In the hectic world of the HBO drama The Deuce, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy Merrell stands as a woman ahead of her time: a working girl who isn’t defined by the world in which she finds herself, but by the world she hopes to build for herself and her child.
“It’s become clear to all of us that we live in a world that’s full of misogyny, [and] that I think we thought we had moved further than we have,” she says. “So playing a prostitute who ultimately gets involved in pornography is a very interesting perspective from which to explore women and our relationship to power, to art, to money, to sex.
“Candy says it explicitly in the first episode, she says, this is my job, this is not the entirety of who I am. You see her intellectual life, you deeply see her artistic life, you see her sexual life, you see her as a mum, you see her as a daughter. You see her as a full person.”
The Deuce, the story of how the mob, massage parlours and the emerging porn industry intersected in New York in the early 1970s, also stars James Franco, as twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, who become proxies for the mob in Times Square.
Created by David Simon and his long-time collaborator George Pelecanos, the series can trace its origin to an earlier project, Treme, which was filmed in New Orleans. A colleague at that time told them the story of man in New York he knew who had lived through the events now fictionalised in The Deuce.
“We heard that and we thought, ‘we don’t want to do a porn show’,” Simon says, laughing. “We went up to New York for some editing on [Treme] and we met this guy and he started telling us stories. Three hours later George and I walked out of the meeting and we said, we are going to have to do a porn show because the stories were so compelling.”
The story of The Deuce pivots on the legal system’s inability – or unwillingness – to quantify what pornography was, Simon says.
“There’s a moment where the rules changed, so one moment you weren’t allowed to do things and then the next moment you were,” he says. “And the money and the human beings arrayed themselves around that new truth.
“Was the country ready for that kind of libertarian notion of we are not going to judge this anymore? Apparently, because we did it and this is what the courts felt comfortable saying in 1972 that they never would have felt comfortable in 1952. But that was the moment.”
It is, he adds, a powerful statement on “free market capitalism”.
For Gyllenhaal, the series tells a feminist story though that might not be immediately apparent.
She says it offers a chance to reflect on how women “have to twist themselves in order to feed themselves the things they need to stay alive intellectually, artistically, sexually, whatever, emotionally”.
Initially, the series’ depiction of sexuality is transactional, Gyllenhaal says. “For the first episodes most of the sex you see is performance, you see people going, I’m going to dress like this because I need to make this much money tonight and if I wear these clothes, more people are going to pick me up.
“Then you get to see a different kind of sex, sex that’s about female desire. And all of a sudden [it] shifts all the other sex you saw into relief. We’re so used to seeing sex portrayed on TV and in bad TV and bad movies. Here, in the middle of the piece, you have the bottom drop out.”
For Gyllenhaal the appeal of Candy was that she lives “in the dark side, and I think I’m interested in the dark side”, she says. “But also I think when you’re playing someone who’s just keeping their head above water, which is true for Candy, you don’t have the luxury to feel sad and sorry for yourself, those are middle-class problems.
“When you are just surviving, you have to be an optimist and so there’s a brightness about her and just reaching for the next rung, that was nice to play. I felt empowered by playing someone who was so comfortable with her sexuality. It was really fun. I felt inspired by that.”
Securing Franco’s services followed a slightly unconventional route, Simon says, noting that he and Franco essentially came to a verbal agreement, outside of the traditional machinery of agents, lawyers and managers.
“I was one of the biggest fans of The Wire, I met David and we were talking about Show Me a Hero,” Franco says. “I couldn’t do that because of scheduling but I was like, do you have anything in the pipeline you might do in a year or two and he said, ‘well, I got this show about the old 42nd Street and the dawn of pornography’.”
At that point, Simon had no plan to proceed with The Deuce and Franco, some time later, found himself reading Difficult Men, Brett Martin’s book about television showrunners, which included a section on Simon. His interest in working in television, generally, and with Simon, specifically, was rekindled.
“I was so drawn to this new kind of design of television shows,” Franco says.
So he called Simon. “I was like, I’m in,” Franco says. “That show about 42nd Street, how do we do it? We had to go shoot a pilot because HBO had Vinyl, another show about New York in the ’70s. We shot it and it was great and they picked us up.”
The series does not use overt signalling to differentiate between the two brothers.
“These are identical twins and they don’t have the exact same style but they look pretty similar,” Franco says.
“To differentiate them, it came down to behaviour and energy and how they speak and that kind of thing. Frankie’s a much more kind of swinging dude, he’s a degenerate gambler, he’s a bit of a ladies’ man, and he doesn’t take responsibility for anything. Vincent is the responsible one.”
Franco also directed two episodes, noting that the scripts were densely packed with detail. “These guys [Simon and co-writer Pelecanos], they come from journalism and writing, if there’s one thing they know how to do, it’s research,” he says.
“There was plenty of material that they just gave me that I could read and look at, but more than that, I had already done a lot of the research, watching my favourite movies from the ’70s, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Serpico,Dog Day Afternoon and The French Connection.”
The era depicted in the series is, in relative terms, a somewhat innocent time, Franco says.
“Of course, there was exploitation and all this stuff happening but compared to where porn went and a lot of things that are happening in pornography now, it was in some ways a lot more innocent,” he says. “They were trying to tell stories. There were actually porn films that had artistic aspirations.”
One of the episodes Franco directed deals with a groundbreaking piece of gay cinema, Boys in the Sand, a pornographic film notable because it was considered legitimate enough to be reviewed in the Hollywood trade newspaper, Variety.
“They were trying to do something there more than just titillate,” Franco says. “They were trying to do something artsy. The period we’re depicting and the films, a lot of the films, or some of the films that they were making at that time were very different than what you’ll find nowadays streaming online.”
The drawcard for fans of Simon’s work, Franco says, is that The Deuce takes on an almost Dickensian examination of its world and the people who inhabit it.
“Now, I think David Simon’s porn is political corruption, that’s what gets him off,” Franco says. “[But] here we’ve got characters on all levels of society and that’s what’s exciting.
“I think that was one of the most exciting things about The Wire. You’re looking at the drug war, but you’re not looking at it just from the police force’s point of view and you’re not looking at it just from the dealer’s point of view, you’re looking at it from all sides. That’s what we have here.”
WHAT: The Deuce
WHEN: Showcase, Monday, 11am and 8.30pm