27 September 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Interview With Beau Willimon – Creator of Netflix Show ‘House Of Cards’ Starring Kevin Spacey
19 Nov 2014 : Seán Brosnan
‘House of Cards’, the first in Netflix’ line of original programming, hit TV screens (or laptop screens rather) last year to critical acclaim and a slew of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Starring two-time Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey as the abominable politician Francis Underwood, the show, which will air its third season next year, depicts Underwood’s rise to power with the ruthless creed of ‘any means necessary’.

Ahead of the Galway Film Centre’s Annual Film & TV Seminar this November 27th/28th where he will take part in an in-depth interview along with other special guests, IFTN caught up with creator/writer/showrunner Beau Willimon – who also holds a screenwriting credit and an Oscar nomination for 2011 drama ‘The Ides Of March’ (co-written and directed by George Clooney and starring Clooney and Ryan Gosling) - to talk about his work on the show.

IFTN: Are you looking forward to speaking at Galway?

BEAU WILLIMON: ‘I am! It’s been a long time since I have been to Ireland and I had an incredible journey while I was there. I got to see a lot of the country and the people I met were fantastic. Some of my favourite writers are Irish so it will be nice to go back.’

‘House Of Cards’ has been a seminal drama for a number of reasons; I suppose the primary reason being its’ conception on Netflix. Can you tell us about the decision to go with Netflix and release all the episodes at once? You’re the man that pioneered the show that pioneered the change so you must have had a big say…

‘Well, when we decided to team up with Netflix we began talking about different distribution models. At the time, we hadn’t settled upon releasing the entire first season in one day. It was an option but we were also looking at the traditional week to week release and different permutations in between. Eventually, about halfway through season one, we decided that releasing all the episodes in one day would really speak to what Netflix had to offer, something no other network or content providing service could offer , which was essentially viewer empowerment - giving the viewer the opportunity to decide for himself or herself what their ideal viewing experience would be. We don’t dictate what device you should watch on, how many episodes you should watch at a given time. That’s entirely in the hands of the viewer. And Netflix had been offering this through its licensed content for a decade; it only made sense that they would offer it with their original content too.’

‘House Of Cards’, spearheaded by Kevin Spacey’s acerbic Francis Underwood, could be seen as one of the more cynical television shows out there when it comes to nature of humanity. Is all the narcissism, cynicism and ruthlessness a thematic reflection on your own thoughts on US politics? Or just purely for entertainment?

‘I actually don’t think the show is cynical at all! I consider myself an optimist and if you look at Francis Underwood he’s an optimist too. He’s someone that looks at the world, sees that there are a lot of things that people consider impossible and he doesn’t think they are – he sets out to accomplish the impossible. Now, his motivations for doing what he does and the ways he goes about them are quite ruthless and dark and ethically abhorrent at times but his world view is one of optimism. You see in Francis Underwood a politician who is often able to break through the gridlock and get things done where others have failed before him. He would see entrenched ideology as a form of cynicism because entrenched ideology says ‘it’s my way or no way at all, that there is no possibility for compromise’ and that’s not idealism, that’s cynicism, because it is ignoring the vast number of people that may disagree with you. ‘House Of Cards’ is not meant to be a comprehensive portrait of Washington, it’s a portrait of how Francis and Claire Underwood see Washington and we see the story through their eyes. I think most people who get into politics get into it for the right reasons – they want to serve and want to make the world a better place. They are often faced with choices that are ethically grey. Power even in the hands of the most selfless people can become a seductive prize in its own right that can change and corrupt them. Most people are not on the extreme end of the spectrum like Francis Underwood is [laughs] but what we’re tapping into is the side of all of us that is drawn to power, that is self-serving and that is ruthless and I think we are all those things to varying degrees.’

You mentioned some of the ethically abhorrent acts that we see Francis Underwood take part in. When writing for a main character like Francis – how do you draw the line in not alienating your audience when writing some of the more deplorable things that he says and does?

