The original Netflix drama series House of Cards is an uncompromising exploration of power and ambition. Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the House Majority Whip, is a politician’s politician – masterful, beguiling, charismatic and ruthless – and he and his equally ambitious wife, Claire (Robin Wright), will stop at nothing to ensure their ascendancy. The Academy of Television recently hosted an evening to celebrate the show, and Collider was there to cover and attend the event.
During the discussion about the 13-episode series, actor/executive producer Kevin Spacey and showrunner/executive producer/writer Beau Willimon talked about their extreme look at Washington, D.C., the collaboration and freedom they get with Netflix, that they shoot two episodes at a time, both done by the same director, why they shoot in Baltimore, Maryland instead of D.C., why this is such a Golden Age for television, and how they’ve developed the storylines with two seasons in mind. Check out what they had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
KEVIN SPACEY: No. If you go back to the origins of this series, it started with Richard III. Michael Dobbs wrote the book House of Cards, which is what they based the original British series on. He wrote this book as a kind of revenge, after he had a falling out with the government and left. I remember the series. My mother loved it, when it was airing here, in the United States. It was brilliantly done. When we started talking about doing it, the idea was that it would adapt well for the United States. Everything that I would have needed, as an actor, to find out who this man is, and quite frankly, there’s a lot about him that I still don’t know because we have a long road to go, was in the scripts. Working Beau Willimon, David Fincher, Robin [Wright] and this cast has been the most thrilling, extraordinary part of this experience. We have developed this together.
Beau, did The West Wing loom large when you were writing this?
BEAU WILLIMON: Well, The West Wing is a fantastic show. I certainly loved it while it was on the air, and I’m a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin. I think he’s an extraordinary writer. But, our approach was fundamentally different. That was a noble fantasy of what we all wish Washington could be. Ours is an extreme look at Washington that is probably closer to the truth. It’s apples and oranges comparing them. But, great work is great work, and that’s always inspiring.
Are you ever concerned about the storylines getting too far-fetched?
SPACEY: We were shooting this during the presidential campaign. We’d go back to the hotel and turn on the television and watch what the fuck was going on. We were like, “Our storylines aren’t that crazy!”
SPACEY: More, because everyone in Washington is talking about the show. I hear from all kinds of people that this is the topic in Washington and that makes me think, “Maybe they’re taking notes.”
WILLIMON: America seems to operate under two very divergent and hypocritical mythologies. One is the American dream. If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll have a better life than your parents did, and your children will have a better life than you did. But, we’ve seen many cases of that where that’s just simply not the case, and yet we hold that close to our hearts. The other mythology has to do with individuals, and the self-made man or woman who doesn’t play by the rules. Those are people who are revolutionaries, and who defy their government in order to make it what they want. That’s all about breaking the rules. So, one mythology is about sticking to the rules while the other is about breaking the rules. We always saw Francis Underwood as someone who’s an extreme version. He says, “I’m going to do it my way, and it doesn’t really matter why I’m doing it because you all stand to benefit from it.” We see people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who dispensed with a college education and went out and did it their way and didn’t play by the rules. So, we don’t have a political agenda with this show, but we do ask the question about whether the ends justify the means is a viable form of government, and that’s an important question to ask. Right now, we have a government that’s grid-locked. History will not remember those who have nothing to offer but gridlock.
How does Netflix afford a show like this? Did you have to take a pay cut?
SPACEY: No. A few days ago, Netflix announced that, in large measure a result of House of Cards, they brought in two million more subscribers. That means that they have surpassed HBO in memberships in the United States. So, at $7.99 a month, that’s $16 million a month. That’s a hundred and something million a year. I’m not good at math, but you bet they’re making money. When you talk to your friends and say, “What did you do this weekend?,” someone will say, “I stayed home and watched three seasons of Breaking Bad,” or “I watched three seasons of Dexter,” or “I watched two seasons of Game of Thrones.” The way people are enjoying consuming the shows they love is to be able to watch them when they want. What we, in some ways, set out to prove is that the film and television industry can learn the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn. If you give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, then they’ll buy it and they won’t steal it.
