As a show about pornography, at various points in its three-season run HBO’s The Deuce naturally dramatized incidents where men on film sets coerced actresses into doing things on camera that made the women uncomfortable. The series also employed — as its leading man (playing two different roles), a producer, and a director — James Franco, who shortly after the first season ended was accused of these same on-set behaviors.
In a Los Angeles Times story published in January of 2018, Franco was accused of pressuring women — some of them students from his acting classes — to appear topless or fully nude on camera in some of his independent films. (And of reacting angrily if they refused.) He was also accused of removing plastic guards over women’s vaginas while simulating oral sex with them in an orgy scene. In addition, the story recounted an incident where a woman Franco was dating at the time alleged that he pressured her to perform oral sex on him in a car.
At the time the story was published, The Deuce co-creator David Simon issued a statement saying that no such behavior by Franco had been reported on the show’s set. That summer, HBO programming chief Casey Bloys told reporters that, after looking into the allegations and Franco’s behavior on The Deuce, “We all felt comfortable with a second season.”
Earlier this month, two of Franco’s former acting students — including one of the subjects of the L.A. Times investigation — filed a lawsuit against Franco, bringing the allegations back into the news.
The Deuce concluded its run on Monday night. Prior to the finale, Simon and actress Emily Meade spoke at length with Rolling Stone about the show’s larger themes, particularly the exploitation and commodification of female sexuality. In a subsequent interview, Simon discussed the series’ concluding scene. Given the recent news and the ways in which it echoed the final season, he also agreed to address the Franco controversy once more.
That part of the conversation was, as you will see below, contentious — so much so that I neglected to ask some important follow-up questions. A few days later, I emailed those to Simon, who wrote back his replies.
James has unfortunately been back in the news recently, even if there’s some overlap with the L.A. Times story —
It’s the same stuff as in the L.A. Times.
You issued your statement after the initial story came out. Given what the show is about and how it deals with some of these issues of which he’s accused, have you ever felt that it’s cast this unfortunate shadow over the work that you and George Pelecanos and everyone else have done?
And over the work that James has done. James is aware of what this [series] is about. And he understood what he was delivering. It had an effect on how all of this has been perceived and received — for James, for his cast members who are all doing good work, for the people in the crew, for the writers, for all of us. For the audience. Be that as it may, I’m absolutely proud that we continued to do the work, that James did it with us, and that we executed it at the level that we did. I’ve read a lot of argument from presumably professional critics about why we should amend what we were trying to build, and we should resolve this in such a way as to be politically comforting in the moment. But George and I understood that [The Deuce] is not simply about women enduring or being actualized by sex work. That it is also deeply engaged with addressing the male gaze and what men bring to this equation — which has now become this paradigm of American pornography and sexual commodification. If you look at the piece as a whole, the idea that you could achieve this without the work James brought, as Frankie, but especially as Vincent — when you get to the end and you see what’s being said about male complicity in this entire paradigm — that’s a ridiculous premise. Yet there were critics saying, “Recast,” or “Cut him out,” or “Bobby Dwyer will be enough.” I read this stuff and thought, “Jesus. You have no idea what we’re building. And if you did…” I thought a lot of people were pretty hyperbolic, because on a very basic level, what James is dealing with — and it’s meaningful — it’s not what we’re seeing in the other cases involving #MeToo. It simply isn’t.
Let me ask you this, since you brought it up: What is absent from the accusations about James Franco that is present in all the other cases of #MeToo and #TimesUp? I know the answer to this, and so does HBO, and it’s why we proceeded as we did, and it’s why I’m proud of us for being proportional. So let me ask you: What’s missing?
More than that. You’re not even close.
OK, then tell me.
It’s kind of embarrassing that I have to tell you. You’re the one who raised the question. Be fair with the process here. I’m making you be a stand-in for the rest of the press here.
It was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical.
I understand that.
Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.
