From show creators David Simon and George Pelecanos, the HBO series The Deuce, named after the local slang for New York’s 42nd Street, chronicles the time when the sex industry went from back alleys to a billion dollar business. As twin brothers Vincent (James Franco) and Frankie Martino (also James Franco) navigate their way through Times Square in 1971, the earliest pioneers of the flesh trade, including pornographers, hookers, pimps and adult bookstore owners, have to dodge the law while figuring out how to make the most of their situation.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actor/executive producer/director James Franco talked about how he came to be working with David Simon, why he’s all in on The Deuce, wanting to create historical accuracy, his experience also directing episodes of the series, the three-season plan, and why the different stages of learning he’s had in his career have all been so important.
Collider: First, I have to tell you that I absolutely loved 11.22.63, from start to finish. Terrific work on that series! I thought it was such a great show!
JAMES FRANCO: Thank you! Me too! That was my first foray into television. I actually signed on to both projects at the same time. I had met with David Simon three years ago and he was talking about a different project that I ultimately couldn’t do because of scheduling, but I’m the biggest David Simon fan. I think The Wire is the greatest television show ever made. And so, I said, “Is there anything else we can do together, in the future? Have you got anything in the pipeline?” He said, “Well, I’ve got this thing about 42nd Street and the dawn of pornography.” So, I kept that in the back of my mind. And then, I read this book, called Difficult Men, which is about the showrunners of this Golden Age of television, with all of the Davids – David Chase, David Milch and David Simon – and Vince Gilligan, and all of those people. It really excited me. It really broke down how this new revolution in television is changing entertainment, where you have fewer episodes, and they’re on cable networks or streaming networks, so you can show more. Also, instead of 20-plus episodes, you’ve got 8, 10 or 12 episodes, so the writers can actually arc a story across a whole season or a whole series. As an actor or as a director, you can be involved in these stories that go so much more in-depth and go so many more places. Whereas as a director or actor in film, it’s more limited. Jack Nicholson said, “Give me a couple good scenes and three good lines, and I’m happy.” But in television, you get to explore so much, and that turned me on. All of the adult dramatic content of the American movies of the ‘70s, which are my favorite movies, are moving towards television. That’s where there’s an audience for it and that’s where they’re able to tell those stories now. For all of those reasons, I suddenly became open to doing television. J.J. Abrams contacted me, and then I contacted David Simon and was like, “How do we make this happen?”
You’re starring in The Deuce, playing twins, executive producing and directing episodes, so you’re all in.
FRANCO: I’m all in, and it’s actually a dream come true. My favorite movies are the [Martin] Scorsese films of New York in the ‘70s – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull – and the [Sidney] Lumet movies – Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico – and movies like The French Connection. I used those movies as my schooling, when I was a young actor. Now, I get to be a part of that whole world, but not only that, enter the world through the pen and eyes of people like David Simon, George Pelecanos and Richard Price, who are the best at what they do. Also, add to all of that, a very realistic approach, especially with David, who comes from journalism. He’s very into creating historical accuracy. It just gives it one more interesting edge.
It’s easy to see how this material could have been handled very differently, in the hands of someone other than David Simon.
FRANCO: Exactly, and that is not unconnected. As a director on a David Simon show, you get a lot of freedom. He has no pretensions of being a director. He doesn’t want to direct, so he gives his directors a lot of latitude, but there is a house style. I guess you could describe it more as realistic, and not just in the aesthetic. By doing that, we can approach the subject matter in a very blunt and transparent way. We can show more because we’re showing how it was rather than showing things for gratuitous reasons. Life is messy and there are many different levels to it. David Simon is part of this fairly recent phenomenon of killing off your main characters. He’s one of the biggest proponents or offenders of that. He kills his darlings, for sure.