Well, we’re just about a day away from the Oscars, and making his first appearance on the red carpet will be screenwriter Beau Willimon, nominated along with George Clooney and Grant Heslov for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Ides Of March.” Based on his own play “Farragut North,” Willimon drew on his own experiences working on political campaigns in his 20s to tell the the sharply observed tale of an idealistic organizer for a progressive candidate who is forced to navigate the shifting tides of his own morals and values as the race for power becomes dirty. Of course, Oscar campaigning is also a viciously fought affair, and when we chatted with Willimon at the end of week, we asked him what he saw as the parallels and differences between an awards and a political race.
“Well you know I’ve always worked for the candidate, I’ve never been one myself so that’s definitely different. The whole Oscar campaign thing is just a little bit of a mystery to me…I think typically the studios and producers are the ones that are really trying to solicit those votes from the six thousand odd people in the Academy and I guess another thing that’s a little bit different about political campaigns and an Oscar campaign is that you know who the electorate is, who the registered voters are [but] there’s a whole cloud of mystery as to who exactly the Academy voters actually are…You know it would be interesting if there were debates. Wouldn’t it?,” he joked.
“I can definitely attest to the similarities between the two towns [Washington and Los Angeles] or the two ways of life,” he continued. “Meaning in politics it’s very theatrical. There’s a lot of stage craft. The campaign is trying to tell a story that they want people to believe in, and candidates are playing the role, like actors, by a creative personae that people will be attracted to. And you’re trying to win votes the same way that a movie or a TV show wants to win over audiences. So I think there’s a lot of similarity on that front. And then you know, on the flip side, in Hollywood it’s an incredibly competitive place. There’s a lot of money at stake, a lot of egos bouncing around against one another and it can be very political at times just to get something on screen. So I think there’s quite a bit of similarity between the two places.”
But of course, Willimon wouldn’t be a candidate at all if “Ides Of March” had stayed a play and never made it to the big screen. It’s an unlikely story, one in which the the right alignment of faith, skill and plain dumb luck found his play winding up in the hands of two of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
“I first wrote the play eight years ago. I was 26, I had just come off the heels of the [Howard] Dean campaign, I’d never had a play produced, much less a movie, and I sent out the play to about forty theaters nationwide and none of them wanted to do it. So I shelved the play and a couple of years after that, my current agent read my work and said, ‘I want to send out Farragut North,’ I said ‘Good luck, I’ve tried it already but maybe you’ll have better luck then I did.’ And he did,” Willimon explained. “So we got immediate interest from the theater world, and we just sent out the play to L.A. mostly as a writing sample in the hopes that I might get a meeting, or might be able to get a staffing job on a TV show or something like that. And it made its way to Warner Brothers and I had one of those fairy tale, Hollywood phone calls where my agent called me and said, ‘A major studio wants to turn your play into a movie and by the way George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio want to produce. How does that sound?’ I was driving a car at the time [and] the car almost went into a ditch and I believe I said something along the lines of ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes.’ About sixty times. And we began that process and that was almost six years ago.”
Noting that Clooney wasn’t just looking to cherry pick elements of the play, but wanted to tell the whole story, Willimon kicked of the adaptation by writing the first few drafts, before Heslov and Clooney picked it up from there and brought it over the finish line. From there all three discussed the changes, and were on board with the final script. Among the biggest changes between “Farragut North” and “Ides Of March,” was that in the play the audience doesn’t see the candidate at all, whereas in the film he becomes a prominent character. It was a change they agreed early on would raise the stakes of the story. And overall, the entire experience provided an opportunity for Willimon to learn a great deal.
“You just have to re-wire your brain when you’re shifting from the stage to the screen, or the silver screen or the HD flat screen. I certainly learned a lot from the process in terms of how to think in a filmic way. Film is much more visual, a scene is typically a lot shorter, you’re dealing with a lot more characters, a lot more locations and you’re able to rely on things that you just can never do on the stage,” Willimon elaborated. “Like the close up or creating texture [such as] the texture of a campaign rally by actually shooting it as opposed to short of sharing it off stage or having people talk about it. And so it lends a lot more opportunities to you and then really what it becomes about is making choices because you have so many opportunities available and you can’t choose them all. So it’s really thinking about a more economic way to work with more if that makes sense.”
And as the Oscars roll around tomorrow, Willimon is enjoying entire journey thus far, one that saw his film premiere at the Venice Film Festival and earn strong reviews, thereby making his debut in Hollywood something to remember. And while he’ll be in attendance along with Clooney and Heslov to represent “Ides Of March” tomorrow night, he belives the film’s writer/director/producer/star deserves a bit more credit for what he was able to pull off.
“I have to be most grateful to George and he did get nominated, we all got nominated for adapted screenplay but I think the guy should be nominated for director, for best film in terms of producer and as an actor,” Willimon told us. “Because if you think about it the guy had to wear four hats in order to make this movie. Money didn’t grow on trees, he went out and he raised it and then he got Sony to distribute and market it and they put a great campaign together. Meanwhile he’s working on the story with Grant and me, meanwhile he’s behind the camera directing it and then he got out to flip around and be in front of the camera and act in it. And to wear that many hats and wear them so well is a rare talent.”
If you missed it, “Ides Of March” is on DVD and BluRay now. Willimon is currently working on “House Of Cards,” the upcoming Netflix series produced by David Fincher and Kevin Spacey. We’ll have more from Willimon about that project next week.