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.