HBO’s The Deuce — a drama about the rise of the adult film industry in the early 1970s from The Wire team of George Pelecanos and David Simon — doesn’t officially debut until September 10, but HBO released the 90-minute premiere episode this morning across its various On Demand and digital platforms to give viewers an early taste.
My review of the series (I’ve seen the whole first season) will be coming closer to that official premiere date (spoiler: it’s positive!). In the meantime, I got to speak with Pelecanos and Simon last week about the genesis of the series (and the challenges of developing a ‘70s period piece at the same time that Vinyl was in the works), the inspiration for the identical twins (one a mob-affiliated bar manager, the other a degenerate gambler) played by star/producer/director James Franco, the important role of all the women behind the scenes (including director Michelle MacLaren and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s a producer and also plays a pimp-less prostitute named Candy), using so many Wire alums (Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Chris Bauer, Gbenga Akinnagbe, and Method Man, among others) in the cast, and a lot more.
If you’ve already watched the first episode, feel free to discuss it in the comments. This will be in my recapping rotation starting on September 10.
Let’s start with where and when the idea came to you two.
David Simon: It came from Mark Henry Johnson. He’d done a number of years of research involving a real person he knew, who was a mob front and had run a bar. He’s been a bar man who did a lot of other things in the midtown area , and Mark had been trying to develop this material and he brought it to George and myself when we working at Tremé and said, “You really gotta talk to this guy.” And we were very reluctant. It sounded certainly moderately gratuitous, to be doing a show about the sex industry. But when we finally met the guy, we found ourselves drawn into it. The guy’s stories were really compelling.
George Pelecanos: We’ve been working on this thing a long time. It took a lot of research but also you had to be very careful with the tone and how we conceived it and shot it and edited it, all the way down the line. It was something that we were real careful about, and even with David’s track record in television, it takes a long time to get these things going. It just does. It’s been about, I think when we met that guy, David, the first time down town in New York, it was probably five years ago.
David, you’ve had a very good relationship with HBO, but was there any pushback on this particular idea? Or it took this long to get made just because that’s how TV works?
Simon: The initial meeting was with Mike Lombardo and Sue Naegle and they very much liked the idea. I think, to be honest, in the forefront of everything we were trying to develop here, Vinyl existed. It was a reality. It was a fundamental priority for the network and we were — as I’m not unaccustomed to being — the little engine that could. But there was a lot of traffic ahead of us. The truth is they approved the pilot and they went ahead on the pilot even as Vinyl was coming up. And then they started talking about wanting to go to series even before Vinyl was canceled. So, the one thing that Mike Lombardo did say to me was, “Look, if it’s good, you can only control what you can control, but if you do good work, we want to do this. This story, the scripts look good and if we can get the right people in, we’ll do it.” Was I doubtful and did I feel like a lot of resources were not available to us initially, and were there points at which it felt like maybe there was no window? Yeah, I did at points but the proof’s in the pudding, I gotta credit Mike and I gotta credit HBO.
George, you said before that you had to be careful with this material. How did that translate into what you did?
Pelecanos: Well, I think one thing we did was we, David and I surrounded ourselves with a lot of women—
Simon: —in a professional way.
Pelecanos: —because we realized, to try to do the story, two middle-aged straight guys, it just wasn’t going to work with just us. First of all, we got Michele MacLaren to direct the pilot, which was a great decision in retrospect. We had many women in the writer’s room. We also had a gay writer, we had a transgender writer, we were trying to stack the deck and so that we’d get a lot of different voices in this thing and to color us. I’d say the majority of the department heads were women. Then when we did shoot it, we always talked to whatever director was working with us and explained that we’re not shooting porn, we’re shooting the shooting of porn. So the way it’s lit is un-beautiful and there’s a lot of shots of people just sitting around on set, bored. I hope it’s never titillating because that wasn’t our intention. Then even in the editing room we would these conversations like, “Can you take five seconds off that, I think we’re lingering on her breast too long,” you know what I mean?
Simon: Yeah, there was a lot of arguing and discussion and intellectual rigor that really went into, first of all, why are we doing the show and what do we hope to say? Second of all, what is the imagery that is addressing that, what is prurient, what is puritanical? We needed to land it in such a way that we weren’t measuring it by pornographic metrics. That was the most important job. George is right, I mean, from Megan Abbott and Lisa Lutz and Will Ralston in the writers’ room to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who had incredible influence on her character’s arc and on the story in general, to the department heads. To Nina Noble, our producing partner who’s already a huge influence creatively in our team, but here she had a particularly special role in terms of conveying what we were trying to do and doing it in such a way that she put everybody at ease. George is right: we could be the most attentive and empathetic couple of white, straight males that we can manage but that doesn’t mean that we have the material surrounded.
