When we spoke to production designer Laurence Bennett a few months ago about his work on HBO’s Bernie Madoff movie, The Wizard Of Lies, he mentioned that he had another big project coming up later in the year that he was excited about: The Deuce, David Simon & George Pelecanos’s remarkable new series about the development of the pornography and sex industry around Times Square in the 1970s.
Bennett, who previously worked with Simon on Show Me A Hero, was called in to work on the final three episodes of the first season after the original production designer, Beth Mickle, had departed. Mickle did the heavy lifting of setting the look for the series, which left Bennett in the interesting position of having to continue that tone while adding his own elements to it.
“We are trying to reflect the tastes of fashion of that time,” he explained. “It’s really interesting because, of course, no period is pure in its design of interiors or cars or anything. It’s always an admixture from over the years. It’s a cumulative sort of thing. My feeling about doing period stuff is you want to reflect it honestly—emotionally, if not exactly factually.”
“I’ve no interest in just sort of populating the set with iconic design elements,” he continued. “Things need to be accurate of the period, but not draw tremendous attention to themselves. Because in the end, you want the viewer to believe this is the world they’re in, and not be distracted or taken out of the story by the environment. At the end of the day, whether it’s 16th century England or 1970s New York, you want to forget about that and just be part of that time with those characters.”
Curbed has a very thorough rundown of all the filming locations the series used in the city—for example, executive producer Nina Noble told Crain’s they used an area of Hamilton Heights, at Amsterdam Avenue around 165th Street, to recreate Times Square for long shots and exterior scenes. “The storefronts had lots of iron and grates similar to those in the ’70s. Even the streetlights resembled the originals,” Crain’s wrote. According to the Voice, the art department dumped so much extra garbage on the sidewalks, “the residents had to be assured it would all be picked up at the end of the day.”
Many of the other major Midtown locations were filmed in the outer boroughs, like the Hells Kitchen diner in the show where all the pimps congregate, Leon’s, is actually Bushwick diner Tina’s. Greenpoint bar Capri Social Club served as one of the bars where Vincent (Franco) works, while a storefront on 30th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, stood in for House Of Korea, Vincent’s other job.
Among the more iconic landmarks that Bennett did have to help recreate for the show was the movie theater which hosted the world premiere of Deep Throat, the legendary pornographic movie that was one of the first to feature “a plot, character development, and relatively high production values.” The movie’s premiere serves as a major set piece toward the end of the season, with several characters in attendance.
“We had to recreate the theater where Deep Throat premiered,” he said, referring to Times Square’s World Theater. “We had to find a substitute for that because the Theater District has changed so remarkably. There were just a ton of things like that, especially putting together Times Square 42nd Street, which was done in other parts of the city. Doing it anywhere around there is just totally unfeasible.”
The Village East Cinema, on Second Avenue between 11th and 12th streets, served as the stand-in for the World Theater, which was located on 49th Street between 6th and 7th avenues right down the block from Rockefeller Center. The World Theater building has since been replaced by the Barclays Capital headquarters, a 37-story glass skyscraper with a Hale & Hearty on the ground floor to boot.
“Listen, the place got monied over,” David Simon told the Village Voice. “And if you’re the cultural and financial capital of the universe, you can kind of do that.” Recalling visiting NYC as a teen in the ’70s and ’80s, he added, “You felt vulnerable, and also, everything was electric.” He added that he wasn’t surprised that the city has made little effort to preserve the history of the area: “You can romanticize it all you want but if you’re the mayor of New York right now, you’re damn glad it’s Disney on 42nd Street and not what it was,” Simon said.
Similarly, Bennett said he reflected back upon his own relationship with the city in trying to conjure up the spirit of the ’70s.
“You know, I’m a westerner. I’ve only ever lived in New York for work,” he said. “New York always used to intimidate the shit out of me. I’m not a real city person. My journey with New York has been really interesting because I decided I had to sort of take working there as an adventure. And it certainly turned out to be, and I’ve loved it and have gotten to so love New York. I can’t quite describe how it’s gotten into me. I live in rural Oregon, where I am now. It’s always just so great and refreshing to be back in that city. There’s something about it that’s just absolutely essential magic. You know?”
Like Simon, the first time Bennett visited NYC was in the mid-1970s: “It was a different world, completely different world. And I remember, if not specifics of the grunge about it, I remember the vibe of the grunge about it. And so, getting a chance to work with the art department who had been there for a few months, and get into the research and looking at it for the sets that I was designing, was wonderful.”
He added that he felt the show on the whole was firmly of a piece with Simon’s previous landmark television work, such as The Wire and Treme. “What I would say is that David’s about telling stories that reflect the politics and economics of that time. In the end, it’s about power within the sex trade. Who has it and who doesn’t.” And also, of course, which James Franco has the dominant mustache in any given scene. “Which is always a struggle to keep up with,” he added with a laugh.