Beau Willimon’s “House of Cards” inexorably changed the television landscape when it premiered on Netflix in 2013 — establishing the streaming service as a major player in the scripted arena and forcing the entertainment industry to reexamine the very definition of a TV series.
Boasting an A-list crop of talent both in front of and behind the camera — including Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and David Fincher — “House of Cards” quickly established itself as a cultural phenomenon, kicking off a binge-watching revolution and winning three Emmys at last year’s ceremony, including a Best Director gong for Fincher.
Variety sat down with Willimon at Austin’s recent ATX Television Festival to discuss the show’s meteoric rise, the Netflix business model and the collaborative process the playwright and screenwriter shares with the show’s cast and crew, which recently commenced production on season three.
When you were first writing and pitching “House of Cards,” did you have any concept of the magic you were making?
Willimon: No idea. Very early on, it was really just four people: It was Fincher and then his two producing partners, Eric Roth, legendary screenwriter, and Josh Donen, who’s his business partner and accomplished producer, and me. The fact that we had Fincher onboard and he was the person masterminding all this in the beginning, I knew that we were going to put a pretty good foot forward no matter what. Shortly thereafter, Kevin and Robin came onboard. So we had the recipe to do something really fantastic. Honestly, you never know whether anything you’re going to make is going to connect with people. We worked for almost a year on the first episode, got it to where we wanted it to be and went out to find a home and Netflix made an offer we couldn’t refuse and blew everyone out of the water. We were all excited about this possible programmatic shift. None of us had really done television before and neither had Netflix. So we were all in the same boat of experimentation, trying something different. We didn’t know what the rules were, so we were completely ready to break them.
There was a lot of attention toward the show early on just because of the new model. So we definitely benefitted from that. We knew a lot of people were going to be interested. We were proud of the work that we had done; we thought it was good, but you never know until you know. As high as our expectations were, I don’t think any of us were prepared for the huge response that we got, which only motivated us to make it even better.
The overwhelming selling point I hear from artists who work with Netflix is the amount of creative freedom they give their showrunners. It seems like that is really the main attraction of the model.
Absolutely. I think it’s the smartest business model out there. When you give artists the opportunity to make what they want to make, place faith in them, allow them to take risks, to push boundaries, to even flirt with failure and take those risks, then you’re going to get the best possible work, because that’s what they thirst for. It also puts the responsibility on their shoulders to make the best work they possibly can — because if it’s bad they have no one to blame but themselves. So you can’t point any fingers and say “so and so made me do this.” We are in constant contact with Netflix. There’s an ongoing dialogue; they’re looking at scripts, dailies, cut episodes. So it’s not as though they lock us up in a padded room and say “go crazy.” We have a huge amount of respect for the freedom they’ve given us. That means honoring that respect with an ongoing dialogue. We talk about story and where we’re going all the time.
In fact, the way I start each season is sitting down with Netflix, walking them through all that we have in store for the upcoming season. They certainly have thoughts about things and sometimes very good ideas — I’ll steal a good idea from anyone — but there’s no obligation or dictate, some corporate memo that says “you must do X, Y or Z.” So the respect goes both ways and I think that results in a healthy, creative and collaborative environment, which leads to the best work that we have to offer. So you know, I think that any company — whether it’s Netflix or anyone else — that is willing to place that amount of faith in creatives will be rewarded for it.
The web is such a rapidly growing platform for content and creativity — do you pay attention to other series and what your contemporaries are doing?
There’s so much out there. I mean, you could spend 25 hours a day doing nothing but sitting in front your computer. I do what I can. I’m often very behind on a lot of shows because “House of Cards” is a few full-time jobs, so sometimes I’m quite embarrassed by how far I am behind on a lot of other shows — not for lack of desire to watch them, but just for a lack of time. I do my best to watch everything that’s out there, whether it’s other scripted shows or reality television or stuff that’s streaming or things you can kind find on YouTube, web series. I’m a huge documentary buff, so I spend a lot of my free time wanting to get out of the scripted world. I do my best, but I’m no more of an expert on what’s going on in the streaming world than your average viewer.
We’re all being assulted by the galactic amount of content. But that’s good; the fact that there’s so much content being made and that it’s all finding its audience means a greater diversity of story — people can take more risks. I think that what all of these networks or folks that are independently making web series are finding is that people want a diversity of content. The great thing about the Netflix model is that they’re wide open to every type of content that exists. It’s not so much about “this is a Netflix show,” and branding it in terms of its tone and style or scope. They’re saying “we have many thousands of titles available to you and you’re going to find something that you like on this service.” So I think if you look at the shows that they’ve been developing, they’re much more diverse than what you might see on more traditional networks, either on cable or broadcast networks, because the subscribership is diverse and worldwide. The only requirement is excellence.
