‘House of Cards’ producer Beau Willimon on writing for Kevin Spacey and David Fincher

By the time you read this, you”ve had the opportunity to watch all 13 hours of Netflix”s “House of Cards,” though I”m guessing most of you haven”t had that kind of free time. (As I noted in my review yesterday, I”ve only seen the first two hours so far, and am not sure when I”ll get around to the remaining 11; if you’ve watched a lot already, please be vague, plot-wise, in your comments.) In the meantime, though, you can read my interview with the show”s executive producer and head writer, Beau Willimon, who was hired by director/producer David Fincher after impressing with his play “Farragut North” (which was adapted into the movie “Ides of March”).
At press tour last month, Willimon and I spoke about what pieces he borrowed from the original British “House of Cards,” how he and the rest of the TV neophytes involved in this series approached crafting 13 hours that could all be watched consecutively, and what contemporary TV dramas he enjoys.
How did you wind up becoming attached to this?
Beau Willimon: About three years ago, David, Eric Roth and Josh Donen approached me about working on an American version of “House of Cards.” I”d heard of the BBC version, but I”d never seen it. So I thought that was a pretty good excuse to watch a mini-series in order to have a conversation with David Fincher. I was a huge fan of his; one of the best directors in the world. And I thought that was worth my time so I watched it. I thought it was great. I had a ton of ideas as to not only how to set it in America and make it feel contemporary, but also to create a tone that I felt would be our own. I said early on to those guys I don’t want to do a remake here. This isn’t about translating “House of Cards” for America. I want to do a complete reinvention. I want to cherry pick some great things and then I want to make it our own. And I want to expand it and deepen it. And that was right along the lines of what they were interested in doing.  We had a great riff session on the phone and then got to work. And here we are three years later.
So I”ve only seen first two so far, but what are elements in the series that were specifically cherry picked from the British one?
Beau Willimon: Well the biggest one is the direct address. That”s one of the things we were most drawn to. So early on we were all in agreement that we had to keep that. Because when you take the direct address and you put it in the hands of a great actor like Kevin Spacey, it amplifies the dramatic experience. Because it gives you access to your protagonist that you couldn”t otherwise have. And it”s far more potent than say a voiceover because you”re making real eye contact – it”s Shakespearean in its effect. The audience becomes complicit; it becomes an accomplice in all of his schemes. And I really think that dramatic tension works great because you know you”re more than just rooting for this guy passively. In a way you become his partner.
Did you have to set any rules in terms of when he could do it so it either wouldn’t be too much or wouldn’t be confusing within the context of the scene?
Beau Willimon: Absolutely. It was a constant sort of learning curve in terms of what worked and what didn’t. And all throughout season 1 there was a mixture of sticking to certain rules that we had establish for the direct address, but at the same time intentionally breaking them from time to time to see if that worked, and also to keep it dynamic and fresh. There is a balance as to how many direct addresses in an episode is too many or too few. There is a particular type of direct address in terms of its style – is he giving you insight, is he talking about his worldview or is he being more emotional? Some work better than others, and knowing when to use them and how to use them – we had to learn that. And a lot of that was watching Kevin do them. And responding to that and then watching the dailies, and the cuts of that and seeing how they fit in the episode. So there were plenty of times where we had a direct address and then we simply removed it. Or it felt like, “Actually one belongs here,” and then we would go and shoot one and find a way to insert it. But yeah, it’s very tricky because if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work really badly. So it”s sort of like, if you”re going to try to grab that sort of golden apple, be prepared to fall off the branch. But I think we figured it out. We’ll let America decide on February 1.
At what point in the development process did Netflix say to you that they”re going to release all the episodes at once? Where were you?
Beau Willimon: Yeah I mean it was a – I think it was probably, if memory serves, about halfway through production. Not to say that we hadn”t discussed it earlier on. From the very beginning, we were having conversations about, “Well what”s the model here? What does Netflix allow that other networks don”t? What can we exploit that”s different about them?” And one of them is giving viewers the choice of experience they want. We had thought about all sorts of different stuff, a traditional week-to-week or chunks – maybe do four then another four then five or whatever. But ultimately I think everyone felt, “Well, if we”re going to do this in a nontraditional way, let”s do it in a completely nontraditional way.” And it’s not traditional compared to other networks but actually right in line with what customers have come to expect from Netflix, which is a complete and total experience that where they get to be the arbiters of how their time is spent.
