You don’t just wind up running a big web series like “House of Cards” out of nowhere. Writer Beau Willimon is the guy who, day in and day out, steers and makes sense of the show that is swiftly heading toward production on Season Two. Director David Fincher pulled him in after seeing what he did with George Clooney’s “Ides of March,” for which Willimon earned an Oscar nomination for adapting his own nasty political play “Farragut North.” Willimon knew what he was writing about. He had worked on several campaigns, brought in by his chum Jay Carson, who rose through the K-Street ranks–and now consults for “House of Cards.”
Willimon moved to writing after studying theater, acting, painting, printmaking, the visual arts and American History at Columbia University. After he graduated, he convinced Columbia professor Eduardo Machado to let him audit his playwriting course, which led to submitting a play for admission to his grad program. Willimon worked odd jobs–gallery and painter’s assistant, barrista, set builder, finding jobs for the homeless– as he moved up through the playwriting world, eventually scoring with “North.” But it was a long hard slog.
“House of Cards” is a pioneering project in many ways. For starters, online distributor Netflix, confident in their creative partners and the audience for a Fincher-led Americanized remake of the British series starring Kevin Spacey, financed 13 episodes (to the tune of $4 to $5 million an episode, or about $60 million) and once launched on February 1, made the entire first season available to subscribers via instant streaming. And Netflix allowed Fincher and his team unusual freedom by greenlighting two seasons from the get-go. They’re halfway through writing Season Two.
In the works far down the pike is HBO mini-series “Jack Johnson,” a project Willimon is developing (when he has time) for Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman at Playtone. For the first time, Willimon is adapting a fictional mini-series from one of Ken Burns’ documentaries, “Unforgivable Blackness.”
Anne Thompson: Is ‘House of Cards’ eligible for Emmys?
Beau Willimon: It’s eligible for everything.
AT: I watched it on my TiVo and iPad. But I can only handle about two episodes at a time. A lot of people, with all the marketing, were watching the whole thing at one go.
BW: Even your phone. All of it’s becoming integrated, TVs, smart TVs. That’s the beauty of doing 13 at once. Some people presume that we intended for it to be binge-watched because we released in that way. That was an option. The intention was to give people a choice… We had someone, the first person who finished it, did it in 13 hours and 6 minutes. I’ve been thrilled by how many people watched it so quickly. I don’t think I’ve ever watched an entire season in two days. No matter how much I love something I can usually only get through two or three before I pass out.
AT: You worked on some political campaigns, and you wrote ‘Farragut North’ and ‘Ides of March.’ What training did you have?
BW: Politics was never a career for me. I didn’t think that I would be a writer at all. I thought I would be a painter. I am much more facile at drawing than writing. There’s a big gap between the innate born-with talent and the discipline it takes…It wasn’t until my senior year that I dabbled in writing in a serious way. More as a lark than anything else I decided to write a play. There was a flyer on the wall of the student center, a prize for the best undergraduate screenplay or play. I love a competition. I tore down the flyer, probably the only one they posted, and I won the competition. But it was a terrible play. The worst play you can possibly imagine. It’s the only play of mine I have completely destroyed all records of. It doesn’t exist anymore.
Winning the prize gave me just enough encouragement to think, ‘maybe this is something I can take more seriously,’ and what I got out of the process was thinking about story and real time and three dimensions and flesh and blood, all the things I loved about the theater that you can’t get out of painting which is purely solitary, ultimately static. I was trying to cram all this story into my paintings and feeling claustrophobic, so being able to imagine a story moving, to me, was liberating.
AT: Are you a presidential wonk? Does Kevin Spacey’s wheeler-dealer come from reading Robert Caro on LBJ?
I’m a history wonk. I love Caro’s work. It’s amazing that he’s writing
LBJ’s life slower than LBJ lived it. Incredible mind. And I think he
sees LBJ as a portal into talking about America and it’s extraordinary
whenever you can use a real life person or a character in order to
extrapolate the universe. That is a titanic masterpiece.
AT: Given the world you’ve been exposed to, is this darker and more exaggerated than the real world of politics?
