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Ruddy Roye for The New York Times
At 6:45 a.m. on a September day in Baltimore, when the heat was already loitering in the 80s and would eventually flirt with 100 degrees, Beau Willimon, the show runner for âHouse of Cards,â finished his first â or maybe second, or actually probably his third â cigarette of the day and stalked onto the showâs outdoor set. Every set of a TV show is a little reminiscent of a ragged Civil War camp, with its provisional tents and huddled groups of conferring higher-ups and wandering assistants tending to disparate needs. But on the âHouse of Cardsâ set â temporarily erected in a small park adjacent to a block of Baltimore townhouses â this feeling was heightened by the presence of Willimon, with his facial hair that might be best described as âsort-of mutton chopsâ; his beeline intensity; and, of course, that name: Beau Willimon, which seems perfectly suited to a brass plaque in the South somewhere, commemorating a particularly brave or foolhardy general. His hair was an unkempt pompadour, and he wore an untucked work shirt, unlaced work boots and jeans with a back pocket so tattered that it barely cradled his wallet, a situation that at least three people, including me, felt moved to warn him about it, though he waved each of us off in turn. He had the haunted look of a man whoâs worried about something much more important, and heâd only just arrived on set.
Jodie Foster â she of the two Academy Awards â was directing this particular episode. Like many movie stars, Foster is tiny, and she wore flip-flops and a ball cap and a bandanna looped round her neck. She was talking with the director of photography about a shot that involved the politician Francis Underwood exiting his townhouse with his wife, Claire, walking down their front steps and mounting an outdoor lectern to address the assembled Washington press corps.
It was a tricky shot to orchestrate, as it entailed positioning complicated light-reflecting panels and corralling a few dozen notebook-wielding actors playing disheveled Washington reporters, as well as a dozen or so more extras playing various cops and Secret Service security, and Kevin Spacey, of course, who plays Underwood, and Robin Wright, who plays Claire.
As Foster and the D.P. stood across from the townhouse figuring out logistics, Willimon walked hurriedly across the small park to interrupt them. He was very concerned about the placement of the stanchions, those metal poles with velvet ropes clamped to them that are used everywhere to herd people, and that were being used here to corral the fake press. Theyâd been arranged in a U-shape facing away from the lectern, and Willimon felt compelled to point out that they wouldnât be arranged that way in real life.
Foster took the note agreeably, and she seemed as interested in this detail as anyone who has approximately 46,000 other details to worry about would be. Willimon also had about 46,000 details to worry about, maybe even 460,000 details, because this was just one episode in a whole season of âHouse of Cards,â and he is perpetually, even obsessively, interested in all the details, but at this moment, especially the stanchions. âItâs just that it wouldnât be set up this way,â he explained again. He mentioned that, when he worked as an advance man on Howard Deanâs presidential campaign in 2003, one of his jobs was precisely the kind of press-corps wrangling that involved building temporary people corrals out of stanchions. Stanchion placement, it was clear, is the kind of detail that really matters to him, even if it means getting into an awkwardly insistent and prolonged conversation about it with two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster.
Foster said sheâd get the person on set whoâs job it is to worry about the stanchions to âlook into it.â She smiled. Then Willimon politely agreed to let it go, though not before adding: âItâs just if you want to be accurate. Itâs really up to you.â
Then he threw his hands up in a kind of surrender and walked off to attend to yet another detail.
Exclusive Preview: ‘House of Cards’
Michael Kelly and Rachel Brosnahan in a scene from the first episode of Season 2.
Willimon is a 36-year-old playwright and screenwriter with an Academy Award nomination (Best Adapted Screenplay, for âThe Ides of March,â which was based on his own play, âFarragut Northâ), a serious smoking habit and at least one quasi-emotional breakdown, which happened in his 20s, while he was living in Estonia. But perhaps the most telling detail he shared with me is that he writes the 150-character plot summaries that accompany each episode of âHouse of Cardsâ on Netflix. Not just the episodes â the summaries of the episodes. Before the first season of the show, which was released on Feb. 1 last year, Netflix sent him the summaries they wrote in house, which Willimon then rewrote. Now he writes all of them as a matter of course, a job that would normally be done by someone on the Netflix metadata team. âIt just seemed easier,â he says.
Obviously, the job of any TV show runner is an immersive, even overwhelming one, but I believe this is truer for Willimon, who seems to eat, sleep and dream âHouse of Cards.â The first line of the bio on his Twitter page reads, âThis is how Iâve spent the last four years of my life,â and then thereâs a link to the âHouse of Cardsâ Twitter account. Over the course of assembling the showâs second season, all 13 episodes of which will be released at once on Feb. 14, he divided his time among a writing room in TriBeCa, a hotel in Baltimore and a not-at-all-glamorous trailer near wherever the show was shooting, in which he spent most of his days obsessively writing and rewriting new episodes and occasionally napping.
