*Created by George Pelecanos and David Simon (“The Wire”) and starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, HBO’s “The Deuce” chronicles the legalization and subsequent rise of the porn industry in New York’s Times Square from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s, exploring the rough-and-tumble world at the pioneering moments of what would become the billion-dollar American sex industry.
“The Deuce” follows Vincent and Frankie Martino (twin brothers played by ‘Deuce’ EP James Franco). Vincent, based on an actual guy, ran a bar which was a hotspot for all sorts of colorful personalities, including prostitutes and cops.
“My character, Vincent, is based on an actual guy who had a twin brother. I never got to meet him. He passed away right before we shot the pilot,” Franco reveals to EUR/Electronic Urban Report correspondent Ny MaGee during Summer TCA.
“David and George met him. Mark Johnson told them, “You gotta meet this guy. He’s got a ton of stories.” “I don’t know if we want to do a show about pornography.” And they went kind of begrudgingly and met him for a couple hours and realized, wow, maybe there really is something in there,” Franco explained. “He had run this bar around the Times Square area that was really unusual because it was a real kind of melting pot of all kinds of social levels and everything else you had. At the time, you certainly had gay bars and straight bars, but rarely did you have a bar where they would mix and that they would mix with police officers and the Warhol crowd and trans customers.”
Adding, “It was a great, sort of, entryway for a story about New York at this time to really kind of be entered in. And (there) was a guy, I was told, he always dreamed of a television series. Even before David and George met him, I guess he had 90 hours of recordings I guess he just did on his own in his living room dreaming about one day meeting someone like the creator of “The Wire” to tell his story, and it worked out.”
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James was joined at the 2017 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour by his co-stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., directors Michelle MacLaren and George Pelecanos and EP David Simon, who noted how the American porn industry has evolved over the past 40 decades.
“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry right now that has transformed not only American economy but also our culture more, the way in which men and women view each other. It’s had a profound impact,” he says.
“We’re arriving in the story in 1971, which is the point at which it went from being an under-the-counter, paper-bag product to being street legal, and, at that point, it was funded largely by the Cosa Nostra in New York, by the Mafia. So, for something that is now an elemental part — it’s probably — you could almost call it a sector of the American economy. It was beginning, as all vices begin, as something which organized crime was funding on sort of a cash-and-carry basis,” Simon added.
On capturing the “spirit” of the ’70’s porn industry, Pelecanos explains:
“In addition to doing a tremendous amount of research, we have consultants that we hired from all those categories. We have former porn actors, actresses, directors. We have police, journalists, and they’re with us the whole time. They see the scripts before we publish them. They see the scripts and give us notes. Dave and my biggest fear is somebody watching this and saying, “That’s bullshit. They got it wrong.” So we’re very diligent about that in trying and make sure that we get the right story.”
After previewing the trailer during TCA, one TV critic noted that the series “looks like you could get an infection on set — it looks so gross.”
Director Michelle MacLaren jokingly responds, “I love that you’re saying that because we all really hoped that you could smell the show,” she said, noting that the production design “was a massive collaboration inspired by research from the ’70s, both real photographs from that time period and also fabulous movies, many shot by Martin Scorsese.”
“The set designers would actually collect garbage, and every corner we went to, they would throw garbage out,” Franco adds. He also touched on the influence that Scorsese had in his career.
“I, as a young actor, my kind of Bible was the American films of the ’70s, and in particular, my favorites were all the films that came out of New York, the Scorsese films, the Lumet films, and films like “French Connection” and “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” And so, I was already well-researched, or at least had a very particular view of that time and place, and then I thought it was, for me, such a great thing to not only get to enter that world that I came up just dreaming about, but I got to do it with these guys who are all about realism,” Franco says.
“And so, I could kind of combine my romantic notions of old New York with, you know, these guys that are “just about the facts, ma’am,” and I think it created a really exciting kind of combination that crackled and had real meaning, that there was a point to go back and look at that time,” he adds.
When the cast is asked if they feel a sense of nostalgia for the era that they’re exploring, Maggie replies, “I think there’s a lawlessness. If you’re going to be looking at capitalism by looking at porn, you’re getting to look at something that has no regulations on it. And there is something sexy and appealing and exciting always about lawlessness, and there are also always consequences to that. And I think both of those things are in the show.”
“The Deuce” takes place “pre-Knapp Commission,” which was a five-member panel initially formed in 1970 by Mayor John V. Lindsay to investigate corruption within the New York City Police Department. The commission was named after its chairman, Whitman Knapp.
“It’s about the moment when Serpico started talking to the grand jury,” says Simon, turning to series star Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., who agrees with him that the producers “dropped you into one of the most Corrupt police departments in the history of New York.”
“Which was challenging,” Lawrence adds. “I was born in New York, and I was a kid during the ’70s. I was young, and I remember my family, my mom, and my dad, we would have to sometimes go through Times Square to get to wherever we were going. And I remember how seedy and how scary it was. I remember all the XXX theaters, and I remember pimps being on the corner, prostitutes all around and stuff,” he explains.
“And being on set, it kind of transported me back to that time, and it was just scary again. It was very, very real. But I was saying earlier today, whenever I think about that time, I always think about, “Yeah. There were a lot of pimps and there were a lot of prostitutes. There were a lot of XXX theaters.” But I never thought about the law enforcement that was around. I never thought about the fact that there were police there, and that they were a part of that world.”
HBO has been criticized for how it portrays sexualized violence against women, and despite this particular series being centered on an industry that was birthed from women who were being exploited sexually, the cast and creators want you to know that ”The Deuce” is not misogynistic.
It’s all about business.
“I think it’s become clear, in a way that maybe it wasn’t totally clear a year ago, that there is a huge amount of misogyny in the world. I think we thought we were in a better place than we were. And here we have this opportunity to pick it up and lay it on the table and to do it in a way that’s thoughtful and smart, and also real,” Gyllenhaal explains.
Continuing, “So that includes having to see some 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, nothing will shift. And, to me, I feel like playing a prostitute who does go through very, very different things, as a filter through which to look at women in our relationship to sex, to power, to cash, to art, is maybe one of the most interesting ways to go into really exploring the state that we’re actually in right now.”
On the criticism the series is receiving for being “misogynistic,” David Simon says:
“I think it would be a mistake to look at this film and think that we were in any way trafficking in misogynistic imagery or sexual commodification or objectification as one of the currencies that was driving the show. It’s not one of the currencies. It’s what the show is about. It’s the show’s reason for being. That is what the product is. That’s what the product was. That is what has been sold to the point where now, in America, we don’t sell a can of beer or a Lincoln Continental without sexual connotation and sexual imagery that encompasses the world of porn that we’ve inherited and that we’ve created. That’s what the show’s about. It’s a mistake to say, well, this show is being gratuitous — this is about that.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal, also a producer on the show, plays Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a call girl who segues into porn as performer then a director. Candy is not based on a real person. “She’s a mixture of about two people in specific, but other people mixed in,” Simon reveals during TCA.
“There was a Candy who was a part-time bartender, actually, at Vincent’s bar, who 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. But we combined that with a woman named Candida Royalle, among other people, who had passed away just before we started shooting.”
Candida Royalle “was somebody who found some agency within the world of porn, 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,” Simon continues.
“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 — what’s getting you hot, I think it’s a better show,” Gyllenhaal notes.
“The Deuce” premieres September 30 at 9 PM.
HBO is giving subscribers an early look at the pilot — now available on HBO NOW, HBO on Demand and HBO GO.