What’s your writing process like on “House of Cards”?
First I do a rain dance. [Laughs.] The writing of the show is pretty typical compared to other shows. You’ve still got to get the 800 pages down and it still takes a certain minimum amount of time to film it. The release model might be completely different but the making of it is very similar to a lot of other cable shows out there. I hire a staff of writers. We spend the first few weeks mapping out the grid for the whole season. Then we get into individual episodes, take a couple weeks to break an episode, write an outline. Then someone starts to write it. That’ll either be me or one of my writers. They usually have two or three weeks to work on that script or give notes. They do some rewrites, I take it over, I do a pass and share it with the other EPs, Netflix and production. It goes through multiple drafts — white, blue, pink, green. And at a certain point we do a table read. I do some more changes and then oftentimes I’m tweaking and rewriting stuff right up until the day before production. That is coming out of conversations I’m having with the director or the actors. What we filmed the previous day might inform the scene that we’re doing the next day [because] we discovered something. I’d say, “Hey, there’s an opportunity here to add a grace note to this next scene or to rethink where this arc is going.” So, it’s a constant process of evolution.
Sometimes, as in season one, we’ll have major storylines worked out and you’re responding to what you’re seeing in front of the camera. Corey Stoll is a great example. He was so fantastic. We knew he would be but he was so fantastic that I shifted an entire storyline into his and that required rewriting a lot of the subsequent episodes. You have to have that sort of flexibility. You have to be open to discovery and always leap on an idea that is better than the one you had before. Hopefully your production is modeled in such a way that you can adapt.
You mentioned the importance of those conversations with the actors and director — can you talk about that collaborative process and how it shapes the episodes?
Any performative art, whether it’s theater or film or television, is deeply collaborative. There are hundreds of people that are making each one of those frames possible. Everyone from the director and the cast to the crew, the cinematographer, sometimes one of your camera operators will have a thought that makes you rethink the scene. You’re working closely with the production team in terms of what’s possible. Sometimes you can’t get the location you really wanted and they say, “What about this?” And it makes you rethink a scene.
You’re moving at such a speed that you have to trust your instincts and you have to trust the talent and passion and vision of all the people around you. So I feel that collaboration is one of the great strengths of television, because it is a family — a family of colleagues. You’re spending many, many months together. You get to know each other. You get to rely on each other’s instincts, celebrate and involve everyone’s voices and vision. So, the sum is greater than all of the constituent parts. Ultimately, at a certain point there’s someone who has to make decisions. But those decisions are best made when they are the product of having involved everyone.
Robin Wright made her directorial debut with episode 10 of season two — how was it to work with her behind the camera?
She’s a natural. She has been in the business for many years so she knows her way around a set. She has an intuitive understanding of the craft; she has exquisite taste; she has great insight into story. Her thoughts about scripts, whether it’s her character or someone else’s, always make the script better. She is a born leader. Also, quite importantly, she knows what it means to be on the other side of the camera, so she knows what actors need, what they respond to and how to get the best performance out of them. You combine all of those things and what you have is a great director.
She directed one of my favorite episodes from season two, a very difficult episode. There were a lot of narrative balls in the air in that episode to go to some pretty emotional places. It was late in the season so it’s when all the various storylines are really beginning to converge and the heat is ratcheted up and so is the pace. She did so much preparation. She is a first-time director and anything she didn’t know the answer to she wasn’t afraid to ask. But most importantly, she had a vision for what that episode would be. She and I worked closely together, but a big part of my job is working with the directors to make sure that they understand the overall story and the vision and aesthetic and style of the show but at the same time making sure they feel as though they have the liberty to bring their own style and vision to their particular episodes. Robin and I already had a wonderful relationship from having worked together for a couple years. So we had a shorthand and we didn’t have to start from square one. She’s a really wonderful director and I can’t wait to see her direct more. She threatens that all she wants to do now is direct instead of act. But I know that she can do both at the same time. That episode was a clear example.
I love Frank and Claire’s relationship. Strangely, I feel like it’s probably the most honest, healthy marriage on television, because they tell each other the ugly truth when necessary, and they always operate as a team.
I love the BBC version, [but] one of the things you don’t see in the BBC version as much is an emphasis on the marriage. The wife feels very much like a secondary character. We didn’t want to do that with our show. One of the very first things I said to Fincher when we spoke is, “I want this to be as much a story about a marriage as it is about power in Washington.”