Tell me a little bit more about Maggie’s role in terms of the feedback she gave, the way she helped shape the arc of Candy over these eight episodes.
Simon: The first drafts of the scripts came to her. There were overall discussions about what we were trying to do with the character. I have to say a lot of them happened in the meetings before production when she was deciding whether or not to sign on. She said very bluntly, “Look, I’m gonna go for it with this one. This is very interesting but it’s a tough role and there are risks involved. I’ll go for it but if I’m going for it, I’d better know that we’re doing this for the right reasons and that I believe in what we’re doing.” So that was on the table from the moment we approached her and the discussions really began at that point, not just to talk her into the room but to convince her that it was worth the effort and worth the risk. We either took the notes or we had reasons why we didn’t take the notes, but she was engaged in all discussions.
The show’s often a lot of fun, despite such heavy, depressing material. How important was it to you to make an entertaining product on top of the various points you’re making about labor and commodification of sex?
Pelecanos: Generally, people in the trenches are funny people, whether they’re cops or guys in the game or soldiers under pressure. Under these conditions there’s a lot of humor, so I think it’s natural to have that sort of humor in the show. But also I’m glad you said “fun” because that, to me that means entertaining. We were aware of that every step of the way. We’re not trying to lecture people. That’s not a dirty word, “entertainment.” I want people to keep coming back every week because they’re having a good time watching the show. And then through the back doors, you give them something else.
Simon: We always find out that no matter what universe you’re building, the people that occupy it in real life, they have a vernacular. They have a way of viewing the world, they have a sense of humor that is always there. It’s just a matter of finding it, either researching it, hearing the stories. George and I were feeling a lot of the weird camaraderie and in the trenches humor when we were listening to the source material, when we first met with Mark Johnson. It’s there in everybody’s life, it’s there with cops, it’s there with recon Marines, it’s there with musicians, it’s there with everybody. It’s your job to make everybody human, and part of being human is figuring out what to laugh at in your own world and what all the people occupying that world can laugh at together. So, if you want to call that dark humor, sometimes it is but I’ve never gone anywhere in the world and stood beside any part of it and not felt that about the people in it. There’s always that interior dialect that’s worth capturing.
The real inspiration for Vince [the main character played by Franco] had a twin brother, but was the twin as involved in things as [Vince’s brother] Frankie is in the show?
Simon: We’ve used it as a jumping off point and we’ve consolidated characters. It is not a non-fiction narrative. It is labeled as fiction. Frankie is involved in a great deal, but are the same proportions as in real life represented in our show? No. We’ve moved it around, we’ve moved the bar, we’ve also adjusted the brother-in-law. Everyone has an origin as a real character. We’ve adjusted Vince, we adjusted the ostensible lead character here. We’ve adjusted Candy. It’s more analogous to what we did with The Wire and the real people in Baltimore who were the point of the origin than what we would do to say, Show Me a Hero or Generation Kill.
Do you feel that there is any thematic advantage to having the twin brothers there, or was it just a real thing that you thought would be interesting to incorporate into your fictionalized version?
Simon: Oh no, without giving away where we’re going, the dynamic between the two brothers is elemental to the story we want to tell and it was in real life. They were close and yet they were not the same person and their arcs are different. There’s a lot of power in the narrative of the fact that the real guy had a twin brother and how he felt about his brother’s life.
Pelecanos: There’s a lot of humanity there but also it creates conflict, because Vince often had to make decisions and some of them were decisions he didn’t want to have to make based on what his brother was doing and bailing his brother out of situations and having to make good for his brother. There was real affection there. When (the real guy) was talking about his brother, he had this look in his eye like, I really love that guy, you know.
When you were talking to James about him coming onto the show, how appealing did the idea of getting to play twins seem to him?
Simon: Honestly, I think he was more interested in directing. Clearly the twins interested him on some level, but his first questions were about the possibility of perhaps directing some of the episodes. It’s where I think he was in his head, it was something that had occupied a great deal of his time on his independent projects and it’s what came to the fore immediately. As an actor, I don’t think it’s something he’s done before and I’m sure it intrigued him but I can tell you, I don’t think that pulled him into the tent. I think the chance to do some directing work with a large sort of, a large crew and be involved in sort of producing something as well from soup to nuts.
There’s a confluence of events happening over the course of this season in terms of [NYC Mayor John] Lindsay running for president and the obscenity court rulings and everything else going on that makes this a natural place for you guys to start. But did you ever at any point in development think about starting the story either earlier or later in the run of this particular world?
Pelecanos: I don’t think so. In a way we lucked out because he was given this bar by the mob, right in this year when everything started happening. It was actually a perfect place to start.