It’s hard to put it on that linear spectrum. There are at times
exaggerations but the truth of it is there, and I know this first hand
and I know this from friends who work in the political world. Do I think
everyone in politics is corrupt and immoral? Far from it. I think most
people are not. I think most people get into politics for all the right
reasons because they want to serve their country and make a difference
but over time a lot of them become more concerned with winning.
does influence one’s ethical code, or erode it at times. You become
disillusioned and jaded by political gridlock or people who are willing
to cheat and you realize the only way to accomplish what you want to
accomplish is to cheat, too. It’s grey. We are looking at one extreme
end of the spectrum, not only the more entertaining end but I also think
the more important end. Let’s see the extreme version of how power
corrupts and not because we’re trying to tell a morality tale here but
because power is something we all experience, we all must contend with,
on varying levels in every aspect of our lives.
As I tell
everyone, this is not a show about politics. It’s a show about power.
You saw power with the two baristas when Claire fires Evelyn and goes to
get coffee. There are power dynamics happening behind that counter.
Much smaller stakes in relative comparison but not to those two people.
The assistant manager wants the manager’s job at Walgreens. In his or
her life, those power dynamics are just as important as anything in
Washington. You see it between siblings and families, between husband
and wife, when someone butts in front of you in the taxi line.
advantage of writing about DC is you get to see people who are masters
of the game, who think in terms of power as opposed to stumbling through
those power dynamics the way most of us do in our lives. If power is
your currency and being an expert in it is your way of making a living,
Washington’s the place to be.
AT: Can you characterize where Season Two is going to go? Tenor, tone direction?
BW: It’ll be better.
AT: Netflix now has all their data for Season One. You guys wrote your 13 episodes and now you have all the metrics.
BW: I don’t look at any of that.
AT: Not looking at the data of Netflix? Do you have a sense of how many
people watched ‘House of Cards’ and how many are still watching? Do you have a
sense of a long tail? Any sense of the demographic data?
know the big broad strokes of what’s going on in terms of viewership,
but I don’t
want to know the specifics in a mathematical way. There’s only six weeks
of data right? So the data continues to pour in. I’m sure Netflix knows
down to a tee but I don’t want to know. You
really can start to run the risk of pandering at that point. We didn’t
know any of that for Season One and that worked for us.
There’s only two things I care about. One
is whether I have done the best work I feel I could have done and that
my collaborators could have done on Season One so we feel in a place where
we can put our name on it. The second part: is Netflix happy? If
they’re happy that’s all we need to know.
AT: You’re reading stuff online about people’s responses.
interested in that. I’m interested that the technology allows for
direct dialogue, I do a weekly q & a on Twitter, I definitely read
comments and go to forums. I don’t read reviews. I do read analysis and
people who come from a world and know what they’re talking about. I’ve
been interested in what David Carr’s been doing in the NYT, and articles
AT: What did you do after college?
BW: After I graduated there was a weird year where I worked for the Ministry of the Interior for the Estonian government in Talin, moved to the Lower East Side and lived in a fifth floor walk up where I didn’t even have a bathroom in my apartment. I had a job where I was trying to find jobs for homeless people, cold-calling businesses: ‘will you hire this single mother of four who just got her GED?’
For months I was living in Hanoi, and then I was in Brooklyn and started grad school, by that point interning for 50-year-old New Dramatists, one of the only organizations devoted wholly to playwrights, from unknowns to heavyweights, which changed my life. They organize dramaturgical readings, have an amazing library of plays that all the members have written. It’s a safe place for playwrights to experiment and explore, a support system. And I had seen great playwrights like David Lindsay-Abaire, who I am now in a writing group with.
AT: Do you believe in writing groups?
BW: You have to find people who will be brutally honest with you but do it in a way that’s respectful, with no competition. If criticism is coming out of pettiness then it’s worthless. Everyone enjoys a pat on the back.
AT: How do you train to be a showrunner?
BW: I’ve been writing for almost 15 years, seriously writing, not writing well. Those three years of grad school I wrote terribly. I was by far the worst student. I had no idea what my voice was. I was deeply impressionable so I was just copying all the playwrights that I loved. I knew no one in the business. I felt like all of my peers who had been wanting to write plays since they were six years old knew everybody, and every play that had ever written. I knew a lot about the visual arts world but I didn’t know about the theater world. At the time I wouldn’t have presumed to think I would write a film or TV show.
