’Deuce’ Creators Capture The Birth Of America’s Billion-Dollar Porn Industry | WBEZ
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'Deuce' Creators Capture The Birth Of America's Billion-Dollar Porn Industry

Is it possible to create a realistic television series about the commodification of sex workers and porn actors without being exploitative? That's the dilemma David Simon and George Pelecanos faced while creating their new HBO series, The Deuce.

"We didn't particularly want to do a show about pornography," Pelecanos says. "David and I worked on this for two or three years before we shot any film, and it was continually on our minds: How were we going to approach it?"

Set in New York City's Times Square in the early 1970s, the series depicts prostitution and the growth of porn from a small-time business to a big industry. Every episode contains explicit sexual content, but its creators went out of their way to avoid what Simon refers to as "pornographic tableaux."

During shooting and editing, Simon explains, the goal was to "restrict the camera's use as a titillating agent." Sometimes that meant changing the lighting in order to lessen the erotic impact of a scene. Other times, it meant being cognizant of how long the camera lingered on exposed breasts.

But both men say that avoiding an exploitative approach was only half of the challenge; they were also wary of presenting a view of the industry that was too sanitized.

"If you're going to do a piece that's explicitly about the sexual commodification of women ... then you have to show what that is ... and be direct about the fact that that is a very coarse product and very painful, " Simon says. "You don't want to be prurient — but if you're puritan as well, now you're saying something else."

Interview Highlights

On capturing the moment when porn shifted from an underground enterprise to a full-fledged industry

David Simon: Here's a moment where an economy and an industry comes into being almost overnight. What isn't legal, what is furtive, what is being sold out of car trunks and from under counters suddenly is available and the profit is going to increase geometrically to where now pornography is a multi-billion-dollar business. So let's follow that.

Let's take a look back at this moment and see who paid the cost. What happened to the pioneers, the real pioneers?

On recreating the look and feel of the early '70s

George Pelecanos: We went after realism in all aspects of the art direction — costume, cars. We really wanted to get it right. The '70s films that I cut my teeth on were my favorite films, those time-capsule movies shot in New York — locations, not sets — like [The] French Connection, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, some of the blaxploitation films like Black Caesar [which was] shot in Harlem. We really wanted this to look like a film that had been shot in '71 and put away somewhere and just got rediscovered.

On the Times Square bar owner and his twin brother (both played by James Franco) who inspired the series

Pelecanos: This bar that he had was an unusual place for that time because, at the time, you had segregated bars: You had the gay bars downtown, you had black bars, white bars, that kind of thing. He welcomed everybody into this place. So he knew prostitutes, pimps, porn actors, politicians, journalists; gay and straight, transgender. ...

He was the kind of guy that, although he was complicit in a lot of the things that we're going to get to on the show, he had a live-and-let-live attitude. The fact that he had a brother ... [who] dragged him into a lot of bad situations created conflict, which was natural for drama for us.

On the importance of developing characters outside of their sex scenes

Simon: We have these things called tone meetings when a director would come for an episode, and of course there would be sexually explicit scenes in every episode. ... So we would get to these scenes, and the one thing we kept telling them was, ... "OK, you've got some scenes on a porn set. I'm much more interested in a moment where the food run comes, and the sandwiches come for everybody, and they're standing around dividing up the sandwiches than I am in the moment where the camera is recording people having sex."

That doesn't mean that there aren't moments where we have to, for purposes of story, depict the sexual activity, and it doesn't mean we're trying to avoid anything. It's trying to make all the moments neutral, that there's as much character development in what happens between the shots as there is in the actual sexuality you're depicting.

On how porn has come to affect every aspect of our lives

Simon: Porn itself — even beyond the actual pornography, even beyond the actual dirty movies and the dirty pictures — it changed the way we look at ourselves, the way men look at women, the way women respond to the reality of what's in men's brains at this point.

We don't sell anything without using the tropes of pornography. We don't sell beer or cars or blue jeans without in some way referencing a lot of what has become normalized imagery and normalized culture through the ubiquity of pornography over the last 50 years.

It's been a long time. It's been half a century that this stuff has been in the ether. ... The "pornographication" of America has been profound. You don't have a multi-billion-dollar industry operating every year and not have it transform the way we think about ourselves and each other.

Lauren Krenzel and Heidi Saman produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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