Screenwriter Beau Willimon, the creative force behind Netflix's House of Cards, a revolutionary show that has transformed Netflix into a TV network, talks about his groundbreaking work as creator and showrunner of the series and gives tips for writers who want to follow in his footsteps
by W. H. Bourne
“About three and a half years ago, I got a call from my agent saying David Fincher wanted to speak with me about House of Cards,” says writer and executive producer Beau Willimon. “I had heard of the BBC mini series, but I never watched it so I figured it was a pretty good excuse to take a look at it. As I watched it, I immediately fell in love with it, and I had numerous ideas about how to make it look contemporary, American and, most importantly, make it our own. I got on the phone with Fincher, and we talked about all sorts of ideas and our instincts aligned so we decided to team up and get to work. After that I spent almost a year working on the first episode, and when we had something that we were all pleased with, we got Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright on board. Then we went out and found a home for it which happened to be Netflix.”
House of Cards has been a game changer for Netflix as well as a key influence on how original Internet programming is viewed. House of Cards is currently nominated for nine Primetime Emmy Awards including Outstanding Drama Series. In light of this, it’s fascinating to hear how the project came about.
“When I first began on the script, we had a notion of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to take the story,” says Willimon. “Certainly Kevin Spacey was our first choice and someone who we all wanted to be at the center of the show, but that wasn’t guaranteed at that time. Fincher and Spacey have a relationship that goes all the way back to Se7en, so he was a person we were talking about from the get go. Fincher may have had some informal conversations (with Kevin) about it, but we really wanted a script in Spacey’s hands, so he would have something concrete to respond to. Once we did put it in his hands, he connected with it. It was a big sigh of relief for all of us because the show really wouldn’t be doing what it’s doing without Spacey at the center.”
“After I finished each draft, I would get on the phone with Fincher, Eric Roth and Josh Donen, his two producing partners, and we would chat about what I had done,” continues Willimon. “Sometimes I would get notes in the traditional way, in an e-mail or written on the script, and then we would discuss them. What we would do during those conversations is explore all sorts of ideas. They were really brainstorming sessions where we would look at what’s on the page, what more could we do, what could we get rid of, and how could we evolve the characters. Fincher’s notes are among the best I’ve ever gotten in my life. He approaches it from an artist’s point of view, not necessarily the network’s point of view. His goal is simply, like all of our goals, to tell the best story possible. It’s great having the eye and mind of a fabulous director to be able to visualize the script and how it might end up on screen. It really was a mixture of conversations and e-mails, very casual and informal. We went through three or four draft until we had something we were all very pleased with.”
Beau Willimon is clear in that his first script of House of Cards was never considered by anyone to be a pilot episode. The producing team had a very different approach in mind about finding a home for the series.
House of Cards Creator, Executive Producer and Showrunner Beau Willimon
“It was never a pilot because our intention was never to shoot a pilot,” explains Willimon. “We wanted to make it an entire season…. When we spoke to potential networks, we were very upfront about that. However hubristic it sounds, we had zero interest in auditioning. We wanted to make a series or not make one. I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do with Season One in its entirety before we sat down with potential networks. The first script was there to have sixty pages, so the networks could look at it and have a very specific idea of the world we wanted to portray and the characters we wanted to follow.”
“Once we partnered with Netflix, we had an incredible degree of creative freedom,” continues Willimon. “I had the best possible scenario a writer can have. They said to us upfront in the very first meeting we had with them, ‘We place our faith in you guys. We want you to make the show that you want to make, and we want to get it out to the world.’ That first season, I didn’t receive any notes from Netflix at all, but we communicated all the time. They would come to table reads and look at scripts. They had access to dailies, and sometimes we would chat about it, but I never received any formal notes or corporate dictates. They really kept their word on that front.”
The writing process for Season One of House of Cards was rather atypical.
Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards
“When we partnered with Netflix, Kevin (Spacey) was doing a world tour of Richard the Third, so he was not going to be available to film for nine months,” explains Willimon. “I said to the team, ‘Why not get started right away? Why not have the entire season written before we shoot a single frame?’ So that’s what we did. I hired some writers. I set up shop in a three-story house in Venice, California. I lived on the top floor, and the writers’ room was on the bottom floor. After seven months of hard work, we had thirteen scripts. We knew what the season was going to be before we even arrived in Baltimore and began filming.”