The result of all this near monastic devotion is a show that â even in a landscape newly populated with cynical-to-downright-nihilistic political shows, like âVeepâ and âScandalâ and âHomelandâ â stands out for its unblinking commitment to a singularly dark vision of politics. âHouse of Cardsâ is a very dark show. And this season, it gets darker.
A quick recap for the uninitiated: Francis Underwood, played by Spacey, is a congressman from South Carolina, who in the seriesâ premiere is passed over for the post of secretary of state and thereafter decides to indulge an unfettered and relentless pursuit of power and revenge. By seasonâs end (first-season spoilers coming! So many spoilers), he has positioned himself to take over the vacant vice presidency; bedded a young reporter; bribed a hooker; groomed a protégé to run for the governorship of Pennsylvania; sent that same protégé into a destructive personal spiral; then finally murdered him, framing it as a suicide. And thatâs just in Season 1.
The show, which is based on a popular BBC series, has won three Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe, and much of its success can be attributed to its combination of canny verisimilitude (at one point, during a studio tour, Willimon explained with great excitement that Underwoodâs office is a nearly exact replica of the actual House whipâs office, down to such details as the height of the light switches) and bald melodrama â acts of murder, manipulation and treachery that wouldnât seem out of place in a Shakespearean drama. (Also not out of place in a Shakespearean drama are Underwoodâs direct addresses to the camera, a stylistic flourish that is borrowed directly from the British version but that, thanks to Spaceyâs unique and chilling Spacey-ness, have become a signature of the American version.) The showâs trailer for Season 2 promises more of the same, containing such heartwarming Underwood-isms as: âThe road to power is paved with hypocrisy â and casualties.â And: âFor those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy.â Not to mention: âAnd the butchery begins.â
Willimon was drafted into the job of running the show by Media Rights Capital, the independent studio that bought the rights to a British series about a parliamentarian who schemed his way into becoming prime minister. MRC had previously recruited David Fincher, the Academy Awardânominated director, to come aboard as an executive producer, and together, in 2011, MRC and Fincher agreed to produce it for Netflix, which basically gave them a carte-blanche deal, with two seasons guaranteed in advance.
Willimon was initially hesitant to join them, if only because he resisted the idea of being typecast as âthe politics guy.â But there was an anarchic appeal to the project as well. They would be making a TV show. For Netflix. A company once best known for mailing DVDs to your home. âNone of us had done TV before,â Willimon says. âFincher hadnât, I hadnât. We werenât bound by convention. We didnât even know what the conventions were.â
What he did know upfront was that they would have at least 26 episodes in which to tell the story of Francis Underwood, a seductive and formidable assignment. Whereas Fincher would direct the first two episodes of the series, he would be free to work on other projects (heâs currently directing an adaptation of the hit novel âGone Girlâ). Willimon, by contrast, in becoming the show runner, was basically signing away the next four years of his life. Not only was there no guarantee that the show would find an audience; there was also no guarantee that it wouldnât disappear completely into a great sea of streaming content on Netflix, the refuse of a failed attempt by an Internet company to sail into the treacherous waters of high-quality TV.
Yet all of this uncertainty appealed to Willimon, who has a taste for creative anarchy. As he told an audience at a recent speaking engagement at the Harvard Business School, when asked about the current unsettled state of the industry at large: âI think itâs great because itâs total chaos. And chaos is good for artists. It allows them to exploit the cracks and crevices.â
‘‘The West Wing’’ arrived in 1999 as a televised fantasy of what we wished our government could be. ‘‘House of Cards’’ arrived in 2013 as a nightmare of what we fear our government has become. Here, a comparison of two fictional statesmen and what they say about their eras.
Francis (Frank) Underwood
House majority whip
President of the United States of America
Raised in rural poverty, Underwood attended the Sentinal (a fictionalized version of the Citadel) and later went to Harvard Law before running for Congress, where he served as House majority whip before angling to become vice president.
Jed Bartlet is a (fictional) descendant of the (real-life) Josiah Bartlet, signatory to the Declaration of Independence. He scored 1,590 on the SAT, considered priesthood and has a Ph.D. in economics.
Doug Stamper, his steely, borderline sociopathic, not-at-all- good-hearted chief of staff.
Toby Ziegler, his bearish, laconic yet good-hearted White House communications director.
