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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'


(EPISODE 11 SPOILER DOWN BELOW!)
AT: What is Dana Brunetti’s role?

BW: Dana runs Trigger Street with Kevin, and Kevin came on as EP, and Kevin of course is often part of this input. To whatever extent at any given time he wants to be involved, he is, but a lot of times he’s also focusing on Francis Underwood and making sure he knows what’s happening in the script and preparing for scenes.

AT: It would have been really difficult for most actors to deliver that role. He had the chops.

BW: I don’t think we would have done the show without Kevin. We would have said, 'not worth it.' I don't think there’s anyone else we would have gone to and felt confident enough to putting this amount of work on their shoulders. The entire series hangs on this person.

AT: You must have figured out rules you needed to apply for the talking to the screen. Sometimes you feel it coming, like when he’s walking down the hall.

BW: If you really analyze that it’s less than half the time. At first we had no idea when the appropriate time to do it was. It was trial and error. What we came to learn over the course of Season One was that when it gets too emotional, when it’s too much real time thought, it’s not the strongest.

AT: You must have cut some of it out.

BW: There were plenty we took out. Using "Richard III" as a template, you have a lot of different types of asides. Early on it tends to be at 30,000 feet, much more meta and insightful, and I’m informing you and laying out for you my thinking and I’m looking forward. Towards the end of the play it’s very much working inward, thought happening in real time, and you see him getting more and more off-balance. But in 'House of Cards' when we go too inward, too much in the moment in a direct address, either presenting a worldview or a political insight... There are three ways it works best.

One, there’s the Wizard of Oz, the nuts and bolts: it’s a worldview, for instance, 'I have no patience for useless things.' He’s saying, 'this is how I think about the world.' One is political insight which explains the nature of why Remy Danton is important, or it can be an aphorism: 'never slap a man while he’s chewing tobacco.'

But we can provide some political insight that is not obvious, in which you are seeing interesting political thought. And sometimes it’s just entertainment, if we can get a laugh out of it, if we have an opportunity to add some lightness to a scene that might be really heavy. So if possible, we try and kill three birds with one stone. You get a laugh or a smile but he’s also talking about his worldview and a political way of thinking about the folks you’re manipulating. When he turns in on himself and we see him doubt or we see him afraid or working something out in real time, it sort of diminishes Francis, and those things are much better to show than to tell. That's not to say he should never have fear or doubt or be conflicted.

Onstage it works for Shakespeare, before we got to psychological drama. In terms of the way it works, David clearly pulled all the pieces together at the beginning and he is involved every step of the way. I WAS just at his office yesterday and we were talking about Season Two.

AT: Want to give us a little sense?

BW: Absolutely not. We start shooting in the next couple months and in terms of the writing process we’ve finished about half the season. By breaking half the season, fully broken the beats for about half the episodes, I know what’s happening over the course of the entire season, the broad strokes for the second half, but we haven’t gotten to it yet.

AT: You are way longer than the British series, and you have left that now. Didn’t the politician kill the journalist?

BW: At the end of hour four he pushes her off the roof of Parliament.

AT: So Zoe might be in danger?

BW: Everyone’s in danger in our show, everyone’s fair game. In any case...

AT: (SPOILER ALERT) You killed Russo. That was kind of amazing.

BW: I knew from the very beginning I wanted to do that. Regardless of how his role increased, that was always gonna happen.

AT: So the first thirteen episodes written before you started production had X amount of time for him and in the final version he had more time.

BW: It’s very clear. Another character was running for governor, who you never saw, who we introduced around episode 4 or 5. Russo had some involvement with Francis and he became more unhinged and a liability which warranted his death. But he was not nearly onscreen as much and the story was a lot weaker. When we saw Corey doing what he was doing, any time, when I was looking at the dailies in Video Village, when we had Corey Stoll and Kevin Spacey together it felt electric. I always felt uneasy about Russo’s story, there was potential there and we weren’t using the opportunity. We thought we had to do more with this guy.

I had the thought to myself one day, 'well what if he runs for governor?' It would require massive rewriting but the thrust of the story will remain the same. We save a lot of real estate that we could put in a better drama because we have a character who already has a history. At the time I thought, 'how do I take a guy who’s an alcoholic and a whore-mongerer and drug abuser and have him run for governor in a plausible way?' But that’s no reason to shy away. It’s a formidable challenge.

The call girl, Rachel Posner, was only meant to be in those first two scenes. I had an inkling from that scene where he put the money in her mouth, I saw the dailies and I just felt like, 'I bet she has more to her if we need to lean on her.' Then I started thinking, 'Ok, how do I rethink this story if he’s gotta have a downfall? That will make him unhinged, that will lead to his death, how do I make his downfall occur?'

I love characters who first appear inconsequential and then come back. Nothing ever fully dissipates. If you were paying attention, look at every character in our show, even a cop who says 'hey' at a coffee shop, that could be someone important down the line. I love that idea so the idea of bringing Rachel back started to develop, which lead to Rachel and Stamper’s relationship. If you watch, you absorb, you avail yourself to what’s working and you’re not precious about what you’ve done and you’re willing to do the work, you can rewrite half the season in the middle of production.

The first thing I did was I called up David and Josh and Eric and wrote them an email and said I want to make a major change, I laid it out for them. Everyone was thrilled, everyone thought this is what we’re missing and this is the right move to make and we’ll put Corey onscreen more. Then it was about the nitty gritty work of rethinking the story. A lot of the rest of the story didn’t need to be changed in major ways because it was insulated from that, but there is a ripple effect that occurs when you couldn’t get away from the fact that there would be page one rewrites in a lot of the episodes. Going back to four and five to lay the seeds. In our show we never set anything up, there’s no introduction. We always drop into the action in the middle, but you have to think about what’s ongoing in someone’s life.

