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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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Ian Richardson and Susannah Harker in the BBC's "House of Cards"
Ian Richardson and Susannah Harker in the BBC's "House of Cards"

BW: It was my play. I said, 'I won’t let it happen unless I could do it.' They encouraged it. After the Dean campaign I came back to NY, I had never written about politics and I felt like I knew the world well. I wanted to write about it. I thought for a few months about the story I wanted to tell and then I realized it should be about the young press secretary. It came very quickly, I wrote it in a couple of months. I sent it out to theaters, all of them said, 'no,' so I put it away and just kept working on plays. Then I got a gig from my buddy who had a great meeting with AMC, they were just getting started in TV. We were both desperate for paid gigs. They said we are looking to do three things: period, espionage, or smart horror. To this day I still have no fucking idea what smart horror is.

We go into AMC and we show up in suits, I've come from my temp job. It’s laughable now. We had rehearsed this pitch down to every word. They bought it in the room. I had written one treatment for a class in grad school about a civil war plantation during the war from the perspective of the slaves. We went on to write "Hickory Hill." We pulled no punches. We had whippings, we had rape. They were developing "Mad Men" at the time. When push came to shove, even though they said they liked the script, they didn't make it. But out of that I got my agent, who I still have, now at CAA. And I was a member of the Writers Guild.

AT: You could probably go back to that now because the landscape has shifted post-'Django Unchained.'

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in "House of Cards"
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in "House of Cards"


BW: It would be an amazing story. The agent sent out 'Farragut North.' We were a little closer to the '08 elections so that was in the air. It was being fast-tracked for Broadway. We sent it to LA, quickly it found itself in the hands of Smokehouse and Warner Bros. My girlfriend and I were driving out to Montauk. We had saved up and we were gonna do a bed and breakfast for a weekend, that was our vacation. We got a call saying 'Warners wants to option the play,' and they want Clooney and Di Caprio to produce. So after almost driving the car into a ditch I said, 'amazing, let’s do it.' And that ended up being a two-picture deal. We ended up doing it with Cross Creek Financing and Sony distributed.

AT: Where’s the second film?

BW: That was an adaptation of 'A Tale of Two Cities' which will never get made. It’s a project that WB has been after for years. With a little bit of hubris I said to myself, 'I want to be the one where it actually gets made.' And I learned that lesson, which is never be the 8th writer on something. I got paid and I learned a lot.  You can never go wrong learning from Dickens. I got to spend a few years with Charles, and it was a massive challenge. I’m proud of the script. Di Caprio was interested in doing it. 

AT: How did 'House of Cards' come your way?

BW: I got a call saying David Fincher wanted to talk about 'House of Cards.' I had heard of the BBC version, this was long before Netflix. This was Media Rights Capital, who had teamed up with him as a producer. They own the property and they said, 'would you be interested in directing this?' And he said 'yes.' The next step was to team up with a writer, so he reached out with Josh Donen and Eric Roth. I watched it, loved it. I wasn't particularly keen at the time to do another political story or television but I had all these ideas for how to Americanize it and make it contemporary and make it our own. I was not interested in a translation or adaptation. I wanted to cherry pick, use it as a springboard for something that is new.

Fincher and I shared the same instincts and decided it would be a good idea to team up, so for the next year I worked on the first episode. I would write a draft and send it to them and we would hop on the phone and talk about it, and we started to conceive of the big things in Season One, and where we wanted to end up.

AT: Fincher said that Corey Stoll's Congressman was not that big a story arc. How did you come to enhance that?

BW: After about a year, we were talking about who we wanted to play Francis and Claire, and we arrived at Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. They were on board. Then we went to find a home, and we wanted at least a season guaranteed which is, even for the people involved, a lot to ask, but we were not interested in auditioning. We weren’t going to go through the process of making a first episode just to see if we got the chance. We all, particularly David, put so much into that, we wanted to know it was going somewhere. We were blunt about that. The networks we talked to were all interested in the show but we were making big asks.

