Beau Willimon Talks HOUSE OF CARDS, the Different Production Schedule of Season 2, “Hyper-Serialized” Storytelling, the Show’s Directors, and More

     August 11, 2014

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One of my favorite shows is House of Cards.  Led by showrunner Beau Willimon and produced by David Fincher and Dana Brunetti, the show consistently has you on the edge of your seat wondering what innovative twist is coming, and it’s loaded with fantastic performances by the entire cast (especially by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright).  The incredible work from all departments helps explain why House of Cards was the first “web” television series to receive major Emmy nominations.

While Beau Willimon is hard at work on season three of the show, I was recently able to get on the phone with him for an exclusive interview.  He talked about how the show came together, working with Fincher, Eric Roth and Josh Donen, how the storylines changed, working with Netflix, filming in D.C. and being able to shoot on location, the great set of directors they’ve had on the series, his plays, and more.  Hit the jump for what he had to say.

beau-willimon-house-of-cards-interviewCollider:  Let me first start by saying congratulations. I’m assuming that everyone is more like me where it’s just like in love with the show. I’m sure you’re getting a lot of love from a lot of people.

BEAU WILLIMON: Look, when we first started we had high expectations, set a high bar for ourselves in hopes that a lot of people would like it. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the overwhelming positive response we’ve gotten from fans, from our peers in the industry. It’s been really fantastic and motivates us to keep trying to do better.

When you first started putting together this show- for what people are seeing right now, is it exactly the way you envisioned it? Did you have certain ideas that actually got completely pushed to the side? I’m just curious about how it all came about and how many things might have changed.

WILLIMON: It’s always a process. You start out, hopefully, with strong ideas knowing that you’re gong to revise them, make new discoveries, come up with better ideas along the way. So I don’t think that we ever expected that whatever was in the first draft of the first episode and my early outlines for the season would be etched in stone. I went through a number of drafts on that first episode during that first year that I was working on it with Fincher. At that time there were really only four people involved- myself, David Fincher, Eric Roth and Josh Donen. We would have long, sprawling conversations. I would write a draft, we would discuss it, go back and work on it some more, and we just kept ping ponging back and forth until we got to a place where we felt we had a good script and a good story on our hands. When Kevin and Robin came on board and got involved a lot of things changed for the better. Now we had our two stars. I began speaking with them, getting their input. Having those conversations influenced the direction that the story was taking, because when you’re creating new roles out of scratch in my opinion working with the actors is a great asset. you can learn a lot from that. We had thirteen episodes written before we into production on season one, but I made huge the changes along the way.

A good example of that is Corey Stoll’s character, who was always meant to be a big character in the series, but when we saw what amazing work he was doing with Kevin I wanted to expand on that. So I took the whole other storyline that was meant for another character running for governor, we hadn’t cast that character yet, and I shifted a lot of that story to Peter Russo’s journey. And you can’t just change the name of a character, but the dialogue [laughs]. You have to do major re-writes, so I went in and page one rewrites on a lot of scripts in order to move that story in over. That led to the character of Rachel becoming a core character, at first she was just a call girl in the first couple episodes, but she became a really important essential part of our story that opened up a lot of new stuff for Doug Stamper. So there was that cascading effect of making those choices and all the wonderful discoveries we got to make along the way. If you don’t maintain that sort of flexibility, if you don’t leave yourself open to discovery, then I really don’t see the point of doing all this. So that’s one of the truly joyful aspects of this endeavor.

Going to the first season, you did the thirteen episodes, you wrote them out, talk a little bit about how Netflix was in terms of giving notes, the relationship with them, and putting together the show.

house-of-cards-final-posterWILLIMON: From the very first meeting we had with [them], they had a huge amount of faith in the team. They believed in our vision. They wanted us to make the show we wanted to make, they wanted to support it and put it out to the world, so we had and unprecedented amount of creative freedom from day one, which continues to this day. That doesn’t mean that we’re not in constant communication with them. We are. They get the scripts early on, we talk about them. We have conversations about where the story is headed. I sit down with Netflix at the beginning of each year and talk with them about what we’d like to do for that upcoming season. They look at the dailies, they look at cuts of the episodes, and we’ll steal good ideas from anyone [laughs]. They’re very smart people, they’re deeply invested in the show and have some great thoughts at every level of the production process, but they also give us a wide berth. Ultimately if we decide to go a new direction, or try something different, or say “trust us”, they do and I think that’s the best possible scenario, because it really puts the responsibility on the creative team’s shoulders. We’re putting our names on this, we’re investing our time and our talents and our vision of what this could be in every frame and every word and there’s nothing to hide behind. If it’s bad it’s because it’s our fault, and if it’s good it’s because Netflix gave us the opportunity to experiment, to explore, to push ourselves. So there’s not harsher critic or team of critics than we are upon ourselves.

