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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.
'House of Cards'
'House of Cards'

It was a delicate balance between blocking and coverage, allowing the actors the choreographic freedom to sustain the intensity. With Underwood, however, he doesn't merely stay five chess moves ahead of his political rivals -- he overturns the chessboard. 

"David's mantra was trying out ideas, executing them, and then evaluating if they worked," Bryld adds. In playing tag team with such varied directors as Joel Schumacher, James Foley, Charles McDougall, Carl Franklin, and Allen Coulter, the crew found themselves doing variations on a theme.

Then again, dressing up the D.C. gang was especially fun for Broecker. "Kevin loves politics and President Clinton is a very good friend and took off one of his ties -- a bright blue one -- and gave it to him. Kevin wears only five suits in the series, primarily a navy blue and gray, but he wanted a nod toward a higher end British look in honor of the original British series, and so we made a deal with Gieves & Hawkes, which Kevin works with when he's in London. His were the only European suits."

By contrast, Underwood's wife, Claire (Robin Wright), a powerful environmentalist and political animal in her own right, portrays a quiet and steely Lady Macbeth figure. "Claire's backstory, which is not explored in the first season, is that she comes from a wealthy family and they probably bankrolled Frank's first few campaigns,"  Broecker continues. "Robin is such an exquisite woman and to have the layer of cold, calculating woman on top of that is interesting. She is perfectly tailored and nothing is out of place. There's the public and private persona and we wanted to create the idea that there's never anything casual about this couple."

Musically, Fincher recommended that Beal drift back to the '70s and reacquaint himself with the title track from Supertramp's "Crime of the Century" (an apt thematic metaphor). The composer was inspired to riff on the tantalizing trail of piano, strings, and sax for his main title theme. "We talked a lot about Frank and his wife in Shakespearean terms, and David mentioned that a movie producer reminded him of Frank," Beal recalls. "It's not intentional malevolence -- power is their drug of existence; that's just who they are."

As with his feature films, Fincher asked Beal to write some sketch pieces before production, which appealed to the classically-trained composer who also dabbles in jazz. "The main title grew out of 'Crime of the Century' as well as a couple of the sketches with a base line and dark melody on top of it. 'One Bite at a Time' is the puppet master theme for the predatory Frank and the base line became his leitmotif."

Beal composed a noirish romanticism for the conspiring husband and wife with a chromatic solo piano ("I Know What I Have to Do"). In season two, though, Beal says Fincher would like to get even more operatic in tone for his contemporary game of thrones.

But even the most despicable people have their humanity, which is why Fincher has us hooked on "House of Cards."

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

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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.