Director Uta Briesewitz Got Caught Up in the Spirit of The Deuce
by Ashley Morton
The “What Kind of Bad” director discusses realistic sex-scenes, historically accurate dance moves, and why she always shoots the first take.
What drew you to this project?
To get the chance to work with David Simon again! What else do you need? And to get a chance to work with the great cast they put together, which had a couple of cast members I already knew back from The Wire, so it was like a little happy reunion. Of course the time period was very appealing to me — New York in the ‘70s — and I was also curious about the subject matter in terms of how to handle it. It sounded like a good challenge.
How do you tell a story about sex-work without making it voyeuristic?
You just have to be brutally honest with it. When we come to the sex scenes we’ve already introduced our characters — we feel for them, we see how they suffer, and the predicament they’re in. In general it’s pretty down and dirty; a quick business exchange. It’s very unglamorous.
And also in terms of who we cast, the “johns” look like real guys. We have overweight, bald, normal people, paying for this service. The moment it’s over, there’s not even conversation everybody just pulls on their pants, and it’s like, “On to the next.” It’s so matter-of-fact and grim in its portrayal, I don’t think I had to be too concerned about it being appealing to anybody.
Do you feel like being a female director offers a different perspective to the story?
I think it puts you closer, and helps you relate. Female sexuality, and how we experience sexuality, differs from male sexuality. I wouldn’t say, “Women can do a better job,” not at all; I’d be saying my male colleagues don’t have understanding or empathy for their characters and that’s not it at all.
As a director you have to be empathetic and have an understanding of your characters. But we [female directors] can dig into our own personal experience, and talk about things from a certain point of view. And I think it can help the female actors feel comfortable, because we can talk about certain things more easily.
What kind of research did you do beforehand to know how to tap into the ‘70s?
As an episodic TV director, where my research really starts is tapping into the world that has already been established by the people envisioning the show, especially by [director] Michelle MacLaren and what she established in the pilot: how the locations look, how they’re being treated, how they’re being filmed, and what we can and cannot show.
What I do, besides reading all of the scripts leading up to my episode, is watch all of the unedited dailies of the other episodes. I make sure I see everything the actors have done because that’s what I have to build on. So instead of saying, “Remember in Episode 4 when you said these words?” I can say, “Remember how you said these words, and played this scene, and what I read in that performance?” That’s way more important to me than going on my own path of research, because they have their specific portrayal of what they want to show and what they want to feature, and that’s what I have to align with.
What was your favorite scene to shoot in this episode?
I really enjoyed shooting the “Love Saves the Day,” scene, where Paul walks into the club where everyone is partying and dancing and is just taken over by the atmosphere of the room. It was one of the hottest nights we had in August, and we were all sweating like crazy, but it really felt like the spirit could not be broken; we were just all in it together. We had to watch a lot of details to make it feel right — we made sure no 2017 dance moves snuck in. It was just very real.
And something really interesting happened while filming. After the first take, I wanted to tell our extras (background people) what a great job they were doing and I realized the moment I started talking to them, I got choked up a little bit. Because I really felt the spirit in the room. It was like you were transferred back to the time, and you really experienced what it meant for everyone to be in a place where they felt safe and welcome, no matter how different you felt personally. That was a really beautiful thing to do, I loved every moment of that.
Could you talk about filming the scene where Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) gets beaten up by one of her clients?
That was quite a challenging scene, and it was already a difficult scene to begin with. The scene in itself was so brutal, but there were so many little moments I needed to capture. She basically gets thrown on the bed and muffled, and then has to communicate with her eyes, like, “OK, I’m going to be quiet, let me get my wallet.” We had to be very precise with how much she would fight back, and how she communicates when she can’t talk, so we needed a lot of shots. Poor Maggie had to get beaten up over and over again for us to get all those specific set-ups we needed.
How much do you rehearse before a scene?
With episodic television you don’t get the luxury of rehearsing with the actors beforehand; you rehearse the day-of. I always have a plan for how I’d like to shoot things, but that plan is completely fluid, and could change at any second. I adjust any scene that needs to be adjusted to make it work for the actor, because only when it physically and in every way logistically makes sense to the actor can they do what they need to do it the right way.
I’m a big believer though in shooting the first take. When words are being said for the first time, it impacts the actor in different ways than the fifth or sixth time. So especially with digital photography, why not roll the camera? If you have it, you have it; if it was great and you didn’t roll, you just mourn that you didn’t get that great first take.