With season two did you do the same thing where you had written all the scripts prior to filming?

WILLIMON: No. We had an opportunity to write all the scripts before season one because Kevin was doing a nine month tour of Richard III around the world, so we knew that we couldn’t start filming for another nine months. I proposed that we get to work straight away so that we could have those eight hundred pages under our belt before we started rolling the camera. Like I said, we made huge changes in the midst of production, but we were working off scripts that already existed. In season two, because you only have roughly one calendar year to make this year and seven months of that is the filming, I didn’t have those seven or eight months to write, I had much less. So we went in to productions with some scripts under our belt, but not as many. I’m always working up a bible. Each season the first several weeks I start out with big ideas in terms of where I want the story to go, and then I roll up the sleeves and get to work with my writers and we meticulously work out a grid for the entire season and then draw up a sixty to seventy page document, which outlines where each episode is heading and where the season as a whole is heading. So its not as though we’re in the midst of production having no idea want would happen next. That grid, that bible, is a starting place and we often make new discoveries and changes along the way. The short answer is much of season two was broken and written in the midst of production and that’s the same for season three.

I interviewed Kevin for his documentary- again I’m a huge fan of the show, and I asked him “Lets be honest, I could see tis going for a little while, how much further you think it could go?” And he said, “Well there’s always the pope.”

WILLIMON: [Laughs] And then there’s galactic emperor, right?

house-of-cards-season-2-kevin-spacey-3Yeah exactly, and it made me laugh a lot.

WILLIMON: That job’s already taken by another Francis.

Yes. [Laughs]

WILLIMON: The First.

Obviously you guys are shooting the third season, are you as enchanted with the world and the characters as you were two or three years ago, or do you see the end in sight as you’re working on the third season?

WILLIMON: Well definitely enchanted more so than ever. We have two seasons under our belt, a great collaborative, creative relationship with the crew, with our actors, and the writing team. One of the joys of working on show like this is being able to dive deep into the characters over many, many hours, and just when you think you may have gotten close to the bottom of the well, you find you can dig even deeper. You can’t do that in a movie or a play the same way. Its not realistic. So what that means is that we have to challenge ourselves every season to not get comfortable, to not repeat ourselves, to surprise ourselves as much as we surprise the audience and push our own boundaries. Whatever we think House of Cards is, can it be more? There’s nothing more exciting in the creative process than that, tackling things you haven’t tackled before. So in terms of its longevity, truly I just concentrate on one season at a time and we’ve got seven months of filming ahead of us, so right now I’m just keeping myself focused on those next thirteen hours.

You have worked with some amazing directors in the first two seasons. Do you have any new directors coming in for season three? Is it directors you’ve previously worked with?

WILLIMON: We do have some new directors coming in, but I’m not going to tell you who they are, I’m going to keep that a surprise.

[Laughs] Is it any feature film directors?

WILLIMON: Here’s the thing, you’re going to try to get me to say things about season three, but you’re going to find that I’m not going to answer the questions, but you can keep trying [laughs].

You know what’s funny, I don’t actually want to know any spoilers, I’m such a huge fan of the show I want to experience it, and I think I represent a lot of people now. So I don’t wan tot know anything about the actual storyline, because you’re not going to tell me anyway, but knowing what new directors are coming in, I think that’s a grey area.

WILLIMON: Yeah, it is a grey area, but in this case it’s going to be black and white. At a certain point we’ll let people know who’s coming in, but I like to shroud it in as much mystery as possible on all fronts.

kevin-spacey-house-of-cards-season-2I completely understand.

WILLIMON: [Laughs] Because then before they get to their episodes they’ll be fielding calls from people trying to figure out what’s happening in season three, so I want to protect their sanity.

You know something, I can’t argue with that. It’s just, for me, if you have a big name director or even a little known director coming in I think it’s very interesting.

WILLIMON: Even something like that, which you’d think there’s no potential for spoilers or anything like that, people start speculating, drawing conclusions. A particular director has a particular style of movies or TV shows they’ve worked on in the past, people start drawing conclusions, and I like to try to keep the canvas as blank as possible to maintain the purity of everything being new and exciting and unexpected when people click in. There’s only so much we can control in that respect, but at least I can control my own mouth [laughs].

No again, I completely understand. You have the J.J. Abrams attitude; mystery box.

