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Screenwriter Beau Willimon Talks House Of Cards
The screenwriter on his political drama

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An Oscar-nominated screenwriter and acclaimed playwright, Beau Willimon turns to the small screen with great success in House Of Cards.

The March 2013 issue of Empire includes a world exclusive set visit to the Baltimore production, where we spent time with Fincher and Willimon as the series evolved. The following is an extended extract from an interview conducted with Willimon in October 2012, when he was briefly back in Los Angeles to hire writers for the second season.

Read on to discover why Kevin Spacey's antihero comes from the South, the "bullshit" of a classless society and why David Fincher is "a solar system"...

Screenwriter Beau Willimon Talks House Of Cards
Director Allen Coulter (left) with Beau Willimon on set (Photo Credit: Patrick Harbron for Netflix)

How did the project come to you?
About three years ago my agent called saying that David Fincher was interested in doing an American version of House Of Cards. I had heard of the original, but I hadn't seen it. Honestly at the time I wasn't particularly keen on doing another story about politics, necessarily [after The Ides Of March, co-written with George Clooney and Grant Heslov, based on Willimon's play Farragut North]. Or to do Television - because I knew the time commitment. Writing features and writing plays is important to me. But it was David Fincher - who is extraordinary. I thought it was worth watching the BBC original at the very least to have that conversation and see what he was interested in doing. I watched it and right away things began to pop in my brain as to how we could contemporise this, Americanise it, make it our own. I think the BBC version is fantastic: it's delicious, it is very much its own thing of its own time. I was interested not in a remake but in a reinvention, cherry-picking some of the better archetypes and some of the big story points that seem to lend themselves to the sort of television people have come to expect these days. You use a few elements from that recipe and concoct a dish of our own. I got on the phone with David and told him that I wanted to take that approach, some of the ideas I had. It's a world that I knew really well, thought it was in my wheelhouse. We seemed to share the same approach to it, the sort of thing that he wanted to do, which is see it as a starting point, not as a template. Then I began writing the pilot and spent about a year on that doing multiple drafts working with David, Eric [Roth] and Josh [Donen, another executive producer on House Of Cards, who brought the idea to Fincher]. Once we had a script that we all felt was good we got Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright onboard. I know David had already been talking to Kevin and Robin in advance of that. They read it and said yes and then we went through the process of finding a home.

We had always anticipated HBO or Showtime or AMC, the usual suspects. But MRC [Media Rights Capital, the House Of Cards production company] had begun a relationship with Netflix and knew they were interested in original programming and so we met with Netflix and they offered us something no-one else had the guts to do, which was two full seasons guaranteed and essentially complete creative control. So it sort of felt like an Orson Welles, RKO deal. Almost seemed too good to be true, but it was true and once we teamed up with Netflix then began the real work of writing the entire first season. The goal was to have 13 scripts before we shot a single frame. And we did. I ended up making huge changes to the story once we got into production, responding not only to what the actors were doing, but also the longer you live with a story the more you see ways to improve it. We made, I think, significant changes with Russo's character [Representative Peter Russo, played by Corey Stoll], Janine [Skorsky, a reporter played by Constance Zimmer] and a few other things that led to page one rewrites on the second half of the season. Which I think elevated everything. But we had a pretty good idea of the story we wanted to tell from the very beginning in terms of its trajectory and the tone and feel of it. Over the course of three years it's been about making that specific and sophisticated and doing our best to match that vision with what we actually shoot on those stages out there in Maryland.

Screenwriter Beau Willimon Talks House Of Cards
Corey Stool as U.S. Representative Peter Russo

Someone like Corey Stoll is a relative newcomer: a quality 'unknown quantity'...
Corey is incredible. He brings so much to the show in terms of, not only sheer talent, but layers to the character that I don't think any of us had necessarily envisioned until we saw him doing his thing. When you see that you start to discover what he's capable of. This thing happens where you become the audience, as it were, and you say to yourself, "I want to see more of that guy". And that informs the writing.

You say, "How do we find a ways to incorporate him more?" And just asking that question leads to a better story. Once you start looking "Maybe this story should be Corey's instead of this character that we were gonna create from scratch", actually that makes dramatic sense and it's far more potent because we have a history with him and we get to spend more time on screen with Kevin [Spacey, as the series' antihero Francis Underwood], which we know is a fantastic pairing. It just avalanches into something a lot more rich.

