Director Michelle MacLaren Feels Empowered by the Women of The Deuce

by Ashley Morton


HBO: Why did you want to be a part of this show?

Michelle MacLaren: It starts on the page. As corny as it sounds, I’m inspired visually by great writing, and when you read these great scripts and get to bring it to the screen it’s so exciting — and terrifying too, you don’t want to mess it up. If you look at the shows that I do, it’s a lot of testosterone-driven stuff. This was different. I hadn’t done something like this before and it was thrilling. I got to dive into 1971 New York City, and it was very important to transport the audience there and hopefully make them feel it almost tangibly; I wanted people to smell it.

HBO: What kind of research did you dive into?

Michelle MacLaren: I spoke with porn stars, some of whom used to be prostitutes. There’s a lot of research on pimps and what New York was like at that time; lots of great movies and books, photography books specifically of streetwalkers and pimps and mobsters and law enforcement. It was during a time in the city where there was a lawlessness. It was pre-AIDS, and prostitution was thought of differently, and there was all this energy of entrepreneurial opportunity, like, grab what you can. But behind closed doors there’s the harsh reality of the consequences of these choices.

HBO: Did you have a discussion with co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos about how you wanted to handle the sexual nature of the story?

Michelle MacLaren: We had a lot of conversations because it was really important to all of us that it wasn’t gratuitous or titillating in any way — that this was an honest portrayal of what really happened. When the sex is a business transaction, the sex scenes are shot as a business transaction. Not super sexy and romantic.

When the john attacks Darlene in the pilot episode, we don’t know until they finish that he’s a john. We think she’s really being attacked, and it’s scary. And then you see afterwards, it was all make-believe — this transactional moment that’s part of her job. I saw this picture in a photography book from the 1970s, of a guy, who was a john in the ‘70s, and I took the picture to our casting director and said, “This is what I would love for the guy to look like, and I would like for him to be naked.” Not because I wanted to be gratuitous; I wanted to be real. That’s what Darlene’s dealing with.

HBO: What was it like returning to the show a year after shooting the pilot?

Michelle MacLaren: It was wonderful. When I read the finale I called George right away and said, “You guys bookended this for me!” It was in two places. Vincent gets the payoff in the pool hall, which was so satisfying. And then the final shot [of the parlor hallway]. When I read the pilot the first time, I knew exactly the last shot I wanted to do in that episode, so when I read the finale, I was so happy because the fact is, they got the girls off the street but nothing’s changed, it’s just geography. So I mirrored that last shot in the pilot in the finale. In the pilot I wanted it to be a gut punch, and the finale I wanted it to be a heartbreak.

“There can be beauty in ugliness, and there’s beauty in sadness when it’s real and heartbreaking.”

HBO: What was so satisfying about the pool hall scene?

Michelle MacLaren: When we shot the pilot James [Franco, who plays Vincent] was like, “Michelle, wouldn’t I try to take them down?” He felt — as anybody would for his character in that moment — really emasculated. Which he’s supposed to be. And I said, “I don’t think you can. Look at all these guys, you can clearly see this is his backup team, you don’t have an option here. Plus, she’s she’s not going with you, so the only small bit of dignity you can save is by turning and walking out. They aren’t giving you a choice.”

So when we got to shoot the scene in Episode 8 when he goes in and gets vengeance on these guys, we were so excited. And I purposely shot the entrance and the exit the exact same way as in the pilot, but of course for Vincent, for James, he’s walking completely differently. When he exits in the pilot, his shoulder’s are down; he is devastated, it’s humiliating. In the finale, he’s strutting, and I had Daniel Sauli [who plays Tommy Longo], an ever-so-slight smirk of pride, because that’s his boy, and the same for James, and they nailed it. We loved shooting that scene.

HBO: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character finds herself directing in this final episode. Was there any connection there for you?

Michelle MacLaren: Maggie and I had a lot of fun shooting the scenes that she was directing. She was so sweet, she came up to me and she said, “I’ve been watching how you direct, and I really like how you go up to an actor and whisper in their ear to give them a note. I’d like to do that in the scene.” I said, “Fantastic.”

HBO: Is there a reason you use that technique?

Michelle MacLaren: I don’t always do it, but one of the reasons I do is sometimes you don’t want the other person to hear what you’re saying. Sometimes you are giving a note that’s going to affect the other person, and you want their reaction. Sometimes you want to whisper a piece of inspiration that hopefully gets the actor thinking to do something differently, but it gives them the freedom to do what they want with it.

HBO: Could you talk about the way you filmed Ruby’s death scene?

Michelle MacLaren: It’s a super aggressive moment and I was very conscious of the audience not really seeing the window until she goes out of it. I really wanted you to feel like this guy is a jerk, but he’s going to leave. The sad reality is in that moment she stands up for herself, and look what happened. Ruby is fun and sassy, she’s powerful, and she owns who she is, and we love her for that; so it’s totally and utterly unexpected. And later when C.C. refers to her, she was a commodity, like a thing. That to me, is why David and George are so brilliant in their writing. They set up for one thing, and then deliver another so it has a much bigger punch.

HBO: Is there something that surprised you about working on this season?

Michelle MacLaren: When I saw the first cut of the pilot the thing that surprised me was that it felt very female empowering. I looked at these women and thought, “Wow, they’re survivors.” I saw these women differently than maybe I would have had I been walking down the street, and I felt empowered by them.

One of the things I really love and appreciate about these characters is these women don’t apologize for being sexual, nor should they. That doesn’t mean we want to promote all of their choices; I think we show the horrible consequences for their choices, and a lot of them don’t have a choice. But as far as owning their sexuality, I think that’s really an empowering thing for women.

HBO: What’s your favorite thing about the finale?

Michelle MacLaren: There’s a lot to love about it, but I really love the final montage. I love that it shows where these characters are as a result of the choices they’ve just made in the last seven episodes: some are good, some are bad, some are really bad. But there can be beauty in ugliness, and there’s beauty in sadness when it’s real and heartbreaking. I felt like Abby in that moment is really understanding more of who Vincent is, and the world she’s gotten into, and so many of the characters are feeling the consequences of their choices. There’s a level of ownership; there’s a level of heartbreak, it’s a milieu, and I love montages. And I love that together we collaborated and we came up with this last moment that, to me, spoke about the story we were telling so deeply, but so simply.

The Deuce is available on HBO.