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October 03, 2017

The Man Behind 'The Deuce': David Simon on the Origins of Porn

In this interview, exclusive to AVN, writer Nicholas Adam talks with David Simon, creator of The Deuce, about the series' origin, its intents and its source materials. Known for shows such as Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire and Treme, David Simon’s transition from journalist to television producer has enabled him to bring an authenticity to his fictions few others can achieve. After working with HBO to produce The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme and Show Me a Hero, Simon again partnered with this network to create The Deuce. Set in 1970s New York City, The Deuce centers on the legalization of pornography. The title of the show even comes from the nickname for 42nd Street, which was the cultural heart of grindhouse and pornography film production at this time. For David Simon, who took time to answer questions from AVN, The Deuce is “a story about the pioneers of that new industry, about labor and management, about who got paid and who didn’t and where the money and power were routed. And, too, it’s a narrative about a product that once unleashed has transformed the American culture landscape.” In short, The Deuce is about the birth of the modern porn industry and how its birth would reverberate through American society. The Reality Behind The Deuce The idea for a show, in Simon’s words, “about the Times Square demimonde and the rise of pornography in American culture in the 1970s and early 1980s” was initially pitched by Marc Henry Johnson to Simon and one of his writing partners, George Pelecanos. Johnson knew Simon from working as an assistant locations manager on one of Simon’s shows years ago. Outside of this work, Johnson had been developing material from a guy who worked with the mob during the porn boom of the ’70s and ’80s, along with his twin and brother-in-law. Johnson continuously pushed for Simon and Pelecanos to meet with this guy and hear his story. However, the idea to set a show in the middle of the Golden Age of Porn originally didn’t initially interest Simon and Pelecanos. “We were reluctant for a number of reasons,” Simon stated, “not the least of which is that the idea of a show set in the nascent porn industry seemed, on first reckoning, to be exploitative and crass.” “I don’t see pornography or prostitution overall as enhancing the status or power of women in our society,” Simon revealed as he shared his thoughts on adult entertainment. “In fact, when I look at this past election and the misogynistic dynamic that was applied to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy—or the wave of contempt that greets any woman journalist or essayist who attempts to opine in our public space—I believe that the ubiquity and tone of modern pornography has energized and validated a misogynistic dynamic.” This mindset changed when on a trip to New York, Simon and Pelecanos finally met this person with Marc. After “listening to his stories about this world over the course of several hours, we realized that there was something here to be explored dramatically,” Simon said. “Not only were the characters and the culture intriguing, but more than that, the material began to speak to us with regard to larger themes: capitalism, misogyny, etc.” Once Simon was on board with the idea of developing this show, he and many of those involved in The Deuce’s production began researching further into the period. The Deuce’s research team was aided by the Rialto Report, several books on the subject, and a variety of consultants. Maggie Gyllenhaal learned more about her role by talking to porn actress Annie Sprinkle and reading Tina Russell’s biography, Porno Star. To further flesh out Gyllenhaal’s character, Eileen “Candy” Merrell, and to understand this period better, Simon and his team specifically researched the life and career of Candida Royalle.  Royalle, the producer/director who began her career as an adult actress in 1975 and was part of the Golden Age of Porn, passed away in 2015 and Simon had the honor of attending her memorial service.   Simon also highlighted a conversation he had with Veronica Hart, who performed in adult films in the early ’80s before transitioning to directing, as particularly impactful. “I have to credit one brief, but very honest and thoughtful conversation I had with Veronica Hart about the industry,” Simon said. “I’ve had some of what she told me in my head since that event.”  How Much Can They Show? As The Deuce developed there was the inevitable question of how much sex the show could depict. While HBO has shows such as Game of Thrones, Girls, True Blood and many more that depict sex, the network’s scripted programs have yet to show explicit sex acts. Given that The Deuce is about the porn industry, the team producing the show had to decide just how realistic they wanted the sex on the show to be. According to Simon, the directors and the producers (which include Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco) have the ultimate say of where the show’s line is drawn, due to HBO giving them no specific guidelines. “Generally, we are trying to stay on a fence that prevents us from becoming either prurient or puritan,” Simon explained. “If we are indulging ourselves with images that are solely pornographic in purpose, rather than an essential point of narrative or narrative texture, then we are making porn to critique porn, and that would be an affront. On the other hand, if we are merely alluding to the ‘what’ pornography or sex work is, then we are on a bad journey to making another Pretty Woman. The point is to be honest about