Tendency to display near-photographic recollection of scriptural verses, particularly from Leviticus and Exodus, and especially during arguments with moralizing fundamentalists.
Tendency to directly address the show’s audience, in a manner reminiscent of Richard III.
After grooming a young congressman, Peter Russo, to run for governor of Pennsylvania, Underwood eventually [spoilers redacted].
After defeating the front-runner, Senator John Hoynes, in a Democratic presidential primary, Bartlet invites Hoynes to be his running mate.
Typical Comportment toward Rivals
‘‘There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.’’
‘‘I’m the president of the United States, not the president of the people who agree with me.’’
The metastory surrounding âHouse of Cardsâ is that Netflix is changing everything about how we watch TV â or everything about what was once commonly referred to as âTVâ and might now be more correctly called âserialized stories we watch on screens.â Itâs a good and attractive metastory, but perhaps not an entirely accurate one, at least from an artistic point of view. âHouse of Cardsâ is a high-gloss, high-quality drama that would not look out of place on HBO or Showtime, which, for Netflix, is precisely the point â to prove it belongs in the game, shoulder to shoulder with premium cable providers.
Around three years ago, Netflix realized it had a problem: It was paying large sums to license other peopleâs content â TV shows and movies produced by other companies â in order to then show them to you, the Netflix subscriber, at home. This initially proved successful, but there were two troubling aspects to this model: 1) It left Netflix very vulnerable to competition, since the shows and movies it licensed could, theoretically, be licensed by anyone willing to outbid them, and 2) the most popular TV shows, episodic dramas like âCSIâ and sitcoms like âThe Big Bang Theory,â were already being sold for huge deals into syndication at basic cable channels like TBS and USA. What was left to Netflix were the kind of serialized shows that donât typically play well in syndication, like âLostâ and âBreaking Bad,â which have complicated story arcs that compel a viewer to watch all the episodes in order. Traditionally, while these kinds of serialized shows could be big hits in their initial broadcast runs, they proved tough sells to aftermarkets, precisely because of the demands they placed on the audience.
As to the first wrinkle, there was an obvious, if daunting, solution: Netflix could produce its own original content. This is obvious because it solved the problem of other peopleâs outbidding them, and daunting because, as dozens of channels and nearly every network continually remind us, producing shows that people actually care about and want to watch is an unpredictable and typically unsuccessful endeavor. But Netflix knew exactly what kind of show it wanted. Complex, serialized shows â the kind that Netflixâs nominal competitors shied away from because they were tough sells â actually did really well on Netflix. This online service where you could log in, surf through dozens of titles, then binge on any one show for as many episodes as you could stand, turned out to be a perfect platform for series like âBreaking Bad.â You could discover a show; you could sample it; then you could devour it. So all Netflix had to do was come up with its own show that people wanted to devour.
And hereâs where Netflix has an additional edge over, say, Showtime: Netflix knows a lot about what you watch. Not just generally, but in a granular, data-driven, clicks-and-duration-of-viewing time way. It knows what everyone on Netflix watches, and how much they watch it, and how all of this might translate into what people want to watch next. So if Netflix finds out that David Fincher is producing a political thriller with the possible involvement of Kevin Spacey, it can comb through its viewer data and find out exactly how many of its subscribers like films by David Fincher, and political thrillers, and things that star Kevin Spacey.
Nathaniel Bell for Netflix
Those numbers, it turned out, were strong. So when Fincher was pitching âHouse of Cardsâ to various studios in 2011, Ted Sarandos, Netflixâs chief content officer, didnât need to hear the pitch. Thanks to his data, he was already sold. Going into his meeting with Fincher, Sarandos decided, âI want to pitch him on us.â
âThere are a thousand reasons you shouldnât do this with Netflix,â he told Fincher, but one big reason he should: The tantalizing offer of two full, 13-episode seasons, guaranteed upfront. No ratings to worry about. No time slots to battle over. Netflix was committing to purchasing 26 hours of original content with essentially no artistic interference. In return, the company would get a flagship show with a movie-star cast and an Academy Award-nominated executive producer. And it would launch not only as the first big show on Netflix but also as the first big show not on traditional TV. When you look at it that way, it made perfect sense to all involved.