But the pre-existing shows on Netflix were written and produced under the traditional model. Mitch Hurwitz, when he was here (at press tour) the other day, he talked about designing the new episodes of “Arrested Development” specifically to allow for the idea that they”re all at one some people can watch in any order. Your series is obviously not structured in that way.
Beau Willimon: Yeah, ours is certainly is not intended to be watched out of order. I”d like to think every episode exists on its own to a certain extent but, you know, if you”re dropping into season 4 of “The Sopranos,” you might be able to sort of pick up things and follow it and enjoy it. But it”s not the same experience as if you”d watched for the first three seasons. So certainly I think it should be watched serially but I think the biggest difference in the conception of it and how it was written wasn”t so much, “Are people going to watch it in 13 hours straight?” Because people have the choice, right? So they don’t have to but we always thought about it as like a 13-hour movie. You know, that we wanted it to have a cinematic pace and feel to it. We wanted the storytelling not to be a traditional five act, A-story, B-story, beginning, middle, and end for every episode. That there would be a certain dynamism to the tone, feel and structure as we move our way through the season, always adhering to our core. But I think what it really came down to that was more important than releasing all 13 in one day, was knowing that we had two seasons guaranteed. Because then we don’t have to feel like we have to artificially sell the show to stay alive, the way a lot of television shows – even the best of them – in their first half of their first season, it”s like, “Got to go for those ratings.” Those first few weeks are crucial. And if you don”t get people back next week, you”re screwed. So because we didn”t have to create artificial cliffhangers in that way, we could really invest our time in layered storytelling and sophisticated characters. And our hope is that”s what will get people wanting to immediately watch the next episode.
I spent a lot of time in the last year talking to the guys who created the original HBO shows; Tom Fontana, David Chase, David Simon, all of them. And one of the things they talked about quite a bit was this idea that like it was the Wild West – there were no rules, and they could invent their own rules.  If Fontana wanted to just tell his different subplots one at a time as opposed to going back-and-forth he could. If Simon wanted to structure the season like a book he could. It sounds like you guys were having some of those same discussions. Given what”s happened with all these cable dramas over the years, what did you discover were things that were specific to this Netflix experience that you could do?
Beau Willimon: Well I don”t know exactly the sort of experience that Fontana and Chase, for instance, had at the very beginning in sort of the mid-’90s, mid-to-late ’90s. And they may have very well had a lot of the same creative freedom that we had.  I don”t know to what extent. I can say that for us we had as close to complete creative control as I think you can possibly get.
Netflix was there at the table reads. And they certainly had scripts available to them and looked at dailies and all that. But they never even once came at us with some sort of suggestion as to work. No “We would like if you do this differently” or “We”re nervous about this.” Sometimes I would have conversations casually with the Netflix people, but for the most part they just placed their faith in us. 
And I think that what happens when you do that is the artists actually respect that responsibility. If something”s bad, you have no one to blame but yourself. So it actually means more rigorous attention to storytelling because I could only imagine or speculate – I haven”t worked for another network so I don”t know – that if you write a script and it”s going to go through 20 layers of network notes, you might start to say, “Well, let”s just get a draft in, and they”re going to want to change a million things anyway.” And it could, I think, encourage in some ways maybe even a more casual approach.
And this was, you know, we live or die based on this creative freedom. So I think the risks that we take elevate the show, but the very fact that we”re able to take those risks is a function of the amount of latitude that we were given. I don”t know what the Netflix experience is for other shows on Netflix. Like “Hemlock Grove” or “Orange is the New Black,” I haven”t spoken to those show runners and I don”t know if it”s different. But in our case, yeah, I mean, it does sort of feel like the Wild West. It sort of feels too good to be true in a away.
And this is your first series, right? 
Beau Willimon: Well, David had never done TV, I had never done TV, Netflix has never done TV. Kevin had done a few episodes “Wiseguy.” But still, approaching it this way, I think, on this scale for the first time. And I think that was an asset. We weren”t bound by any sort of convention or habit. We didn”t know the regular way of doing things. We brought in experienced people, of course, to say that we didn”t need to reinvent the wheel on everything. But we always questioned the wheel. There’s I think a rebellious nature to all of us on the creative side. So I think that often times that paradigmatic shift, it’s as much by accident or ignorance as it is by design. Because you don”t know the way the game is supposed to be played you just make up your own rules. And I think that”s what we did.
