In case you’re still wondering if David Simon’s new HBO show, The Deuce, co-created with George Pelecanos, is any good: Yes, it is. And if you’re still not sure, Sunday’s fifth episode, “What Kind of Bad?,” may win you over. It has some of the first season’s most intense moments and intimate performances, particularly by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy, an independent streetwalker on New York’s former red-light district (nicknamed “The Deuce”). The episode was directed by Uta Briesewitz, who was Simon’s main director of photography on The Wire, and now directs for TV shows like Orange Is the New Black and Jessica Jones. Vulture caught up with Briesewitz to talk about this Sunday’s episode, how to film a masturbation scene, and what The Deuce owes to Vinyl.
Let’s start with the scene where Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy has sex with her date, a friendly, rather naïve man who does not know what she does for a living. After he’s done, she turns away, dissatisfied, and starts masturbating, which leaves him confused. There’s so much that could have gone wrong with this premise, but it’s so perfectly executed, it really has this liberating spirit to it. How did you approach such an intimate scene?
It was important to very sensitively look at the staging and be truthful to it.
That’s the great thing with Maggie Gyllenhaal, she is just completely fearless. I don’t think you can think of any other situation where you are more vulnerable and more exposed than sharing with a TV audience a scene of a character masturbating. This is completely raw, you are completely out there.
What was very important was how her date was responding to it. In an early rehearsal, he had a little bit of a perked-up position behind her and he was watching her. And that felt too voyeuristic to me and I told him to just lean back. Don’t lurk. Don’t stare at her too much. It is such a private moment, but she is not sharing it out of a motivation for shared intimacy. It’s just a necessity, and possible sexual frustration, and she is just taking care of herself.
This scene could have felt quite lonely and sad, but somehow it has a warmness to it. Because at some point the guy is just laying his hand on Candy’s back, in a kind of sweet, almost insecure way.
I did not want them to be completely isolated at that point. The reaching out was also because he really, truly has a romantic interest in her. He’s not a john. He’s truly a date.
There’s another scene that is so memorable and intense, with Candy and one of the pimps, played by Method Man. Candy is the show’s only sex worker who does not work with a pimp, but this one really wants her to join the ranks of his girls.
After Candy got robbed and beaten up by a john, the pimp sees an opportunity and approaches her on the street, offering his protection. It’s just a couple of minutes, but it feels like a stand-alone movie, with the two characters alternately attracting and repelling each other.
I think it was the very first scene that I shot with Maggie, the very first I shot for that show. I looked at the shots that I could get in that area, that little stretch of 42nd street where Maggie would work the street. There was a small wall where I felt like Method Man could corner her a little bit, and she can break out of it again. It just gave them opportunities to play with the feeling of being pushed into a corner. And then you basically just give it over to the forces of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Method Man. Sometimes the job as a director is just to stay out of the way.
Your main challenge was to find the right location for this scene?
The location was given to me, but finding what I can use, little things where she can get cornered, where he can chase her, a moment where she feels pushed against the wall and she can break out of it again. When do you break away, when do you chase?
One of the show’s main topics is the complex relationship between sex workers and the pimps. What makes Gyllenhaal and Method Man’s scene so enigmatic is that you don’t know exactly what the power dynamic is. He could just use violence to get what he wants. Does Candy anticipate that?
She knows. She knows from the other girls. You take any kind of crazy stranger into a hotel room and you close the door behind you. Any of them could kill you anytime. It’s like playing Russian roulette. What is worse? Do you get beaten up by your pimp once in a while? Or play that Russian roulette?
But in this moment, on the street, both are very respectful of each other, they don’t even touch each other.
I got a little bit of an education on my first day there. I said at one point to Maggie: Maybe at this moment, you are so heated and he really comes after you, maybe you push him away? And they immediately went like, No, no, no! They both educated me: A girl never touches a pimp, at least not in public. And a pimp never touches a girl. Of course, the pimps violate their girls — around the corner.
You grew up in Germany, far away from ’70s New York. What else did you learn about this world when directing for The Deuce?
If you dive into a world like this, everything is new. But I can tell you the scene that emotionally affected me the most was the party scene for “Love Saves the Day,” the David Mancuso party.
David Mancuso was the DJ who did these parties by invitation only, later on they were called “The Loft,” but “Love Saves the Day” was the name of that party, specifically for people who were different in any way. A lot of gay, transgender people. We specifically cast somebody who looked like David Mancuso who was the DJ. It was one of the hottest nights that we had during the entire shoot. It was so muggy, and we were in this room and production tried to keep it as cold as possible, but we were all sweating like crazy. I don’t know if it was the spirit that we are in it together and we might as well party it up, but there was something magical about when we shot it.