The other cases involved meaningful issues. I’m not demeaning what was brought to the fore. They do involve meaningful issues about how nudity and sex is handled on set, and the care and the caution with which you proceed, in terms of having people proceeding in a professional way, and doing so with the utmost voluntariness. I do think it’s fair to critique James, as I think James has critiqued himself, on the notion of being a little bit flippant or unaware of the power of being James Franco. And that when people say “yes,” they might not be saying yes if it was anyone but James Franco — that young actors and actresses could get into situations where they would say “yes” and have fundamental regrets. And maybe if you aren’t an A-list actor, there’s a higher standard of restraint and caution in terms of how you proceed. But the one thing that was lacking in all of this was, he clearly wasn’t trying to do any of this to try to get with anybody — at all. There wasn’t even the allegation that he asked anybody out. None of the cases had that. And incredibly, the entire media construct that is still chewing on it now that there are cases filed, so they’re chewing on it yet again, has not found the voice to say, “It was A, it was not B.” That was left for the cast and crew of our show, and for Blown Deadline, and for HBO, to address, and to figure out what is this and what is it not. And again, I’m intensely proud of how seriously we took that responsibility, and how we proceeded not only to do what we think was right for the show and all the people involved in the show, but for James, as well.
Are you surprised? That it was A, not B?
I wanted to hear you articulate it, David.
I did articulate it. But did you not see it?
I think the fact that we’re dealing with so many of these stories, and that the L.A. Times story did include the incident involving the woman he was dating, muddled things.
I would say that they were purposely muddled by the L.A. Times. I would say the L.A. Times was aware of what they did and didn’t have. I would say the L.A. Times was also aware that the lion’s share of the real, aggressive, meaningful reporting on this stuff had been done by The New Yorker and The New York Times. They were the ones who were delivering real, solid, fundamental journalism, about real offenders who were using their positions to obtain sex, and misusing women in that fundamental way. So the newspaper that ostensibly is in the entertainment industry’s backyard is being left behind, and they committed to a story that they then didn’t successfully achieve. I think they very much knew what they did and didn’t have. And in the wake of the dustup over him wearing a ribbon, they reported a story that was not altogether there.
And, again, I’ve been very careful about saying what these young actors and actresses were concerned about, and where their unhappiness lies is meaningful. I’m not saying there isn’t a story there, but the proportionality got lost. And if you’re telling me the press did a good job on that, I’m sorry, but I’ve done that job, and I know what was here and what wasn’t here, and how it was portrayed. In the end — and, again, this goes to the heart of stuff we experienced on our own show — The Deuce wasn’t an independent film operating on a shoestring. It wasn’t trying to use spit and chewing gum to put together a feature. We had all the resources of a major network. We had veteran people in every position. We had people committed to the absolute professionalism of what we were trying to do. In advance, we knew we were doing a show about porn, and we knew in a very basic way that we had real responsibilities. And still, in our first season, things went wrong on our set. And we only knew about it because, when we took a poll about how people thought we’d done after the first season, only then did we [find out]. At first it was just Emily Meade who said, “You know, things didn’t go well on this set one day, and this happened. And maybe we can do better.” At that stage, for all of my good intentions, I’m as complicit as James Franco as to what happened on my set. Things did not go well. We didn’t think about everything. We didn’t think about all the possible situations in which we could improve stuff for the actors. It required a self-critique in order for us to get better at it. I’m very proud of the critique. I think we’ve done some things that will become industry standard. But we didn’t do them from jump, and we weren’t smart about stuff in some ways. So far be it from me to say that, with all the resources I had, that I had this thing surrounded.
So I looked at what did go wrong in the Franco stuff from a somewhat different perspective. And then, fundamentally, there’s also the issue of there are some things in the L.A. Times article that he’s protesting, that he says did not happen. I have no way of knowing, but I will say this: When the story broke, obviously we had to go to James and say, “Is there more?” Because in all of these cases, when stuff comes up, there’s one case for Cosby, two cases for Cosby, three cases — eventually, there’s always more. And the one thing he said to us, unequivocally, was, “I’ve never used my position to try to do that with anybody. I didn’t do that.” At the time, we had no way of knowing. But as it stands, yes, this lawsuit has been filed, it is stuff in the L.A. Times article, and the fundamental dynamic that makes #MeToo and #TimesUp so important, which is men using their power to elicit sex from women, is not present in this case. Have I said everything you need me to say?