Presumably it's great to have such an upfront commitment from Netflix?
What it allows you to do is really think about the story in an epic way, over 26 hours. I feel like a lot of television - where all you have guaranteed is that pilot - is, "We gotta sell. Sell, sell, sell" - in 60 minutes! Sell the studio, sell audiences, sell the actors, sell everyone. Of course we want our first 60/120 minutes to be so engaging that people want to come back for episode three and four and so on, but there's not that same pressure, where you feel the blade of the guillotine hanging above you constantly. We can really step back and say, "Where is this going?" And put elements early on in the story that will pay off huge dividends later. In the normal TV writing process you don't have the time to consider that, so you're constantly playing catch-up. You're just trying to get the next 60 minutes ready in time for the cameras that are shooting in two weeks.

But at the same time it must be exhausting...
I'm on set, every day, from first rehearsal to final shot. I still am. We're still in production, so I'll be back top of next week. I played hooky yesterday because I had to do some of these meetings. I think I've missed a total of three days.

Exhausting but exhilarating...
It's the perfect kind of exhaustion. It's my dream: to be able to delve into a story this big, with such great talent; to have the dialogue that you don't get in a play or a movie, because you're only dealing with two hours at a time. We shoot two episodes, you can respond to those two in the next two that you shoot. You can develop a role over time. Yes, you may have scripts many episodes ahead, but you have the liberty to change them, and the liberty to respond to what you're seeing, and the liberty to have those in-depth conversations with the actors because you're spending that much time together. It becomes much less about, "Here's the script, we're gonna shoot it, we're gonna edit it and put it out to the world", it becomes much more of a dialogue. And, you know, there's only so much story you can tell in two hours. This feels much more like a Russian novel. You have many chapters, many characters, you can investigate. Your stories can have a great deal of complexity because you don't have to jam everything into 90-120 minutes. We really see it, this first season, as a 13-hour movie. It has a cinematic feel to it both in narrative and in terms of the filmmaking. We have episodes because that's the convention of the form. But really it's a 13-hour film.

It's a big journey...
Minor characters that you think are just there for a scene in episode one and two you'll find eight episodes later come back in a major way. When you can have a canvas this big - like life - people that you dismiss one moment end up becoming major players in your life later... Or people that are major players now, six months later, it's like "Why did I give such a shit about this person? That person was a minor league player in the major league game that is my life." So I think you can reflect life a little more accurately than you can in the condensing that has to take place in a two-hour film, where every moment has its pay off somewhere in the 120 minutes. So, the call girl that Russo gets pulled over with, she comes back in a major way. Just when you may have forgotten about her she resurfaces. That's really exciting to me. Hopefully the audience will feel, as that happens more and more throughout the series, "Hey, we can't dismiss anyone or anything. It can all come back to haunt." That's interesting.

When you start writing something, do you define the theme upfront?
Yes and no. In some cases you have a character that starts to haunt you and wake you up at night and he or she has a fairly fully formed voice and dynamic to them. That's sort of like: hop on a train and see where it leads. And you will get to a destination and discover what that person is about. In other cases you have a theme and idea that you really want to explore. It could start with research or it could start with creating a sort of cartoon of a character and seeing, "How do I fill this person out and address this theme?" I don't have a particular formula for that. That's what keeps it interesting. In this case it was a little bit of both. You know if you're working off the BBC House of Cards, Francis Urquhart is a dynamic, interesting character. You know that you're dealing with issues like power and ambition and greed and lust. So you walk into the process fully aware of that. Then you start asking yourself questions: What do I want to do differently? How is our Francis going to address these themes in a way that is more contemporary?

I started with some very basic building blocks. Sometimes you just have to make an arbitrary choice. For instance, I wanted to keep the line, at least to resurrect once or twice as a homage: "You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment." That's great but no American can say that without sounding like a complete asshole. It's not the way an American can speak. Unless with a Southern accent. So, if you say it with a South Carolinian, up-country accent maybe it works. So there's a choice. Now Francis Underwood is from South Carolina. So then I say the American story really is people that come from nothing. Which is the exact opposite of Francis Urquhart, a man of privilege and an aristocrat, as it were, who has a sense of entitlement. But in America that's looked down upon actually. [Presidential candidate Mitt] Romney has been able to navigate it somewhat but we see how that can be a liability. So automatically now I've made two choices. He's from a specific place that is complicated in its own right. And he's gonna come from nothing. A small town that no one has ever heard of. That already begins to inform how our Francis is going to be different. Then you take, as an example, those two basic things and see how they inform every scene that you write. And the paths start to diverge. Before long he's found his own language and he's found his own way of dealing with certain situations and conflicts and people that would be totally different from the way Francis Urquhart would. But the basic themes - ambition, power, lust - stay the same.