AT: In the theater it’s not just about words, it’s about space, it’s about time…
BW: A lot of the early stuff I did in grad school was too visual. I was thinking about it in a purely aesthetic way without being honest in terms of what I needed to explore and really being rigorous about human behavior. Those three years, the best thing about them is that they were a safe place to fail, which I did time and time again. You can’t train anyone how to write. You can’t teach them. You can learn tricks, you can learn certain things about craft. You can get guidance from a mentor who will help you to see for yourself where you’ve gone astray in a scene or in a play, and who can help guide you as to what to see and who to read. But it’s trial and error.
AT: It’s the 10,000 hours. When you had that experience in Washington you were able to take that experience and funnel it into this one play that was your breakout?
BW: When I graduated from grad school I had odd jobs. I was in South Africa for a year on a visual arts fellowship. I was kinda all over the place, writing plays and sending them out to agents and theaters and getting zero response. I felt like I was in the wilderness screaming at the top of my lungs and no one could hear me. Which is where you start.
The summer before my senior year my buddy Jay Carson drew me into Chuck Schumer’s first campaign for the Senate in 1998 and Jay has gone on to be a political wunderboy. He is the guy I based “Farragut North” on and “Ides of March” and he’s now a political consultant for our show. One of the writers I hired he fell in love with: they have a kid now.
One summer I was taking these accelerated ancient Greek and German courses, I’m trying to learn basic ancient Greek in six weeks and I’m just failing miserably. He goes, ‘hey, I’m working on this campaign and do you want to come join me as an intern?’ I dropped the classes, went to work on the campaign and it was amazing. Chuck started out as a nobody… and in the course of a few months he went on to not only win the primary resoundingly but then defeat heavyweight incumbent Alfonse D’Amato. And all the people on that campaign have gone on to do great things in Democratic circles.
You become addicted, looking for the next fix, but I wasn’t actively seeking it. Jay went on to work on Bill Bradley’s campaign and he pulled me on for that, and Hillary’s campaign in 2000… I was his confidante. In politics you always need those people you can fully trust if only to have a sounding board.
AT: Was ‘Farragut North’ based on him?
BW: It was based on him, not that he did those things. The very first copy I ever printed out went first to Jay Carson. He read it and he still has it. I wanted him to approve.
AT: Did you learn screenwriting from working with Clooney and Heslov on ‘The Ides of March?’
BW: I had dabbled before that. I’ve never taken a screenwriting class. Screenwriting takes a rewiring in the brain structurally and in terms of the way you see things visually.
AT: It’s limiting?
BW: I see it as the opposite. Every medium whether it’s screenwriting or plays or short stories, they all have their advantages and disadvantages. On the stage you can have a 14-minute scene and it really can be about language and on the screen you rarely have that available to you, but you have a much broader canvas. You have the close-up. You can really get in on someone’s hands. Sometimes what someone is doing with their hands is all you need in that scene. I didn’t feel like screenwriting was something I needed to be trained for. If I could write a play, I could write a movie.
AT: How did you get to adapt your own play?
BW: It was my play. I said, ‘I won’t let it happen unless I could do it.’ They encouraged it. After the Dean campaign I came back to NY, I had never written about politics and I felt like I knew the world well. I wanted to write about it. I thought for a few months about the story I wanted to tell and then I realized it should be about the young press secretary. It came very quickly, I wrote it in a couple of months. I sent it out to theaters, all of them said, ‘no,’ so I put it away and just kept working on plays. Then I got a gig from my buddy who had a great meeting with AMC, they were just getting started in TV. We were both desperate for paid gigs. They said we are looking to do three things: period, espionage, or smart horror. To this day I still have no fucking idea what smart horror is.
We go into AMC and we show up in suits, I’ve come from my temp job. It’s laughable now. We had rehearsed this pitch down to every word. They bought it in the room. I had written one treatment for a class in grad school about a civil war
plantation during the war from the perspective of the slaves. We went on to write “Hickory Hill.” We pulled no punches. We had whippings, we had rape. They were developing “Mad Men” at the time. When push came to shove, even though they said they liked the script, they didn’t make it. But out of that I got my agent, who I still have, now at CAA. And I was a member of the Writers Guild.
