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The Deuce doubles down: David Simon and George Pelecanos on sex scenes, Peak TV and James Franco

When The Deuce premiered on HBO a year ago, the cultural conversation had a remarkably different tenor. Airing a show about sex work in 1970s New York, courtesy of the minds behind the all-timer series The Wire, seemed like a typical move for a network that’s historically walked the fine line between sensation and prestige. But one month later, The New York Times and The New Yorker published a series of allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, leading to a flood of #MeToo and #TimesUp conversations, which interrogated not only how women have been treated behind the scenes, but how they have been depicted on them as well.

Now, as The Deuce returns for the second of a planned three-season run, the series enters a new era of the zeitgeist. Ahead of the show’s season premiere Sept. 9, show-runners David Simon and George Pelecanos spoke with The Globe and Mail about the responsibilities that arrive with filming sex scenes, the current cable-TV landscape and the #MeToo allegations levelled against their show’s own star and executive producer, James Franco.

What lessons did you guys take away from Season 1?

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David Simon: The structure of the story was decided when we went to HBO – and we knew what we were going to say each season – so there’s no making it up as you go along. There was no story lesson. You do develop greater feedback with the cast and directors, and you start to hone dialogue a little more, but for the most part you’re committed. I’d say the only other thing you’d call a lesson is that we are filming a show in which actors and actresses are being asked to simulate a lot of sexual activity, and that is hard, careful work. Although we’d done some of that in other shows, it was a new frontier for us, in doing so in a manner that respects everybody, in the safest possible way. There was a learning curve into making that easier and more professional.

Did that come from learning from the actors, who I assume have more experience with those types of scenes?

Simon: I would say that it was fairly new to all of us, because we were trying to be blunt in the depiction of sexual commodification. We wanted the scenes where transactional sex is happening to feel very different from characters who wanted to be together in moments of intimacy. I don't think a lot of our cast had this level of engagement with filming that kind of sexual dynamic. I read an interview with Maggie Gyllenhaal, and she said, accurately, that she got to a point in Season 1 where she said, "This is really alienating, I'm not actually prostituting myself, but I’m playing a prostitute, and there's this parade of day players I'm only meeting for the one scene I'm having sex with them. I never emotionally engage with any of them. This is debilitating to even approximate." And then it occurred to her, “I'm starting to experience the same alienation as my character.”

Is there a meta aspect to it, at all? You’re portraying scenes of a sexual commodification, and there are actors portraying porn actors. So there’s a double commodification going on, perhaps?

Simon: I wouldn’t say that we’re commodifying the actors, but we’re depicting that. If we were to veer away and just imply what prostitution or sex work is, we’re on the road to creating Pretty Woman. You’re presenting it in a way that isn’t honest in how hard the work is and what’s involved. On the other hand, if the camera were to linger too long, if we were to indulge the viewer and ourselves, then there’s something meta and ugly about what we’re doing. I don’t think we’ve done that. If somebody is out there getting off on our show, we’re doing it wrong.

In Season 2, we’re seeing the erosion of the role of pimps. Was there a concern of turning characters Larry or C.C. into overly sympathetic figures? There’s one scene in Episode 4 [where Larry is posing for nude photos] that makes Larry seem especially likable.

George Pelecanos: There’s not a lot of villains in our world, in the sense that they don’t know they’re doing bad things. In their world, these guys believe themselves to be providing a service and protecting their women. We don’t by any means say these are good people, but they are human beings and any character you write, you have to come at it from that perspective. Why are they doing what they’re doing? From a story perspective, these pimps, as they aged out and became less relevant, they branched out into other kinds of work. And Larry in this season, he sees an opening to go into porn and get away from what he’s been doing. Because it’s a world that’s going to end for him.

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Simon: You’ve seized on a moment where for the first time we’re looking at Larry not being a pimp, but he’s being pimped. You’ve noted that, but it’s less a matter of us trying to make him seem sympathetic, more a matter of the systems in play.

Pelacanos: Who's doing what for what money?

In this current era where there’s a flood of television being produced, is that a good thing or a bad thing for getting a show like The Deuce on the air?

Simon: It’s easier to get stuff on the air. It’s probably harder to acquire larger shards of a fractured audience. HBO does a singularly good job of launching everything they commit to. We’re on the phone with you now. The Wire, George and I went through a couple of seasons of, “Are they going to pick this up or not?” And I spent a lot of time talking [former HBO CEO] Chris Albrecht back into the boat. Here, it’s relatively easy for us to know we have a very good chance of finishing a three-season arc as intended.

