When Netflix unveils all 13 episodes of the first season of “House of Cards” on Friday, February 1st, it will potentially join the ranks of cable networks like HBO, AMC and FX without being a TV network at all. The streaming site/DVD-by-mail company premiered its first original series, the international co-production “Lilyhammer,” last year, but “House of Cards” is its major entry into the realm of highbrow original programming. The series is a political drama written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter and playwright Beau Willimon (“The Ides of March”) and executive produced by David Fincher, who also directed the first two episodes in his first foray into television.
Kevin Spacey stars in the drama as Representative Frank Underwood, a silkily ambitious and amoral politician who, after being passed over for Secretary of State, sets in motion a plan to take down the new president he helped get elected. Robin Wright, Kate Mara and Corey Stoll are among the other cast members, who present a beautifully lensed portrait of Washington, D.C. as a snakepit as full of intrigue as any royal court. Indiewire spoke with Willimon, who served as the showrunner for “House of Cards,” about the series, what we want out of politicians and working with Fincher.
“House of Cards” is based on a 1990 BBC series — how much or how little does it take from the source material?
I don’t think any of us see it as a remake — it’s not like we’re translating the BBC version and just Americanizing it. It really is a complete reinvention. There definitely are some clear things that anyone who watched the BBC series will see that we stole without remorse, and certain archetypal features — a few of the characters and a couple big plot themes — but it really is a reinvention from the ground up.
There were particular things, like [Underwood’s] direct address to the camera, that we wanted to keep. The BBC series was a total of 12 hours over three parts, so knowing that we had 26 episodes guaranteed, we had to contend with the fact that we were going to have to introduce a lot of new characters, to have storylines that are far more long term and layered than the BBC ones. Pretty quickly a lot of the comparisons fall away. In many ways it’s a different tone and style, and that’s partly just my writing and David Fincher’s filmmaking.
Despite the show being set in contemporary D.C., there’s an almost Shakespearean tone, in part because of the direct address — there are shades of “Richard III,” “Othello,” particularly with Kevin Spacey’s character. Was that something you sought?
There’s definitely a kind of heightened level of storytelling that verges on Shakespearean — your words, not mine, though I’ll take that as a complement, that guy’s pretty good.
Yeah, he’s all right.
Tales of power and ambition and intrigue and betrayal and desire — when you’re telling those in a big way, you automatically want to go to Shakespeare. His dramas and his history plays, they’re the best that Western civilization has to offer, right? Kevin had done “Richard III” on a world tour on stage for nine months prior to filming, so we were having lots of discussions of that play in particular, but you’re also looking at “Macbeth” and “Othello” and a million other things as well — I drew from my own experience in the political world. We wanted to create a world that felt authentic, where the behavior felt real, but at the same time to tell an ambitious story of size, and if we were able to get gritty naturalism and merge that with Shakespearean storytelling, that’s right where we want to be.
Can you tell me about your use of the direct address? With a character like Spacey’s, who presents a different false front to everyone he interacts with, it does seem to allow you to see as close to his true self as there is.
It gives you access, right? Which, put in the hands of the wrong actor, would be disastrous, because it would bring everything to a halt and feel like a narrative hiccup. But when you put it in the hands of a great actor like Kevin, it gives you access to this great mind at work, and makes you a co-conspirator in all of these schemes. In a way it makes the audience complicit — you’re his accomplice. You may, on paper, abhor some of the things he does, but you find yourself rooting for him because he gives you that access. That tension in the audience — I’m rooting for him despite myself — that’s exactly what we’re after.
You’ll see the direct address throughout all of season one, in some episodes more than others. It depends on where we’re at at any given point in the story.
A lot of recent political shows have played coy with party affiliation, but it’s made clear that we’re looking at Democrats here. Can you tell me about the choice to identify the characters as such and how much it matters to the story?
It both totally matters and totally doesn’t. Spacey’s character, Francis Underwood, is completely non-ideological. He is a pragmatist. He knows how to live in the middle and how to work both sides. True master politicians and survivors of Washington don’t tend to be ideological extremists. They tend to be able to have one belief system one day and another belief system the other day. A lot of times people get in trouble for that — flip floppers or whatever — but actually it’s smart political strategy because it allows you to forge new alliances and make enemies when you have to, and those are constantly shifting.
So while he may be a Democrat, he’s just as capable of embodying more conservative ideals in a given moment if it’s politically beneficial to him. What we do know is that he is unabashedly self-interested. He wants power for power’s sake, and he’s doing this for himself and he doesn’t shy away from that. And I think that’s sort of refreshing.
