Created by George Pelecanos and David Simon and starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Deuce follows the story of 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. George Pelecanos, David Simon, James Franco and Nina K. Noble serve as executive producers.
The Knockturnal: What inspired you to tell this story?
David Simon: We were working on Treme in New Orleans …The assistant locations manager was an independent film producer at the time named Mark Johnson. He had been trying to make something about Times Square and the rise of pornography. For years, he had done a lot of research, and had become connected to a guy … and he kept insisting that George and I come to visit. Come hear the guy talk. We go to New York to do our editing. At one point, we were on a trip, we were like, okay. He was just so persistent, we thought, let’s give it an hour. Three hours later we were like writing on cocktail napkins. He was describing a world that felt like we needed to do something.
The Knockturnal: People have not really seen 70’s New York City Times Square. Talk about creating that atmosphere.
David Simon: Well, you got to do a lot of research. It’s before my time. I was 11 in ’71, but you do the research, you look at all the contemporaneous film, you look at documentaries, you read all the books, and then you talk to as many survivors as you can find, and then you sit down and you write, and you hope you get most of it right. Or enough of it right.
The Knockturnal: How did you rope James and Maggie into this? Two amazing talents.
David Simon: Showed them the scripts. The scripts were strong. We showed them the scripts, and they got it right away. Listen, it’s getting easier and easier for television to bring feature level people. Because the studios are so bankrupt of real opportunities to be actors. You can’t get an indie film made so easy anymore, and not everybody wants to do one comic book flick after another, so it’s getting a lot easier for people doing long form to attract the best acting talent.
The Knockturnal: Speak about working on the project.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Well, this is kind of ideal, like we had the time, we had the space, we had the money. I mean, that’s what’s so amazing about television these days is I think in so many ways the really interesting adult content is moving to television, and has been for a few years because you are given what you need to tell the stories you need to tell. My process was like the ideal process.
The Knockturnal: Did you have any reservations about taking this role as a mother?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I had reservations more just in terms of being a human. I asked for a producing credit after they asked me to do it because only three of the eight scripts were written, and I was being asked to play a sex worker in 2017, which I think is a very delicate thing and as much as I really wanted to do it, and I wished I could just say yes, I knew I had to have some kind of guarantee that I would be a collaborator. That I would be part of the storytelling, and a part of what the piece ultimately said.
The Knockturnal: How will you explain to your girls when they’re old enough this role, the nudity, the misogyny towards woman?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Well, look. I think we are making a piece about pornography, and about a marginalized group of our culture. Do you not tell their story? I mean, is it better to push it under a rock? No! I mean, it’s better to respectfully, honestly, as truthfully as you can, explore this group of people who I don’t think very often has been honestly portrayed in TV and in film. I also think it’s a really interesting time, and it was even last summer a really interesting time to be looking at misogyny, to be looking at our relationship as women to sex, power, our ability to make money, our ability to make art, our ability to be thinking members of this culture. Even though last summer when we were shooting this, Trump was not yet elected, we finished shooting a week before the elections, and it was bubbling under everything everyone was doing, and particularly now that he has been elected, and there is a misogynist in office, I think it’s an amazing time to be talking about a project, and putting a project out which is in large part an exploration of misogyny, smart exploration of misogyny, thoughtful exploration of misogyny.
The Knockturnal: Speak about playing twins. What was your vision?
James Franco: We were just going to let them look alike, and that we wouldn’t use too many gimmicks to sort of differentiate them like one with a mustache, one without. That they would just look alike, and you would only be able to sort of differentiate them by their behavior, and their attitudes. The way I kind of just came to that as an actor is I really leaned on the writing. Vincent is written in a very particular way. He’s got much more pressure on him. He feels more responsible. He’s more about the long game, where Frankie is all about the moment. He hasn’t thought about a consequence in his life. So, thinking about those very basic kinds of attitudes already makes me behave in a different way. You know what I mean? Like Frankie, he’s looking at everything that walks by, and he’s about what he wants in the moment. Vincent is much more world weary and looking at how he can hold things together.
The Knockturnal: Has doing the show made you think about watching porn differently?
James Franco: Yes and no. I mean, that’s one of the big issues that is still very topical today is how porn is made, the unregulated nature of a lot of it. My friend, Rashida Jones, came out with a documentary called Hot Girls Wanted a couple of years ago, and I think the main point I took away from that film is that these young women are not protected. They have no union. It’s just completely unregulated. In that case, they go out to Florida, and they’re just sort of ground up in a manner of months, and then just discarded, and nobody’s there to protect. There’s no laws to protect them. That is very much the case in our show, as well. From that standpoint, yeah, I think there should be change. I don’t know if you believe me or not, I’ve watched it in my day. I certainly watched it as research for this show, but I don’t watch porn, believe me or not … Just in a general way, I have no kind of moralistic stance against it, by any means, but in unregulated capitalism, I think that’s one of the main points of our show, there’s all these people [and] a select few that sort of come out on top, and the rest are just thrown under the bus.
The Knockturnal: As a producer, what do you want the audience to take from this in terms of the misogyny that’s going on? Because that’s something that David was talking about, Maggie was talking about, the misogyny in our culture now.
James Franco: Like I was saying, one of the things that David said is, “If I could just boil it down to one thing I want you to get out of it, then there’s no reason to watch the show,” but it is definitely a very multi-colored, multivalent sort of portrait of an industry where misogyny is deeply, deeply rooted into it. There was a point David brought up earlier today about how even when you have a show like this, and you get to see the people behind this, the people underneath, maybe hopefully come to a deeper understanding about them and change attitudes and beliefs about this kind of trade, or behavior, or whatever, just at least become more sympathetic. There’s still this very dark, insidious thing about the sex trade where a lot of people are paying for it because they want to feel power over another person. They want that sort of disparity and dehumanizing kind of thing. So, to root that out is a very difficult thing to do. I think this show has all the right intentions, and you couldn’t ask for a better group to sort of take this subject matter head on and do it in the right way.
The eight-episode season airs on Sundays (9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT).
Photo credit: StarPix/HBO