Why David Simon Took on the Sex Industry as a 'Middle-Aged White Man'
'The Deuce' creators David Simon and George Pelecanos tell us about the challenges of getting porn and sex work right.
Images courtesy of HBO. | Art by Noel Ransome
David Simon knows how to convey a message through an ecosystem—a network of plots and sub-plots that illustrate a basic message. The Wire, a show that I consider my undeniable favorite, played with this multi-perspective style of storytelling as it related to the theme of "power." In the case of his latest series, helmed with former directing partner and co-creator George Pelecanos, The Deuce attempts a similar scope by focusing on the theme of exploitation, whether by rightful capitalism or pure greed.
Taking place in and around the Times Square of 1970s New York, this is a world endorsed by currency—from the pimp, to the prostitute, to the porn director, to the bar owner. The sex industry of this time began with the corner hustle—heads bent over rolled-down windows—to legalized pornography, where women initially were the product but rarely benefited from the profit.
It was a risky gamble for two men in David Simon and George Pelecanos to take on this subject matter without demonizing a world they never lived or made a living from. So I met up with both minds during the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about the decisions that went into making sure that The Deuce was a great show, without falling into the trap of mansplaining.
VICE: Let's get this out there. You're obviously two white guys doing a story about prostitution featuring predominantly female actors.
George Pelecanos: I like middle-aged white males better.
David Simon: Also use the word "lumpy."
Fair enough. With these facts in mind, I have to wonder how much logistically went into making sure that this wasn't going to fall into a misogyny trap given how hyper-aware people are these days to improper undertones and your privilege.
First of all, we asked ourselves a question about why we're doing this. One of the things that I think happens a lot in television is that people want to have a franchise. They want to get an audience and keep it for as long as they can. Any industry where there's a lot of money in it falls in that same space and keeping that show up is always a part of the job. People have a tendency to not really think through what job number one really is, though, which is being given an opportunity to tell a story. Why are we telling that story? We had to analyze that. And because this story was pitched to us, the story of these two brothers along with all the characters and people they knew during this critical moment, we had a chance to ask ourselves that question. Honestly, we weren't looking for a porn show.
Upon having that world exposed to us, it was about figuring out what to do with it. After that came the execution, and we needed to surround the entire production with women. Not just as a matter of demographic or political correctness, but the point of view of the show had to expand in many critical ways and be decidedly feminine. We made sure that was reflected in the writing room and made sure it was reflected in half of our directors including Michelle [MacLaren, of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones] on the template of empowered women. We wanted to empower the actresses to be able to talk to us and contribute to their roles. We encouraged argument and debate. It always gets better with argument. It couldn't be a boys version of this topic—that would be a disaster, ethically and artistically.
It also extended to the scenes. They weren't overly sexualized to the point of being soft-core porn. There was a tinge of dirtiness to everything.
Pelecanos: I mean even the lighting is deliberately unbeautiful. It's unflattering at times and the one exception of that is when people who are in love are making love and then it looks a bit nicer. It looks softer because that's how you feel. To have a stranger get on top of you—not so much and we were trying to convey that feeling. Those rooms in The Deuce looked the way they did look, awful. It's not a place where you want to have sex.
Simon: Everything is intended to make that kind of sex blunt and transactional and that's important. It's important to show the sex work and it's important to show what pornography is. If you really allude to it or try to be visually censorious with it you're on the road to making Pretty Women. You're cleaning up what sex work actually is. You're sort of leaching all of the emotional carnage that comes from this level of alienation. You're taking all of that out and in doing so allowing the idea for viewers that something sexy happened here, they just didn't show it to me. Now maybe not, maybe that isn't what happened.
On the other hand, if the camera lingers too long, if the camera enjoys itself, if the camera becomes voyeuristic or prurient, then you fell off of the other side of the fence. So all of us that have engaged in the project; from the writing in the writer's room, to the directing, acting, editing especially, to all of the post work. There were lots of discussions that went on, frame by frame, about what we're doing with the camera, why is it here, why is it staying here? That had to be foremost.
And as we get back into that motivation for the script, the danger in providing a wrong message was always there. Why take on that risk of giving off the wrong message when it came to this sort of subject matter?
For me, once I started to hear the stories about what happened to the people that were the pioneers at this moment when pornography went from being a brown paper bag industry that made people tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to being what it became, which is an industry that's transformed culture and now makes billions of dollars. What I heard in my mind was, Man, there's an allegory for market capitalism here that really appeals to me politically. I want to use this moment when the product was actually labor. It wasn't as though labor was being left behind as we so often do in our economic model, but it was the labor that was the product. So what a great place to make a stand. Plant the flag, and make an allegory about what has happened with market capitalism and why this level of equity has become the American way. For me, it was, man, we can do some business here.
Pelecanos: What's kind of interesting is that while we were shooting this, our idea of the show changed, too. It was during the presidential campaign, and everybody was hyper aware of what was happening last summer. I think when candidate Trump talked about grabbing pussy, I thought at the time, Well, that's a good thing because there ain't no way in the world Americans are going to elect this guy now. But when you saw that he was still standing a few days after that, that was the talk on the set amongst everybody, including the actresses. I think in a way, it jacked everybody up. We then wanted to really bring the misogyny of what was going on in the show to the forefront because if we can humanize these people that you normally turn your head away from when you're driving down the street, say prostitutes on the corner, then you can look at yourself and your own attitude toward women.
