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

Sep 27, 2017
Originally published on September 28, 2017 11:19 am

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 multibillion-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 re-creating 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 multibillion-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.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DEUCE")

JAMES FRANCO: (As Frankie Martino) All right. Everybody, drinks on me, OK? What are you having?

GROSS: That's James Franco playing a bartender serving a clientele of pimps, prostitutes, cops, criminals and businessmen in the new HBO series "The Deuce." My guests are the series' creators - David Simon, who also created "The Wire" and co-created "Treme," and George Pelecanos, a crime novelist who wrote for both series. "The Deuce" is set in Times Square, beginning in 1971, before Disney moved in, when 42nd St. was a center of prostitution, adult bookstores, peep shows and movie theaters. The series follows the pimps and prostitutes who work the streets, the cops who patrol them, the mob that's trying to expand there and the city government leaders who are trying to figure out what to do about Times Square.

The characters don't know it yet, but the porn industry is about to take off and become a big business. James Franco stars in two roles - Vincent, the bartender and his ne'er-do-well identical twin brother, Frankie, who's gambled away his money and is in debt to the mob. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a prostitute who has always refused to work with a pimp and is hoping to get out of the trade by learning to make porn films.

David Simon, George Pelecanos, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on "The Deuce." So lots of people know the Disney version of Times Square, the current version of Times Square. Remind us what it was like in 1971, the year when "The Deuce" begins.

DAVID SIMON: We start in 1971 on this show. And at that point, the middle of Manhattan, the Midtown area, was really given over to a lot of vice. It was, of course, the theater district, but that was coexisting with a lot of depressed real estate, a lot of prostitution, some street drug trafficking. It had become a New York that seemed to be failing in some very basic ways.

GROSS: Two of the main characters in "The Deuce" are identical twins, both played by James Franco. Vincent runs a bar that caters to a lot of cops and sex workers. And his brother is a gambler and, you know, someone who is always getting into trouble. They're based on two real identical twins who I think you met or at least you met one of them?

GEORGE PELECANOS: Well, we met the character whose name is Vincent on the show, the bar owner. And his brother had passed and he actually passed away before we shot the pilot. But David and I spent a good deal of time with him. And it was his stories that - and his delivery, in a way, that got us interested to begin with. You know, we didn't particularly want to do a show about pornography. And we almost grudgingly took the meeting with this guy.

But after we spoke to him, the story started to come alive for us because he knew so many people. Their arcs were so defined. And this bar that he had was an unusual place for that time because, you know, 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, you know, politicians, journalists, gay and straight, transgender. And 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. So - and the fact that he had a brother that was sort of not a bad guy but he dragged him into a lot of bad situations created conflict which was, you know, natural for drama for us.

GROSS: So you liked this guy?

SIMON: I would say I liked a good bit of him, yeah.

GROSS: Right (laughter). Fair enough.

SIMON: I mean, you know, he's problematic. He was problematic in certain ways, but there was a lot of charm to him, I will say. But then, you know, at the same time, there were moments where, you know, he would tell us a story about somebody and we would say, what happened to her? And, you know, the answer was never that she married a podiatrist and moved to Scarsdale and had three kids. It was always - the vast majority of stories were attritive. And so you started to get that vibe as well.

GROSS: So the series is also about pornography and how pornography is changing. And I want to play a short clip here. There's a scene where one of the prostitutes, Darlene, finds out that one of her johns has kind of not only made a film of them having sex but he sold it and it's being sold under the counter at the local bookstore that has a lot of porn that it sells under the counter. And so she goes in to try to get her hands on one of these films and find out who's making money off of her surreptitiously like this. So here's Dominique Fishback as Darlene and E.J. Carroll as the bookstore owner.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DEUCE")

DOMINIQUE FISHBACK: (As Darlene) OK, move.

E J CARROLL: (As Fat Mooney) Darlene, what you need?

FISHBACK: (As Darlene) A movie of myself. I heard you're running it in a machine over there.

CARROLL: (As Fat Mooney) Could be, I don't know.