AT: You could probably go back to that now because the landscape has shifted post-‘Django Unchained.’
BW: It would be an amazing story. The agent sent out ‘Farragut North.’ We were a little closer to the ’08 elections so that was in the air. It was being fast-tracked for Broadway. We sent it to LA, quickly it found itself in the hands of Smokehouse and Warner Bros. My girlfriend and I were driving out to Montauk. We had saved up and we were gonna do a bed and breakfast for a weekend, that was our vacation. We got a call saying ‘Warners wants to option the play,’ and they want Clooney and Di Caprio to produce. So after almost driving the car into a ditch I said, ‘amazing, let’s do it.’ And that ended up being a two-picture deal. We ended up doing it with Cross Creek Financing and Sony distributed.
AT: Where’s the second film?
BW: That was an adaptation of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ which will never get made. It’s a project that WB has been after for years. With a little bit of hubris I said to myself, ‘I want to be the one where it actually gets made.’ And I learned that lesson, which is never be the 8th writer on something. I got paid and I learned a lot. You can never go wrong learning from Dickens. I got to spend a few years with Charles, and it was a massive challenge. I’m proud of the script. Di Caprio was interested in doing it.
AT: How did ‘House of Cards’ come your way?
BW: I got a call saying David Fincher wanted to talk about ‘House of Cards.’ I had heard of the BBC version, this was long before Netflix. This was Media Rights Capital, who had teamed up with him as a producer. They own the property and they said, ‘would you be interested in directing this?’ And he said ‘yes.’ The next step was to team up with a writer, so he reached out with Josh Donen and Eric Roth. I watched it, loved it. I wasn’t particularly keen at the time to do another political story or television but I had all these ideas for how to Americanize it and make it contemporary and make it our own. I was not interested in a translation or adaptation. I wanted to cherry pick, use it as a springboard for something that is new.
Fincher and I shared the same instincts and decided it would be a good idea to team up, so for the next year I worked on the first episode. I would write a draft and send it to them and we would hop on the phone and talk about it, and we started to conceive of the big things in Season One, and where we wanted to end up.
AT: Fincher said that Corey Stoll’s Congressman was not that big a story arc. How did you come to enhance that?
BW: After about a year, we were talking about who we wanted to play Francis and Claire, and we arrived at Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. They were on board. Then we went to find a home, and we wanted at least a season guaranteed which is, even for the people involved, a lot to ask, but we were not interested in auditioning. We weren’t going to go through the process of making a first episode just to see if we got the chance. We all, particularly David, put so much into that, we wanted to know it was going somewhere. We were blunt about that. The networks we talked to were all interested in the show but we were making big asks.
I learned at the time that Netflix was interested in original programming. David had to get back to Sweden, Josh and I went to meet with Netflix (Ted Sarandos and Cindy Holland). We sat down and they said straight away, ‘we want to do this show, we want this to be our first foray into original programming, we believe in this team, we want you to make the show you want to make.’ They said it would be at least one season, probably two. This had gotten very interesting very quickly. They also said, ‘you guys will have creative freedom, you will not get reams of notes from us.’
AT: You didn’t seem to have any budget controls either.
BW: We very much had a budget and we came in under budget.
AT: That CAA agent was quoted as saying the least expensive episode was $3.8 million.
BW: We had a very clear budget, what we could spend on each episode, that was all determined in advance. There was a period where we were figuring out what that should be. Even before the pilot we know what we were going to spend on Season One and we knew what we had per episode, so we were honest about what we thought we would need. All of us had to figure it out.
AT: In terms of a movie budget it’s not a huge budget, but it’s still high.
BW: We very much had a budget, we knew the numbers, we stuck to it. We came in under budget on Season One. Netflix provided ample resources for us to make a show of the quality we wanted to put our names on, incredibly supportive about that. We were realistic about the cost but also incredibly frugal. If you look at the quality of the filmmaking compared to most television, largely the aesthetic David created, you are seeing some of the best cinematography that you have ever seen on the small screen.