the story and what we are trying to say.” The Forgotten Worlds of 1970s Porn Production and NYC The Deuce, above all else, is a period piece that allows viewers to learn for the first time how the porn industry and New York City operated during this era, or to remember the decade more accurately. What may come as a shock to many is the difference in financial scales between porn of the 1970s and today. While the porn industry currently deals with several billion dollars of profits annually, the adult film industry of the ’70s was merely, according to Simon, “looking at millions in revenue.” Viewers might also be surprised to learn that at the time there was the belief that pornography could become a respected art form. After all, the Golden Age of Porn saw Andy Warhol direct 1969’s Blue Movie—an adult movie released for general audiences that would soon be followed by Deep Throat, Mona, Behind the Green Door, The Devil in Miss Jones, and many more.  “There was a moment in the 1970s when sexual liberation and the novelty of watching people fuck on film in venues more public than someone’s basement convinced a good many people that they were somehow creating a new art form, that porn was going to be chic and accepted culturally by the mainstream as, well, more than porn,” Simon told AVN.  This early goal for pornography soon faded away. “That moment passed, of course,” Simon explained. “Porn stayed porn, albeit today’s internet version is geometrically more coarse, hardcore and misogynist than what preceded it in the theaters of midtown New York forty years ago.” Like many shows and movies set in New York City, the setting is as much a character as the people the actors portray. Wanting to depict NYC proved to be a challenge, because, as Simon stated, “There’s nothing left of the New York of 1971. Virtually nothing. “A forty-year run-up on Wall Street has transformed Manhattan and even much of the outer boroughs and the Hudson shore of New Jersey into a playground for the rich and up-and-coming.”  To create an approximation of NYC in the ’70s, The Deuce was mostly shot uptown in Washington Heights and used judicious art direction and set dressing, along with CGI. “We’ve done what we can, on the budget we have, to try to recapture the earlier New York using careful research,” Simon detailed, “controlling the camera direction and some attention to detail.” The Golden Age of Porn’s Politics and Legacy As with all of David Simon’s scripted shows, The Deuce provides a space to uniquely explore the evolution of the porn industry and how it rippled through American life. When discussing The Deuce’s relevancy to today’s porn industry, Simon explained “that the same dynamic that existed in the 1970s exists today, that labor is still marginalized and removed from the revenue stream for pornography.”  “It’s more of an affront in this industry, I feel, because the product is in fact the laborer. And the people in front of the camera—unorganized, young, vulnerable—are always working for short, up-front money. It’s long been said that no one needs a union more than sex workers; that probably holds true for adult actors as well.” In addition to exploring the lack of workers’ rights in the adult entertainment industry, The Deuce shows how the groundwork was created for pornography to influence industries and cultural institutions. When discussing this point, Simon said, “Madison Avenue learned every damn trick, didn’t it? So, in many respects, did Hollywood. Our cultural landscape now leers at us even when everyone’s clothes are still on. The visual cues of pornography now appear everywhere, and we are inured to them to the point that I’m not sure we recognize some as being pornographic.” After the Episodes – Audience Takeaways  Simon’s shows have always impacted viewers in such a way that viewers are left thinking about the issues brought up in a series and inspired to discuss these topics with friends. The Deuce is just such a show, weaving together characters and story lines that will leave viewers contemplating what they have witnessed.    When discussing how this show reflects American society, Simon shared, “I certainly see it as an allegory for unrestrained capitalism and the corruptive notion that market forces can provide all the metrics we need to maintain a just and inclusive society.”  “This is a story about a moment in time when a product was under-the-counter, brown-paper-bag illegal and then, suddenly, is rendered legal,” Simon continued. “It’s a story about the pioneers of that new industry, about labor and management, about who got paid and who didn’t and where the money and power were routed. And, too, it’s a narrative about a product that once unleashed has transformed the American culture landscape. We don’t sell beer or cars or blue jeans without referencing the vernacular of pornography at this point. It’s changed not only the way we view sex, it’s changed intimacy itself, and the way men and women view each other.” As audiences, critics, and scholars learn of The Deuce and begin to deconstruct its meanings and intents, Simon seems to hope that they reflect on the ugly truths about how Americans treat all aspects of sexuality. “I think the main aspiration of our narrative is to, well, rub our noses in what we have wrought and make all of us—men, especially, but women as well—more thoughtful and honest about how and why we have coarsened ourselves and our society,” Simon continued. “I’d like people to think a little more about a dynamic that has become a pervasive part of American life.” The fifth episode of The Deuce airs at 9 p.m. on Sunday, October 8. Catch the first four on HBO GO.

 
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