When writer-producer Beau Willimon adapted the black-as-pitch British miniseries House of Cards for a ground-breaking deal with Netflix, he introduced U.S. audiences to the anti-hero power couple Francis and Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright), both so bent on rising to the top of Washington power circles that their ambitions trump their morals. By the end of season two, they had reached their goal, moving into the White House. Willimon first explored political cynicism and boundless ambition with the play Farragut North, which became the 2011 film Ides of March with George Clooney. Now, heading into a third season of an award-winning blockbuster, Willimon explains how Frank Underwood is actually as optimistic a politician as they come.
DEADLINE: Early on you worked on Chuck Schumer’s campaign, and then with Hillary Clinton, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean. In your adaptations, politicians just seem like such awful people. What the heck did you see that informed such a cynical view of politics?
BEAU WILLIMON: Well, I don’t have a cynical view of politics. I don’t see Francis Underwood as being cynical at all. He doesn’t have an ideology. He’s not driven by idealism, but he is an optimist at heart. He says, “Forward progress, momentum. Do something instead of nothing.” That’s an optimistic point of view. Admittedly, both Ides of March and House of Cards are a dark take on the political process, but the subject isn’t politics, it’s power. So, there are no politicians that I worked for that, in any way, are parallel to Francis Underwood. Now, the more you become acquainted with the political world, you see people who are constantly faced with ethical choices, who wield a great deal of power, and with that power, comes a huge amount of responsibility, and you’re more often than not in that gray area instead of a black-and-white dialectic. I like to amplify the grayness. I like to really dig into those forks in the road, those moments where someone becomes a monster or plays into the darker side of power. But that’s not meant to be reflective of the entire political process.
DEADLINE: It would seem the initial allure of a career in politics would be public service, but is it just the money that pollutes that whole ideological, virtuous thing? It seems to be similar in Hollywood too, you know?
WILLIMON: Well, I mean, that’s a great question. I think most people get involved in politics for the reason you just said. Public service, the desire to better the country or their district, their hometown, to improve the lives of others, and I believe probably most politicians maintain that part of themselves to a large degree. The problem is that it does take money to get elected. Power, in and of itself, is addictive. Once you’ve wielded power, it’s very difficult to let it go, and it is a ruthless business. I mean, when so much is at stake, you have to be willing to do the thing that the other guy wouldn’t be willing to do in order to get elected. So, in the pursuit of public service, you find yourself making choices that might contradict the reasons that you got involved in the first place. I think that that’s not necessarily a judgment. It’s an observation, and I think we all face those sorts of choices to varying degrees in our own lives. We all compromise. We all contradict ourselves. The way that people rationalize that, the way that people self-deceive and deceive the others around them in order to live with that contradiction makes for good drama, and that is the sort of stuff that I am being drawn to time and time again.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about Claire’s character (portrayed by Robin Wright). It seemed like she shed the last vestiges of a conscience as she becomes, almost by necessity, this physically flawless, soulless woman.
WILLIMON: Well, I don’t think she’s soulless at all. I mean, there’s a cost to the choices that she makes. We see, I think, in both the Underwoods, aspects of them that make them more than mere sociopaths. We know that both are capable of love, and affection, and compassion, but it’s a matter of degree. To what extent are you willing to let that dictate your behavior, or to what extent are you willing to suppress it? And that is the axis that we explore them through.
DEADLINE: In your mind, what’s the thing that elevates Frank from a simple sociopath?
WILLIMON: In season two, he has to turn his back on Freddy, and that hurts him. It’s as close to a friend as he has, and he makes that choice because he feels he must, but not coldly. He does it with a great degree of guilt, and I think these things do elevate (Frank and Claire) beyond mere sociopaths, because the sociopath is incapable of empathizing, incapable of true feeling, and the biggest argument for them not being sociopaths is the extent to which they love one another.
WILLIMON: I think that all love is unusual. One of the things I said to (executive producer David) Fincher in our first conversation about House of Cards was that I wanted to do something radical. I wanted to dramatize a successful marriage, and so many marriages that we’ve seen for the last couple of hundred years in books, plays, television and in movies have been about dysfunctional marriages or the breakup of a marriage, people falling out of love. What these two people have is an extraordinary bond. Collectively, they are larger than they are individually, and they have their own rules. Their rules are nonconventional. The rules are specific to them, but I think, honestly, in all partnerships, you have to develop your own rules, and limits, and boundaries, and liberties, and there is no formula or schema to it, and they found something that works for them and that they both benefit from, and they love each other for it.
DEADLINE: When you started this, Netflix was not exactly the sexiest destination to do a series.