Then it’s time somebody said it. If we waited around for a reporter anywhere, or, frankly, a television critic to be careful and make a coherent distinction about what James did or didn’t do, we’d be waiting forever. No one in your profession had the courage to assess this with as much deliberation as I’ve just offered you. I find it really disappointing on the part of people who I very much admire in your line of work, who are ready to restructure our show, or write our show off, or even write off the work that James himself had done, that were making some of these fundamental arguments without being careful, and without being thoughtful. As an ex-journalist, I resent it. It’s a complicated job. But it requires a lot more thought than was delivered in this situation.
[Everything that follows was asked and answered via email.]
How would you compare what Franco is accused of having done in the L.A. Times piece (specifically, the on-set behavior) to the way The Deuce has depicted how actresses can be treated on sets?
Well, again, The Deuce had the absolute advantage of being a well-funded, fully-staffed production under the HBO umbrella, with all of the attendant support from business affairs, talent relations, a full-time casting office, and such. We have all the resources a production can hope for. We are not a seat-of-the-pants, small-budget, independent film project. That said, in our first season we still messed up in some of the same basic ways. Yes, we did not always ensure that what actors expected to happen on the set actually happened. Yes, we made the mistake of engaging actors informally and asking for additional [filming] or staging of sexual simulations when we should have gone through agents only. Yes, while we insisted our intention was simply to make the best possible film on sexual themes, there were a few actors who after the first season had some concern that they were being excessively sexualized because of how some of the work was handled. This happened without anyone suggesting that it constituted sexual harassment and without anyone in production seeking sexual advantage from anyone in the cast and crew. But it happened because there were points at which we did not approach the work with all of the caution and professional rigor possible. We were learning the show and its content, and we made some initial errors. And, too, no one complained at the time. Why not? Because actors pride themselves on their intellectual and emotional athleticism, on their ability to deliver performance regardless, and, too, because they want to work. They are temperamentally inclined not to complain. We only learned about where we slipped the rails, and how, when we directly began to query cast and crew individually and privately. Then some people, a few, spoke with candor. And we began to clear the air and consider even more structure and safeguards within the production.
How would you compare the allegations against James to the larger themes you’ve written about throughout your career about how those in power can abuse and exploit those who don’t have any?
First of all, I think I probably ought to say that having talked to James in detail about what was in the L.A. Times article and hearing his own narrative, I can’t myself speak to the accuracy of what is alleged. I am not disputing any of the complaints, but neither can I affirm them in their entirety. I know that James strongly and specifically contests some of what was written. I have no way to arbitrate between the two narratives, and it isn’t my role to do so. I can tell you that in deciding how to proceed, we took the complaints on face value. Effectively, HBO and Blown Deadline said that if the complaints as they appeared in the L.A. Times were verified, what did they constitute?
And having said that, I’ll go further and point out that from our own experience on Deuce, there isn’t any clear evidence that professional lapses or even the obvious problems with the power dynamic that are the substance of the complaints against James are a function of his efforts to purposely create an exploitive or uncomfortable work environment or to misuse his authority. Perhaps evidence will emerge that those were the motivations. Perhaps not. I imagine, as this case is now headed to court, this will be argued in full. But from the allegations alone, what we learned is that things very clearly did happen that made women on that set feel exploited, either before or after the fact, and things very clearly did happen that expose the problems of an A-list actor engaging in any negotiations — even what he imagines are the most benign and overt negotiations — with younger, less experienced cast. I hope I’m making this clear because you asked a question about how we have depicted power dynamics in our narratives. And the answer is, of course, we’ve shown all kinds of power dynamics. In some cases, we’ve shown malevolent forces willfully misusing class or racial or gender advantage to exploit others, and at other points, as is often the case, those advantages accrue by virtue of the systemic power dynamic itself, regardless of the intention or even awareness of individuals.