WILLIMON: In all honesty, we didn’t know that we were going to release all 13 episodes at once, until we were in production. It was part of the discussions, as soon as we teamed up with Netflix. They’re an intrepid company that is always looking for ways to shake things up and try other things. Immediately, that was part of the conversation. We thought about traditional week-to-week release, but ultimately, Netflix decided that they wanted to give the viewers what they’d given them all along, which is viewer empowerment and the choice. Our show happened to be in the right place at the right time, with a phenomenal cast, a visionary director (David Fincher) and what I hope are some decent scripts. So, we said yes because it sounded like an exciting adventure. In terms of the writing of it, our only focus is that it be a great story. Even if you deliver 13 episodes, all at once, it doesn’t necessitate binge watching. Some people might watch it over the course of weeks or months, so it had to work both ways. Our only focus was to tell the greatest story possible in 13 hours. We really thought about it like a 13-hour movie.
SPACEY: We went out to all the other networks. We went to lots of cable networks. And we knew one thing, starting out, which was that we didn’t want to do a pilot. We just wanted to start telling story. One of the things about a pilot is that you’re obligated to, in a sense, audition all of the characters. You have to establish all of the character in a pilot, and we just wanted to tell story. Netflix stepped up and was the only network that said, “We don’t need you to do a pilot. We like you, we like you and we like you. How many do you want to do?” And we were like, “How about two seasons?” So, they took a huge leap with us and allowed us to tell a story. I haven’t felt like I’m doing episodic. I felt like I was doing a long film.
SPACEY: This is not to denigrate the relationship. We have a great relationship with Netflix. But, the truth is that they didn’t even have an office to give us notes because we were the first in original programming. They gave us that freedom, and they were great partners. We joked about the first five minutes of the show, when Francis puts a dog out of its misery. We’re certain that if we had been at any other network, we wouldn’t have gotten away with that.
WILLIMON: People were saying, “If you kill an animal in the first 30 seconds, you’ll lose half of your audience.” That came from the fact that I wanted a movie star entrance for Kevin Spacey. He’s a friggin’ movie star. The original beginning, in the early drafts, was a New Years Eve celebration, which was kind of how the original started, but we wanted something different. So, I thought, “Okay, what happens before that? I’ve already got him in a tux, so that’s good for a movie star. What the most movie star thing you can do? The doors have to fly open, so that he can descend the steps. Okay, so why is he coming out of his house? Maybe he heard something. Maybe it was a car crash. Dead bodies from a car crash seems too grisly and gruesome, so what if it were just a dog? Okay, now he can walk over to the dog, and the dog is whimpering, so what’s he going to do? Well, he can put it out of its misery.” Literally, it was that stupid. And what I think is the most interesting moment of all that is that it was both an act of violence and mercy. And then, he could do a direct address there. So, in the first 30 seconds, we established that the tone of this would be different than the BBC version. I was in David’s office one day and I told him all of this and said, “David, what do you think? People are saying that we’ll lose half of our audience, if we kill a dog in the first 30 seconds. Do you care?” And he said, “I don’t give a shit.” So I said, “Okay, let’s do it!” Not that we were that flip or blase about it, but that was the show we wanted to make. If you aren’t down with the dog getting strangled in the first 30 seconds, then this isn’t the show for you. Every step of the way, Netflix trusted us, and we communicate all the time. They’re at the table reads, they get the scripts, they watch the dailies, but it’s casual. It’s a conversation. It’s never a dictate. We’re very privileged to be able to have that freedom.
SPACEY: I would like to just add that no animals were harmed in the making of this. It wasn’t even a real dog.
SPACEY: We shot two episodes together. We would storyboard two episodes and do two episodes, and each director would direct those two episodes because it was enough for them to get their teeth into the material with the actors.
Why do you shoot this in Baltimore, Maryland versus Washington, D.C.?