I thought the most radical thing you could do is have a successful marriage, because a lot of television, theater and movies focus on how love falls apart. To explore love at its strongest, unfortunately, has become an unconventional thing to do. So, what’s intriguing to me about that marriage is that it’s highly unorthodox. Whatever vows they took when they got married are not necessarily the vows that they live by day to day. But they have come up with their own set of rules and it works for them. They make each other stronger. I think ultimately any partnership is one in which people arrive at their own rules if it’s going to last over time. They find ways to adapt and evolve with each other. The Underwoods certainly have their problems. They get in fights and sometimes the stakes of those and the consequences of those are pretty severe. But they find a way to work it out and it always makes them stronger.
I also really appreciated Doug’s (Michael Kelly) storyline in season two — he had his own Peter Russo-esque tragic descent. Can you talk about the process of developing that storyline and why you decided to go that direction with him and Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan)?
That was a complete unexpected discovery, which was a byproduct of what we did with Corey’s character in the first season. When we decided to have Peter Russo run for governor, we needed his downfall to be much more grand than we had originally planned. It was always in the works that Peter Russo would meet his demise, but when he became that much closer to Francis and the stakes were much higher, we really needed to be smart about making his downfall believable and tragic. One of the ways I thought of doing that was to bring back a character we had seen early on, Rachel. At the time, Rachel, in episode one and two, was simply listed as Call Girl. She was never intended to come back. But you look at the characters you have available to you and rather than introducing a new one, here’s one that was intriguing and mysterious and I had an instinct that she had a lot more to offer us.
So, I started to bring her back knowing that eventually she would be the Trojan horse that brought Peter Russo down. In order to get there, we needed to have her reenter this world in a believable way. So, she approaches Doug. Then a relationship between them began to form, which none of us in the room could really pin down and didn’t want to. Its mystery, its complexity, its bizarreness is something we felt was really exciting and we kept wanting to return to it. It became a major storyline in season two. In the original concept of the first two seasons, none of that was there. So, in responding to what Corey was doing in front of the camera, then adjusting the scripts, bringing the character back, a new relationship forming –that’s the openness I’m talking about in terms of responding to what you’re seeing and adapting. There’s no better type of discovery than that because one of the things I’m most proud about in season two is this very strange dynamic between these two people that is very difficult to describe. Doug has a difficult time describing it himself. It took us to places that we never would have thought about otherwise.
[And] whenever we can get out of marble clad hallways of the Capitol or the ornate carpeted hallways of the White House into other worlds that might have nothing to do with Washington, it makes our world bigger and it expands the scope of the show. So, through Rachel we were able to see a whole different type of existence than the one in which Francis and Claire live in.
The show obviously generates a lot of interest in DC. Have you had any interesting encounters with the public figures who really inhabit Washington?
I’m going to steal a story that Kevin often tells, because it’s just too good. He and President Clinton are very good friends; in fact, President Clinton came to Baltimore when we were shooting season two. I got a text message from Kevin saying “be at such and such hotel at such and such a time. I can’t tell you why.” It was because we were meeting Bill Clinton. He was doing a couple speaking events and we got to hang out with him and talk about the show some. Kevin once asked Clinton, “Do you think House of Cards is an accurate portrayal of DC?” In a perfect impression of Clinton — which is something Kevin can pull off like no other; he’s one of the world’s greatest mimics — he said Clinton’s response was, “You know, Kevin, 99 percent of House of Cards is accurate. The one percent that’s not accurate is you can never pass an education bill that fast.”
It’s been exciting to be in DC a handful of occasions, whether it’s the White House Correspondents’ dinner or other events we’re doing there, and get such a warm and enthusiastic response from the folks on both sides of the aisle and at every level — from people in Congress to interns being fans of the show. We’ve had a great deal of cooperation and help from senators and congressmen whose expertise we rely on, or access to their offices to have a look at what it really feels like. Both whips for both parties, Steny Hoyer and Kevin McCarthy, are fans of the show and they’ve met with us. We had a tour of the White House recently and they’ve been incredibly cooperative. The fact that Barack Obama tweeted about the show is mind-blowing. He’s a busy guy. He should not be spending 13 hours watching our show, but I guess even the President needs a break from time to time. So, again, we had high expectations for the show, but I don’t think any of us could have anticipated what sort of impact it would have in general but certainly in Washington. It’s a lot of fun.
“House of Cards” seasons one and two are available on Netflix.