FISHBACK: (As Darlene) And I'm guessing you've got copies people can buy too.

CARROLL: (As Fat Mooney) I'll have to check the inventory.

FISHBACK: (As Darlene) Do that.

CARROLL: (As Fat Mooney) I only have two left. You're very popular.

FISHBACK: (As Darlene) "Backdoor Betty"? How much do you sell these for?

CARROLL: (As Fat Mooney) Fifty to chumps, 35 to regulars. Why?

FISHBACK: (As Darlene) Where did they come from? Who puts them out?

CARROLL: (As Fat Mooney) Who?

FISHBACK: (As Darlene) What are you, an owl? Whose movie is it?

CARROLL: (As Fat Mooney) Darlene, what do you want, an address? I don't [expletive] know.

FISHBACK: (As Darlene) You don't know?

CARROLL: (As Fat Mooney) You may have heard, but it's illegal to have sex for money. And it's illegal to sell pictures of people having sex for my money. I mean, cheesecakes, you know, OK. But the hardcore stuff stays in paperbacks. I can't even put it out in the store. So who? Not a sensible question for me.

FISHBACK: (As Darlene) Where do you get them from?

CARROLL: (As Fat Mooney) I get them. Take them if you want. I don't care. Go. Go.

FISHBACK: (As Darlene) Buy one back from me - 10 bucks.

CARROLL: (As Fat Mooney) Jesus.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER DINGING)

FISHBACK: (As Darlene) It's the least you could do.

GROSS: Oh, I'm just listening to the sound of the cash register (laughter), the ringing and the drawer closing.

SIMON: That's an anachronism, isn't it?

GROSS: Yeah, absolutely. I love that guy's voice, the guy who's the bookstore owner.

PELECANOS: Yeah, he was great.

GROSS: Yeah. Anyway, so tell us what the laws were at the time. Like, he's talking about how it's not only illegal to sell sex, it's illegal to show people selling sex. What are the porn laws at the time, 1971?

PELECANOS: Well, you couldn't show penetration basically was the big one. So even the machines, when you went into these places, they had to be - they were supposed to be edited so that that was not being shown. And the movies that were out, you know, it was almost OK if it was a foreign film and it was under the guise of a documentary like "Sex USA" or, you know, before that, it was "I Am Curious Yellow" and all these Swedish films. But if it was a narrative, if it was a story where you were - showed people having sex, that was illegal. And then it busted out. You know, all of a sudden, it became fine to show these things.

GROSS: Did the laws change?

SIMON: Not really. This was sort of an ambiguous period. And to hear the people who were involved in pornography tell it, it was kind of like, we'll push a little further. We'll push the envelope back a little further. We'll see if this flies, if that flies. One of the big moments, I think, for New York was actually a gay film called "Boys In The Sand" which we make reference to and we actually show a clip of in the piece which is - there was a hardcore gay film made on Fire Island in '70, '71 - 70? - I think it was - and exhibited in '71. And it played at an art house.

And for whatever reason, it was - I guess because, you know, they had Ravel and some other composers - I mean, it was sort of, you know, it - that kind of was artfully filmed despite the hardcore content. It managed to sustain itself in a regular theater for eight, nine, 10 months in New York. And, you know, anybody who was at the edge of the skin trade sort of looked up and said, how are they not getting rated?

And it was one of those first moments of, man, nobody can really tell the difference between what's obscene and what isn't anymore. It's not the old adage - the old Supreme Court adage of we know it when we see it. And so once that became an open-ended debate, a lot of judges, a lot of superior court judges in New York were not going to sentence you for an obscenity case anymore. Once that happened, it fell to the community standard logic. And of course places like New York and San Francisco had much more lax standards for what they were willing to tolerate than other places.

PELECANOS: And that also brings up an interesting point about the nature of the content. At this point in time, people - filmmakers - pornographers actually had artistic aspirations, you know? They were - they wanted to make good porn movies. And so you had films like, a little bit later, "Behind The Green Door" and "Devil In Miss Jones," and this was after "Deep Throat."