Simon: Everything is a little bit compressed because we can’t go back and do a running start of two, three years. Everything’s probably maybe an eighteen month period in our mind in the eight hours. But really, at the core of it was this moment in ’71, ’72, into the beginning part of ’73 where, what had been an under the counter, gotta clip out the dirty parts, back alley economy suddenly became an open market and a full-blooded industry and that to me, what could be more interesting than that moment.
You guys are not from New York, but did you spend any time when you were growing up in this era in the city?
Simon: I was up there in the summer of ’78 after I graduated from high school. I worked at an uncle’s electronics warehouse in Long Island and so I remember it in the late ’70’s, barely, it was pretty well established at that point and it was certainly a, something of a mindfuck for any 17-year-old. No, ’71, ’72, the period when this, these eight hours happened, I was 11 years old. I was growing up where George was growing up, living outside of D.C.
Pelecanos: But I gotta say I was really stoked to do something in this era in New York because of my love of those films. Anybody who is my age that loved movies, you know, French Connection, Mean Streets, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, and some of the blaxploitation stuff like Black Caesar. I didn’t see French Connection in the theaters three times because of the car chase. I saw it because as a kid who was into a place where I had never been, it was all shot, it was all locations, it wasn’t sets. It captured that, like a time capsule of New York. So to have the opportunity to try to recreate it as a movie that was shot in that time period was a gas, man. It was really a lot of fun and a big opportunity.
One of the running threads of the season is characters outside the business asking the sex workers why they do this. In your time researching this period and this field, do you feel like you came to understand the psychology that not only would they go into this profession but in certain cases happily stay in the profession?
Simon: I don’t think there’s a singular answer for everybody. But if there were commonalities, you could sum them all up and I don’t think they quite explain everybody’s choices. Some of it’s clearly economic, some of it’s deeply psychological, some of it is just human adventurism. You were in a time where a lot of the societal mores were falling apart left and right, and there was a lot of argument about what was appropriate, inappropriate, what was legitimized, what was not legitimized. Those things were all kind of up for grabs in 1971, but you could ask the same questions today in a sex industry that’s become normalized, and what pornography has done to our culture and how universal it is. Not even just within the realm of pornography, but Madison Avenue doesn’t sell cars or beer without invoking a lot of this dynamic, so this has become part of the American scene, this is part of our culture now, such as it is. You could ask all the same questions today and I’m not sure that if you’re sitting across from somebody and they try to explain their choices as a human being, particularly with something as complicated as sexuality, I’m not sure you’re gonna get a singular answer that’s going to satisfy anybody. I’m not sure that’s the point of the piece, to be honest with you.
I’m just curious, then, in terms of having to write these characters, especially the women, how much of a challenge was it to get inside their heads and write them when their motives are so difficult to nail down at times?
Simon: I guess I gotta ask you, why do you think that’s a different question than say, why would Bubbles keep taking drugs? Why would Wallace come back from the shore? Why would Bodie not walk away from the gang? In some fundamental way, in this society, as hierarchical and as economically based as it is and as capitalized as human beings are, everyone’s contents are under pressure, aren’t we? Why would you go down in a coal mine, if you know you’re going to get black lung? Everybody around you is dying young and yet people want to go down in a coal mine because it’s what they know or it’s what they can do or it’s the door that opens for them and where they find some relevance. You’re asking a bunch of questions that have as much to do with where people find themselves in this world of ours as about the people themselves, so I don’t know, you approach those characters as you do. Okay, well, we know that Candy did this, we know that these things were done because we have the research, what would that be like? How do you endure that? How do you find a place to stand if you’re the Candy that we’re creating? It’s okay, next scene, here we go, let’s figure this out.
C.C. [a pimp played by Gary Carr] is even more fixated than some of the other pimps on the mythology of the pimp and the trappings of the lifestyle. There’s obviously been many pop culture depictions of that trade. You guys traffic in things that feel real and down to earth, so how did you make sure he and the other pimps felt human and not like they were coming out of an exploitation film from 1971?
Pelecanos: That’s diligence. We really worked on those characters to try to separate them from each other and make them human beings. They weren’t all one thing. They had different motivations and different personalities and so on. I think you’re correct in that he’s the most self-conscious of them, of, you know, “I’m a pimp and I’m gonna act this way because I read the street Bible and this is how they do.” That’s why he’s the one more deeply philosophical about it too. And you gotta remember that these people don’t think of themselves as villains. They rationalize, and a woman needs somebody to hold her money, that kind of stuff, otherwise it’d get lost out there.
Simon: We worked hard on that, and the truth is it is a stereotype version of street life and it’s something that embraces its own stereotype. They maneuver towards the stereotype in their persona, they’re basically playing a role so you’re coming from that point of view. So, given that reality, I was pretty proud of the fact that, from my point of view anyway, I feel like we really did what we could to land them as individual human beings, so that all four of the pimps have distinctly different voices.
