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‘The Deuce’: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michelle MacLaren on Taking Control of Women’s Stories and Why ’70s Porn is Better

At the premiere of "The Deuce," the series' producers discussed making an accurate '70s porn story with agency for each character.

The Deuce Pernell Walker, James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal Season 1 HBO

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

HBO’s upcoming original drama series “The Deuce,” created by David Simon and George Pelecanos (“The Wire”), follows the rise of the porn industry in gritty 1970s New York. The show begins its eight-episode run on September 10, and the pilot premiered this Friday night at IFC Center’s inaugural Split Screens TV Festival, with producer and star Maggie Gyllenhaal, director Michelle MacLaren, and Pelecanos in attendance.

“We had no burning desire to do a show about porn,” Pelecanos said during the panel. “It’s been done before. But the characters were too rich to ignore.”

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“The Deuce” is inspired by the careers of real brothers: Vincent Martino, who operated a Times Square bar in 1971, and his mob-connected twin Frankie (both played by James Franco). These two served as fronts for the Mafia and got involved in the sex industry’s early days.

“Their bar became a meeting place and watering hole for pimps, prostitutes, porn stars, police officers, journalists, musicians, downtown filmmakers, and a variety of outsiders and freaks,” Pelecanos said.

Michelle MacLaren directed both the pilot and the finale; her impressive credits include “The X-Files,” “The Walking Dead,” “Westworld,” and some of the best “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” installments to boot. As for Maggie Gyllenhaal, this is her second foray into television after her turn in the eight-part SundanceTV limited series “The Honorable Woman.”

Michelle MacLaren, Maggie Gyllenhaal 'The Deuce' TV Show premiere, IFC Split Screens Festival, New York, USA - 02 Jun 2017

This is New York City in its dark and dirty hey-day. In the glow of Times Square marquees, pimps swing sticks and parade their shiny shoes up and down 42nd street, looking for new women to lure into their employ. Gyllenhaal plays Candy, a self-sufficient prostitute who dons a blonde afro wig.

“I was curious whether I could play a woman who is in pretty dire straits, and challenge myself to make sure she had a working mind while doing it,” said Gyllenhaal of her role. While Candy earns her living via sex, she remains in charge — to an eager first-timer who asks for a cheaper deal, she explains this is her job, not her pleasure.

In addition to co-starring, Gyllenhaal became a series co-producer.

“I didn’t know if I could play a prostitute without some kind of guarantee that they wanted to use not just my body, but also my mind,” she said of the collaborative effort. “I wanted to be a part of the story-telling and the conversation about what happens to this woman. That was a big ask for an HBO show that was developed without me — and they gave it to me.”

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Gyllenhaal was given increasing influence over her character’s development as the episodes progressed. She even chose her curly wig, which was inspired by Bernadette Peters, but it was a “wild” choice she had to “get people on board with.” For research, she gamely visited a porn set and connected with former prostitute and adult star Annie Sprinkle, who had some simple, helpful insights.

“‘How many people do you fuck a night? What do you do if it’s really cold?'” After copious research, Gyllenhaal professes that “’70s porn was way better!”

The Deuce Maggie Gyllenhaal Season 1 HBO

MacLaren agreed, clarifying, “It’s just really raw and real.” (For the record, you’ll glimpse no less than three sets of male genitalia in this episode, in addition to Franco’s substantial pubic hair — that’s about as raw as it gets.)

MacLaren was influenced aesthetically by ‘70s films like “Shaft,” “The French Connection,” “Taxi Driver,” “Mean Streets,” and “Panic in Needle Park.” Although the director promises “every poster and sign in this pilot is accurate,” she admits it was a challenge to craft a convincing period Times Square. Since Bloomberg brought in trees and beautified the city, they had to go far north to find an appropriate area; shooting on 164th and Amsterdam, the crew dressed the set from the ground to a certain height, then filled in the rest with CG.

Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, might just be the next film-to-television convert.

“The thing about television in general, or long form, is the scope is so much bigger,” Gyllenhaal said. “We’re used to the arc of a movie. Oh, I wept here, so I better not do that again. But life’s not like that. When it’s this long, it sort of feels more like life. You might weep three times in one episode and then never again.”

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