What It Takes to Bring The Deuce to Life

By Ashley Morton

Episode writer Will Ralston and production designer Scott Dougan share insights from the set of “The Feminism Part.”


One of the most striking things about The Deuce is its authenticity and specificity in recreating 1970s New York. So it might surprise you to hear that Abby’s Hi-Hat bar is actually right next door to the French Parlor, which is itself down the hall from the office of the Showland Theater. Packed together in Astoria’s Silvercup Studios, the set is so closely packed that noise from one location can easily be heard in another: Background extras walk around in socks to minimize sound; cell phones are checked and rechecked lest that accidentally go off between the shouts of “Rolling!” and “Cut!”

Writing for Dialogue

Will Ralston, who penned “The Feminism Part,” the seventh episode of the season, is acutely aware of acoustic details. Ralston who began working with David Simon on The Wire as a sound editor, has continued working with the creator, serving as supervising sound editor on The Deuce before moving into the writers’ room.

“What’s interesting about working with David in terms of sound work is dialogue is very important, rather than sound effects,” notes Ralston. “After working together for several years, [David] came to trust me because of my ear for how people speak.”

Writing for The Deuce and its 1970s timeline requires a great deal of research. Each writer is “assigned” a specific topic to explore — allowing that person to have an expertise to share with the rest of the room. “I was in charge of queerness,” says Ralston about his assignment. “I wasn’t the only person contributing to Paul’s [Chris Coy] storyline, but I could tell them what was happening in New York City in regards to gay rights, the music scene, the cultural scene, prohibitive laws, and so on.”

On set, Ralston sits with script in hand, headphones on, watching as each scene is shot: “As a story-editor, my job is to make sure if the actors veer from the script it’s in a way that doesn’t adversely affect the plot. A lot of times you write a sentence, and even if I write it well, and [creators] David and George [Pelecanos] alter it even more, the actor might come in and change a word or two. Sometimes it’s OK, but other times we know that the plot is not going to happen that way.”

The Chickens Come Home

“The Feminism Part” is a big episode in many ways for the arc of the show’s nine-episode season: Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) realizes the men she works with will never see her as an equal, despite her success with Red Hot; Vincent (James Franco) heads out of town and sees what life could be like outside of Manhattan; Paul’s relationship comes to an end; as does Flanagan and Anita’s, albeit more tragically. It’s an episode about choices and acknowledging the roads not taken.

“These characters have made decisions some time ago as to who or what they were willing to compromise to get what they want,” explains Ralston. “And now, the chickens are coming home to roost. They have to deal with the fact they can’t just go back and undo those connections they’ve made, or the paths they’ve chosen.”

Advancing a Look

Visualizing the show’s 1970s feel is the job of production designer Scott Dougan. Dougan is no stranger to the challenge of period pieces, having served as an art director on Season 1, and on films like Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. In the French Parlor, the curtains on the walls, stubbed out cigarettes in ashtrays and the 1978 pornographic material evoke a certain mood. The room doesn’t smell of smoke, but it might as well, everything about the set feels so authentic.

“I’m in charge of the look of the show’s world. I like to think of it as the ‘stuff that the camera shoots’: location, stage sets,” Dougan explains. “Part of that is just what things are, but the bigger part is character, style and tone of show: How the light works; how different spaces feel; whether they are claustrophobic, open; what it means period-wise to be living in a world that is 1978. The first season took place in ‘72, and a lot changed.”

Real Life Inspirations

That evolution is evident in the set for the Hi-Hat Bar, which is based on the idea of a real Manhattan spot. “In Season 2, it’s become Abby’s [Margarita Levieva] space, so a big part of that change was through the art and music,” notes Dougan. “As that real bar came to life in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, the art started to permeate the place with punk bands and people like Kiki Smith. And the owner, who became this Abby character, started to invest herself in social movements and that world. So that’s how that space transitions.”

Nearby sits the Showland Theater, a peep emporium and a new set for Season 2. Showland and this season’s 366 after-hours club, were two of Dougan’s favorites to assemble. “They’re iconic, late ‘70s places,” he says. “Showland is loosely based on a real place, and was incredibly fun to build: the peep booths, the live-section theaters, the random back offices, the dark corners of the place. For the 366, we made an amalgamation from Nan Goldin photography [who has a cameo in “What Big Ideas”], and images of everything from Studio 54, the Garage, Xenon, to the Crisco Disco, mixed with oral histories of very small details from the beer stench, to the plastic cups, to the long bar.”

Mirroring the Characters

Also at Silvercup is Leon’s Diner — now a constructed set instead of a diner in Brooklyn — and Abby and Vincent’s apartment. Dougan favors locations that reflect the characters who inhabit them. “Vincent and Abby’s relationship is modeled in the apartment they live in, both through how affectionate they are with each other, and the distance that is growing between them,” he notes.

“Candy and Harvey’s porn site is this wonderful little complex that turns into these brilliant, weird, small sets that Candy is designing and shooting throughout the season. You get a sense of her learning things, and her wit and dedication. There’s a little bit more to it than a dingy studio, but it’s also just a dingy studio.”

“The Feminism Part” features a scene between Candy and her son Adam. “She’s remembering this amazing accomplishment that she’s had, but it’s disassembled enough so that he doesn’t really realize what’s going on,” marvels Dougan. That design of that moment evolved after [episode director] Tricia Brock asked, “What’s the most interesting way to tell this scene?”

“Every episode I get to introduce a new director to the world, and see how they see it,” says Dougan. “That’s what set design and production is. Giving the actors the opportunity to have nuanced interactions with the world they’re in.”