Despite his full name â Pack Beauregard Willimon â and the provenance of his lead character, Willimon is not from the Deep South. His father was in the Navy, and Willimon was born in Virginia and grew up mostly in Philadelphia and later St. Louis after his father retired from the Navy to become a lawyer. Willimon then headed to New York to study at Columbia. After he graduated, he got a temporary job in Estonia, working for the government, sorting through thousands of pages of E.U.-related documents and writing summaries of them. This is when he had his breakdown â âpartly because the sun never set, and partly because I didnât know what I was doing with my life, and partly because thereâs a dark side of me that can surface from time to time,â he says. âI had panic attacks, depression, all those sorts of things, and I was 3,000 miles from anyone I knew or cared about. I came back to New York, and that sort of continued, and there wasnât any light at the end of the tunnel. So I went back to St Louis to stay with my parents for a few months and get back on track.â
He eventually returned to New York and was accepted into Columbiaâs M.F.A. playwriting program. âI was the worst student by far in our group. A lot of these people had known they wanted to be playwrights forever. I didnât know a soul in the theater world, and I didnât have the faintest idea how to truly write a play. But I quit drinking then and really committed myself to this path.â
As an undergrad, Willimon helped out on a few political campaigns, starting with the Senate bid in 1998 of Charles Schumer, who would upset the incumbent, Alfonse DâAmato. This gave him a taste for politics â and inspiration for his play âFarragut North,â which he sent out to 40 theaters around the country, all of which rejected it. But he was able to land an agent, who shopped it in Hollywood, and Warner Bros. eventually bought it to turn it into the George Clooney film âThe Ides of March,â which Willimon adapted, and which, more than anything, led to his being the show runner and fervid brain behind the darkest political show ever made.
There are few things that Willimon likes to talk about more than writing, and so the writersâ room of âHouse of Cardsâ feels a bit like a graduate seminar on character development, led by a particularly enthusiastic young professor. For this past season, the writersâ room was located in a rented loft in TriBeCa, with a wide-planked timber floor and exposed brick walls. A huge whiteboard contained an episode-by-episode breakdown, with updates on every character, even minor ones, and it took roughly five seconds of scanning the board for me to encounter what qualifies as a super-duper-double-major spoiler.
Meanwhile, Willimon stood in front of a table full of writers and spoke, while the writers, many of them playwrights whose work he admired, sat and listened and occasionally chimed in. One writer, whose back was toward me, idly surfed the Internet: He researched a plane ticket, then checked out an Airbnb listing for a tropical getaway for $ 99 a night, then bought some camping gear, then browsed an article with the headline âThe Top Five Regrets of the Dying.â
Most of the wide-ranging conversation wasnât about untangling particularly knotty plot considerations but rather, more grandly, about character. Why would someone do that? was a question Willimon circled back to again and again. For all its treachery and dark machinations, âHouse of Cardsâ is, in the end, about characters. The showâs most interesting dynamic is between Francis and his wife, Claire, who started out as a kind of familiar Lady Macbeth-style evil-whisperer but has since flowered into one of the more fascinating female characters on TV. (Robin Wright won this yearâs Golden Globe for best actress in a dramatic series, beating out, among others, Kerry Washington and Julianna Margulies, which might have seemed like an upset only to anyone who has never watched âHouse of Cards.â) The whole show could easily be retitled âScenes From a Marriage,â assuming the average marriage vows were recast as âfor richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and in ambition and venality and mutual gain, forever and ever, always.â
Another way to look at âHouse of Cardsâ is as a show obsessed â like Willimon â with the idea of power: in workplaces, in marriages, in life and of course in politics. Jay Carson, a longtime friend of Willimonâs who is also a well-connected former press liaison for Hillary Clinton, a former chief deputy mayor of Los Angeles and a political consultant to the show, told me: âEverybody, almost to a person, in every party, comes to Washington initially for the right reasons. But some people, and itâs not a small amount, lose sight of why they came there. It becomes, for a significant portion, a quest for more power.â
Back in 2003, Carson was working on Howard Deanâs presidential campaign, and he recruited Willimon to join him. When you think about that campaign, you most likely remember one thing: The Dean Scream, which effectively ended Deanâs presidential aspirations. Talking about it now, Willimon says that the Scream â that momentary outburst of stump-speech enthusiasm that was played on a loop for weeks, recasting Dean as possibly unhinged and, even worse, unpresidential â is not what did the candidate in. It was the fateful days afterward, when the campaign failed to respond in an effectively aggressive way. âThe thought in the campaign was, Letâs take the high road,â Willimon said. âItâs a way of saying, âMy detractors have no power, because they have no ability to affect me.â In reality, though, it ended up being about forfeiting power by not responding quickly enough.â
Describing it now, he uses this analogy: âIâm standing on a corner, and Iâve been waiting there for 15 minutes, and Iâm trying to hail a cab. And just as Iâm about to get in, someone rushes up and gets in. I have a lot of choices in that moment: I could open that door and yank that person out. I could bang on the window and flip them the bird but let them have the cab. I could say nothing and stew in my own anger. Or I could be super-Zen about it and let them go and figure, another cab will come.â Transactions of that nature fascinate Willimon â they are the heart of all great drama, he says. Continuing with his cab analogy: âWho has the power there? Do I have the power because I didnât let this ruffle my feathers? Or does that person have the power because I let them walk all over me? When you put that on the political stage, there are real stakes to it. And there are people who make a living thinking about these sorts of transactions.â
The Dean Scream, then, functioned as a kind of protean moment that forever shaped Willimonâs political, and dramatic, outlook: What is the nature of political power? What is the nature of personal power? How do the two intersect? On that stage in Iowa, where Howard Deanâs presidential dream died, the philosophy of âHouse of Cardsâ was born.
