Beau Willimon has made great use of political intrigue in his writing. In 2011, he reaped an Oscar nomination for adapting his play “Farragut North” about a pernicious presidential primary into “The Ides of March.” On that, he was assisted by the film’s star and director George Clooney and producer Grant Heslov.
Now, he has soloed on an update of the 1990 British miniseries “House of Cards” — itself adapted from a book by Michael Dobbs — for Netflix. The 13-part series is executive-produced by Oscar nominee David Fincher (“The Social Network”) and stars two-time Oscar champ Kevin Spacey (“The Usual Suspects,” “American Beauty”).
“About three years ago, David approached me about working on this TV show together,” says Willimon. “I’d heard of the miniseries, but had not seen it. Just the excuse to have a conversation with David Fincher about it was reason enough to give it a watch. I immediately had ideas about how to Americanize it, make it contemporary, make it our own. A year later, I had the pilot written.”
In “House of Cards,” Spacey plays Francis Underwood, a ruthless Majority Whip with his eyes on the Presidency. The show also stars Robin Wright as Underwood’s equally ruthless wife.
While writing the pilot, Willimon made several changes to modernize the original series. As he explains, “A lot of things have changed since the 1990s, not just in terms of the political landscape, but in terms of the media. In 1990, when the BBC series first aired, the internet was just in its infancy. Certainly it was not a prevalent source of information or communication at the time. Now it’s the primary source in many ways. So the way in which we dealt with journalism and the media was completely transformed in order to address the here and now.”
Willimon says he felt liberated writing in the episodic television format. “When you’re writing a play or a movie, typically you only have two hours to deal with, so there’s only so much story you can tell. You can tell a hell of a lot of story, but it doesn’t compare to twenty-six hours. You can investigate characters with a depth and scope in television in a way you never could accomplish in either of those other two formats. That liberates you in terms of being able to think on a much bigger scale.”
Fincher, who received Oscar bids for helming “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) and “The Social Network” (2010), directed the first two episodes of the series. “David Fincher brings a cinematic style and look to it that’s incredibly sophisticated, much more so than you’d expect to see on a television screen,” says Willimon. “He’s someone who’s always looking to push himself and push those around him, and put himself in an uncomfortable place, because that’s really the only way to evolve. Watching him direct those two episodes, what you saw was someone who thrived in response to the challenge and found a way to bring the same level or production quality, vision, and cinematic style to television.”
Spacey became involved with the project early on, and the writer praises the actor’s ability to portray this seemingly unlikable character. “He’s able to tap into the darkness in a way that’s delicious as opposed to alienating. There’s something attractive about those characters because they allow us to tap into the darker parts of ourselves. To the degree to which people want to condemn his actions, that’s a determination of their own moral compass. I think people will find in him aspects of themselves that are both satisfying and terrifying at the same time. But you can’t do any of that if you don’t put it in the hands and the voice of a great actor.”
In addition to Fincher and Spacey, the show was able to attract the talents of film directors Joel Schumacher, James Foley and Carl Franklin. Willimon attributes this not just to the show, but to the growing quality television itself. “What you’ve seen in television over the past twenty years is bold, risky storytelling. Cable networks are taking chances on stories that never would’ve made it on broadcast television or in movies, and a large amount of resources are being put behind that. I think great artists are going to gravitate towards those opportunities.”
Willimon credits Netflix with allowing them the freedom to explore those stories. “Netflix made a huge commitment to us of two seasons up front before we’d even shot a pilot. Also, they gave us a huge degree of creative control. We weren’t subjected to the kind of network notes you’d get on other shows. That placed a huge amount of responsibility on our shoulders because we had no one to blame but ourselves. It’s a model that hopefully will become the norm. When other artists out there have a home to go to, where they know they can make what they want to make, it will increasingly draw the best talent in the industry.”
As well, Willimon sees the partnership with Netflix leading to a new trend in television. “Any distinction between television and the internet will fall away in five years or so. People are finding the content they want to watch, and they’re watching it the way they want to watch it. Netflix is one of the pioneers in establishing that trend, and they want to take it one step further: we’ll create content for you, but we’ll acknowledge this new trend in viewing, putting the power in the viewer’s hand to decide what their experience will be.”