Screenwriter Beau Willimon Talks House Of Cards
Clockwise, from far left, standing: executive producer Beau Willimon; unit production manager Don Hug; executive producer John Melfi; [seated] director Carl Franklin; and director of photography Eigil Bryld (Photo Credit: Patrick Harbron for Netflix)

There's a notion that America doesn't have a class system...
That's always been a lie. The founding fathers were aristocrats. Look at [historian Charles Austin] Beard's analysis of the constitution and you can actually look at that as a very classist document in which the upper classes were trying to find ways, in a democratic model, to ensure that their property and their power was not diminished. You have the Senate and you have the House. So that the People's House - the House Of Representatives - has its catch mechanism, The Senate, which is more aristocratic in nature. The checks and balances is a way to prevent government from either devolving into an autocratic tyranny or an autocratic mob mentality. The fact that slavery is written into the constitution is about as entrenched a form of classism as you could possibly imagine. So it's a myth, but it's a powerful myth and one that we define ourselves by. A lot of myths become real in so far as people believe in them. So if you have a lot of people running around, millions of Americans who think that we live in a classless society. Perception is reality to a certain degree. But the notion that we don't have classes is absurd.

In the UK we seem to have people groomed to go into power...
Politics used to be, particularly in Britain, looked down upon as a career choice. Then you start having these career politicians. Tony Blair is a great example of someone who his whole life has been geared toward this inevitability. In America, particularly in the 19th Century, politics was often looked down upon, too. If you were gonna run for president, you were never gonna run, someone would suggest you run. You didn't campaign. People would go around on your behalf and people would defer and say, "Well if I'm elected I will serve the country." In the 20th Century you really saw the political animal come to the fore in an overt way. And those political animals always existed. Even for the people who were deferring and saying "I will run only because my party has selected me..." They really wanted to be President. It was just a different time and a different sensibility towards politics. Now I think you see that bald ambition, that power for power's sake, and the notion of serving is as much rhetorical...

For instance Barack Obama, I deeply believe, wants to serve the country. He has in his mind a notion of doing good. It's not selfless. There is a lust for power, there is an ego. There is the knowledge that, "If I hold this office I am the most powerful person in the Free World". And where those two things intersect - ones desire to serve and ones desire to be selfish - is what makes our politicians seem like hypocrites. With Francis Underwood we have a non-hypocritical politician, as it were. At least in terms of the insight we get to him. He's unabashedly selfish. We know that when he's talking about serving it's utter and complete bullshit. And there's something refreshing about that.

It's like during the invasion of Iraq, there was something refreshing about some of the right-wing US commentators who actually said, "We are going after the oil..."
Can you imagine if George W. Bush had said, "Listen: this is a geopolitically crucial part of the world and we're going to be dependent on oil for decades to come. We can't allow madmen to control it. We're gonna take it. Like thugs. Because we can." It would have been so fucking controversial, but at the same time there would have been a part of you that was like, "At least you're telling me how it is!" But the problem there is that it flies in the face of the myth, which is that we propagate democracy and we propagate freedom. And when it comes to the Middle East we're not interested in freedom. We're not interested in democracy. But that is our "reason" for going in. It's how we justify things to ourselves. If that was our true aim there are plenty of places around the world where we could go force democracy. But the big problem with that is you can't force democracy. Democracy is only democracy if it's organic. It took a couple of centuries here. In England it took a thousand years, really, actually, to - by hook or by crook - end up in your current political system. When you say "Boom! We're taking out a terrible dictator and we're giving you democracy." It's like force-feeding a kid broccoli. They're not gonna like it if you make 'em eat it.