WILLIMON: First of all, Maryland has a great tax credit and that matters because you want to put the most money on screen that you possibly can. To have a soundstage in the District of Columbia where you can actually control sound is really hard. There are security issues. It’s very hard to shoot anywhere in D.C. these days because Homeland Security is doing its job and they don’t want 15 trucks parked alongside the Washington Monument. Where are stages are in rural Maryland, we’re able to control a lot of things. Downtown Baltimore has a plethora of locations that do a pretty great job approximating D.C. A lot of Washingtonians might disagree with that, but you deal with the cards that you’re dealt. Maryland has been great for us.
Have you actually filmed anything in the Capitol?
WILLIMON: To date, we have not been able to get cameras into the Capitol itself. You literally need permission, but we remain optimistic that we will get in there, at some point. We’ve made a lot of friends in Washington, over the last few months.
What sort of feedback have you gotten from the folks in Washington, D.C.?
SPACEY: That it’s remarkably close.
SPACEY: I had the incredible opportunity, a year and a half ago, to play Richard III for 10 months, and we took the production to 12 cities around the world, as far as Beijing, Istanbul, Singapore and Naples. The experience of playing Richard III and the amount of direct address that he does to the audience gave me an opportunity to understand that relationship. Now, I’m looking down the barrel of the lens and I don’t have the eyes of the audience, but what I have is the memory of 198 performances. It’s a wonder they didn’t find my bones in a carpark. That relationship was so alive and so active. I could literally see, in people’s faces, in all of these different countries, the grief that they were experiencing in becoming the co-conspirators. There’s not a lot of exposition. It’s basically a lot of, “Okay, I’m going to go do this. Watch this, I’ll be right back. Can you fucking believe I got away with that?!” I started to understand what that relationship was and how vibrant and alive it is for an audience to feel that they’re being included in something that nobody else knows. And then, the moral issue becomes, when that character starts to do things, the audience starts to think, “Oh, shit, I was rooting this guy on.” So, the only way that I’ve managed to understand how to attack and play breaking the fourth wall is because I’ve had that experience in the theater.
How do you decide how much sex to put in the episodes?
SPACEY: It depends on how much sex [Beau] is having.
WILLIMON: We don’t have standards and practices, but over 50% of traffic on the internet is for porn, and we can’t compete with that. Just because we have no rules, I don’t think we’re gratuitous. Compared to a lot of shows, there actually isn’t a ton of sex on our show. We see sex, like any other form of human behavior, as a form of storytelling. If it has something to contribute to the story and to your understanding of the character and the relationships to one another, so be it. But, it’s never there just to titillate. At least, that’s the intention.
SPACEY: I left the United States, 10 years ago, to go to London and run a theater company, and I watched the film industry begin to shift into a direction where the kinds of complication character-driven stories that I was a part of in the ‘90s started to mean less and less. The film industry became about tentpole movies and special effects movies that cost a tremendous amount of money, and that created a hole. No writer, director or actor worth their salt is going to sit around and not try to fill that hole. So, it makes total sense to me that, over the last decade, cable has become where the best actors, writers and directors have gone to work because they are allowed to do character-driven stories that they are being denied the chance to do with a lot of features.
WILLIMON: Let’s face it, this was David Fincher. He was really the driving force in getting this whole thing going, and in setting the tone in the first two episodes, which all of the directors and actors then worked within. I’ve never received notes on scripts that were as insightful as what he had to say. He’s meticulous with everything. His knowledge of craft is vast and savant like. Unlike some directors on television shows, he didn’t shoot a couple and then skedaddle to go do the next movies. He certainly had a lot of stuff on his plate, but he was there, every second, and for every decision made. He’s a perfection. I’ve never seen anyone that has a work ethic like his. And the energy, passion, smarts and leadership that he brought to the team is the largest part of why we’re here. It’s all in service of the cast, but I did it because David Fincher wanted to talk to me. When David Fincher wants to talk to you, you get on the fucking phone.
When you set up the series, how many seasons were you envisioning?
WILLIMON: We had two seasons guaranteed, so we talked about those two seasons, very early on. We continue to change and evolve the story, but our discussions have gone as far as two seasons.
House of Cards is now available on Netflix.