And of course, the funny thing is now - is that we've reverted back to the roots of pornography, meaning, if you get on your laptop and look at porn, it's basically 10-minute loops that go right to the money shot. They've given up on any art - you know, aspirations for art. But it went backwards.

GROSS: Well, you don't - and you don't need that to justify it anymore (laughter) and...

PELECANOS: I don't think so, no.

SIMON: Not at all, not at all.

GROSS: And I think people watching at home, they just want to kind of get to the point.

SIMON: Well...

PELECANOS: Well...

SIMON: It...

GROSS: If they want a plot, they'll watch "The Deuce." (Laughter) Do you know what I mean?

SIMON: It became a vehicle for sexual release. I mean, that moment of porn chic when some of the people making the films had this one window of believing that they were on the way to creating some new genre of - cinematic genre - it was a very brief moment. And you could probably time the end of it to the arrival of VHS, of videotape, because at that point, the entire physical plant of places like The Deuce or North Beach in San Francisco - it became irrelevant. You didn't - you know, the raincoat crowd was no longer the audience. The audience was the American people - by and large, the American male, and it was going to his living room.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are the two creators of the new HBO series "The Deuce," David Simon and George Pelecanos, who have also written some of the episodes. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are David Simon and George Pelecanos. They created the new HBO series "The Deuce," which is set in Times Square on 42nd Street in 1971 when the sex trade and pornography were really what the area was about. And the series kind of traces how that - how the people and how that area change over time. And David Simon also created "The Wire" and "Treme," and George Pelecanos wrote for both of those series in addition to writing a lot of novels - crime novels.

So the Maggie Gyllenhaal character is the only prostitute in the series - the only sex worker in the series - who refuses to work with a pimp. If someone's going to pay for her services, she's going to get all the money. She's not going to give some of it to a pimp. She fills in for a woman in a porn shoot, and she gets very interested in, how is this put together?

The film that she's making, you know, that she's appearing in - this porn short - it's such a ridiculous film. It's, like, the women have blonde braids, and they're kissing each other, and then naked Vikings walk in. So, like, the naked guys walk in with Viking helmets and horns coming out of their helmets.

PELECANOS: Well, it is called "Great Dane In The Morning," Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter) I know. Yes, porn always has great titles. So anyways, were - did - were most of the - did you watch a lot of porn films of the era? And were they mostly as ridiculous as the one that you have in "The Deuce"?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Not that I intend to put you on the spot.

PELECANOS: We're still watching.

SIMON: Yeah, we're looking at each other and...

GROSS: Who's going to take this answer first?

SIMON: Are we going to admit on NPR that we had to buy a first-rate pornograph (ph) and put it in the middle of the office, and - yeah, we did look at - you know, we looked at what we were depicting, to be certain. And I mean, to be honest with you, I mean, I think we were about 11 and 12 in 1971. But by the late '70s, when New York was sort of at the height of this stuff, George and I were teenagers. We've - we're American men. We've probably have acquired a certain amount of pornography, I think it's safe to say.

So we're aware of what we're depicting, even what we're sort of remarking on at points in the show, of course. But, yeah, I think the point that we were trying to make in that first moment in the second episode was that Maggie's character of Candy is encountering the basement variety of how loops were made before even what they called the one-a-day wonders where they would...

GROSS: This is language a lot of people won't be familiar with - loops, one-day wonders.

SIMON: It's a guy shooting - minimal props. He's shooting it in his basement in the Bronx. He doesn't even have sound. He's not running sound. It is as close to, like, an 8 mm home movie as you could - you know, he's got a little bit of lighting and - but he's using an 8 mm camera. And he's - you know, you had to develop it either in your own bathroom or you were using a mob-run lab that used to put these things out. But these are not feature films. These were not anything that was intended to go anywhere but into a home projection camera or into a peep show. And that was sort of the prime logic of pornography until it was able to come out of the shadows.

