“The Writers’ Room” Interview: “House of Cards” Creator Beau Willimon
House of Cards creator Beau Willimon discusses his writing process, working for Netflix and predicting real-world politics.
Q: How is the US version of House of Cards different from the UK version?
A: The UK version aired in the early nineties, and both the world and television has changed a lot since then. You can look at the way that television has become, in a lot of ways, far more sophisticated, shows are digging into characters a lot more deeply. The British version was groundbreaking for its time because you had one of the first true antiheroes on television. But it’s entire three seasons were 12 hours total, combined, and our first season alone was 13 hours. So already in our first season we have more content than the UK version had in all three of its seasons, which meant that we needed to expand the world to dig deeper into the characters, to add more characters, and to come up with a very sophisticated, layered story on par with what audiences have come to expect since the advent of cable original programming. There’s also cultural and political differences between the UK and the US. In terms of tone, the British version is more satirical than dramatic, and ours is pretty squarely in drama territory. We have some satire but it’s mostly drama, and the BBC version is mostly satire with some drama, so we flipped that a bit. We did not feel beholden to sticking to the BBC version’s plot. We used some of the characters as archetypes and certainly stole a few of the plot points along the way, but at this point we’re very much on our own, doing our own thing.
Q: How much do Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright influence the development of Frank and Claire Underwood?
A: Kevin and Robin influence the development of their characters immensely. Every script I sit down with both of them and talk through what their character’s up to, where it’s heading. We talk about their questions. They also bring an insight to the character that’s unexpected, intriguing. Something that, no matter how much you grapple with on the writing side, only an actor really has access to because they’re embodying that role. Plus, seeing them on set, watching them do their work in front of the camera, I absorb their cadence, their voice, their body language, all of that gets infused into the writing of scripts. And we will often talk about where the story is headed down the line, and I encourage and value their input in all the choices we’re making in episodes to come. So it’s extremely collaborative.
Q: What character has surprised you the most in terms of where you’ve taken their story?
A: In the first two seasons I suppose it would be [Doug] Stamper, because the character of Rachel was never intended to go beyond the first two episodes. In fact, she was just listed as “Call Girl,” and Stamper put some money in her mouth and she was supposed to disappear. But I made a major story change along the way in Season One, which was to have Peter Russo run for governor. That used to be another character altogether that was running for governor, but Corey Stoll was so fantastic, especially when he was on the screen with Kevin, that I wanted to push some more story his way. So I took the storyline of a gubernatorial race and I made it his story, which really made it his character. A byproduct of that was thinking of Peter’s eventual downfall, and I had the idea to bring back the call girl, Rachel. So when that happened that meant a certain degree of involvement with Stamper, and the bizarre relationship that developed between them was something that was a complete revelation and process of discovery every step of the way. We had to see sides of Stamper that I hadn’t originally envisioned. He became much more enigmatic and layered throughout that process, especially as you see him grapple with his feelings about Rachel in Season Two.
Q: Who is your favorite character to write for?
A: That’s an unfair question. I see the characters like a parent sees children. I love them all equally for different reasons. Francis and Claire are the two stars of our show. They’re the two protagonists. They’re the ones we spend the most time with. Kevin and Robin do such an extraordinary job of making them multifaceted and surprising. It’s always a joy to write for either of those two characters. There are fun characters, creations that are unique to our version like Freddy, that are fun to write because that’s something that’s purely ours, and a character like Freddy allows you to leap out of the political world from time to time and brush up against the rest of the world that Washington effects.
Q: How does writing for a binge platform like Netflix influence your writing process?
A: The thing that affected the writing the most wasn’t the delivery model of 13 episodes in one day, it was two seasons guaranteed up front. Knowing that we had 26 hours, I could lay things in Season One that wouldn’t fully come around until Season Two. That was liberating. When we first began with Netflix, we didn’t know whether we would release all in one day or not. That was on the table, but so was a traditional, week-to-week release. So from my perspective it had to be able to work either way, and it still has to be able to work either way because not everyone binge watches. A lot of people do watch an episode here and an episode there, so from a writing perspective you have to focus on telling a good story plain and simple, and then the audience will choose how they want to experience it.
Q: What’s your favorite moment of Frank addressing the audience?
A: I’ve got a lot of favorites. One of my all time favorites is in the very first episode of Season One when, referring to Claire, Frank says, “I love that woman more than sharks love blood.” It’s probably our shortest direct address, but it goes straight to the marrow of who he is and what their relationship is like. So it give you insight into the character, and it’s just a fun and delicious line. The way Kevin performs it is perfect.
Q: Which character were you sorriest to see go?
A: Well there’s only been two, really. There’s been Peter and Zoe, and they both were incredibly difficult to let go of. It was always the plan, before I even started writing Season One, that Peter Russo would meet his demise and that Zoe Barnes would meet hers in the first episode of Season Two. But it got harder and harder to stick to my guns on that because I love the characters and I adore the actors who played them. But ultimately we’re all in service of the story, you can’t be precious about anything, and it was necessary to the evolution of the Francis character that we see him go above and beyond, or below and beyond, what most other human beings would, and out of ambition and self-preservation do what he does. So it’s always tough to say goodbye to a character you love and that you know the audience does as well, but you’d be doing a disservice to the story and ultimately to the audience if you contrive to keep them around purely because of that.
Q: You’ve incorporated real life people like Rachel Maddow and Morley Safer. Who else would you love as a guest?
A: I’m not going to answer that question, just because the people that I really would love to see as guests we may actually try to get on the show, and I don’t want to spoil anything.
Q: Have you seen anything you created echoed in real life after the broadcast?
A: Sure. I mean I don’t know how much we can claim to have created it, really we were tapping into something that was already there, but the sexual assault legislation Claire pursues in Season Two, we started developing that storyline well before Senator Gillibrand and Senator McCaskill proposed similar legislation. I had seen a very early screening of Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the military, and it really struck a chord with me. It just felt appropriate to infuse Claire’s character with this backstory of a traumatic experience she had and see how she confronts it. It just so happened that as we were working on the season and filming it, Invisible War reached a pretty big audience, and it reached a lot of people in Washington, and you started to see legislation come to the fore, and a rivalry of sorts between Gillibrand and McCaskill that was not unlike the rivalry between Claire and Jackie Sharpe. We also had stuff like the Yonaguni Islands, similar to the Senkaku Islands, where leading up to the release of Season Two, China claimed to control portions of the East China Sea, which rankled the Japanese. I mean that’s an ongoing dispute that’s decades old, but it flared up around the same time that our season was being released, and of course that’s something that we deal with in our fictional world in Season Two.
Q: Do you have an advisor to ensure accuracy of procedural aspects of the government?
A: Oh yeah, all the time we speak to experts. We have a political consultant, my best friend Jay Carson, who I based Farragut North and The Ides of March on. He’s an old pal of mine from college and remains one of my best friends. He knows everyone and their brother in the political world and has a great deal of political experience himself, so whenever we have a political question we pose it to Jay, and if he doesn’t know the answer he’ll know someone who is an expert on the matter and put us in touch with those folks. So we’ve spoken to many dozens of technical experts on any range of issues, and not all of them are political. For instance, when we were developing the character of Gavin Orsay I was in touch with Gregg Housh, one of the founders of Anonymous, to get his insight on the world of hackers. That wasn’t something that came through Jay, but most of them do.