“I made significant changes along the way,” continues Willimon. “There were story threads that I got rid of or changed completely in the process of filming. That’s the result of ideas incubating and getting better. It’s also responding to what I’m seeing on camera like when certain pairings of actors sizzled that I wanted to see more of. It’s having the time and the luxury to adjust the scripts accordingly for what I thought might lead to more dramatic potential. While we did have thirteen scripts that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a lot of writing taking place during production. It was just more rewriting than breaking and developing story in the midst of production.”
“Peter Russo was always meant to be an important character, and I always intended for him to meet his demise around episode eleven,” says Willimon. “Originally, he was not running for governor, an entirely different character was. Corey (Stoll who plays Russo) is a phenomenal actor. When we saw Corey and Kevin acting in the same frame, it really jumped off the screen. We knew Corey was great going into this, but he surpassed the very high expectations we had for him. I wanted to see him on the screen as much as possible. I looked to the story ahead and I thought to myself, ‘If I shift the story of running for governor away from this other character that we haven’t even cast yet and give it to Peter Russo then what happens?’ When I began to answer those questions for myself what I saw was that it put Kevin and Corey on screen a lot more, and it deepened their relationship and the complexities of it. It made Russo’s fall from grace so much more powerful.”
“In addition to getting Corey on the screen more, it actually improved the narrative,” continues Willimon. “It also had a ripple effect like with the character of Rachel Posner becoming a much more active character in Season One. Rachel Posner’s character in the first couple of episodes was nothing more than Call Girl. She didn’t even have a name, and I never intended for that character to come back. As I began to explore Peter Russo more, I thought, ‘What’s the best way to really trap him and to really dramatize his fall from grace?’ I went back to the Call Girl which is a face that we would recognize and have a little bit of history with and began to develop her. Rachel Brosnahan played the role and was a real discovery for us. She turned out to be phenomenal. The more we gave her, the more interested we were in seeing where this character went. When you make choices like that it ripples into other character stories as well and, in my humble opinion, vastly improved Season One.”
House of Cards seems to buck a lot of trends. Beau Willimon functioning as showrunner and head writer was atypical by current TV and network standards because he had no prior showrunning experience.
“This is my first time writing for television,” says Willimon. “The only other time I can remotely claim writing for television was co-writing a pilot for AMC back when they were developing Mad Men. They didn’t shoot it, of course, but aside from that this is my first go at it.”
“I did not know any show runners either,” continues Willimon. “There’s a lot of showrunners whose work I greatly respect like David Simon, David Milch, David Chase—all the Davids. I certainly watched and studied all of their shows in advance. I was familiar with their shows as a viewer, but I gave myself a crash course and lifted a lot of what I admired in a more analytical way. I didn’t get on the phone with anyone and ask for a bunch of pointers. I did speak to a couple of mentors of mine, but they had not worked in television. I called and spoke to legendary screenwriter William Goldman, and Tony Gilroy, who I know. I talked to both of them about the story and tackling something this size and working with the best actors in the business. We also discussed pointers about how to keep myself sane and stay true to myself. They were both invaluable in giving me advice more as a writer than as a showrunner.”
So exactly what kind of advice do William Goldman and Tony Gilroy give a fellow screenwriter who was nominated for an Oscar on his first produced screenplay, Ides of March?
House of Cards is Beau Willimon’s first job as a showrunner
“It’s the standard stuff that’s common sense, but means a lot,” offers Willimon, “particularly when you hear it from someone who’s been around the block. They said that, ‘There can be a lot of pressures on you coming from a lot of different directions not least of which will be your own self-doubt and second guessing. You have to find a way or a strategy to not lose your voice, to not succumb to the pressures, internal or external, and to be absolutely ruthless with yourself as far as what belongs on the page and what doesn’t.’ It’s pretty standard advice and stuff that makes sense that I’m pretty sure I would’ve arrived at on my own, one way or another, but hearing it from the top A-list, from Goldman and Gilroy, is a form of encouragement and a reminder that great people have been through this process before you and survived and made great work. That’s inspiring!”
Being a novice showrunner, Beau Willimon certainly had great insight into the process and the needed elements to produce a great show.