I loved that party scene. There was this big disappointment with Vinyl, HBO’s other period drama set in 1970s New York. This ’70s party atmosphere didn’t feel authentic on Vinyl, so I really felt relieved by how well it worked on The Deuce. How did you do that?
One big compliment has to go to the costume and casting department. I actually think they got a lot of costumes from Vinyl. So they profited from that. So here comes a compliment back to Vinyl, if that’s true what I heard. Also, I remember when we were going on a break from the “Love Saves the Day” scene, and I was walking behind this guy in tight jeans. I was looking at his legs and his hips — his body was just so slim, so slender.
I didn’t even know that they made adult jeans that size, that an adult man could fit into jeans like these. ’Cause you don’t even see body types like this anymore. We had one guy who was dancing with his shirt off and he looked good, but they made sure this was the ’70s where people were slim and not bodybuilders. So they specifically were casting people that really fit that kind of body type. That already subconsciously makes a huge difference. The other thing we paid attention to was to make sure that with all the people dancing, nobody would throw in a dance move that is from the ’80s or ’90s or 2000s.
In general, how do you avoid all this false nostalgia about the ’70s?
The things people get excited about, the cars or whatever it is, [it is important] to let that play in the background and not make it the main part of an image. You should have to pay attention to spot them. And your story should always be with the actors and not with a specific artifact you have found from the ’70s in such great condition that you want to give it a close-up. It should not be given special attention.
There was a lot of talk about how Simon and Pelecanos made sure they had a very diverse group of people as directors, writers, actors — that it is not just a show about pornography created by two straight white men. Can you tell me more about the influence you and others had, for example, when it comes to the portraying of the female characters?
If you stage a scene about a woman in a sensitive moment, a moment about female masturbation, maybe just the fact that you are discussing it with another woman makes it a little bit easier than having to discuss it with a man. I can tell you a story that happened to me once as a cinematographer which I never forgot.
The director was about to direct a sex scene and he was incredibly nervous, and I just asked him: “Why are you so nervous directing a sex scene? It’s not you up there who has to do it!” And then he turned around, he said to me: “Yes, but you don’t understand, me blocking the scene reveals everything about me!” You know, when he suggests the position. Since he said that to me, I always wonder when I see sex scenes, oh, that was directed by a man! Because very often you feel like the positions that are being chosen are positions favored by men.
Yes, it does reveal something about you.
Would Simon have had the same sensitivity back when you made The Wire to include so many diverse voices? Or is this more a sign of the progress that was made since?
Well, back on The Wire, we had a couple of African-American directors, which was already more than I had seen usually on shows. For David, there was always a sensitivity toward that subject, to have the stories told by people who bring something to the table that allows them to have a different insight.
When you are working for Jessica Jones and Orange Is the New Black, there’s not only a diverse team of authors and directors — you have female showrunners as your bosses. How does this affect your work?
Does it make a difference for me if there’s a female or male showrunner? If you have somebody as sensitive and sensible as David Simon and George Pelecanos, it does not. Because they are brilliant men and they are as good as it gets. I want to say it doesn’t matter, because I also really don’t want it to matter. Do I believe that sometimes it makes women more comfortable in front of the camera if they have a female voice behind the camera? They should answer to that. Do we have a different POV or approach? Yes, I absolutely do. I think we bring that to the table, and a female voice is needed and is important to be heard.
But I wish we would already be there and that the numbers were even so that we don’t have to discuss that.
You are part of the all-female director team on Jessica Jones’s second season. What do you think of their decision to hire only female directors?
I think it’s an interesting statement. Women have been excluded for decades from all kinds of shows. The moment you have a car exploding or a car chase, any kind of action, the attitude would be right away: We should hire a man ’cause they do it better. So how can it be a fault to say: Listen, this is about a female superhero, maybe just a couple of women should tell the story? So if anybody takes offense by just one show that decides just to hire women for once, to make a statement, or to see it as an experiment, or just to show that there are so many female directors out there and that they are great — nobody should feel threatened or offended by that.
Behind all of that, there’s this big question: Who can tell which story? Can only women tell the story of a woman’s suffering? Can only African-American directors tell the story of the suffering of African-Americans?
David Simon is also not a black drug dealer, and he did The Wire. There are so many creators and filmmakers who create shows on subjects that they experienced and that is fantastic. But there also are a credible amount of writers and authors who imagine worlds and lives that they have not lived, and that they either researched very well or completely imagine. I think at one point you also just have to look at the work itself. If the work is brilliant then this guy can take on whatever he wants to take on, and we should embrace it and we should applaud him and support him.
This interview has been edited and condensed.