I learned at the time that Netflix was interested in original programming. David had to get back to Sweden, Josh and I went to meet with Netflix (Ted Sarandos and Cindy Holland). We sat down and they said straight away, 'we want to do this show, we want this to be our first foray into original programming, we believe in this team, we want you to make the show you want to make.' They said it would be at least one season, probably two. This had gotten very interesting very quickly. They also said, 'you guys will have creative freedom, you will not get reams of notes from us.'

AT: You didn’t seem to have any budget controls either.

BW: We very much had a budget and we came in under budget.

AT: That CAA agent was quoted as saying the least expensive episode was $3.8 million.

BW: We had a very clear budget, what we could spend on each episode, that was all determined in advance. There was a period where we were figuring out what that should be. Even before the pilot we know what we were going to spend on Season One and we knew what we had per episode, so we were honest about what we thought we would need. All of us had to figure it out.

AT: In terms of a movie budget it’s not a huge budget, but it’s still high.

BW: We very much had a budget, we knew the numbers, we stuck to it. We came in under budget on Season One. Netflix provided ample resources for us to make a show of the quality we wanted to put our names on, incredibly supportive about that. We were realistic about the cost but also incredibly frugal. If you look at the quality of the filmmaking compared to most television, largely the aesthetic David created, you are seeing some of the best cinematography that you have ever seen on the small screen.

I’m talking in terms of production quality. We also had an amazing cast and their performances are ultimately what people are clicking into. Without performances, it’s all for naught. That’s a given. They are the show. But in terms of the level of filmmaking, that we are able to achieve something in the filmic camp with a TV budget showed frugality and resourcefulness.

Netflix, in offering two seasons of creative freedom, at that point there was no more deliberation about it. It felt like Orson Welles’ RKO deal. That just doesn’t happen. We’re all rebels to a degree: being with a company that was on the cusp of something, trying something new, that had as little experience in TV as we all did. We didn’t set out to do the first original programming on Netflix. We were in the right place at the right time and they had the guts to jump in the game. So we held hands and jumped off the cliff together.

AT: Is the Season Two budget equivalent?

BW: Our budget was worked out for both seasons from the beginning.

AT: As the showrunner that’s an enormous responsibility. Like a playwright, you have more creative control than you do on a film. How did it work?

BW: It’s very collaborative at the top. So, really, it’s David and me and Eric and Josh and we also brought in a new creative EP David Manson. It starts often with casual conversations, spitballing, playing around, but then I’ll go off and work on what the actual story will be. So Season One I worked out, 'here’s what I think the whole season should be, episode by episode.'

I would talk about it with David and Eric and Josh and we’d chat and I’d say, 'I want to do this,' and David might say, 'well did you think about that?'

I’ll go back and work on it some more and eventually we get to the script phase and on Season One we had seven months where I had all thirteen episodes written before we shot a single frame. It’s totally unusual. That was largely a result of the fact that Kevin was doing "Richard III"on a world tour for nine months so we couldn’t shoot anyway. So I thought, 'why not have the whole season written before production? The more time we spend with it the better it will be.'

In terms of the story, certainly they have a lot of input and I take it seriously. I have pretty much free rein to write the story I want to write, and then we delegate different duties. I don’t know anything about editing or post and David is brilliant at that, so I am perfectly happy to have nothing to do with who the editors are or being in the editing bay. Those bays were based out of his offices here in LA, so I’m on the ground every day from first rehearsal to final shot in Baltimore, and I’m there working one on one with the directors, rewriting episodes, talking to the actors, going to props meetings, talking about locations.

And meanwhile David’s here working with the editors. We shoot ten days an episode, so it’s 20 shooting days for every two episodes. I would get an assembly, maybe version three, and I would give my thoughts to David, 'take it or leave it.' Simultaneously he’s also reading the scripts for the upcoming episodes and saying 'I think you should do this or that.' There’s so much dialogue going back and forth. He was involved in every episode, every step of the day. In terms of choosing the cinematographer, he had a much deeper knowledge of directors. I had input in some things but was perfectly happy to have zero input in others. David’s mind is built for that. I’m going to focus on the writing. Cinematography is in good hands.

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


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