In terms of how it does matter: Hollywood has a reputation for tending to be on the more liberal side of things. I don’t have any exact demographic information to back it up, but that’s the conventional wisdom. I thought that if we had a diabolical, self-interested character and we made him a Republican, it might seem that we have an agenda that we don’t, like we’re trying to target Republicans. Really, we’re trying to target everyone, and by making him a Democrat, I think not only does that make him more complex because we see him doing things that Democrats might not typically do, but it also says it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. If power is your aim, you’re capable of this sort of behavior regardless of party affiliation.
“House of Cards” is a pretty dark portrait of the political world — you’ve got this character who’s the perfect political animal, in part because he doesn’t seem to have any personal beliefs. Idealism is shown to be a weakness. Does that reflect how you see politics, or is it just the lens through which the story is being told?
This is the way I think about politics: We want two diametrically opposed things from a politician. On one hand we want them to be bastions of moral integrity, perfect people, saints. And on the other hand we want them to be effective leaders. But being an effective leader often requires you to do things that are morally or ethically abhorrent to a lot of people. And that’s why they’re leaders — because they’re willing to do them for us while we’re not.
What Francis Underwood is saying is “I’m willing to do it, and you may benefit from it, but I’m doing it for myself.” We’re showing an extreme version of that, but it’s a part of anyone who pursues higher office. You can’t be an effective leader and do these ethically questionable things and also be a bastion of moral integrity. The fault isn’t with our politicians as much as it is with us, the electorate, who expect our politicians to be both these things. Anyone you think is a bastion of moral integrity, if they’ve made it to higher office, probably isn’t in the way that you think they are.
Barack Obama, who I strongly supported and I think is a great president, offers the veneer of the idealist, but you have to chop off heads to become the President of the United States. JFK, who people think is one of the more inspirational figures of the 20th century, his dad bought him the election. Does that make them any less important or inspirational? Not necessarily. Effective leadership, which is what Francis Underwood is good at, is pragmatic by nature. It’s saying the ends justify the means: I will give progress, forward movement, and whatever you may think of me morally, I actually get things done.
There are a lot of people in the country right now who look at our deadlocked Congress and maybe secretly wish there were more Francis Underwoods out there, because then bills would actually get passed and something would happen. So we present that without an agenda, and say let’s be honest about that.
Shifting gears to the structure of the series, how did the plan to release the entire first season at once guide the way the episodes were written?
I actually finished writing season one before we knew how we were going to deliver it. From the very beginning, there was always the possibility that we would deliver all 13 at once, but we also talked about going week to week in a traditional way, or going in chunks of four episodes, then five episodes, then four episodes. Ultimately we landed at 13 because that put the power in the audience’s hand — they get to choose their viewing experience. That’s something that Netflix can offer that no one else is willing to at this stage in the game.
So it wasn’t so much the delivering of all 13 episodes at once that affected the writing as it was the two season guarantee. Knowing we had two seasons, I could think about the story over 26 hours. I could think of something in episode two that might not come back until episode 24, about specific layers of storytelling as opposed to creating artificial cliffhangers just to jack the ratings and survive. We didn’t have that pressure of constantly trying to stay alive, and that liberated the storytelling and the writing a lot.
We always conceived of this, long before Netflix, as a 13-hour movie of sorts. We didn’t want to create a quote-unquote television show, we wanted to create a great grand story on an epic scope. While we might organize it and structure it in episodes or chapters in a way that resembled the TV model, that wasn’t going to be the stylistic approach that we took in the writing and the filming of it.
What was the collaborative process like with David Fincher? TV is new territory for both of you.
It was a deeply collaborative process from the very beginning. As I wrote the pilot, we would often talk about the story as I worked on subsequent drafts. David’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever worked with, he’s got that rare mixture of craft, passion, vision and technical expertise that’s the perfect storm of great filmmaking. That’s why I wanted to work with him to begin with — he’s one of the best filmmakers alive.
As we got closer to filming, he had a very strong vision about the visual style. But it’s not just visual — it’s also performance, the way he works with actors and gets performances out of them that somehow always feel… Fincherian, as it were. He lent that voice and impulse to the world I created on the page, so it was co-creation of sorts. I was there every day during production from first rehearsal to final shot on the ground as the showrunner, and we had different directors coming and going, of course, but David was very involved every step of the way, even if he was in another hemisphere, always reading every script.
He was a big part of the post process — he oversaw all the editing for every episode, and the conversation simply continued and never stopped. We’re both obsessive, hard-working perfectionists, so we care about every detail from the macro to the micro. We both lend different strengths to the process, and it’s been a joy.