GROSS: And you can tell the women in this short film are faking it. They're not even - they don't even know how to make it look real, if you know what I - it looks just, like, so - everybody's going through the motions. But - so when you were young and watching things like that, and you could tell this was, like, a really cheap, badly made production - everybody's faking it, but still, they're naked and engaged in sex. As artists yourselves, (laughter) you know, did you have this kind of disconnect between, like, the quality of the film and the sensations it was arousing in you?

SIMON: Terry, when I was 11 years old in 1971, I was trying to steal my Dad's Playboy and figure out, like, you know, what was going on. So I have to say, at a certain point, you know, the idea that I was looking in any way at pornography of any kind - you know, I was on the way even in high school to being a newspaper reporter. George was going to be a novelist. So I don't think we were looking at, like, looking at this stuff cinematically. We were just trying to figure out the mysteries of what we didn't know, you know?

I mean I think in retrospect, now looking back on what pornography has become in American life, how ubiquitous it is and what is at a 10 or 12 or 14-year-old kid's fingertips now on the Internet, that's interesting to me - the idea of how blunt and how frankly misogynistic a certain portion of that pornography is and how available it is because it was all - you know, whether it was pornographic or erotic or anything, it was all weirdly forbidden if - that's a word when I was a teenager. It was, you know - I mean I don't think I saw - George, I'm speaking for myself. But I honestly don't think I saw a porn loop until I was 18 or 19. You know, I had to be of age to walk into a dirty book store.

PELECANOS: That's right.

GROSS: Your turn, George.

PELECANOS: That's right.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Give it up George.

PELECANOS: You know, it wasn't a big part of my life. I can tell you that. We had theaters in D.C. We'd go, you know - I'd go down there with buddies of mine occasionally and check it out, but you knew what it was. I mean it was - you weren't looking for production values.

(LAUGHTER)

PELECANOS: And that's pretty much the case of all the exploitation movies I used to see and, you know, the karate films, blaxploitation. You know, it was just - it was another way to have fun.

SIMON: Grindhouse.

PELECANOS: Yeah, grindhouse. I mean - but I didn't think about it that much, and I didn't - and I sure didn't think about - you know, in the back of my mind, I might've thought, well, that's somebody's daughter, or that's somebody's sister, you know? And - but that was the extent of my, you know, my self-reflection.

GROSS: So I have to say. In this cheap movie that we're talking about within "The Deuce," the money shot is executed with the help of Campbell's potato soup (laughter).

PELECANOS: Can I...

GROSS: Is that a real thing?

PELECANOS: Can I just say?

GROSS: Is that a real thing that happened?

PELECANOS: You know, Richard Price...

GROSS: Is that, like, based on research?

PELECANOS: Richard Price wrote that.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: He researched it. Apparently it was an early remedy if the male performers had performed too quickly. It was a substitution. And he put that in there, and it stood the test of time. It made it through about three generations of scripts. And the cast and crew managed to execute it in such a way that it did speak to the amateurishness. And also bluntly, it spoke to what people were chasing when they were buying pornography. And I don't think that's changed. I don't think - you know, I don't think somehow we've reached some fresh level of maturity when it comes to pornography.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

SIMON: You know, I mean I think what we were trying to give you was a baseline of what was happening in people's basements before because you're about a year away from a hundred thousand dollars in mob money being spent on "Deep Throat," which would open with a red carpet at the world theater in N.Y. and would be treated to a Variety review and taken - it was a joke. It was a farcical plot.

And we now know there was this - there was a, you know - we now know the trauma of the actress, who was Linda Lovelace. We know a lot about it now. But at the time, it was also taken quite seriously as the beginning of something because it made an awful lot of money in theaters. And so it was attended to as a moment by a lot - and a lot of notable people went to see it.

GROSS: My guests are David Simon and George Pelecanos, the creators of the new HBO series "The Deuce." We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with the creators of the new HBO series "The Deuce," David Simon and George Pelecanos. Simon also created "The Wire" and co-created "Treme." Pelecanos wrote for both series and also writes crime novels. "The Deuce" is set on 42nd Street, around Times Square. It begins in 1971 when the street was the center for prostitutes, pimps and peep shows. Pornography was about to become a big business.

