Christy Grosz is an Awardsline contributor
When director Ryan Murphy met with choreographer Michael Arnold, the first question Murphy asked was, “So how did you get into this line of work?” That might have been merely an ice-breaker had Arnold been tapped to work on Murphy’s Fox series Glee, but this job was about re-creating the uninhibited sex-fueled parties of 1970s-era Fire Island for HBO’s The Normal Heart. After performing as a dancer in more than a dozen Broadway musicals, Arnold has parlayed his flair for movement into a new career as a sex-scene choreographer. The short answer about how he got started is the usual Hollywood networking story—albeit with a splash of Oscar gold—when a friend of a friend was looking for some help on Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. “I got a call from (executive producer) Georgia Kacandes, and she said, ‘We’re going to do this gay orgy scene and it’s not really in Marty’s wheelhouse,’” says Arnold, who ultimately worked on two other scenes in the film, including the somewhat infamous bachelor party plane ride to Las Vegas.
Auspicious start aside, Arnold credits years of working with dancers with giving him the ability to build a rapport with actors that leads to beautiful tableaus onscreen. He usually starts with the script, sketching out the placement of bodies, what they’re doing and their relative state of undress. He then collaborates with the director to refine each scene to suit the overall vision. “I’m here to help in any way I can and to try and make everybody comfortable. (I’m) a liaison between (the director) and the cast,” Arnold explains.
For The Normal Heart, Arnold helped add artistic authenticity to the telefilm about the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He took his inspiration from photographer Tom Bianchi’s sun-drenched work of that era, featured in the book Fire Island Pines, Polaroids 1975-83. “(Fire Island) was that one place where you could hold hands with a guy on the beach,” Arnold explains, adding that Bianchi’s photos ended up being incorporated into some of Murphy’s storyboards. “They didn’t know there was a plague. I lost a lot of friends who went to Fire Island, and I think it’s portrayed so incredibly in the movie. It’s great to see that abandon happen because you see the innocence of it, too.”
To gain the trust of the actors, Arnold generally interviews everyone to determine who’s comfortable with nudity or simulating sex. “I did a bunch of improv work and trust exercises with background actors, and worked with the cast, just to get everybody feeling safe. Nobody’s going to get tricked into doing anything or be asked at the last minute,” Arnold says.
His work with some of the biggest names in film and TV, including Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio and Taylor Kitsch, should prove to be good experience for two new sex-filled HBO series in the pipeline. He already has spent some time working on Murphy’s Open, which explores human sexuality and relationships. He’s also collaborating with Scorsese again for his Mick Jagger-produced show about a drug-addled music producer in 1970s New York that’s tentatively called The Long Play. For any project that needs an expertly crafted sex scene, “Yes, keep me in mind,” Arnold says.