I’m talking in terms of production quality. We also had an amazing cast and their performances are ultimately what people are clicking into. Without performances, it’s all for naught. That’s a given. They are the show. But in terms of the level of filmmaking, that we are able to achieve something in the filmic camp with a TV budget showed frugality and resourcefulness.
Netflix, in offering two seasons of creative freedom, at that point there was no more deliberation about it. It felt like Orson Welles’ RKO deal. That just doesn’t happen. We’re all rebels to a degree: being with a company that was on the cusp of something, trying something new, that had as little experience in TV as we all did. We didn’t set out to do the first original programming on Netflix. We were in the right place at the right time and they had the guts to jump in the game. So we held hands and jumped off the cliff together.
AT: Is the Season Two budget equivalent?
BW: Our budget was worked out for both seasons from the beginning.
AT: As the showrunner that’s an enormous responsibility. Like a playwright, you have more creative control than you do on a film. How did it work?
BW: It’s very collaborative at the top. So, really, it’s David and me and Eric and Josh and we also brought in a new creative EP David Manson. It starts often with casual conversations, spitballing, playing around, but then I’ll go off and work on what the actual story will be. So Season One I worked out, ‘here’s what I think the whole season should be, episode by episode.’
I would talk about it with David and Eric and Josh and we’d chat and I’d say, ‘I want to do this,’ and David might say, ‘well did you think about that?’
I’ll go back and work on it some more and eventually we get to the script phase and on Season One we had seven months where I had all thirteen episodes written before we shot a single frame. It’s totally unusual. That was largely a result of the fact that Kevin was doing “Richard III”on a world tour for nine months so we couldn’t shoot anyway. So I thought, ‘why not have the whole season written before production? The more time we spend with it the better it will be.’
In terms of the story, certainly they have a lot of input and I take it seriously. I have pretty much free rein to write the story I want to write, and then we delegate different duties. I don’t know anything about editing or post and David is brilliant at that, so I am perfectly happy to have nothing to do with who the editors are or being in the editing bay. Those bays were based out of his offices here in LA, so I’m on the ground every day from first rehearsal to final shot in Baltimore, and I’m there working one on one with the directors, rewriting episodes, talking to the actors, going to props meetings, talking about locations.
And meanwhile David’s here working with the editors. We shoot ten days an episode, so it’s 20 shooting days for every two episodes. I would get an assembly, maybe version three, and I would give my thoughts to David, ‘take it or leave it.’ Simultaneously he’s also reading the scripts for the upcoming episodes and saying ‘I think you should do this or that.’ There’s so much dialogue going back and forth. He was involved in every episode, every step of the day. In terms of choosing the cinematographer, he had a much deeper knowledge of directors. I had input in some things but was perfectly happy to have zero input in others. David’s mind is built for that. I’m going to focus on the writing. Cinematography is in good hands.
(EPISODE 11 SPOILER DOWN BELOW!)
AT: What is Dana Brunetti’s role?
BW: Dana runs Trigger Street with Kevin, and Kevin came on as EP, and Kevin of course is often part of this input. To whatever extent at any given time he wants to be involved, he is, but a lot of times he’s also focusing on Francis Underwood and making sure he knows what’s happening in the script and preparing for scenes.
AT: It would have been really difficult for most actors to deliver that role. He had the chops.
BW: I don’t think we would have done the show without Kevin. We would have said, ‘not worth it.’ I don’t think there’s anyone else we would have gone to and felt confident enough to putting this amount of work on their shoulders. The entire series hangs on this person.
AT: You must have figured out rules you needed to apply for the talking to the screen. Sometimes you feel it coming, like when he’s walking down the hall.
BW: If you really analyze that it’s less than half the time. At first we had no idea when the appropriate time to do it was. It was trial and error. What we came to learn over the course of Season One was that when it gets too emotional, when it’s too much real time thought, it’s not the strongest.
AT: You must have cut some of it out.