And the bigger question is, "Is Democracy the best system for everyone?" Are certain cultures predisposed to it and other cultures not? Is China a failure because it's not democratic? If you look at it in terms of wealth and power it's a huge success. There are human rights violations, people don't have free speech, yet at the same time it's amongst the most powerful countries on the globe. By what do you gauge the success of a nation or a culture? Ideological honesty is very difficult for anyone to sell. When you're really honest about things it flies in the face of the myths that we so dearly hold onto.

And there's an attraction to presenting that to an audience...
Absolutely. I think a lot of our audience will suspect this is the way things work. I don't think people have any illusions about the fact that a lot of politicians are liars. And that what they do privately and what they do publicly often don't match. The question is how do you dramatise that in a way that you see the complexity of that and the reasons for that and the ethicacy of that, actually: where you lift the veil up in such a way that you can somehow empathise with that sort of brutal pragmatism.

Screenwriter Beau Willimon Talks House Of Cards
Kata Mara stars as Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes

In all walks of life, people can steamroll others to get to the top...
That's the thing about Zoe Barnes [The Washington Herald reporter played by Kate Mara]. She wants influence and access: it's that giant shiny brass ring and she's fighting like a dog to get it. Because of some boldness and some brassness on her part she finds herself linked to Francis Underwood who very quickly, in a big way, gives her the sort of influence and access she so desperately sought. Then she has it and the question is: What do I do with it now?

Take Barack Obama as an example. Here's a guy who talked about pretty big, vague notions of hope and change and was able to convey those broad, vague words in a way that inspired millions of people. He had a plan, but anyone running for the presidency has a plan, and then you have to get in and take these big notions of ending a war or universal healthcare and make them happen. But you almost felt it was: "How do I deliver on Hope and Change? Was it hope and change that really compelled me to run or was it the ability to be in the place where I could bring about hope and change?" And those are two very different things. You've got to have the power in order to execute these larger ideas. And then when you have it, what do you do with it? What is interesting about Underwood is that he's saying "having it is the goal." Not what you do with it.

When you were hiring other writers, what were you looking for in people?
"David has a huge degree of respect for the script. It really is the anchor."
It was not a pre-requisite that people had to be political junkies. It was not a pre-requisite that people even had to be invested in this particular world. I was interested in singular voices and people who are risk-takers. Because I like to take risks and David likes to take risks. We like to try to do the hard thing and like to constantly surprise ourselves. I was really looking for people who could surprise me. That was the first step. I was much more interested in a script that was deeply flawed but had one or two elements that I could honestly say: "I've never heard a line like that before. I've never seen this particular dynamic between two lovers. I've never really conceived that you could tell the story in this way." As opposed to the well-made script where everything makes utter and complete sense and is painting by numbers. It might be snappy and commercial and very act-able and shoot-able but lacks that unexpected thing.

And what surprised you about working with Fincher?
His level of commitment. You hear about David Fincher being so involved in every aspect of development and production and post and marketing and all that stuff. So I knew that coming in to collaborate with him, but I don't think you can be prepared for just how much he is involved in all those things. Every detail. And the insight he brings to each area, whether it's his notes on a script - which are as good or better than I've ever gotten - to the rigour and fastidiousness with which he approaches each scene and making that fit within the larger coherent vision: both cinematically, in terms of its visuals, and tonally, in terms of the performances. Then the post process where - having put all of that work into the script, all of that work into the shooting of it - he is constantly looking for ways to improve, to deepen, to add another layer. It's extraordinary. It's a work ethic the likes of which I've never encountered before. It's a level of detail, passion and dedication the likes of which I've never seen before.

Particularly on my side of things, when it comes to the scripts, what is really wonderful is... There are plenty of directors that see scripts, honestly, as impediments or as a nuisance; that they have some movie they want to make and, "I guess I have to have a script so we can have a schedule!". But David has a huge degree of respect for the script. It really is the anchor. And the level of involvement - talking through every line, every scene, looking at every opportunity to make it better - is something I've found invaluable, inspiring and I've learnt a lot. I've become a much better writer from working with David Fincher in the past three years than I had in the previous 10 before that, because he really forces you in a good way to consider everything. I don't think that you can make the movies he makes without the overall approach from the very large to the very small. What his films are is total. He's deeply collaborative but at the core of that collaboration is a strong, unstoppable vision. It's the sun around which everything orbits. Without it everything would just fly off into space. He's like a solar system.

House Of Cards is available on Netflix now.

Interview by Nev Pierce

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