Before we run out of time, I have to ask about the James Franco news, and the allegations. [This past January, the Los Angeles Times published an investigation in which five women accused Franco of sexually inappropriate or exploitative behavior. Franco’s lawyer denied the claims to the Times, and pointed to the actor’s comments on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in which he denied the allegations, saying in part, “The things that I heard were on Twitter are not accurate, but I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice because they didn’t have a voice for so long.”] I’m just wondering, can you walk me through what was going on in your minds when those reports ...

Simon: I'll tell you what, I'll do that if you walk me through what the allegations against James Franco say.

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Well, they say that ...

Simon: Do you know what they say? Define them please for me. What has been alleged about James Franco and what has not? Let me know what you're asking about, and I'll know how to respond.

Sure. Well, that he behaved inappropriately sexually on sets, that he removed ...

Simon: You just libeled the man, but go ahead.

I'm just repeating the allegations, I'm not making them.

Simon: I know you are. You're a journalist, accurately describe what the allegation is. You just inaccurately have done so. I'm not playing a game here, this is important. What did he do, what did he not do?

In January, the L.A. Times reported that five women were accusing him of sexually inappropriate behaviour while serving as their teacher. That he would make them take off their shirts ...

Simon: That's not a good answer. That's not what they reported.

Well, then please clarify the situation for me.

Simon: This is the problem. Not everything is an apple. Not everything is what you claim it is, and let me define it this way: The people who are making this show are completely compatible with the goals, and even the elemental structure, of the #MeToo movement. In fact, the content of The Deuce is, I believe, anticipatory of the #MeToo movement even before we knew there was going to be a hashtag or slogan. We were speaking to sexual commodification and misogyny. I’m completely content with what we’re doing on the show and why. That’s fine. As far as what happened with Mr. Franco, if I believe in the #MeToo movement, what I believe is this: It’s arguing, and I think credibly, that the traditional methods of establishing the complicity and the guilt of men who are in the business of trying to commodify women, trying to obtain sexual favour through their power and position, in courts, civil actions and criminal cases have failed to protect women. So this new paradigm of if a man has done this consistently, with multiple victims, that it is a legitimate means of addressing serial offenders. But if there is no judge and jury then it falls to people like HBO or myself or George to determine what has been alleged, what has not been alleged, what there is evidence of, what there is not evidence of, what the nature of the claims are. The fact that you got on the phone and suggested that, what you did in the language you did, indicates you haven’t given serious thought to what’s in the L.A. Times article, and what isn’t in the L.A. Times article.

And I can tell you that everybody involved in this program has given precise and careful review, almost a Talmudic review, of what was in those articles. What was said, what was alleged. Even if I take everything at face value in the articles, it does not constitute the language that you used in regards to Mr. Franco, not remotely. If you go back and read the articles, you’ll find out what I’m talking about. That’s your job, not mine. There’s probably going to be a point at which Mr. Franco wants to speak more in detail about that. It’s really been the decision of HBO that, and I think they’re correct, to do so in advance of this series airing would take the emphasis off the content of the series, on the work of many, many people beyond Mr. Franco, that it would be backed into a discussion of something that would render any serious consideration of the work itself moot. And so that moment will probably happen after we air. But I can tell you that unequivocally we looked at everything, we reviewed everything. We took very seriously the process. It’s not going to be courts and not judges and juries, then we’re responsible. We’re the employers, and we took it very seriously. We gave every regard to what was said and what wasn’t said and alleged. Again, if you’re going to ask that question of anybody, I would go back and read the articles with a more discerning eye than you have.

[The L.A. Times reported that Katie Ryan, who was an acting student of Franco’s, alleged that the star “would always make everybody think there were possible roles on the table if we were to perform sexual acts or take off our shirts.” Sarah Tither-Kaplan, also a student of Franco’s, told the paper that Franco removed protective plastic guards covering other actresses’ genitals while simulating oral sex on them during a film scene.]

Alright, that is a fair answer. I thought I had approached it correctly, but we will have to depart on our consensus there.

Simon: I can tell you that HBO and Blown Deadline [Simon’s production company] made every possible effort to look in detail at the allegations and what they were and what they weren’t, and we’re comfortable going forward.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Deuce returns for its second season Sept. 9 on HBO Canada.

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