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Immersed in Movies: Craft-Talking David Fincher's Emmy-Contender 'House of Cards'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood May 24, 2013 at 2:22PM

From the very first moment that Kevin Spacey broke the fourth wall as the devilishly charming House Majority Whip Frank Underwood in "House of Cards," Netflix's first original TV series, we knew that we were in for "Richard III" in D.C. It's so David Fincher, who signed on as exec producer and director of the first two episodes, while writer-showrunner Beau Willimon ("The Ides of March") plotted the political machinations with transcendent glee. No wonder it's induced binge viewing and attracted Emmy buzz.
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Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'
Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'

From the very first moment that Kevin Spacey broke the fourth wall as the devilishly charming House Majority Whip Frank Underwood in "House of Cards," Netflix's first original TV series, we knew that we were in for "Richard III" in D.C. It's so David Fincher, who signed on as exec producer and director of the first two episodes, while writer-showrunner Beau Willimon ("The Ides of March") plotted the political machinations with transcendent glee. (Our in-depth interview with Willimon is here.) No wonder the series has induced binge viewing and Emmy buzz.

I recently spoke with the three Bs of below-the-line craft on the acclaimed, $100 million political thriller, which is in pre-production on its second season: cinematographer Eigil Bryld ("You Don't Know Jack"), costume designer Tom Broecker ("Saturday Night Live"), and composer Jeff Beal ("Blackfish"), whose two-disc soundtrack is available on Varese Sarabande. They all attest to the fact that TV bended to Fincher and not the other way around.

"I hadn't done episodic before, but when I heard that David was involved and read the first four scripts, I was hooked on the dark political backdrop," admits the Danish-born, Welsh educated Bryld. "For me, Kevin Spacey is the poster boy politician who can then become a predator or serial killer. 'All the President's Men' was the only film that we watched. David didn't have deliberate references but the task was to create an undercurrent of suspense, danger, power, and gravity in every shot."

For Fincher, the fascination of "House of Cards" was exploring the political class and how it perpetually finances the bureaucracy. Spacey's Underwood portrays the power broker who put the president (Michael Gill) in the White House in exchange for appointment as Secretary of State. When the president reneges on that promise, Underwood vows revenge and steps into action as the puppet master of D.C.

Bryld, who shot 11 out of 13 episodes, had 10 weeks to prep with Fincher in Baltimore and used the Red Epic for the first time on a series. "David likes the Red and got them to customize matte boxes, remote systems, and wireless technology to be as mean and lean in adapting technology to our means," he says. "Preparation was about being economical in how we lit everything in telling the story. David had a rule that there could only be 25 crew members on set and no hand-held. He didn't want it to seem like there was anyone else present in the complicity between Frank and the viewer.

"We customized our own camera van, which was very small and almost like an assault vehicle that could roll in right next to the set, and the cameras could roll off on the dollies and be ready at any location in less than 20 minutes. We shot two cameras with Master Prime lenses for low-level lighting. It was all about shaping and balancing the light with existing light sources whenever possible. A lot of the exposure came from laptops and practical lights. We wanted to create spaces of light and not flood a scene."

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, David Fincher, Interviews, Interviews, Netflix, NetFlix, Television, TV Interviews, TV, Emmys


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.