If anything comes out of this, that's what I'd like, for people to question that. Because there's no question in my mind that all of this imagery that's been going on now for 50 years has influenced the psyche of boys and men about how they think about and talk about women. It's obvious. Without being moralistic about it, I'm for freedom of speech and pornography comes under that heading, but there's a downside to it, too, obviously, because misogyny is so pervasive in our society right now—more so than ever I think.
Yeah, and even though you hold that view, The Deuce never really demonizes the industry in its narrative. When you look at the systematic plots and subplots about this show that very much mirrors The Wire. What do you think it says about what needs to be done about the sex industry in relation to how it was in that previous era?
Simon: God. Just give every sex worker a strong union, and I think you're on the road to doing a lot of good. But that's kind of true of the nature of what's happened to the economy, in this era of globalization, which is that labor has been marginalized and mass capitalism has won most of its battles, and fewer and fewer workers have less and less dignity. I think, in some fundamental way, the most vulnerable people who are doing the hardest work in society are most deserving of the protection of collective bargaining and unionization.
My whole thing is the idea around the lie that markets were going to show us all the things that society values, and we've been operating on sequence for about 40 years. That the market would determine the true value of things. It's so ridiculously destructive. I'm not against capitalism. You can't be in the 21st century. This argument was already decided in the 20th century. We get that it's an incredibly effective way for generating mass wealth, but it's not the only metric by which we measure how we behave to each other and what society we build. It's got to be married to other metrics.
I think you're right. I think we've been very nonjudgmental about sex work and pornography. I don't think we're particularly interested in making the show about some sort of grand moral judgment about sex work or pornography. What we are interested in is on an economic level. Where did the money go? Who profited? Who was exploited? And how did power and money wrap itself around this new industry? Maybe, on a slightly more philosophical and moral level, what did it do to how men and women look at one another and how we behave toward one another? What did it do to our own sense of sexuality to have 50 years of this imagery that has become more and more ubiquitous? A lot has been said about our own childhoods. Stealing your dad's Playboy, only the pictures were the grand adventure into the mystery of sexual awareness. It pales in comparison to what a ten or 12-year-old now has at his fingertips. Again, it's a first amendment issue, and I'm not particularly interested in censorship, but we could really attend to how this is changing, particularly after this last campaign the way you saw it play out. I mean at VICE, do you have on-air female personalities?
Oh yeah, I mean we intentionally strive to.
With the greater anonymity of social media, what comes in their feeds?
Hate, a lot of it. Far more than the men on our teams, I'm sure.
Well, you can't tell me that the 50-year run-up of increasingly volatile misogynistic imagery hasn't in some way informed the way men either anonymously, or sometimes in the case of the non-anonymous, directly address women, how they feel, and what men feel comfortable with delivering to women. It's not like it was pure before, but something has been unleashed. Something has been made legitimate sexually speaking that I don't think was legitimate 40 years ago.
And going off of changing perspectives, speak on Maggie Gyllenhaal who plays "Candy," a pimp-less prostitute. The amazing addition she brought to the table in helping audiences understand that nuanced point of view.
Pelecanos: We love her in the circle. We made [her] a real producer so that she had input into her character. She read the scripts before we published them, and she actually talked to us, going deep into the season about who she thought her character was versus how we were writing her, and we listened, and she was right about a lot of things. There's even a point where she develops a relationship with some guy who's not a John, and a lot of that was her input. Wanting to explore that and her own sexuality off the street. She also saw herself as an artist rather than a business person who just hadn't yet awakened to that fact until she started shooting porn herself. That was a detour we took because of her.
Simon: That's sort of a prime example of making sure this wasn't a boy's story. Let the women in, let's have a discussion. There were times when I had to talk her down off of an idea, where she felt we veered away from something. So it goes both ways, but the point is that if there's a real dialectic there you have a chance to build because let's face it, that's a brave role, and you're asking her to do things that are so blunt and outwardly provocative that if she's not doing it for the right reasons, and you're not chasing the same things, she's vulnerable. I think that's probably true in a lot of cases, even in those that don't involve sexuality or nudity. But there's an added element here. So her concerns were entirely reasonable. In fact, if she didn't have concerns, I would've worried.
As a couple of white men who came to this project having known less than you do now, what do you think you came away with thus far into the season?
Pelecanos: I'm still trying to evolve, and this goes for a lot of stuff I do. I wouldn't have been qualified to do this show 20 or 25 years ago. It's not that I had an awful attitude about women; it's more, like, I didn't care, to be quite honest [ laughs].
Simon: Yeah, when I was in my 30s, I'm not sure I wanted to know what women really thought. I was terrified. The years start to beat up on you, and you sort of like, well, it's time to be able to write the women. I've got to think about this a little harder. You get to be a little more reflective, but this wasn't a show I would've tried to write in my 30s. No way.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.