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

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 27, 2013 at 4:21PM

You don't just wind up running a $60 million 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 Netflix 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."
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house of cards
'House of Cards' promo

AT: What did you do after college?

BW: After I graduated there was a weird year where I worked for the Ministry of the Interior for the Estonian government in Talin, moved to the Lower East Side and lived in a fifth floor walk up where I didn't even have a bathroom in my apartment. I had a job where I was trying to find jobs for homeless people, cold-calling businesses: 'will you hire this single mother of four who just got her GED?'

For months I was living in Hanoi, and then I was in Brooklyn and started grad school, by that point interning for 50-year-old New Dramatists, one of the only organizations devoted wholly to playwrights, from unknowns to heavyweights, which changed my life. They organize dramaturgical readings, have an amazing library of plays that all the members have written. It's a safe place for playwrights to experiment and explore, a support system. And I had seen great playwrights like David Lindsay-Abaire, who I am now in a writing group with.

AT: Do you believe in writing groups?

BW: You have to find people who will be brutally honest with you but do it in a way that's respectful, with no competition. If criticism is coming out of pettiness then it’s worthless. Everyone enjoys a pat on the back.

AT: How do you train to be a showrunner? 

BW: I've been writing for almost 15 years, seriously writing, not writing well. Those three years of grad school I wrote terribly. I was by far the worst student. I had no idea what my voice was. I was deeply impressionable so I was just copying all the playwrights that I loved. I knew no one in the business. I felt like all of my peers who had been wanting to write plays since they were six years old knew everybody, and every play that had ever written. I knew a lot about the visual arts world but I didn't know about the theater world. At the time I wouldn't have presumed to think I would write a film or TV show.

AT: In the theater it's not just about words, it's about space, it's about time...

Corey Stoll in 'House of Cards'
Corey Stoll in 'House of Cards'

BW: A lot of the early stuff I did in grad school was too visual. I was thinking about it in a purely aesthetic way without being honest in terms of what I needed to explore and really being rigorous about human behavior. Those three years, the best thing about them is that they were a safe place to fail, which I did time and time again. You can't train anyone how to write. You can't teach them. You can learn tricks, you can learn certain things about craft. You can get guidance from a mentor who will help you to see for yourself where you’ve gone astray in a scene or in a play, and who can help guide you as to what to see and who to read. But it’s trial and error.

AT: It's the 10,000 hours. When you had that experience in Washington you were able to take that experience and funnel it into this one play that was your breakout?

BW: When I graduated from grad school I had odd jobs. I was in South Africa for a year on a visual arts fellowship. I was kinda all over the place, writing plays and sending them out to agents and theaters and getting zero response. I felt like I was in the wilderness screaming at the top of my lungs and no one could hear me. Which is where you start.

The summer before my senior year my buddy Jay Carson drew me into Chuck Schumer’s first campaign for the Senate in 1998 and Jay has gone on to be a political wunderboy. He is the guy I based "Farragut North" on and "Ides of March" and he’s now a political consultant for our show. One of the writers I hired he fell in love with: they have a kid now.

One summer I was taking these accelerated ancient Greek and German courses, I’m trying to learn basic ancient Greek in six weeks and I’m just failing miserably. He goes, 'hey, I'm working on this campaign and do you want to come join me as an intern?' I dropped the classes, went to work on the campaign and it was amazing. Chuck started out as a nobody... and in the course of a few months he went on to not only win the primary resoundingly but then defeat heavyweight incumbent Alfonse D'Amato. And all the people on that campaign have gone on to do great things in Democratic circles.

You become addicted, looking for the next fix, but I wasn’t actively seeking it. Jay went on to work on Bill Bradley's campaign and he pulled me on for that, and Hillary's campaign in 2000... I was his confidante. In politics you always need those people you can fully trust if only to have a sounding board.

AT: Was 'Farragut North' based on him?

BW: It was based on him, not that he did those things. The very first copy I ever printed out went first to Jay Carson. He read it and he still has it. I wanted him to approve.

AT: Did you learn screenwriting from working with Clooney and Heslov on 'The Ides of March?'

BW: I had dabbled before that. I’ve never taken a screenwriting class. Screenwriting takes a rewiring in the brain structurally and in terms of the way you see things visually.

AT: It’s limiting?

BW: I see it as the opposite. Every medium whether it’s screenwriting or plays or short stories, they all have their advantages and disadvantages. On the stage you can have a 14-minute scene and it really can be about language and on the screen you rarely have that available to you, but you have a much broader canvas. You have the close-up. You can really get in on someone’s hands. Sometimes what someone is doing with their hands is all you need in that scene. I didn't feel like screenwriting was something I needed to be trained for. If I could write a play, I could write a movie.

AT: How did you get to adapt your own play?

This article is related to: Television, Interviews, Interviews , Interviews


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