In the deeply competitive, ever-changing world of television drama, there is no one route in, but Beau Willimon avoided the obvious options of media production, or interning. The 36-year-old is currently one of the youngest showrunners (an umbrella term for a role that combines writing, script editing and generally overseeing the look and feel of a show) on TV. When director David Fincher approached him about coming on board a new Netflix show called House of Cards, he had reservations. “I was mostly writing for stage and film and wasn’t ready to jump at doing a TV show. I also knew how much a TV show could take over your life, but then the opportunity to talk to David Fincher was worth it in and of itself. Fincher – director of Gone Girl and Se7en – had seen Willimon’s a play Farragut North [later made into the film The Ides of March] and asked him to take a look at the original BBC series House of Cards. “If you write about politics at all, as I had, I knew about the BBC series, but hadn’t seen the show. I watched it, had a bazillion ideas and thought, ‘oh shit, this is something I might have to do’.
The original BBC series (based on Michael Dobbs’ novels, and first aired in 1980) focuses on a Conservative Party Chief of Staff. Willimon’s update moves across the Atlantic to American politics, and an ambitious South Carolina senator, played with Machiavellian gusto by Kevin Spacey. There is a highly theatrical charge to Spacey’s portrayal, and this goes back to Willimon’s own pre-TV background. He worked as a painter and playwright and believes his years as a dramatist were “crucial”. Theatre was my first love… it got me excited about storytelling. The notion that you could put words on a piece of paper and real human beings would stand up and tell a story was incredibly seductive. You learn a lot of things making theatre, and I hire a lot of playwrights to work on House of Cards. If a scene is 20 minutes long, it all comes down to human behavior – you can’t rely on effects or close-ups or editing, there’s nowhere to hide. “If you want structure, go read all of Ibsen. If you want human frailty and nuance read Chekhov, and if you want a little bit of everything read Shakespeare, or go back to the Greeks.”
It was also important for both Willimon and Fincher that this was not an adaptation. They wanted to invent the story from the ground up, and not feel bound by the novels or the BBC version. All agreed that the casting of the central role was crucial. “We knew the entire show would live or die on the two roles of Frank and Claire. Right away we went to Kevin, who David (Fincher) had worked with on Se7en, but it was also very important to me that we paid equal attention to the wife. I didn’t want Claire (played by Robin Wright) to be arm candy or trophy wife, I wanted to track these two people who are unlike any other couple.” The couple’s relationship is at the centre of the show, where Frank Underwood (Spacey) embarks on a stealth journey of ambition. He is charismatic, morally bankrupt, two-faced and obsessed with climbing the ladder.
As we speak, Willimon is Baltimore in the final month of filming for Season three of the show, which saw Spacey (no spoilers) rise significantly in politics. Although occasionally filmed in Baltimore, the show is set in the legislative heartland of Washington D.C. It helps that Willimon has some political experience in his past, having interned on two Senator campaigns, and on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential race. Despite this, and the broad thematic backdrop of the politics, the show is about much more than that. “I don’t think it’s a show about politics at all”, laughs Willimon. “Like all the best things in life, I did those jobs on a lark. I was young and I didn’t do it thinking one day I would write about that. Politics is just a sliver of what I write about and if House of Cards is about anything, it’s about power. Power exists in every story, the dynamics of who has it – lovers, strangers, co-workers – it’s in every story ever told.”
The show has evolved from a four-part British drama, into a multi-series show. It also airs on Netflix, not terrestrial TV, and does so in one single upload. The nature of TV consumption has changed, but so has the form itself. Longer narrative arcs have nudged out the cliffhanger, while greater depth of character has replaced tropes. Actors happily shuffle between TV and film, in way they wouldn’t have 20 years ago, and Willimon thinks this is important. “TV has become so sophisticated and complex that it’s useless to draw distinctions between television and film. There are certain formal differences but even they’re falling away. TV is experiencing its own maturity, but if you look at some of the early shows they’re some of the best stories ever told. A show like Mash was incredibly provocative in terms of the social issues it took on. They matched it with comedy and it’s very bold compared to some of what we see on TV today.”
Later this week, Beau Willimon will be in Galway for the annual Talking Production seminar at the Galway Film Centre. Running over two days, it includes seminars and talks with programme and film practitioners from The Bridge, Love/Hate and The Fall, and producers of forthcoming feature films Brooklyn and The Lobster. What does Willimon most want to get across to aspiring television writers? “There’s no substitute for doing the work. The only way to find your voice and improve is to write thousands of pages, or shoot thousands of frames, or if you’re an actor, find ways to act. Doing it is the only way to learn. It’s also impossible to do this alone. I don’t just meant the collaborative nature of the form, but you have to find the people in your life – friends, family, other writers – who will champion you. People who will be honest with you and tell you when your stuff is shit. Find the writers who you trust, find them early on and hold on them for dear life.”
With Willimon embedded in Season three of House of Cards, he admits it’s hard to find time for other projects, but he’s working on a documentary about transsexual surfer Westerly Windina, and is still writing plays. “I always find room for other work, because if I didn’t I’d go insane. It’s important and healthy to get out of the bubble. It gives you perspective and feeds back into House of Cards. I’ve never left theatre, and did a play last year but can’t say what else I’m working on. I’m too superstitious (laughs).
Beau Willimon is at Talking Production at Galway Film Centre on Thursday November 27th. House of Cards returns to Netflix in early 2015.
This article originally appeared in The Irish Times on November 25th, 2014.