Even if I accept that things happened on the set of an independent film that were de facto exploitative — and to an extent, having seen how easily things can go awry regardless of intention on The Deuce, I do accept this — it brings me no closer to knowing James Franco’s personal motivations for those failures. I say this because on our show, James did not ever as a producer or director or actor evidence a desire to use his standing to humiliate or exploit anyone. Nor for that matter did George or [executive producer] Nina [Kostroff-Noble] or myself. And yet, after the fact, we found out that we had actors who felt uncomfortable saying no to the producers, because we are the bosses, and because they want to work and have their story arcs maximized. And there were actors who had an extra burden when James Franco, an A-list actor, came to them as a director asking for something because, hey, who wants to say no when future collaboration and professional regard and even the camaraderie that comes with always being game — all of that rests on their saying yes. The power dynamic exists even if it is unspoken or unacknowledged. It exists even if those in power are oblivious to the dynamic at points. That’s where The Deuce initially struggled, and again, we had all the resources we could ask for. And by finally removing the producerial and directorial element from the direct negotiations with actors, we largely resolved the problem. But of course that only happened when the complaints came to us, and, honestly, it only happened because the second and third seasons gave us a chance to learn. We were not a seat-of-the-pants indy project of a week or two’s duration. We needed to stay around a while and solve the problems if we were going to deliver 25 hours of television.
Of course, everything I’m saying here calls out for industry standards, for unions to assert for those standards to be observed and for management to commit to the dynamic.
You said the fundamental dynamic that makes #MeToo and #TimesUp so important is men using their power to elicit sex from women. Do you think what James has been accused of falls in any way under the umbrella of #MeToo, or is #MeToo only about coercive sex acts?
I don’t mean to suggest for a minute that this new moment has nothing to say about unprofessional or exploitative work environments that force women to endure indignities whether purposed or not. This seems to me to be a meaningful thing for all of us to be addressing. In that sense, this is actually an opportunity. But for that to happen, all criticism and accusation can’t be flattened so that every affront is the same and everyone targeted for that criticism is treated as if they are as malevolent as a Weinstein or Moonves, or even malevolent at all — as frankly was done in this instance. Franco’s response in the wake of the allegations was to say it was his turn to listen, and I know, having been engaged with him throughout, he very much did so. At the same time, he was very clear that he was being pilloried for being a sexual predator at worst and a sex pest at best. And again, these complaints go to something else, not to that fundamental. And James was entirely aware that if, in the climate of that media moment two years ago, he tried to parse what the reality was or wasn’t, he’d invite further criticism that he [was] challenging the veracity or intent of the women criticizing him. So he shut up and went back to work.
I say this because if we were as a society in a better place, a more nuanced place, with regard to these issues, then there might be more room for people who have goodwill and, in fact, the will to change themselves and improve their performance, to discuss mistakes publicly. I think that even the best reading of the complaints about James makes clear that this is a fellow who has been a celebrity for so long and fixed a time that he was either indifferent or oblivious to the entirety of the power dynamic that was in play involving younger actors who took his film course. And then, when he tried to create film projects, so that those students could get credits on their resume, he was entirely oblivious to the power dynamic when he offered sexualized roles that required nudity or simulated sex. That work is fraught even with the most professional cast and crew.
Why would Franco be so indifferent or oblivious? Well, for one thing, he’s spent a lot of years being about as extroverted and public a figure as one can imagine; his own boundaries with regard to self-exposure are pretty damn minimal. He’s also blandly comfortable with, if not entirely engaged by, themes of adult sexuality; IMDb says as much. There’s a reason we cast him in this piece. In that sense, I think he’s in the same boat as Maggie Gyllenhaal, who also, from the earliest moments of her career, has been absolutely unperturbed by nudity or sexual themes. And again, on Deuce, Maggie’s relentless confidence and bravery helped, in a backhanded way, to exacerbate our initial problems. Maggie’s demeanor is such that she wants to be directly approached about any and all matters, and she feels complete confidence negotiating for herself, in advance or in the moment on set. For one thing, she’s the lead actress in the show and for another, she held the title of producer. So with the character of Candy, there was never the slightest sense on our part as producers that we had a power dynamic in which we might prevail against her wishes when it came to nudity or sexual simulations. And rather than credit Maggie uniquely for this, I’m afraid there were moments were assumed that we were all of us doing such a great job of communicating and negotiating that we directly approached other actors with inquiries about additional shots or simulations with the confidence of collaborators rather than the standing of bosses. We should have had the casting department inquire through agents to cleanly reduce the power dynamic.