So you're working in difficult territory in making "The Deuce" because it's a series about women being sexually exploited by...

SIMON: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...Their pimps, by the johns who pay for them, by the cops...

SIMON: By the pornographers.

GROSS: ...And by the pornographers. So, like, you're in the position of making a series about women who are sexually exploited. You're going to be showing them naked. You're going to be showing them having sex. How do you do that without continuing to exploit the actresses playing the exploited women?

PELECANOS: Well, 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? And it went from conception to shooting to the editing room. You know, and sometimes we'd be in the editing room, and we'd say, you know, the camera's lingering on her breast. Let's take five seconds out of that.

But the other thing is it also - that we did that I think was very helpful was that we surrounded ourselves with a lot of women on the creative side. And so the writers room is - has women, you know - very good female novelists that we have, Megan Abbott, Lisa Lutz. Michelle MacLaren directed the pilot and the last episode. In fact half of our directors were women in an industry where it's - I think the figure is 15 percent. And many of the department heads - and our creative partner, Nina Noble, has been with David's for, you know, 20 years - was there with us every step of the way, keeping us honest, as were all these other people.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of one of the discussions or debates you had about how to handle a certain scene or what to show and what not to show?

SIMON: Well, this might give more insight. You know, when - 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 because as you point out, that's what it's about. This is about sexual commodification and the misuse - the use and misuse of women.

So we would get to these scenes, and the one thing that we kept telling them was the camera - I'm much more interested - I used to use this. I said, 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.

At the same time - and this is really important I think - is you're trying not to have the camera linger, as George says. You're trying to restrict the camera's uses as a titillating agent, as an exploitive agent. And so you're being really rigorous about what you're - you're trying not trying to light to make it more erotic or more pornographic. You're not trying to capture pornographic tableaus. You're chasing other things with the camera.

But the other thing that you cannot do is you can't merely allude to what pornography is because if you do that, if you start getting - you don't want to be prurient. But if you're Puritan as well, now you're saying something else. Now you're cleaning it up. Now you're taking what is pornography and what its uses and purposes and intent is, and you're making it into some off-screen joke. It becomes lighthearted. You're on your way to making "Pretty Woman".

And in some ways, if you're going to do a piece that is explicitly about the sexual commodification of women, that that's what it's about, then you have to show what that is. And you have to show what it is and be direct about the fact that that is a very coarse product and a very painful.

GROSS: So I think there's more of an awareness now of sex workers as having like, jobs - you know, that sex work is a job, that there's such a thing as harm reduction so that for people who are sex workers, like, there's ways of preventing - of helping them prevent getting sick, getting STDs. And I think there's more of an awareness now than there was in 1971 and more of a language for talking about that now than there was in 1971. Although in 1971, there was the beginnings of an awareness of that.

So I guess I'm wondering which lens you wanted to see the story through - through the lens of today or the lens of what people were thinking in 1971 or both at the same time.

SIMON: I think we wanted people to speak as they do in 1971. And again, you and I and George right now are having a discussion about theory and issues and things that if our characters were to speak this way, we would have a real problem. We would not have a functional or credible narrative.

GROSS: That is so true.

SIMON: But - and so I think the thing that really appealed to me - and it started to appeal to me even as we started to hear this man's stories about 42nd Street - was, 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 multibillion-dollar business. So let's follow that.

Let's take a look back at this moment and see who paid the cost. Who was - you know, what happened to the pioneers? I mean the real pioneers. And so I think that's what is anachronistic in our heads - is that, like, I think we know what was coming in terms of the next 30, 40 years in America.

GROSS: My guests are David Simon and George Pelecanos, the creators of the new HBO series "The Deuce". We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are David Simon and George Pelecanos, the creators of the new HBO series "The Deuce." Simon also created "The Wire" and "Treme." Pelecanos was a writer on both series. They're each writing some of the episodes of "The Deuce."