AT: How many writers do you have? Any women?

BW: Six, and yes.

AT:  I made the assumption that there were smart women on the team because the stuff with the women is ringing true. They are real, believable. Even though Zoe is sleeping her way into a situation, it’s great the way she stands up to her boss.

BW: A lot of your colleagues and peers hate her, and I listen to that. I think our portrayal in the media was not as sophisticated in Season One as the political world, partly because we had less real estate and had to move quickly through things. And she’s actually not sleeping her way to the top til episode 4 or 5.

AT: She’s very calculated, just like Francis.

BW: We’re not telling the story of Woodward and Bernstein. This is not someone who’s in noble pursuit of the truth. She’s in pursuit of access and influence, and she’s ambitious and young people who are ambitious will use whatever they have available to them.

AT: I loved the idea that you took her out of the newsroom.

BW: I’ve never wanted to be a White House correspondent. It’s not even been on my radar.

AT: That scene where she lays out for him what she is, which is a whore, is crucial.

BW: It’s a relationship based on power, not sex, which both parties are absolutely transparent about.

AT: And this is a big advance from the BBC series, in that one she’s just young and pretty.

BW: With a daddy complex. When Zoe goes in and knocks on his door, whatever the verisimilitude of that you can debate, she does of course wear the push-up bra and take her scarf off.

AT: Every woman journalist uses her allure to get what she wants.

BW: By guessing, by using her powers of deduction to figure out what the administrative agenda is, and then to say, 'you would have made a great Secretary of State,' then she gains his attention. It has nothing to do with sexuality. At the end of that scene where Claire walks in and she turns to Francis and goes, 'does that work on anyone, the push-up bra and the v-neck tee?' And he goes, 'if it does I don’t know who they are.' So many journalists want to jump to the assumption that we’re telling a story of someone sleeping their way to top when in fact the transactional relationship has been going on for four hours in the series before it evolves to sex. Sex has nothing to do with libido and getting one’s rocks off.

AT: He explains it. He says it’s power.

BW: Which she sees and acknowledges and then continues to accept. So then we have Janine Skorski who will later say 'I fucked, jerked, sucked my way to the middle.'

AT: And then it became a liability which is when Zoe decides to change. How many women writers do you have?

BW: We have right now Laura Eastman and last year we had Sarah Treem and Kate Barnard and we also had Gina Gionfriddo do a freelance episode. It’s interesting that you asked that question because people assume that women writers are hired to write women characters. And maybe that’s the case on other shows but it’s not the case on mine. I hire people for their minds, I expect them to write everything.

AT: Any other series you admire?

BW: I steal all the time. My favorite show of all time is 'The Wire.' When people are writing dissertations about the Golden Age of Television 100 years from now, 'The Wire' will be the 'Citizen Kane.' 'Deadwood' is a three season masterpiece. Totally different from 'The Wire,' it's heightened language, Shakespearean drama, perverse humor, the completeness and twistedness of this world.

AT: How much is the world of Aaron Sorkin something you pay attention to?

BW: I have huge admiration for him. I loved the 'West Wing' when it was on, but that’s not a helpful template for this show because we’re 180 degrees from it, and that’s a show about good people doing good things, it’s a noble fantasy and we’re the exact opposite of that.

AT: Do you have a start date for Season Two? Any new casting?

BW: I can’t comment on anything that would give you the slightest tidbit of information.

AT: Can you say that some directors like Carl Franklin are coming back?

BW: I can’t say anything. I will say in terms of Season One, I think Carl’s work was extraordinary. We all agreed episodes ten and eleven were among the very best. He’s not only a real pro but has real vision.

AT: Is Peter Morgan someone you admire, and his use of power in drama?

BW: Peter Morgan’s a fantastic writer. In fact there was a gig for a movie I wrote that won’t get made, or at least not my version, I wrote a movie for Fox 2000, an adaptation of Peter Morgan’s 'The Jury.' What he really understands is the subtlety of political gamesmanship when it comes to one-on-one personal interactions, in ways that are sophisticated beyond what most people are doing.

AT: One of the things I love about the show is the way you use the cell phone.

BW: You will have seen it in 'Sherlock.' I write the text as dialogue and figure we’ll do inserts or whatever. Fincher said, 'what if we put them up on the screen?' I love that idea. He hadn’t seen 'Sherlock' so I showed him a couple YouTube clips and he said 'that’s exactly what I had in mind'. It’s a great way to dramatize texting which is part of the way we communicate, and allows for us to see the face and the reaction at the same time, and when you cut to the insert you lose that. Half the story is like, 'if I’m telling a lie or how I’m receiving something and then responding.'

AT: In the Sentinel episode, you humanize Frank but also introduce a past gay relationship or love for another man. Is that there?

BW: I would veer away from any sort of labels. Francis doesn’t think of sexuality in terms of labels. What we mean to dramatize is a close intimate relationship with someone who happened to be a man. Call that whatever you want, I call that connection. And Francis himself says 'when I want something, I take it, I go for it.' We see that with Zoe Barnes, we see that in a totally other way with Claire Underwood and we see that in the past with Tim Corbet, so he’s a man with a large appetite.

AT: When you’re shooting, how many cameras?

BW: We have two cameras. We use the red. On some occasions we use three.

AT: Any interest in directing?

BW: Absolutely. I want to but I won’t be for 'House of Cards' Season Two. It’s a full time job to write the show much less be on the ground and produce.


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