Does that make sense? We thought it was clear that actors could say no to anything and they would know that they wouldn’t lose favor with us. But this was in no way clear to actors less secure in their standing than Maggie Gyllenhaal. And they had a hard time when they wanted to say no. They even had a hard time saying we were giving them a hard time. We were, in our first season, oblivious to the power dynamic, too.
I’ll finish with an example, and one at my own expense: On an episode that Franco directed in first season, he had the thought — and I believe that aesthetically and thematically he was correct — that when we first saw pornography being filmed through the viewfinder of a camera, we should glimpse, for a few brief seconds, a close image of actual penetrative intercourse. Now, to be clear, Franco was in no way suggesting that any cast member should be asked to have sex on our set. Instead, we were contemplating using some frames of cleared footage from some vintage pornography to achieve the effect. Franco’s argument was that at the moment that we are first presenting the creation of a pornographic affront, it needs to actually feel like an affront. Again, on a storytelling note, he’s correct. Seeing those few frames would make real the exploitative nature of the camera and what hardcore pornography truly delivers.
You’re right, I told Franco, but I don’t think any actor will want to have themselves so directly associated with that imagery and I can scarcely blame them. While all of us on one side of the camera will know it isn’t the actual anatomy of any Deuce actor engaged in intercourse, the net effect on the viewer is very different. Franco asked if he could at least talk to the actors involved and get a sense of their feelings on the matter. After consulting with Nina Noble, my co-producer, I said he could, but that I doubted he would find any agreement and that when the actor said no, then no was the answer. Franco agreed. He asked, was denied, and we thought that was the end of it.
Later, I learned that having James even propose the idea directly left cast members feeling bad for having to say no, for having to express their own wariness and unwillingness to do what their director and the producers were asking of them. We should have never asked directly. And I was wrong to give James permission to do so. This is precisely the power dynamic for which you hire an intimacy coordinator and empower that position to negotiate for both the actors and the production so that everyone is soundly in agreement about what we are willing to do on a set and no one feels as if they are letting anyone down or not doing their jobs.
In this instance, both James and myself were indifferent and oblivious to the power dynamic. But neither of us was trying to exploit or humiliate anyone. We were trying to make our film better and, in an important sense, more deliberate and disturbing. In fact, we weren’t directly addressing anything that any of our actors would have to do as performance. But we nonetheless advantaged ourselves of our standing so that it became necessary for the actors to resist their own natural inclinations as to what they could accept comfortably.
It’s complicated. But it’s also obvious why I’ve said I never want to work without an intimacy coordinator ever again. For the protection of my actors and for the production as well.
Finally, you called the actors’ claims against James meaningful. Can you expand on that? In what way are they meaningful?
I think the answer is obvious at this point. Even if James Franco wasn’t trying to exploit or intimidate anyone, even if he was seeking no sexual favors, even if the theme of the film was an adult exploration of themes that Franco very much believed in, the power differential between an A-list actor directing an indie film and younger, less experienced actors is such that he needed to be exceedingly careful. And I think what the young women felt at the time or in retrospect about signing releases to appear nude, or the nature of the work, or the caution and precision of how the filming occurred, is entirely meaningful. I am not disdaining their disappointments or anger. In fact, after a season of attempting similar work, I felt responsible for some of the same emotions involving some of my own cast. But I know what I was not trying to do on The Deuce. I was not trying to humiliate or exploit or abuse anyone. I was trying to accomplish hard, fraught work depicting exploitation and abuse. My motivations don’t absolve me of mistakes or the responsibility [of] trying to improve. And taking all of the accusations about Franco at their face value, I can’t know his motivations for certain. Neither can anyone else, honestly, though there are a lot of people that very much want to think the worst because, well, he’s James Franco. And certainly, the L.A. Times had a vested interest in shaping things to suggest a narrative. But regardless of all that, there are, I think, some mistakes for him to own. And a chance, if he is permitted, for him to do better. All that said, his work on The Deuce was thoroughly professional and he was entirely committed to delivering a performance that in and of itself stands as an honest critique of male entitlement and the male gaze. He kept at it for two years after he was made the poster boy for these very things. You can call that irony or penance or both. I don’t care. I was proud of him and proud to do this work with him.