So it's interesting. The time that you're writing about, 1971, which is when "The Deuce" starts, it's all of these kind of coinciding movements. So you've got this, like - pornography's about to expand and enter the mainstream in a way that it never has before. At the same time, you've got the women's movement. You've got the gay rights movement. You've got the anti-war movement, you know, the counterculture. All of this stuff is happening at the same time, taking the culture in different directions at the same time. So how - do you want to address all of that simultaneity? There is one character already who (laughter) has nearly gotten fired for being against the war and for being a college student against the war on a construction site.

SIMON: I think that was a surrogate for actually Richard Price coming near to being escorted off of his father's - I think Price was that apprentice. But yeah, I mean we want to get to a good deal of that. If they give us - the piece is intended as a three-year arch. And if they give that to us, we would be coming back in the late-'70s, and then we'd be coming back in the mid-'80s, you know, for eight episodes in each sequence. And there's a lot that is about to happen, yes. Women Against Pornography is about to explode and become a reality...

GROSS: That's right. That's right.

SIMON: ...In this specific place, in Times Square. And in fact one of the - one of our characters in a, you know, fictionalized but, you know, in truth, in nonfiction sense, was one of the founders of that movement. So we're sort of prepping for that - for that moment of natural conflict between two fundamental ideas, one of which was sexual liberation and the idea of obscenity becoming a passe notion in American society and the other notion being, you know, what does it mean when women are objectified to this degree?

GROSS: David Simon, when you were a reporter in Baltimore, did you ever cover the police who were covering vice?

SIMON: Sure.

GROSS: So did you work in any things you learned about the sex trade from your years as a reporter? Did you work any of that into "The Deuce"?

SIMON: Maybe a little here and there. I mean Baltimore has a block. We have a red light district. We all kind of knew what happened in the back rooms on the block, you know, and that a lot of the dance clubs, a lot of the strip joints basically could act as brothels. There was certainly a number of street-walking strips. There was a male hustling strip. You know, it was part of the culture of the city that this existed. It's part - the same is in D.C. on 14th Street with, you know - this D.C. that George grew up in.

I think, to be honest, when I was in my 20s and covering it or even in my early 30s, I considered it a little bit of a joke. I don't think I thought about it with any degree of effort. You have to remember. Baltimore was in the throes of, you know, a great epidemic of violence related to the drug trade. So that seemed to me to be the sin - the great sin. And this seemed to be vice. And I sort of knew the difference and concentrated on the one. And I think I took the other one a little bit lighter.

And I think if that's changed at all - I mean I think I thought, well, this should be legalized and rationalized and regulated. I think I had that sensibility about it. But you know what? I thought that about the drug trade. So you know, the idea of prohibition seemed impractical. But I will say since then, in doing this piece, I've probably had more occasion to think about the lives of sex workers seriously than I have in, you know, previous - all previous years of adulthood.

GROSS: Did you meet a lot of sex workers as research to talk with them?

SIMON: Some. So I mean we've had people - we have consultants from sort of every aspect who we work with and we deal with. And we - you know, we vet the scripts, and we talk. And...

GROSS: Do you have an example of something that you learned from talking to sex workers that you wouldn't have realized without that conversation that was a helpful insight for "The Deuce"?

PELECANOS: When you talk to some of these people, it's just - some of it's horrifying. And everybody, you know - people have a different perspective on their own lives. So we have talked to people who have said to us in effect, don't feel sorry for me, you know? I've had a good life. I'm empowered - all of that.

SIMON: Yeah.

PELECANOS: But you know, there's been - there's a lot of attrition, too. And you know, without being a moralist, I mean I know that the libertarian wing of the people - many are for, you know, the legalization of prostitution, for example. But you know, there's also plenty of slavery involved in this - people coming - brought to this country working off their - working off their ticket here in the form of prostitution against their will. And there's not a lot positive that you can say about it after talking to folks who are in the industry.