WILLIMON: They had not made (a TV series) before, and it was a brand new thing to launch a television show of this magnitude on the Internet. Of course there had been Internet programming, webisodes, and YouTube, but it was incredibly sexy to us for a number of reasons. There’s something sexy to the new, to a paradigm that no one really has engaged with before. There’s something rebellious about that. There’s something exciting about that. It allows you to ask questions that people haven’t previously asked, like, “What happens if you deliver the entire season of a show on one day? To all of us on the House of Cards team, those sorts of prospects and questions were incredibly sexy. Add to that the fact that (Netflix) guaranteed two seasons up front; it gave us huge creative freedom. I don’t know how you get much sexier. None of us really had done television before, so we weren’t bound to any sort of sense of convention, or prestige value, or notion of how it should be done. We just knew we wanted to tell a great story and to do so with the most freedom and resources available. Netflix blew the competition out of the water on all those fronts, and we also knew that this would probably be big news and that we would benefit from that sort of news and buzz, which we did.
DEADLINE: Putting out a whole season’s worth of episodes in one shot certainly turns the model on its ear. As a writer, what are the benefits of doing it that way?
WILLIMON: Honestly, releasing all (episodes) in one day doesn’t change the writing one bit, because when we first started (writing) season one, we didn’t know how we were going to deliver (the show). Releasing all in one day was a possibility, but so was the traditional week-to-week release. So, from my perspective, it had to be able to work either way, and it still does. Not everyone binges. A lot of people watch an episode here, an episode there, and look, people have been watching shows on that spectrum for over a decade now. All we did with House of Cards was say, “We’re going to give you that choice on day one.” So it was really in reaction to an already-existing trend. If you look at a lot of great shows over the past decade and a half—shows like Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, Dexter—a lot of them were binged by viewers, and yet, in the conception and writing of them, initially, there was no notion of binge watching. The term didn’t even exist, and yet they still worked as binges.
I guess the prime advantage that we had with House of Cards was the two-season guarantee. That really liberates you on the writing front—to know you’re not fighting for your life each week with the ratings. You’re not forcing contrived cliffhangers or trying to jump the shark just to create a splash each week so that people will come back the next one. You can layer the narrative in a much more sophisticated way. Knowing that we have that huge canvas was the most liberating thing. Since none of us really had come out of television, we saw these as 13-hour movies of sorts. We gave our audience the benefit of the doubt. Whether they were binging or not, there might be something in episode four that we recall in episode eight, and we just trusted that our viewers would remember. If you’re binging, that only happened four hours ago. If you’re watching it in a slower fashion, maybe it happened four weeks ago, but we assume, either way, that we have engaged discerning viewers who are paying attention to this stuff and are going to absorb it all no matter what their viewing experience is.
DEADLINE: Kevin Spacey has said that playing Richard III really helped influence how he found his grip on Francis Underwood. What influences did you find yourself tapping into as you put together this complicated character?
WILLIMON: (Spacey) brought a humor and humanity to that role, which really opened my eyes up in terms of what Richard III can be. He found the lightness and the humanity in this monster, which goes back to wanting Richard or Francis Underwood to rise above their sociopathy. Seeing him perform that twice, both at the Old Vic and at BAM, was something that definitely was in the frontal cortex as I was working on Francis Underwood, and continues to be. These are fictional characters. They’re not meant to be stand-ins for anyone in real life. You can see something that happens on the sidewalk or the subway train that gives you a moment. It’s difficult for me to say, here are the three major influences or inspirations for the show. But to give you an example that we return to often, (Lyndon B. Johnson), he’s just one of many people that we think about and look at. LBJ is fascinating, not only because he was a master of the political process, he was a deeply complex person who I think was constantly juggling his own ambition with what was right, and more than anything, felt that tug of forward momentum the same way Francis does.
DEADLINE: Well, since you mentioned the word subway and observing something on the subway, now, we started off the second season with a shocking murder. It was Frank’s second murder of someone who got in his way. You’ve used the word monster to refer to him, but not sociopath.
WILLIMON: You can be a monster, and you can be a deeply compassionate person at the same time. Most compelling characters, in my view, are bundles of contradictions. Francis does what he does because he sees Zoe as a threat. It’s an act of self-preservation, and yet, that doesn’t mean he loves his wife any less or he can’t feel loss at having to turn his back on Freddy. Logically, you would say, “How can a person who feels bad about turning his back on Freddy also be the sort of person who pushes a young woman in front of the subway?” We have to look at how people contradict themselves if we want a true portrait of their character. If we’re really honest, we’re far more a contradiction than we are anything else.
DEADLINE: Once the Underwoods end up in the White House they have the nerve to express gratitude to the disgraced first couple, who they basically played. Did you have that as an outcome that you then had to script, in between, to make it plausible, or was it a surprise the way that the second season worked out?