So I”m curious then if you can come up with an example or two of a case of you questioning the paradigm. Whether you ultimately went through with it or whether one of the veterans said, “No there”s a reason that it”s done this way, trust us.”
Beau Willimon: Let me see if I can think of a very concrete example that”s useful for you. For instance, in a number of episodes I”d write, like, a ten-minute scene. Now you occasionally see those on television but it”s very rare for television – very rare for film and also rare for television; although, television sometimes allows for longer scenes. And I would just write a ten-minute scene that had nothing to do per se in any direct way with the plot of that episode. But I felt it gave us a insight in to the characters and twisted the world in a way that was unexpected. That I think a lot of times would just be shut down from the get-go (in traditional TV).
Or we decided in the third episode that we”d leave D.C. altogether. A lot of shows might not take a departure like that that early in the season. It”s sort of like, oh, if you”re going to do a tangent or you”re going to put the brakes on the big plot machine, you wait until season 2, or you do that towards the end of season 1. And I just sort of felt like, “Well I want to show how broad this world is from the get-go, just to show that we”re not going to be limited to the Beltway here.” When I first decided on episode three that we were going to leave D.C. for part of the episode, I didn”t do that really as a “fuck you” to conventional structure of a season. I just did it because it felt right, like it”s what I want to try. Then other people are like, “Do you really want to go to another city on your third episode?” I was like, “Why not?” And I think in terms of the way that David approached the filmmaking, it”s very cinematic and we brought a lot of film people in. I think our directors had a lot more control and say in their episodes than a lot of television directors typically do. And across the board, I think we just brought the experiences we all individually had in our various realms and said, “Let”s try to make this work for television.” And usually it ended up in something at least slightly different. All that said, it works as a TV show, I think.
One of the things that they always say is the advantage for the writer is, in television writer’s king, and in movie the director is king. But obviously David wields a lot of clout here. And it sounds like you were saying some the directors were given a lot more freedom.
Beau Willimon: Well, it”s a collaboration. I was there every day, first rehearsal to last shot on set in Baltimore. And it”s still very much a writer”s medium. The 700 pages and 13 hours of narrative has to come from somewhere. When David is deeply involved in every step of the way, that”s an asset. You have this great directorial mind and his thoughts about story, and casting and being involved in editing and all that is an asset. But when I say we gave the directors a lot more control, I was there with the directors every step of the way, and it was a dialogue and it was a collaboration. If I thought they were going off the mark or something I would say so, but I think when you empower directors, what you get is not only better performances from your actors but you also get something that”s much more visually compelling because they really feel invested. They don”t feel like they”re just there to point and shoot and be there as a vassal for the EP”s. So I mean David”s involvement is definitely different than a lot of other models. But it”s still very much I think a writer’s medium.
You mentioned “Sopranos” before. I’m just curious, in general, what television, what are the great TV dramas the last ten, 15 years, were you a fan of?
Beau Willimon: Well I think the very best of all times so far is “The Wire.”
Talk about a show that does break every rule – I think it”s like the “Citizen Kane” of television. I love “The Sopranos.” I”m a huge David Milch fan. I thought “Deadwood” is among the very best and it’s up there as high as “The Sopranos” for me. It didn”t reach as many viewers but I think that”s an incredible, incredible drama.  Those I would have to say are the shows – I mean, “Breaking Bad” is fantastic and I think “Mad Men”s great, too. But in terms of the very best, I mean, I think you”re looking at stuff like “The Wire,” “Sopranos,” and “Deadwood.”
Last one: it”s by no means an identical show but there are a couple of commonalities here and there with “Boss.” Were you at all aware of it as you worked on this?
Beau Willimon: Yeah, I”ve never watched an episode. I willfully didn’t because I wanted to be in my own bubble. So when you do a show about politics, I’m sure just given the certain architecture of the political world, there may be some parallels or similarities. But I honestly I don”t know really much about it other then Kelsey Grammer was in it and it was a dark political drama. I was aware of it  – our process began probably I think probably even before “Boss” did. I began working on the first draft of this three years ago. And we were already largely through most of the writing process for season 1 by the time “Boss” aired, but I didn”t want to muddle my brain with anything, so (I didn”t watch).
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com