‘Well, I can’t put any thought into alienating an audience. If you tell a story well about a character that is fascinating and compelling – they will either go along for the ride or they won’t. I try not to pander to what I think an audience might want or expects. If you look at some of the great characters in Western Civilisation, many of them were deplorable. Whether it’s Richard III or Macbeth or Othello or Hamlet. These were not people who one would necessarily want to sit down and have a pint of Guinness with! But there is something attractive about them that goes beyond likeability and what’s attractive about them is their drive, their strength of feeling, their complexity and access to those dark parts in our-selves that are universal to us all.’

When you begin writing a season, do you know before your pen hits the page where the story will go or do you start writing and let it flow from there?

‘Well, first off I don’t think I have used a pen since the late nineties [laughs]. We spend the first few weeks in the writer’s room for each season mapping out what the overall season will look like so we know the big dramatic moments that will happen in each episode and we know where we’re going with all the story arcs. The story arcs can change over time as we break down each episode individually and even when we are in production we’ll discover things along the way, come up with better ideas or react to what the actors are doing. But the big mechanics of it are usually pretty well set before we begin.’

The concept of a showrunner and a team of writers is largely unknown in Ireland; can you take us through your role?

‘It’s very hands on every step of the way for me. Every show is different and has its own dynamics but I’m very involved at every level on ‘House Of Cards’. I am in the writer’s room every day from the first day until we finish the season. I lead the discussion of where we want the season to go as a whole and what we’re doing in every individual scene for each episode. I oversee the outlines, oversee the scripts, often I write those scripts myself. If I don’t, I assign it to someone. I will give them several rounds of notes and at a certain point I will take over the script and do my pass on it – on every single script. Into production, I am on set every day – from first rehearsal to the final shot working with the actors, the directors and the crew to make sure that the show maintains its’ high level of excellence and the integrity of its’ voice. It takes a lot of people to make a TV show, the combination of a lot of talented minds, not just writers of course but actors, directors and everyone else that goes into making an episode what it is. It’s not any one person’s sole vision. The moment you introduce directors, actors, designers and crew they are all contributing to the voice of the show. What a showrunner does mostly is ensure that the collective vision and voice stays true to its’ core and is there to bring the best out of everyone on the team so that collectively we make something that we will all be proud of.’

You have co-written ‘The Ides Of March’, for which you were Oscar nominated. Do you think it’s harder to write for film than in the longer form of television writing?

‘They’re all hard! Any form of writing is hard – theatre, film, television – they all have their advantages and disadvantages – there is certain things you can do in one form that you can’t do in the other. But at their root they’re all forms of storytelling and if you have a good story to tell then you use the advantages of the form that you are working in to tell it the best you can.’

With nine Emmy nominations last year and 13 this year, I think it’s fair to say ‘House Of Cards’ has been a success; did you have any inkling when creating the show that people would take to it the way they have?

‘No idea! We didn’t even know if we would be eligible for an Emmy nomination being on the internet! We of course had high hopes, we poured a lot of work into the show and were proud of the work we did but you never know until you put it out there. It’s just as possible that no-one watches it or cares about it as it is that lots of people do. We had a great partner with Netflix – they marketed the show well so there was a lot of buzz around it. We had an incredible cast and a good story to tell so we felt we put our best foot forward but we weren’t prepared for the response that we got.’

Finally, any advice as an Oscar and Emmy nominated writer to any budding Irish screenwriters reading?

‘Well, I guess I have two pieces of advice for writers of any nationality! My first piece of advice is there is no substitute for getting pages under your belt. You have to write a lot of pages in order to write something good. For every 100 pages I write, perhaps only two or three of them are pages that I am truly proud of. You have to write a lot – not just talk about writing, not just have ideas – you need to sit down and do it. And my second piece of advice is that no-one can do it alone. Writing is a very solitary act but when it comes to having your film or TV show produced, you need a lot of other people to do it and it’s important to find those people – to collaborate with them, to listen to them. Find the champions in your life, people who will support your work and be honest with you about when it’s good and when it’s bad. Those champions can be your family or friends or another writer but it’s important to find a community which you believe in and which believes in you.’

Beau will take part in an in-depth interview at Galway Film Centre’s Annual Film & TV Seminar this November 27th/28th, more details of which can be seen here.

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