WILLIMON: We began every season by breaking a grid. We have a grid on a few dry-erase boards, where we have all 13 episodes as columns, and then, as rows, we have our main characters or story threads. Before we even dive into breaking the first episode, we have a pretty good idea of where we’re going to end the season and all the major signposts along the way. Those change. They evolve. You come up with better ideas, or something that you think is going to work great turns out to be a real roadblock to the narrative. So you have to adapt. But Francis becoming president, that we always knew—even before we began season one—would happen by the end of season two. To answer your question, exactly how that was going to happen was a process of discovery, and it went through a few different iterations throughout the process of breaking the grid, and then it changed a bit here and there even as we were working on episodes. But the basic structure of it was intact early on.
DEADLINE: Can you mention a few of those discoveries that occurred in season two that were the most creatively satisfying?
WILLIMON: Probably the Rachel/Doug Stamper storyline. Rachel was never meant to be a major character. In the first two episodes of season one she was simply a call girl, and I made the choice to have Peter Russo run for governor. The story of the gubernatorial race was originally meant for a different character altogether, but Corey Stoll (who portrays Russo) was doing such a fantastic job, and whenever he was on screen with Kevin, it was electric. So I decided I wanted to maximize his time on camera, and we hadn’t cast that other role yet. I shifted all that soil onto him. That meant a lot of rewriting in the second half of the season, because you can’t just shift it over without there being consequences to the rest of the narrative. A byproduct of that was bringing Rachel back. When I thought about Russo’s downfall, I thought about the characters we’d seen him engage with and I was really intrigued by Rachel and where that could take us. A byproduct of that was Stamper needing to keep an eye on her, and so never, in any conception of season two early on, did we have this dynamic. By the end of season one it became clear that the Rachel/Stamper dynamic was something that we needed to explore, and what you see there is a man who is not able to fully process his feelings for this woman and a woman who feels trapped and yet is trying to make the best of her life. It led to a very strange and wonderful relationship between the two of them that we really had to feel as we went along. We’re not always sure exactly how it would take form or where it would lead. We knew that there were certain things we wanted to have happen along the way, but unlike a lot of the other storylines, it was something that we more often than not found as we went.
DEADLINE: She became like crack cocaine for this guy. It was really fascinating to watch.
WILLIMON: We know that he is someone who has been in recovery for quite some time. His life is defined by self-control and loyalty, and she tests both of those.
DEADLINE: I imagine it would be hard to do this (show) and then go work for a major network. What do you think could be done to bridge the gap in quality that is being achieved so regularly now on non-networks?
WILLIMON: I have nothing to compare to. The only show I’ve done is House of Cards, so I have no idea what it’s like to work for a major broadcast network. I do feel like there are a lot of really interesting and bold shows happening on the broadcast networks and basic cable. Television, as a whole, is elevating itself. I only know second-hand what it must be like to work for a broadcast network, and you know, it’s a different animal in some ways than what we’re doing at Netflix or what it might be like to work at HBO or at Showtime. I’m not really equipped to compare the two, certainly not offer any advice. I can simply say what works for us, which is a respect for creative freedom, which Netflix has always shown us. We’re in constant dialogue with them, and they have access to scoops, and dailies, and cuts of episodes. We value their opinions and insights, but it’s always a conversation, never a dictate. That makes a lot of difference because it says, “We place faith in you, the creative team, to make the show you want to make, and we support you.” That puts the onus on the creators. If something’s bad, they have no one to blame but themselves. When (creators) have that sort of responsibility, they bring their A game. It doesn’t mean they won’t make mistakes. We certainly do. But no one is more rigorous with our scripts, and our editing, and performance than we are ourselves, because we know we’re putting our name on it and we can’t hide behind anything. I think that matters a lot. I also think that we do full-season orders out of the get-go. It does take some of the pressure off, and you have the opportunity to dig deep into story and character in ways that you might not be able to if you really are fighting for your life.
DEADLINE: You had this guarantee of two full seasons, and so you knew where you wanted to end up with the Underwoods getting to the White House. How far into the future are you looking? How much of the future is going to be about karma and how some of these past misdeeds come back to haunt the Underwoods?
WILLIMON: That’s a great question. That’s the sort of question we want people to be asking.
DEADLINE: In terms of the other things that you’ve done, has this been the most gratifying experience that you’ve had so far?
WILLIMON: It’s immensely gratifying. In terms of the sheer amount of story that I’ve gotten to explore, the answer would be yes. The fact that I’ve gotten to work with some of the very best people in the business, the answer would be yes. I still remain very involved in the theatre and that’s gratifying in totally different ways. You can’t really compare them. I also remain interested in film and I produce documentaries. House of Cards takes up 98 percent of my time, but there are other things that mean a lot to me, which take up the two percent I’m able to carve out and are just as close and near and dear to my heart. With House of Cards, I’ve been able to tell the story—along with fantastic collaborators—that, so far, has spanned 26 hours. If you think about that in movie or play terms, then that’s the equivalent of 13 movies or 13 plays. Even if you’re one of the most successful screenwriters out there, it would take you a decade to get 13 movies made, and we’ve gotten to make 13 in just two years. It doesn’t really get better than that.