The cast has a lot of familiar faces to people who know the other shows you’ve done. Were any of them written with any of your past collaborators in mind, or just when you got to casting, you thought, “Oh, Larry would be really good for this cop or Method could play Rodney,” or something like that?
Simon: Some people came in and read and reminded us of their range and did it the old-fashioned way. And sometimes we thought of somebody and said, “Man, this would be perfect.”
Pelecanos: I think my recollection is that, David and I wrote the pilot without having cast or anybody in mind, really.
Simon: That’s right.
Pelecanos: Which is a tough thing to do but it always gets easier when the actors start working.
Simon: They do bring something.
What’s an instance where you had a character in mind, but then the actor came in and it changed a little bit because of what they were doing for you?
Simon: Dominique [Fishback] in her role as Darlene. I was really worried about, “No hooker can be the hooker with a heart of gold,” and we were playing her as somebody who, up to a certain point is comfortable in this world. She can maneuver even around the presumed ferocity of her own pimp. She can maneuver the johns, she’s adept at this world despite the fact that she’s so young, and I was really worried that it was going to start turning into sort of Holly Golightly if we didn’t have somebody who could play some street and also show some moments of distaste here. Like really subtly, because we’re playing somebody who’s coming from a position of, “Hey, I’m okay, don’t worry.” That’s the point they occupied at the beginning of the narrative and so what you’re really worried about is, we did not want to make a Pretty Woman version of prostitution. Yet at the same time I wanted to show somebody who was in control of her world to the extent she, somebody in that world could be in control and was also very young. I knew her work from Show Me a Hero. And I knew how strong an actor she was and I just thought she will give me enough street and enough colors, we’ll be okay.
What are some specific things you feel Michelle MacLaren brought to the pilot and the rest of the season that enhanced the show overall?
Pelecanos: She’s super involved in everything. She would attend every single meeting, including the props where they’re making a bank deposit and she wanted to see every deposit slip, that kind of stuff. In the beginning I thought, “Well, that’s too much,” but then when I saw what she was doing and the attention to detail, I was really glad that she was on top of it. She likes to shoot, so her energy inspired the rest of the crew to keep going because as usual, we had long days. We’re always trying to get a lot of pages every day and scripts are really dense. When I saw the pilot, I thought, “She shouldn’t actually be working in television. She’s a feature director.” And she did a lot with a little bit of money. Because this wasn’t Game of Thrones money, believe me. What they spent on that battle last year in Game of Thrones, they spent as much as we spent all season. We had to really be economical and we knew we were the underdogs. She brought it, man. She made it look like the proverbial million bucks. And I’m super happy we got her because I think she’s sort of a visionary in that regard rather than just, mastered two-shot, close ups, that kind of stuff, she really had it.
George, your books — especially the ones that you’ve written that are set around this time — are loaded with love for the music and the cars and the clothes and all the details of this era. The pimps in this show in particular say a lot of things that I can imagine characters from King Suckerman saying. How enjoyable was it for you to be able to really dive in and recreate this world in that way?
Pelecanos: It’s so fun, man. When you write a book you don’t know how people are receiving it when they’re reading it. I’ve always thought about that and pondered it like, is this coming across the way it is in my head. But when I make a movie or a television show I can try to do exactly what I want to put it up on the screen, so I was super involved in the costumes, and especially the cars, because I’m pretty much the oldest guy on set that remembers the cars. People try to sneak things in, like the people that bring you the cars for the day, they’ll try to put a ’73 in there and say it was a ’71. And I know that the Camaro had a split bumper after ’70 and also the word Camaro on the trunk lid had a square around the C and that’s the kind of little stuff and I would send those cars home.
I was into it and as far as the music goes, we couldn’t get everything we wanted because it’s just too expensive, but we got a lot of what we wanted. But the thing that I’m most proud of and excited about is the title sequence for Curtis Mayfield because that’s my hero, man. I need to have that in the title every week and that particular song (“(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”) was sort of the shot across the bow of the funk era. It was the first track off the album Curtis and it was a mind blower when it came out and to be able to have that in my show is like, wow.
Was it your idea back in the day on The Wire to have Cutty out jogging to “Move On Up” or that was somebody else’s?
Pelecanos: I think that was David’s.
So you have a shared love of Curtis, that’s good.
Pelecanos: Well, especially right now somebody like that to me is a saint because he was doing something very brave back in the ’60’s. He was putting out these songs that a lot of people didn’t want on the radio and he was protesting in a peaceful way, a very spiritual way but nevertheless he was speaking his mind, you know and then the music was beautiful on top of it.