EMMY WATCH: Willimon Talks Fincher's 'House of Cards,' Last-Minute Corey Stoll Rewrites

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
June 27, 2013 4:21 PM
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'House of Cards'
You don't just wind up running a big web series like "House of Cards" out of nowhere. Writer Beau Willimon is the guy who, day in and day out, steers and makes sense of the show that is swiftly heading toward production on Season Two. Director David Fincher pulled him in after seeing what he did with George Clooney's "Ides of March," for which Willimon earned an Oscar nomination for adapting his own nasty political play "Farragut North." Willimon knew what he was writing about. He had worked on several campaigns, brought in by his chum Jay Carson, who rose through the K-Street ranks--and now consults for "House of Cards."

Willimon moved to writing after studying theater, acting, painting, printmaking, the visual arts and American History at Columbia University. After he graduated, he convinced Columbia professor Eduardo Machado to let him audit his playwriting course, which led to submitting a play for admission to his grad program. Willimon worked odd jobs--gallery and painter's assistant, barrista, set builder, finding jobs for the homeless-- as he moved up through the playwriting world, eventually scoring with "North." But it was a long hard slog.

"House of Cards" is a pioneering project in many ways. For starters, online distributor Netflix, confident in their creative partners and the audience for a Fincher-led Americanized remake of the British series starring Kevin Spacey, financed 13 episodes (to the tune of $4 to $5 million an episode, or about $60 million) and once launched on February 1, made the entire first season available to subscribers via instant streaming. And Netflix allowed Fincher and his team unusual freedom by greenlighting two seasons from the get-go. They're halfway through writing Season Two.

Beau Willimon

In the works far down the pike is HBO mini-series "Jack Johnson," a project Willimon is developing (when he has time) for Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman at Playtone. For the first time, Willimon is adapting a fictional mini-series from one of Ken Burns' documentaries, "Unforgivable Blackness."

Anne Thompson: Is 'House of Cards' eligible for Emmys?

Beau Willimon: It’s eligible for everything. 

AT:  I watched it on my TiVo and iPad. But I can only handle about two episodes at a time. A lot of people, with all the marketing, were watching the whole thing at one go.

BW:  Even your phone. All of it’s becoming integrated, TVs, smart TVs. That’s the beauty of doing 13 at once. Some people presume that we intended for it to be binge-watched because we released in that way. That was an option. The intention was to give people a choice... We had someone, the first person who finished it, did it in 13 hours and 6 minutes. I’ve been thrilled by how many people watched it so quickly. I don’t think I’ve ever watched an entire season in two days. No matter how much I love something I can usually only get through two or three before I pass out.

AT: You worked on some political campaigns, and you wrote 'Farragut North' and 'Ides of March.' What training did you have?

BW: Politics was never a career for me. I didn’t think that I would be a writer at all. I thought I would be a painter. I am much more facile at drawing than writing. There’s a big gap between the innate born-with talent and the discipline it takes...It wasn’t until my senior year that I dabbled in writing in a serious way. More as a lark than anything else I decided to write a play. There was a flyer on the wall of the student center, a prize for the best undergraduate screenplay or play. I love a competition. I tore down the flyer, probably the only one they posted, and I won the competition. But it was a terrible play. The worst play you can possibly imagine. It’s the only play of mine I have completely destroyed all records of. It doesn’t exist anymore.

Winning the prize gave me just enough encouragement to think, 'maybe this is something I can take more seriously,' and what I got out of the process was thinking about story and real time and three dimensions and flesh and blood, all the things I loved about the theater that you can’t get out of painting which is purely solitary, ultimately static. I was trying to cram all this story into my paintings and feeling claustrophobic, so being able to imagine a story moving, to me, was liberating.

Kate Mara in "House of Cards"

AT: Are you a presidential wonk? Does Kevin Spacey's wheeler-dealer come from reading Robert Caro on LBJ?

BW: I’m a history wonk. I love Caro’s work. It’s amazing that he’s writing LBJ’s life slower than LBJ lived it. Incredible mind. And I think he sees LBJ as a portal into talking about America and it’s extraordinary whenever you can use a real life person or a character in order to extrapolate the universe. That is a titanic masterpiece.

AT: Given the world you’ve been exposed to, is this darker and more exaggerated than the real world of politics?

BW: It’s hard to put it on that linear spectrum. There are at times exaggerations but the truth of it is there, and I know this first hand and I know this from friends who work in the political world. Do I think everyone in politics is corrupt and immoral? Far from it. I think most people are not. I think most people get into politics for all the right reasons because they want to serve their country and make a difference but over time a lot of them become more concerned with winning.

Power does influence one’s ethical code, or erode it at times. You become disillusioned and jaded by political gridlock or people who are willing to cheat and you realize the only way to accomplish what you want to accomplish is to cheat, too. It’s grey. We are looking at one extreme end of the spectrum, not only the more entertaining end but I also think the more important end. Let’s see the extreme version of how power corrupts and not because we’re trying to tell a morality tale here but because power is something we all experience, we all must contend with, on varying levels in every aspect of our lives.

As I tell everyone, this is not a show about politics. It’s a show about power. You saw power with the two baristas when Claire fires Evelyn and goes to get coffee. There are power dynamics happening behind that counter. Much smaller stakes in relative comparison but not to those two people. The assistant manager wants the manager’s job at Walgreens. In his or her life, those power dynamics are just as important as anything in Washington. You see it between siblings and families, between husband and wife, when someone butts in front of you in the taxi line.

The advantage of writing about DC is you get to see people who are masters of the game, who think in terms of power as opposed to stumbling through those power dynamics the way most of us do in our lives. If power is your currency and being an expert in it is your way of making a living, Washington’s the place to be.

AT: Can you characterize where Season Two is going to go? Tenor, tone direction?

BW: It’ll be better.

AT: Netflix now has all their data for Season One. You guys wrote your 13 episodes and now you have all the metrics.

BW: I don’t look at any of that.

AT: Not looking at the data of Netflix? Do you have a sense of how many people watched 'House of Cards' and how many are still watching? Do you have a sense of a long tail? Any sense of the demographic data?

BW: I know the big broad strokes of what’s going on in terms of viewership, but I don’t want to know the specifics in a mathematical way. There’s only six weeks of data right? So the data continues to pour in. I’m sure Netflix knows down to a tee but I don’t want to know. You really can start to run the risk of pandering at that point. We didn’t know any of that for Season One and that worked for us.

There’s only two things I care about. One is whether I have done the best work I feel I could have done and that my collaborators could have done on Season One so we feel in a place where we can put our name on it. The second part: is Netflix happy? If they’re happy that’s all we need to know.

AT: You’re reading stuff online about people’s responses.

BW: Very interested in that. I’m interested that the technology allows for direct dialogue, I do a weekly q & a on Twitter, I definitely read comments and go to forums. I don’t read reviews. I do read analysis and people who come from a world and know what they’re talking about. I’ve been interested in what David Carr’s been doing in the NYT, and articles in Buzzfeed. 

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