“Show Bible is a vague term because, as I’m sure you’ve seen, it takes all types of forms,” says Willimon. “My version was a brief outline of what would happen in each of the thirteen episodes and each of those outlines was about a page in half. I suppose you can’t really call them outlines because they were more like synopses of what was happening in each episode. I also did character studies or portraits of all of the main characters. I would write several pages with back story and everything from how they dressed, what their idiosyncrasies were and how their public and private histories meshed. It was just a way to wrap my own brain around who we were going to spend time with and how. It wasn’t something I really presented to anyone other than my fellow EPs, and a lot of that stuff changed over the course of Season One. You have to have a starting place, but oftentimes the starting place that is most valuable is the stuff that you’re going to leave behind. There were certain early choices like making Francis (Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s character) from South Carolina and a Democratic Congressional Whip. Those were early choices that stayed, but there were other choices along the way that I dispensed with or that I changed entirely both in story and in character. It was an organic process.”
Francis Underwood visits his hometown in South Carolina to dedicate a library in this episode of House of Cards
“I’m on set every day from first rehearsal to final shot,” explains Willimon. “I’m there as the cameras are rolling, so it’s better than watching dailies or being in the editing suite because I’m actually watching it happen right in front of my eyes and engaging in dialogue with the actors and directors in real time. We’ll tweak and adjust and try things in rehearsal. Sometimes, a scene will change substantially as a result of the rehearsals, and we will do it on-the-fly. It affects my writing and usually imbibes the actors’ voices and compulsions. It allows me to hear and see them better when writing scripts, so I can anticipate what they’re going to do in a given scene based on what I’ve watched. Then there’s the added layer of being able to talk with the actors constantly. I’ll be exploring an episode, maybe three episodes away, and sit down and talk to Kevin about what I have in mind and what I’d like to do and what I’ve been playing around with. I’ll hear his thoughts, and he’ll suggest something or a moment I hadn’t thought of or have a question that I haven’t asked myself. That’s the result of a collective ownership of the story, one which the writer and the actor are developing the role together, and that’s the ideal. A script, as far as I’m concerned, is a blueprint for behavior. It’s the architecture that allows actors to do interesting things on screen. You have to tell a great story and put words in their mouths to give them a catalyst to do interesting things. The actors are not there to serve the text. The text is there to serve the actors. I’m sure you talk to many writers who disagree. You take Shakespeare as an example. It’s great literature, but it was never intended to be literature. It was written to be performed. It was meant to be on the stage to be seen and heard and felt; I take that approach to writing.
“Everyone has their own process,” continues Willimon, “and there are some brilliant writers out there that steadfastly stick to every word and comma in the text. In some cases that’s necessary for the sake of clarity and the economy of storytelling and making sure that the wrong impulses and instincts don’t override the story because while the script is there to serve the actors, the actors are there to serve the story. You might think that the story is the script, but the script is only one component of the story. The story is bigger than both the script and the actors. It’s the mixture of words and behavior combined with great cinematography and lighting and rigging and sound in order to create a total experience. Don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly meticulous about the script. I do multiple drafts. I look at the pages for the next day’s shoot every day before we shoot to make sure that everything is as close as it can be to what I think is perfection. Perfection is unachievable, but it’s a great thing to aim for. All that meticulousness is done for the sake of being able to get into a room and experiment. You have to have a very well built house for the story to live in, but once the actors get inside the house, it’s much more interesting to see what they do, observe, listen and perform as opposed to expecting them to be automatons.”
Beau Willimon has some interesting perspectives on writing. This may be in part to his theatrical background. He graduated with a B.A. from Columbia University in 1999 and an M.F.A. in Playwriting from Columbia University’s School of the Arts in 2003. Willimon has written numerous plays. His play Farragut North was adapted for the movie Ides of March. Willimon was a recipient of the Lila Acheson Wallace Juilliard Playwriting Fellowship, named 2008 Playwright-in-Residence at the Donmar Warehouse, and is a two-time winner of the Lincoln Center Le Comte du Nouy Award. His current theater commissions include works for the National Theatre of Great Britain, South Coast Rep, and the Flea Theater.
“I can say I wrote my first play in 1999,” says Willimon. “I wrote Farragut North and produced that play in 2004. Of course, the movie didn’t come out until six years later… I wrote that when I was 26, and it didn’t come out until I was in my thirties, but I had been writing long before that. Actually I had been a painter before I could read and write. That was what I thought I was going to do with my life. I came to writing a lot later than many of my peers. Not until my early twenties did I realize that it was something that I could maybe do—that I might pursue as a vocation. When did my good writing begin? I can name when I wrote my first play, but when I think back, I was really writing all sorts of stuff before that; I just didn’t know I was going to be a writer. When I think about the painting that I was doing, by the time I got around to writing my first play, I already had twenty years of experience working on a canvas. That sort of work and dedication to the arts is something that I think completely influenced and disciplined my writing….”
