Just as The Wire and Treme were about more than drugs or New Orleans, David Simon wants fans of The Deuce, which he co-created with George Pelecanos, to know that his new HBO drama, set in 1970s New York, is about more than the birthplace of the porn industry.
“Pornography’s been around since some French guy invented the camera… and prostitution’s been around since forever,” Simon deadpanned to journalists during the Television Critics Association’s biannual press tour Wednesday evening. “But this is a moment where you actually get to see something go from paper bag, beneath the counter… and then, suddenly, it’s legal and everyone realizes that the money involved in that is real.”
He adds that the Times Square depicted on screen is no longer there, but porn “is everywhere.” He wants to tell the stories of “what happened to those people who are the pioneers and who became caught up in it and seized it aggressively and willingly.”
“I’m much less interested in whether porn is good or bad in a moral sense,” he says. “I was never interested as much in the morality of whether drugs are good or bad in The Wire as I was in how power and money array themselves and how society arranges itself so that some people are victims and some people are victimizers.”
Below are some other things to keep in mind when The Deuce premieres September 10 and we begin to debate if it’s the next The Wire (and if the casting of James Franco as twin brothers—one corrupt and one just trying to make it in this crazy city—and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a prostitute-turned-porn industry player have any impact on that.)
Who does James Franco play, exactly?
“My character, Vincent, is based on an actual guy who had a twin brother,” he says, adding that “he had run this bar around the Times Square area that was very unusual because it was a melting pot of all areas of social levels. At the time, you certainly had gay bars and straight bars. But rarely did you have a bar where they would mix and they would mix with police officers and the Warhol crowd and trans customers.”
He says his character was “a great sort of entryway for this story of New York at this time.”
Franco never met the real-life version of his character—he passed away before they shot the pilot—but he says apparently he was a guy “who always dreamed of a television series” and who had “90 hours of recordings he did on his own in his living room, dreaming of meeting someone like the creator of The Wire to come and tell his story.”
Is Gyllenhaal’s character, Candy, based on a real person, too?
“She’s a mixture of about two people in specific, but other people mixed in,” Simon says. “There was a Candy who was a part-time bartender at Vincent’s bar who actually started as a prostitute/street walker and was a little bit actualized, a little bit, by the politics she heard in the bar from Vincent’s girlfriend, but also had some preliminary involvement in the early days of porn.”
Plus, he says, “there was woman named Candida Royalle… she was somebody who found some agency within the world of porn. [She] started as a performer but became the director and tried, at some critical junctures, to create something maybe a little bit more egalitarian in terms of its approach to its audience. By that, I mean maybe it was more erotica than it was pornography.”
Gyllenhaal adds that “To me, I feel like playing a prostitute who does go through very difficult things, as a filter through which to look at women and our relationship to sex, to power, to cash, is maybe one of the most interesting ways to go into exploring the state that we’re actually in.”
Lawrence Gilliard, Jr. is known for playing too-sweet-for-these-streets D’Angelo Barksdale on The Wire. On The Deuce, he plays a cop.
“Although I haven’t met this actual character, I would say that he’s absolutely based on an actual cop,” Gilliard adds of his character, Chris Alston. “The one thing that cops I was talking to share is, they all have an overwhelming desire to help other people, to protect and to serve. That’s what they all wanted to do, and where they started. Wherever that job led them, things happened in life, they were led in different paths and different directions, but they all start wanting to protect and serve and to help.”
Still, the NYPD was incredibly corrupt at that time. “If he ends up falling we have to wait and see what side of the line he ends up falling on,” Gilliard says. “You know what I mean? I’m curious to find out that myself.”
Gilliard says he actually grew up “in New York in the ‘70s and I remember my mom and my dad, we’d have to sometimes go through Times Square to get where we were going and I remember how seedy and scary it was… Being on set, it transported me back to that time and it was scary again.”
He says, looking back, he never thought that there were also police there at the time.
How did Michelle MacLaren, who directed the first and eighth episodes, get involved?