SIMON: Yeah. I think we tended to get more positive feedbacks from some of the survivors of early porn. I went to a memorial service for Candida Royalle, who is a early adult actor and filmmaker who passed away recently. And I met a good deal of her colleagues. And I do remember having a conversation where I was starting to talk about, you know, what we had heard in terms of, you know, this bad outcome or this, you know - that it was an attritive lifestyle.

And somebody - actually it was Veronica Hart. It was the actress Veronica Hart said, you know what? You can't generalize, and be careful about generalizing because you will come across people who - they made a life. They were self-actualized. They controlled their bodies. They did it their way. She made a point. She said the only time I ever had anyone try to get me on a casting couch was in straight movies in LA. You know, that never actually - I didn't sleep with anybody I didn't want to sleep with when I was working in porn. And she was adamant that we not come up with one particular version of events. And so it made me wary.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are David Simon and George Pelecanos, the creators of the new HBO series "The Deuce." David Simon also created "The Wire" and "Treme." Pelecanos wrote for both of those series. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "INTO THE FOG")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are David Simon and George Pelecanos, the creators of the new HBO series "The Deuce," which begins in 1971 on 42nd Street, Times Square. And it's about the sex workers, the pimps and the cops who are there. And it's about how the sex trade and pornography is changing and how that area of the city is changing as well.

The clothing is so '70s. And one thing I have to say about the clothing - and I don't mean to sound old-fashioned or anything, but I'll just come out and say it. I was noticing Saturday night as I was walking down a street with a lot of clubs on it that all the young women were dressed as if they were in "The Deuce," as if they were like the prostitutes on the "The Deuce" with the very short shorts and the midriff tops.

And I - you know, I don't mean to sound, like, prudish or old-fashioned, but, like, that kind of clothing it's just what people wear now. You wouldn't see...

SIMON: Well, that's...

GROSS: ...Somebody wearing that and go like, oh, they must be a prostitute as you might have in 1971.

SIMON: And that - and that's something we also hope to address both subliminally, and I think there may be points where it actually can - you can actually reference it. But I think mostly you're going to have to get it, you know, looking in retrospective from today's world, which is this - that 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, you know, 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. And you know, in the same way that early pornography certainly took a lot of its tropes from mainstream film and played with them, it's gone the other way. And now I mean I think, you know, everything from fashion to music to regular cinema - the pornographication (ph) of America has been profound.

I mean you don't - listen; you don't have a multibillion-dollar industry operating every year and not have it transform the way we think about ourselves and each other. And I don't think anyone's got a good handle on the depth of that. I think it's happened so fast, and it's been so unexamined, so without any - I don't think anyone's examined it with any degree of seriousness. I'm not sure we know what we've built.

GROSS: I feel like we can't let this interview end without talking about "Taxi Driver" for a moment because...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Might as well.

GROSS: Yeah. Travis Bickle's always driving through his taxi past Times Square, probably past some of the same locations that you're trying to summon up even though you didn't shoot on location because Times Square looks nothing like it used to and...

PELECANOS: Right.

GROSS: ...There's no way of changing that. But there's one shot in particular from episode one where I thought, OK, that's Travis walking down the street. It's James Franco as Vincent walking down the street. And you see all the movie marquees, and there's lights behind him. And I thought, like, that is direct quote from "Taxi Driver," yes?

SIMON: I think Michelle did a remarkable job - Michelle McLaren - of directing the pilot and her finale for the first season. I think she went into a room with every single New York film from the '70s, you know? I think in that sequence, you not only have references to "Taxi Driver." I think when you see his shoes...

GROSS: "Saturday Night Live" - "Saturday Night Fever" (laughter).

SIMON: Exactly. You see his shoes on the pavement.

GROSS: Yeah.

SIMON: It was her first chance to shoot something in New York, and George gave her the note that we wanted this thing to feel like it was found in a vault having been made in 1971, that it wasn't the 2017 version of that New York, that it was shot with the same tonality as if it had been made then.

GROSS: Yeah.

SIMON: And she took that to heart.

