When “House of Cards” premiered on Netflix in February 2013, it not only effectively changed a nation’s viewing habits, turning us all into binge-watchers — but it also marked the television debut of screenwriter Beau Willimon. Known for his plays — “Farragut North” was adapted into the Oscar-nominated “The Ides of March” — Willimon would go on to earn three Emmy noms for “House of Cards” as the series’ creator and executive producer. He’ll receive Variety’s inaugural Creative Impact in TV Writing Award at the Nantucket Film Festival.
What does this award mean to you?
It’s a huge honor to get any sort of award at all. Any time someone gives you a pat on the back and says, “We appreciate what you do,” that’s a great feeling. As far as this festival is concerned, I find it’s great to be recognized in television on par with film because, I think that’s where things are headed in the industry. There really is no discernible line to be drawn, in many ways, between television and film. Is an eight-hour limited series really any different than a long movie? We certainly approached “House of Cards” in a filmic way and think about each season as a long film. You are seeing a lot of people that made their name in film gravitate towards television because they have the opportunity to tell stories that they might not be able to tell through the traditional studio system. I think that’s really exciting.
What impact do you think “House of Cards” has had on TV?
It’s really more what impact has Netflix had. The impact that Netflix has had is profound. We happen to be the first show that they released. If it hadn’t been us it would have been something else. But I think the choice that Netflix made to get into original content, then to distribute it in a way that no one has before was the paradigmatic shift. That approach that Netflix took forced everyone to rethink what television is and where it’s going.
Give yourself some credit. It wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t a good show.
I think what was attractive to Netflix originally is that we had a pretty great team, David Fincher directing, Kevin (Spacey) and Robin (Wright) as two revered stars, and a pretty good script. They knew that those names would draw a fair degree of attention, and we knew that teaming up with Netflix to be the first program that they got behind would draw attention to us. What we didn’t know is whether people would respond to it or not. We poured ourselves into it, and we felt we had made something good that we were proud to put our names on. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the level of response we got, which was overwhelming. It think that a large part of that was due to the curiosity factor of this new model and this new distribution system, but in large part I think it was also due to the fact that we had made good work.The only reason we all show up every day is to try to capture lightning in a bottle, to capture on film them doing interesting things that surprise us and themselves. You’ve got to have thoroughbreds to do that on a consistent basis, and we’ve got a number of them, with Robin and Kevin leading the charge.
You’re now three seasons in. What have you learned along the way?
That you actually can survive on three hours sleep a night for years on end. It might not be the healthiest way to live one’s life but it is possible.
I don’t think that’s a good plan. What have you learned about showrunning?
Everything, because I didn’t know anything about it when I started. I had never run a show before. I was very lucky to be working with some very experienced people on the production side, and our crew was populated by a lot of veterans. I think that the thing I have to constantly remind myself is that time when I knew nothing, because the spirit of experimentation, of having nothing to lose, of taking risks and letting your ignorance be a form of bliss, actually it’s something you can lose the more you do it. You have to kind of get back to that place of innocence in a way so that you don’t stop yourself from doing something because you know better.
What part of the job do you enjoy most?
First and foremost I’m a writer, and being able to work with my writing staff, that magical time at the very beginning of a season when you’ve got a blank dry-erase board and anything is possible is in some ways the most exciting time and the scariest because there’s infinite possibility. I love that first week or two where we haven’t made a single choice and the entire universe is our oyster. Later on one of my favorite parts is rehearsals before we shoot a scene because so much work has gone into multiple drafts of the script, conversations with the director and with the department heads, scheduling it, and budgeting it, and then here you are on the day, in the room seeing it take shape for the first time, and even then we might discover something new. We might completely change a scene. We might rewrite it on the fly, or if I see something in that rehearsal that completely unlocks something for a subsequent scene, a subsequent episode, as much as one plans and sort of tries to construct what a given day at production phase will look like, it’s all there, in a way, to create a safe space to play and to discover new things in the moment. That’s a kind of magic that can only exist on a set, so I really love that portion of it.
What inspired you to be a writer?
Even though I didn’t realize it then, the thing that made me want to become a playwright was seeing Spalding Gray perform “Gray’s Anatomy” in St. Louis. If you ever saw Spalding perform, you knew it was just a man sitting at a wooden table with a glass of water performing a monologue. I had been in school plays and read a number of plays, and I loved the theater, but I hadn’t experienced anything like that, which was the power of one person’s body and voice alone being able to create an entire universe. To me it was a form of magic. It’s not about all the bells and whistles; it’s about aggressive honesty. As long as you’re brutally honest, if you’re willing to try to make the ugly beautiful, if you can cast a spell, then you’re on the right track.