“I think that we looked at her as a great filmmaker, as a visionary filmmaker, and we wanted the pilot to be a movie, a good movie,” Pelecanos says of the director, also known for The X-Files, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. “She is that kind of director. She set the template for the way the whole series is going to look like now. She was super involved in every aspect of it. It was a blessing to get her. It wasn’t we settled on [her]. We wanted her.”
MacLaren added that Pelecanos told her, “You know, Michelle, we don’t want this to be the 2016 version of 1971 New York. We want the 1971 version.”
“That really registered to me, and I was really excited and honored to be part of this project, which is something that is different from anything that I’d done,” she says. “Although, like me, these guys like scope, so that was wonderful to be able to build this world, be part of building this world with these guys, and it always starts with great writing, so when I get lucky enough to read a great script, I say yes.”
HBO has certainly been docked for shows like Game of Thrones, which have been accused of sexism. Was that on the mind of the creators and stars?
“I think it’s become clear in a way that maybe it wasn’t totally clear a year ago that there’s a huge amount of misogyny in the world,” Gyllenhaal says. “Here, we have this opportunity to pick it up and lay it on the table and do it in a way that’s thoughtful and smart, but also real.”
She elaborates, saying that means sometimes audiences will see things that “look violent and uncomfortable, but I think if you don’t put that on the table and take a really good clear look at it, nothing will change…”
Simon says you handle this “by being direct.”
“I think it would be a mistake to look at this show and think that we were in any way trafficking in misogynistic imagery or sexual commodification or objectification as one of the currencies that’s driving the show,” he says. “It’s what the show’s about; it’s the show’s reason for being… Now, in America, we don’t sell canned beer or a Lincoln Continental without sexual connotation and sexual imagery that encompasses the world of porn that we’ve inherited.”
And perhaps we should ask ourselves why we might see this show that way.
“But in a way, if the show also turns you on a little and then makes you consider what’s actually turning you on and the consequences for the people, for the characters, that are turning you on, of what’s getting you hot, I think it’s a better show,” Gyllenhaal says. “I think if you’re only going, ‘Oh, we’re not interested in this. This is terrible,’ and we’re all going to pat ourselves on the back for it, it doesn’t ever make you consider your position as a person in America right now in how sex is commodified. So, I hope it does both, actually. I hope it does a little of both.”
Is it wrong to think that this show has a nostalgic quality to it?
“I think there’s a lawlessness, right,” Gyllenhaal says. “I think that if you’re going to look at capitalism by looking at porn, you get to look at something that has no regulations on it. There is something sexy and appealing and exciting always about lawlessness and there’s always consequences to it.”
How much money did the forefathers (and mothers) of porn actually make?
“It’s a multi-billion dollar industry and it’s transformed the American economy and it’s transformed the ways that men and women view each other,” says Simon. “We’re arriving in the story in 1971, which is the point at which it’s going from being an under-the-counter, paper bag product to being street legal. At that point, it was funded largely in New York by the mafia.”
The production nails the aesthetic of, as another reporter called it, “like you’d get an infection on set.” How did that come about?
“We all really hope that you can smell the show,” says MacLaren. “It’s a wonderful collaboration with our production designer, Beth Mickle, and our cinematographer on the pilot, Pepe Avila del Pino, and [then] Vanja Cernjul. We shot the majority of the pilot practically. We went to real locations in New York City and the wonderful citizens of New York collaborated with us and let us take over two blocks in Washington Heights. From a certain height down, we dressed it in 1971. From a certain height up, it was CGI. We brought in vehicles from the ‘70s and wonderful background players and costume designs.”
She says that “it was a massive collaboration inspired by research from the ‘70s, both real photographs and movies, many shot by Martin Scorsese.”
Franco adds that the set designers would actually collect garbage from the streets and add it to the scenes. Plus, he says, he “never thought that I would be so worried about trees.” Rudy Giuliani had them all in when he became mayor of New York City and “cleaned up” Times Square—great for the environment, but not so helpful when you’re trying to accurately portray a certain era.