WILLIMON: I don’t think it’s necessarily an attitude, it speaks a little bit to the shifting nature of television. You have these- I think Vince Gilligan described it as “hyper-serialized stories”, which is an apt description, where every little moment and arc plays into a larger whole and you want to be protective of that. It wasn’t the case when television tended to be more episodic than it is these days. You didn’t have as much to protect. The characters didn’t change as much, there weren’t as many twists and turns, a lot of the story was situational. So I think that television as a whole, at least on the drama side veering toward this hyper-serialization necessitates being a little secretive so you can maintain the integrity of the viewing experience for you fans.

I completely agree and I mistook when I said that word. It’s more like the J.J. Abrams mentality, keep it close to the vest and honestly as a fan I like it, not knowing things.

WILLIMON: I tend to take a fairly draconian approach to it, because if I bend just a little bit it’s too easy to bend a little more the next time.

When do you think you will announce any possible new cast members for Season 3 or have you already announced them?

WILLIMON:  We haven’t announced any and we typically don’t announce.  When we get to the wrap up for release, we get teasers, you might discover things on the websites but we typically don’t do that in advanced.  Again, trying to protect the story as much as possible.  

Did you find a different challenge writing Season 3 after the finale of Season 2?

house-of-cards-season-2-kevin-spacey-molly-parkerWILLIMON:  Every season has its own challenges, story-wise.  I hope each season is a challenge because if it’s not challenging then that’s a sign that you’re getting too comfortable and repeat yourselves.  Yes, there are and continue to be all sorts of challenges and thinking about the story in new ways.  But I don’t really want to say much more than that.

In the first two seasons you worked with a number of gifted directors, can you talk about working with them and how they helped craft their episodes?  Maybe they brought something to the table you weren’t expecting.

WILLIMON:  Sure.  We’ve been very privileged to work with some of the very best people in the business.  Both directors that come mostly from a film background and directors who have burnished their craft in television or both.  Every director is different.  One of the great things about getting to work with so many directors is collaborating with different artistic visions and voices.  And they all have something to offer and making the story better and bringing their vision to what you see in the frame.  One of the directors that we worked with a lot over the first two seasons, James Foley, directed nine out of the first twenty-six episodes.  A number of the EPs already had known James for quite some time before he came on board to work with us, so that great working relationship and friendship in existence which always is an asset.  And James had actually worked with Kevin before on Glengarry Glen Ross.  One of the things that I loved about working with James is the economy with which he works, he can go straight to the heart of the scene, see what it’s really about, and make sure we cut all the fat from it.  

In a show like ours, a lot of different balls are often in the air, there’s a lot happening and it needs clarity and forward momentum in order to sustain it.  And that is one of his great strengths.  I worked with Carl Franklin several times and Carl really has insight into the deep, emotional turbulence of the character.  He has a knack for finding the irrational, the things in the character that don’t necessarily add up in a logical way but which go to the core of that character’s contradictions.  Which for me, as a writer, is the most interesting thing about any character—the way that they contradict themselves.  And his visual style fluid, he likes movement, there’s a sort of lyricism to the way in which he films.  I can go right on down the line but each director has brought something different to the table and also managed to work within the aesthetic that Fincher established in the first two episodes.  

The thought and rigor with which Fincher approached episodes 1 and 2 is mind-blowing.  He’s truly a savant in terms of his knowledge about the craft, not only its history but where all the innovations are happening purely on a technological level.  But he also gives the best notes that I’ve ever received on scripts.  He challenges every scene to be the best that it could possibly be and he set up a very definitive aesthetic for the show.  For instance, we don’t use steadycams or handheld, there are no long lenses, not unmotivated moves to the camera, a very strict color palette, and all of these things give the show a very classic, dramatic feel.  

house-of-cards-season-2-kevin-spacey-robin-wrightWe hew those rules quite closely and all the directors that we’ve worked with often have spoken with David and discussed those rules.  We do bend those rules and break them from time to time on rare occasions.  Rules are there to be broken.  But I think one of the many reasons the show’s been a success is because David brought a level of filmmaking to this show which surpasses much of what you see on standard television.  I think more and more you’re seeing incredible filmmaking on all the networks.  The bar’s really been raised high and David’s a big part of that.  Then there’s also a performance aesthetic that David established in the first two episodes, a subdued, restrained, type of performance that avoids hysterics.  That doesn’t mean we won’t have scenes where people are yelling and screaming at each other but they’re few and far between.  The drama needs to come from the action and the psychological tension between the characters and the internal conflict they’re all contending with, not from hyperbolic indications of behavior.  He strives for the real thing and gets it out of the actors that he works with.  So, all of that stuff goes into what makes House of Cards what it is and all the directors we work with understand that and work within those parameters.  But also bring their own voice and give a certain amount of diversity, in terms of the way they film things, the way they edit them, and the way in which they work with the actors to give our show a visual and performative complexity that people have come to expect.