Willimon paused in the retelling, intrigued all over again by the complexity of the situation. âThat decisionâ â how to respond to a moment of public embarrassment and media distortion, how to counter, and outflank, the people who are trying to define, and defeat, you â âis the sort of thing Francis Underwood is thinking about all the time.â
In the first few weeks after the first season was released, Willimon would occasionally go to Netflix late at night and scroll through the one- and two-star reviews for his show. As a writer, he feels as if he has a pretty good idea of what he does well, and usually some idea of what heâs not getting right, but he thought there might be further lessons in any consistent complaints about the show. Again, the little things.
There were two trends that he noticed: One, lots of people preferred, and remained loyal to, the British version, which he figured was probably inevitable and impossible to counter. Two, many viewers found the show overly cynical. âThere are people who donât like the level of darkness, who find the characters unsympathetic,â Willimon realized. âAnd we need to own that.â He considered whether he should leaven the showâs darkness or introduce some new, more decent characters, in an effort to turn some of those one- and two- star reviews into three or four stars. In short, if he should pump up the likability factor, which would no doubt be the very first note heâd receive from network executives if the show were on a network. But he decided against it. âAnyone whoâs going to like this show is not going to be the sort of person who needs to like the characters in a way where they want to have a beer with them, or invite them into their home. Someone whoâs not into that, itâs not the right show for them. Iâm not trying to reach those people.â
Part of what has made âHouse of Cardsâ so successful â and what sets it apart from its political-snake-pit brethren â is how Willimonâs personal obsession about power, and the freedom Netflix grants him to explore it, dovetails so perfectly with our collective impressions of the current political arena. You can make the case that âHouse of Cardsâ will one day seem as instructive about our current political moment as âThe West Wingâ was of its political moment. The latter show appeared in 1999 as a kind of late-Clinton-era liberal cri de coeur, full of dedicated, snappily literate bureaucrats who would always win their debates, serving under an unimpeachable President-Dad whose moral compass never wavered from true north. Aaron Sorkinâs âWest Wingâ was a vision of American government, presided over by a morally righteous liberal leader, unfolding each week even as Bill Clinton was assailed for abandoning liberal principles and subsuming important issues in his own moral messiness. Jed Bartlet was the kind of president, albeit fictional, we could believe in.
The politicians in âHouse of Cards,â by contrast, are morally bankrupt and endlessly opportunistic. The show is no cri de coeur, but a cold dissection of the post-Obama (or post-the-Obama-many-hoped-theyâd-elected), post-hope political landscape. Itâs a vision of American government not as we wish it were, but as we secretly fear it is. Good old Jed Bartlet wouldnât last a single news cycle here.
After his talk at the Harvard Business School, the students â a fresh-faced crowd of tomorrowâs titans â were invited to ask Willimon questions. The first few stuck to the theme of television and disruption, and the ever-shifting landscape, and, most crucial, what sorts of business opportunities all this might present. Willimon gave several ready answers about chaos and possibility and artistic innovation and risk.
Then one student held up a hand and asked, âWhat truth about the world do you feel youâve illuminated in the âHouse of Cardsâ stories?â
Willimon laughed. Then he countered: âWhat truth have I illuminated? Have I illuminated any truths for you?â
âI wanted to hear your perspective,â the student said.
âThatâs an unfair question, and Iâll tell you why,â Willimon answered. âBecause if I have to tell you what truths I think Iâve illuminated, then I havenât done my job.â
The exchange reminded me of one thing he said as we drove on a long and bleak freeway in rural Maryland in his stale-smoke-smelling Audi rental, the one he was using to shuttle himself back and forth between New York and Baltimore. While it may not quite qualify as an illuminated truth, it can certainly stand as a kind of artistic manifesto, one that recognizes politics as a stage on which deeper human truths are consistently revealed. âAll relationships are transactional,â Willimon told me as we drove. âEven love. Love might be the most transactional relationship of all.â
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