GROSS: You know, that area of Times Square has always had a lot of movie marquees, you know, movie theaters and particularly in the early '70s when more people went to the movies. So I'm always interested in the movies that you have on the marquees (laughter). And in episode one, among the films you have on the marquees on 42nd Street is "The Conformist," which is a great Bernardo Bertolucci movie. And it's kind of like a - it's a very much an art film in a lot of ways - and then "Mondo Trasho," which is a John Waters film from 1969. It's the film he made before "Pink Flamingos." I think John Waters once told me that one of his dreams was (laughter) to have one of his movies play in a Times Square grindhouse. Was this you making his dream come true?

PELECANOS: Partly, yeah. I mean it did play in New York. I'm not sure which theater. But that - yeah, that was a - sort of a nod to John. And but most of the what you see in the marquees is actually what played, and the double bills are actually...

GROSS: With the exception of maybe "Mondo Trasho" (laughter).

PELECANOS: With that exception, yes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PELECANOS: And, you know, so at the time, it wasn't just soft X's. It was, you know, Grindhouse films and art films like the Bertolucci film. And we were pretty careful about that. Even, you know, to the point of making - some films were re-released with different titles, and I always made sure that it was the original title at the time of the release. But, you know, we went after realism in all aspects of the, you know, 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, you know, movies shot in New York locations, not sets, like "French Connection," "The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three," some of the blaxploitation films like "Black Caesar," which is 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.

SIMON: This is where George is totally in command. Nothing is more entertaining than going to an outdoor location for "The Deuce" and watching George march up and down the lines of cars until he finds the, you know, the 1973 Eldorado that should not be in the line from 1971. You know, it's like, you know - you would - you think you were going to get that opera window past me? You know, like, nothing is funnier. He's, you know, tyrannical. It's just wonderful.

GROSS: George, I'm assuming it's you who chose the theme for "The Deuce," the Curtis Mayfield song?

PELECANOS: Yeah, good call. You know, Mayfield was a hero, a personal hero of mine, just - not just for his music but his spirituality and how he stood up in a peaceful way to the horrible things that were happening to his people at that time. And so that particular cut was the first track off of his solo album, "Curtis," the one where he's wearing a lemon yellow suit on the cover. And it was sort of this shot across the bow of the psychedelic funk movement. And it's a great song. So it's almost like I achieved a life-long ambition to get a Curtis Mayfield song in the credits.

GROSS: And, of course, he did the songs for "Super Fly," which is probably like the most famous of the blaxploitation films.

PELECANOS: You know, I had an eight track deck in my Camaro. And I had three eight-track tapes. You know, I was on a budget. And one of them was "Super Fly" The other two were Led Zeppelin and Al Green's "Call Me." So there it is.

SIMON: Once on "The Wire," I tried to stage a comic moment to - I think it was either "Super Fly" or it was "Pusherman." It might have been "Pusherman."

PELECANOS: Yeah.

SIMON: But George came to me, closed the door to my office and said that if I went ahead, if I proceeded, he would have to leave the show because while it was OK to make fun of the theme from "Shaft," which we'd done in an earlier episode, if I made fun of Curtis Mayfield, he could no longer work on "The Wire." That's true. That's true.

PELECANOS: It is true.

GROSS: So let's hear it. This is Curtis Mayfield from 1970 and it's now being used as the theme for "The Deuce." But first, I want to thank you. David Simon and George Pelecanos, thank you so much and congratulations on the series.

PELECANOS: Thank you.

SIMON: Thank you.

GROSS: David Simon and George Pelecanos created the new HBO series "The Deuce." Episode four will be shown Sunday evening. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the new wave of lobbyists in President Trump's Washington and how the chaos and uncertainty within the Trump administration have affected how lobbyists operate. My guest will be New York Times political investigative reporter Nicholas Confessore, who covers wealth, power and influence in Washington. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURTIS MAYFIELD'S "(DON'T WORRY) IF THERE'S A HELL BELOW, WE'RE ALL GOING TO GO" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.