DEADLINE: What’s the best part about working with Kevin Spacey, who can speak the stage language like you, but also is an important star?
WILLIMON: We have one of America’s greatest living actors on screen day in and day out. What he brings in craft, work ethic, raw talent and in leadership is unsurpassed by anyone I’ve ever worked with. The same goes for Robin (Wright). You have an incredible degree of experience and artistry as a resource. I learn constantly from Kevin and Robin, not only about the characters they’ve embodied, but about what it means to take risks, challenge oneself, never take the safe route, and make something lasting and meaningful. It’s difficult to imagine that I will ever have the luck repeat again.
Our whole cast is really fantastic, particularly with Kevin having come from the theatre where he started out like myself, he has a deep reverence for the text. We have long conversations about each script and where the character’s going, but he always starts from a place of respecting the story, wanting to understand the script to make sure that he is telling the story that we set out to tell. If something doesn’t make sense to him or he has a question or a suggestion, it’s really in service of the story. The script always improves out of those discussions. The question he raises might be one that I’ve never thought of or an idea he has is something that only he could have. That can even happen in rehearsal or in between takes. He has an instinct to try something, and we talk about it. More often than not, I say go for it, and he does something totally unexpected and amazing, and that informs the next script that I write.
DEADLINE: I love the show. I just think it’s so disruptive, and groundbreaking, and fun, and it makes me a little depressed about the movie business, which is mostly what I cover, because you rarely see this level of disruption, and imagination, and rule-breaking in film today.
WILLIMON: Well, I think one of the reasons TV is so good now is that a lot of these companies— networks, studios, what have you—are willing to take the chances the big movie studios in Hollywood aren’t taking. You still have bold, expressive, challenging films coming out of Hollywood, but a lot of them, more often than not, tend to be these tent-poles or franchises that I think (are informed) more by commercialism than artistry. What TV is proving is that artistry is commercially viable and that audiences crave this sort of storytelling. And so do actors, directors and writers. They will gravitate towards the best stories and characters, and that’s why you see movie stars—like Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey and Dustin Hoffman—and directors like (Steven) Soderbergh and Fincher gravitating towards television, because that’s where the stories are.
DEADLINE: TV is giving people what they want when they want it. Unfortunately, by comparison, feature films are sort of stuck in the Stone Age.
WILLIMON: Although, more and more, you’re going to see online releases of movies the same day as theatrical releases, or even big blockbuster films that are intended more for streaming than they are for theatrical. Theatrical isn’t really how you make money anymore from a movie.
DEADLINE: I guess if I was a theatre owner, I would be reluctant to shrink those windows at all. What’s being done by you and the team behind True Detective is revolutionary. I’ve wondered, “What would Michael Mann have done with eight hours of Heat? Or Jonathan Demme with Silence of the Lambs?
WILLIMON: More and more, any distinction between film and television is really falling away. I don’t see the two as being separate. There’s two real differences between the two, and one is purely superficial. It’s a matter of length. Is something a film because it’s 90 minutes, or two hours long, is that all that makes it a film? It used to be that there was a certain level of sophistication and cinematography and craft that went into films that you didn’t see on television, with its three-camera sitcom setup. That ceased being the case almost 20 years ago when you had real filmmaking happening mostly, really, on HBO. So that designation is really a bogus one. Then the only other thing that separates the two is that you still have an avant-garde in filmmaking. There is no avant-garde in television because the only way to have something on a network or a streaming service is to have a company behind it. You can’t just go and make an independent television show and put it out there. Actually, that is starting to happen online. People are making their own television shows, if you want to call them that. I hate the term “webisodes,” but they are making them and putting them out there, and now you have the equivalent of independent TV making. At that point though, really, what’s the difference other than length? You have British shows that are only four episodes per season. And then there are movies that have come out like The Wolf of Wall Street that hit the three-hour mark. The time frame isn’t all that different, but do you call those TV shows? You can. Do you call them movies? It doesn’t really matter. Who cares?
DEADLINE: I remember talking with Tony Gilroy about this subject a couple years ago when he put out the last Jason Bourne film. He was talking about how he didn’t expect a movie like Michael Clayton to get made today as a feature. He said, “Don’t feel bad because all the guys who did what I did, and are thinking the same thing, and are not getting to make the movies they want, they’re all going to television. Just watch what happens.” Boy, was he right.
WILLIMON: Yeah, it’s true.
Original photo atop interview by Mark Mann