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[AIF] Beau Willimon on “House of Cards”

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, Michael Eisner is interviewing the creator of House of Cards, Beau Willimon. I’m not going to attempt to do comprehensive live-blogging.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

The point at which SPOILERS begin is clearly marked below.

Beau’s initial artistic expression was in painting. He was good but just not good enough. He wanted to try something he would fail at, and chose playwriting. He wrote a terrible play called “The Goat Herd.” But it won a prize at Columbia U., where he was a student. He still feels like a fraud as a writer “because you’re always grasping and never quite reaching what you’re after.”

He went to Estonia for a year, the East Village for a year, worked on the Sen. Schumer campaign doing whatever he was asked, worked on the Howard Dean campaign where he was head of press advance in Iowa. He was at the Dean Scream and explains that it was actually inaudible in the room because of all the screaming by Dean’s supporters. The media picked up on it because it confirmed their narrative that “Dean was a loose cannon and unelectable.”

Six months later, he wrote the play that became the movie The Ides of March. Originally it was about Phillip Hoffman’s character, but then it became about Ryan Gosling’s character, which was based on Beau’s friend, Jay Carson. He says that he doesn’t care about whether his characters are likeable; he wants us to be attracted to them, “which is entirely different.” “I can’t write the characters if I think of them as good or evil.” He doesn’t want to judge them. “I put myself in their shoes” and no one thinks of themselves as evil.

Beau had no interest in writing another political movie, but David Fincher, the director called. He watched the British version of House of Cards, which he lauds and says was more tongue in cheek. They worked for a year in complete secrecy on the first episode, and signed up the two stars. They went to HBO and asked for a full season guarantee. Then Netflix said they wanted House of Cards to be the first show they did, and they wanted two full seasons.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.

Beau says that House of Cards is quite tame compared to the language and violence on TV today. ([SPOILER:] He says internally they call the threesome scene with Agent Meechum “the Treechum.”) Eisner (who did Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Love Boat, etc.) says back in his day, all that counted was likability. He then cites a highly unlikeable action by Francis in House of Cards, involving a subway. But because it was being produced by Netflix, there was no censorship. Eisner recounts an example in which Netflix pushed to include a joke Eisner didn’t like in one of his own productions; that is, Netflix supported the writers against Eisner.

The third season is now being filmed. Half of the scripts are written.

“House of Cards has nothing to do with politics,” he says. “It’s about power.”

HBO has to please its subscribers. Netflix and other producers don’t have to reach all of their subscribers with any single show.

He explains that the shooting schedule has them editing the early episodes even while they’re filming later examples. They’ll go back to fix or change earlier episodes in order to produce a better whole; you can’t do that when you’re shooting normal tv.

Q&A

Q: Was it hard to kill Zooey?

A: It was in the plan from the beginning. Beau had worked out the plot for the first two seasons. “It was important to stick to our guns on that because one of the themes of the show is how much Francis [Kevin Spacey] is capable of.” The prior murder of the Congressman had been opportunistic. So we said, “Ok, we’re going to do this. It could be a total huge mistake … but fuck it, let’s do it.” Similarly, they were warned not to kill the dog in the first episode, but they figured that if a viewer couldn’t handle that, this was not the show for them. (It was a fake dog, of course.)

Q: [missed it]

A: I do have ideas about how it will end. But you never know. E.g., Rachel started out as a minor character, but she was so good that her part was expanded.

Q: The show lets us empathize with the characters. By working through such complex characters, how has that affected your view of people in real life?

A: “When my friends turn to the empty air and start speaking, I get it.” [laughter] He says writing is narcissistic. He only wants to please himself. You hope to learn something about yourself. “I don’t presume to know anything more than others do.” “My life is just a wonderful and screwed up as anyone else’s. I don’t benefit from the investigation of the soul except that when my life is screwed up, I’m acutely aware of it.”

Q: Isn’t politics about power?

A: Politics can be used to achieve practical ends that have nothing to do with power. Everything is power, but not everything is about politics. Although I would say all works of art are about politics. My Fair Lday is political. Happy Days is political. But when you think of power, if you just think of it in terms of politics, you’re doing it a misservice. There are all sorts of power dynamics. Most have to do with our interppersonal relationships. … Unrequited love? Some of these moments are very small: if a little kid throws a snowball at your windsheld and it cracks, what do you do? Do you pull over and speak to the parents, throw a snowball back, keep driving? In that moment a power dynamic is formed. And how you react esbalishes who is in power. All of our relationships are transactional…When you mix that up with characters whose job is to have mastery over power dynamics, it makes for great drama. But I’m far more interested in the power dynamaics in Francis and Claire’s marriage than in Congress. What you remember are Frances and Claire sitting in the window smoking…”

Q: Francis talks so poetically. What motivated you?

A: Because I didn’t want it to suck? Kevin had done 9 months of touring Richard III. I stole the BBC’s version’s direct address, and they stole it from Shakespeare. Done poorly — and we’ve done it poorly at times — it takes you out of the drama. Done right, it makes you complicit with your protagonist. Sometimes it’s heightened. Sometimes it’s a Gafneyism that doesn’t even make sense: ‘Down South we say never slap a man while he’s cvhewin’ tobacco.’ What does that even mean?” By turning to the camera, he’s made us his pal and we’re able to root for him.

 


A few stray points:

1. Beau is intensely likable.

2. I like House of Cards, even though making Francis a murderer shook my faith in the show. Regardless, my main beef with it is that it portrays all of politics as endemically more corrupt than we even think real world politics are. What lends the series such great drama therefore also discourages civic engagement. And since I am highly partisan, I also think it’s inaccurate. But Beau didn’t think to ask my opinion before writing this amazingly well-written and acted series.

3. I now expect to see a scene in Season 3 in which a kid breaks Francis’ windshield with a snowball.

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More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."