Based on his work and his experiences, Beau Willimon has some great advice for writers.
Actor Michael Kelly, Creator and House of Cards Showrunner Beau Willimon, and Actor Corey Stoll
“There are a few key pieces of advice I would give if anybody cares to listen,” says Willimon. “The most important one is not to write what you think people will want to watch but what you’re passionate about. There are all sorts of mandates from networks and studios about what sort of stories they are looking for and what sort of genres they use. A lot of times, their interest is based on whatever is successful at the moment. You’ll have dozens of managers and production companies telling you that whatever you’re working on doesn’t fit into those mandates, but a lot of times people don’t know what they want until they see it. If you write something that you’re passionate about and care about and that only you can write about in that particular way, it will stick out from the crowd. There’s no better salesmanship than good work. I would encourage people to write about the things that mean something to them not what they think will sell.”
“Another piece of advice is that in this incredibly competitive industry, everyone and their brother and sister and uncle and cousin strive to get a foot in the door,” explains Willimon. “If your approach to that competitiveness is to be petty or self isolating and only look out for yourself, it may work out from time to time, but it will not work out in the long run. It’s a tough business to get into, and it’s a tough business to retain one’s sanity in. You need to surround yourself with people who encourage and support you, and you need to give back that encouragement and support as much or more than you receive it. No one can do it alone, so it’s important to find the people who believe in you and find others who you believe in. Get close to one another and help each other. Don’t lock yourself up in a room and never engage in the world around you and or with the people that matter.
“I guess also the other thing is that if you wake up in the morning and you expect that success, whether it’s artistic or materialistic, is a birthright to you than you’re in the wrong business,” continues Willimon. “I’ve been very lucky. I had plenty of years screaming in the wilderness where nobody was listening. I had every odd job under the sun. There was no guarantee that I would have the opportunities available to me that I have right now at this present moment in 2013. I have been grateful for them, but I always have to remind myself that Hollywood is a fickle place. It can turn its back on me in a second. I have to be prepared to go back to those odd jobs and screaming in the wilderness where nobody was listening. It’s always a possibility, and one needs to make peace with that. You’re going to face, even in success, far more rejection then you are acceptance. That takes a thick skin and a sort of mad mind to need that and pursue it anyway. Really the only reward, I think, as a writer is never being satisfied. It’s not accepting that satisfaction will ever be a part of your life and that what you really need more than anything is to always be hungry and always be grasping and always taking risks and never achieving complacency and never expect reward but always being grateful when it comes your way.”
“There’s no substitute for hard work,” says Willimon. “It’s the only way. If you don’t write a lot of pages, and I mean a lot of pages, then you have no chance. Good writing is directly proportional to the time you put into it. I don’t know any good writers out there who write more good pages than bad pages. When you draw from the well, one good page for every nine is really very good odds. At times, it’s even a much different proportion than that. There have been times where I’ve written almost the whole entire year and written hundreds of pages, and not one of them will I show to the world. If you don’t put in that time and write those pages, then you will never arrive at the good stuff. However you need to structure your life and manage your time so that you can devote a lot of time to this, I think that’s what you need to do.”
House of Cards was recently nominated for 9 Primetime Emmy Awards including Best Drama Series as well as Outstanding Lead Actor for Kevin Spacey and Outstanding Lead Actress for Robin Wright
As the interview with Beau Willimon wrapped, he was back to writing Season Two of House of Cards.
“Right now we are filming Season Two,” says Willimon. “Season Two is different from Season One in that we didn’t have thirteen scripts before we started shooting. I didn’t have the luxury of those seven months just to write. We had to get into production before I had all the scripts done, so we are breaking story in the midst of production. I have a writers’ room in New York and a group of five or six writers that I’m working with closely on breaking story and outlines. I will assign scripts and give notes, and then, at a certain point, I take over all the scripts and rewrite them myself. After that, the process is the same as Season One. It’s very challenging because I’m in Baltimore on set acting very much as a producer but, at the same time, also writing. The advantage of that though is that I’m right in the mix of it as I’m working on scripts for the tail end of the season. Every day I’m seeing the work that we’re doing on the stages or on location, and I’m seeing the actors frequently and talking to them about what’s coming ahead. It really informs me for the current scripts that I’m working on.”
While viewers anxiously await Season Two of House of Cards on Netflix, perhaps Willimon is the most anxious himself. His perfectionist streak in undeniable.
“I have to make Season Two better than Season One,” exclaims Willimon.