it’s absolutely freezing. How do we keep these actors warm during takes and in between takes? Part of that is having a fantastic costume team ready with robes and hot water bottles and standing by to swaddle them in between. And also making sure that modesty garments are held on even though the actors are wet, because a lot of times they’re held on with tape or glue, and making sure that that is still in place even with doing some very energetic scenes.”
Talbot and Robinson both revealed, however, that the most difficult sex scene to film was not between Daphne and Simon, but rather the introduction of eldest Bridgerton brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) and his opera singer lover Siena (Sabrina Bartlett) in the pilot, which Robinson also directed.
“There was one experience where we were shooting a sex scene with Johnny and his trousers ripped, the one against the tree,” said Robinson.
While the “Wildest Dreams” montage spawned plenty of memes, a scene later on in the season involving Daphne and Simon inspired plenty of criticism online about its portrayal of marital rape, particularly of men.
Talbot said that while intimacy coordinators have no more say in the narrative of a series than a stunt coordinator would in terms of the kind of violence being portrayed on a show, her job is all about the concept of consent.
“What my role comes down to is making sure that the actors are consenting to the actions that we’re portraying, and that we are making sure that they are comfortable, and that there is zero pressure from outside sources to show more than what they’re comfortable with or to take liberties with their personal body and make sure that there is a distinction between personal and professional,” she said. “That can be so very easily blurred in this industry. There is the confusion around [the idea] that just because an actor plays something else, their body is therefore not their own — almost puppetry in a way that because they signed up for this role and that means that they will do whatever is asked of them. We’re starting to have more conversations about how actors have more control over their body and what happens to it.”
The U.K.’s law against marital rape did not pass until 1991, and “there is far more education around [marital rape] than there has been before, and particularly when Julia Quinn was writing this 20 years ago,” Talbot said. “I think what’s really good about this is that it is starting conversations and people are having conversations surrounding [consent]. I think that’s really, really important.”