You’ve written some excellent plays, are you the type of person that has a whole bunch of stuff sitting on the desk ready to go or not at all?

WILLIMON:  It’s more of the former than the latter.  I’ve been privileged enough to have a number of my plays produced but I’ve got ten or so that I have not yet gotten produced.  I don’t know if they’re all ready to go, they’re all written, some of them I haven’t looked at in a while and if I did, I might wince and need to do some rewriting before they found their way to a stage.  Recently, I had a play called Breathing Time that I did with a small theater company in New York called Fault Line Theatre, it’s just down and dirty, East Village style, 60-seat theater on East 4th St.  I’ve been lucky enough to have plays up stage one at [unintelligible] or the Geffens, pretty major theaters.  But this one was a pretty intimate play that I wanted to be done on a small stage with the audience right there on top of the actors.  

That’s a play that I wrote the first draft of ten years ago, I’d tinkered with the text over the course of a decade, done readings and workshops here and there.  A theater company got wind of it and asked to do it and I thought, “Why the hell not?”   They were passionate about it, I sat down with them, I liked their take on the play and I said, “Go for it.”  That’s a case in which a play that I wasn’t sure it would ever be done came out of the drawer—or really out the hard drive–and found its three-dimensional life.  So maybe some of the others will have the same fate as Breathing Time did.  But I continue to work on new plays.  Theater is my first love, it’s where I started, it’s what I always return to, I think I’d go bonkers if I wasn’t writing for the theater.  So, that remains a very good part of my life.

house-of-cards-robin-wright-kevin-spaceyThere was talk that the show wasn’t going to be filmed in Baltimore and the surrounding areas because of tax reasons.  Where would you have gone if you couldn’t have shot there again?

WILLIMON:  We always planned on shooting in Baltimore, the press made much more of that than it actually was.  Maryland’s been great to us and we’ve made the state our home.  We had a few things to work out with the folks in Annapolis and the state legislature, and the governor were very helpful in discussing all of that with us, and we all made it worked.  We’re very proud to be shooting here and really looking forward to spending the next seven months here in the great state of Maryland.  

Now I would imagine everyone in Washington has seen the show.  Are you trying to reach for certain places that maybe you couldn’t get to in the first two seasons to film at?

WILLIMON:  Very sneaky way of trying to get some info about Season 3.  You’re taking the locations route, I applaud it.  I’m not going to say anything about Season 3, I will say that we’ve always had a huge degree of cooperation from state municipal and local governments in terms of shooting on location.  Baltimore and the state of Maryland opened their doors up for us and almost anywhere we want to shoot, they find a way to make it happen.  They’ve been extremely helpful on that front.  In terms of Washington D.C. itself, we do shoot there from time to time.  There are a lot of security restrictions and rightly so post-911, in terms of where you can film  in the District of Columbia.  So, we usually have to get ahead of it pretty early on whatever we want to film there and D.C. is very helpful at accommodating us except that they can’t, given all the regulations.  One of the advantages of being in Maryland is that we’re so close to D.C., so when we do have to film there, we don’t have to travel far.  But the vast majority of our work is filmed here in Maryland, either in Baltimore or the surrounding counties or on our stages a few minutes north of Baltimore.

How difficult do you think it would be to get a former drama teacher to make a guest appearance on the show?

WILLIMON:  I don’t know, you’d have to ask Jon.  We both went to a school called John Burroughs in St. Louis and when I started in 7th grade, he was a senior and already legendary.  All the girls were in love with him well before Madmen was every a glint in Matt Weiner’s eye.  When I became a senior, Jon came back to teach drama alongside Wayne Salomon.  He had been his drama teacher and been mine for seven years.  Wayne Salomon is the reason why many Burroughs graduates have gone into the arts.  He was teaching acting at a level that a lot of universities don’t, to 7th and 8th graders.  

house-of-cards-season-2-kate-maraThere’s a picture somewhere on Facebook I believe, of Jon and I.  A cast photo from our school’s production of Stage Door my senior year.  Sometimes we had faculty in the cast and he was in the cast for that one.  So, there’s a kind of blurry photo of all of us on set and I think I’m on one side and he’s on the other.  I run into Jon every now and then and he remains as cool a cat now as he was back in our St. Louis days, and has actually been really supportive of the theater program at Burroughs.  I’m a huge fan of Jon.  In terms of House of Cards, who knows, we’ll see.  I’d love to work with Jon one day, whether it’s House of Cards or something else.  Maybe we’ll find a way.

He’s really super nice and very funny.

WILLIMON:  Yeah, he’s a really funny guy, really down to earth and just a lot of fun to be around.


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