BW: There were plenty we took out. Using “Richard III” as a template, you have a lot of different types of asides. Early on it tends to be at 30,000 feet, much more meta and insightful, and I’m informing you and laying out for you my thinking and I’m looking forward. Towards the end of the play it’s very much working inward, thought happening in real time, and you see him getting more and more off-balance. But in ‘House of Cards’ when we go too inward, too much in the moment in a direct address, either presenting a worldview or a political insight… There are three ways it works best.
One, there’s the Wizard of Oz, the nuts and bolts: it’s a worldview, for instance, ‘I have no patience for useless things.’ He’s saying, ‘this is how I think about the world.’ One is political insight which explains the nature of why Remy Danton is important, or it can be an aphorism: ‘never slap a man while he’s chewing tobacco.’
But we can provide some political insight that is not obvious, in which you are seeing interesting political thought. And sometimes it’s just entertainment, if we can get a laugh out of it, if we have an opportunity to add some lightness to a scene that might be really heavy. So if possible, we try and kill three birds with one stone. You get a laugh or a smile but he’s also talking about his worldview and a political way of thinking about the folks you’re manipulating. When he turns in on himself and we see him doubt or we see him afraid or working something out in real time, it sort of diminishes Francis, and those things are much better to show than to tell. That’s not to say he should never have fear or doubt or be conflicted.
Onstage it works for Shakespeare, before we got to psychological drama. In terms of the way it works, David clearly pulled all the pieces together at the beginning and he is involved every step of the way. I WAS just at his office yesterday and we were talking about Season Two.
AT: Want to give us a little sense?
BW: Absolutely not. We start shooting in the next couple months and in terms of the writing process we’ve finished about half the season. By breaking half the season, fully broken the beats for about half the episodes, I know what’s happening over the course of the entire season, the broad strokes for the second half, but we haven’t gotten to it yet.
AT: You are way longer than the British series, and you have left that now. Didn’t the politician kill the journalist?
BW: At the end of hour four he pushes her off the roof of Parliament.
AT: So Zoe might be in danger?
BW: Everyone’s in danger in our show, everyone’s fair game. In any case…
AT: (SPOILER ALERT) You killed Russo. That was kind of amazing.
BW: I knew from the very beginning I wanted to do that. Regardless of how his role increased, that was always gonna happen.
AT: So the first thirteen episodes written before you started production had X amount of time for him and in the final version he had more time.
BW: It’s very clear. Another character was running for governor, who you never saw, who we introduced around episode 4 or 5. Russo had some involvement with Francis and he became more unhinged and a liability which warranted his death. But he was not nearly onscreen as much and the story was a lot weaker. When we saw Corey doing what he was doing, any time, when I was looking at the dailies in Video Village, when we had Corey Stoll and Kevin Spacey together it felt electric. I always felt uneasy about Russo’s story, there was potential there and we weren’t using the opportunity. We thought we had to do more with this guy.
I had the thought to myself one day, ‘well what if he runs for governor?’ It would require massive rewriting but the thrust of the story will remain the same. We save a lot of real estate that we could put in a better drama because we have a character who already has a history. At the time I thought, ‘how do I take a guy who’s an alcoholic and a whore-mongerer and drug abuser and have him run for governor in a plausible way?’ But that’s no reason to shy away. It’s a formidable challenge.
The call girl, Rachel Posner, was only meant to be in those first two scenes. I had an inkling from that scene where he put the money in her mouth, I saw the dailies and I just felt like, ‘I bet she has more to her if we need to lean on her.’ Then I started thinking, ‘Ok, how do I rethink this story if he’s gotta have a downfall? That will make him unhinged, that will lead to his death, how do I make his downfall occur?’
I love characters who first appear inconsequential and then come back. Nothing ever fully dissipates. If you were paying attention, look at every character in our show, even a cop who says ‘hey’ at a coffee shop, that could be someone important down the line. I love that idea so the idea of bringing Rachel back started to develop, which lead to Rachel and Stamper’s relationship. If you watch, you absorb, you avail yourself to what’s working and you’re not precious about what you’ve done and you’re willing to do the work, you can rewrite half the season in the middle of production.
The first thing I did was I called up David and Josh and Eric and wrote them an email and said I want to make a major change, I laid it out for them. Everyone was thrilled, everyone thought this is what we’re missing and this is the right move to make and we’ll put Corey onscreen more. Then it was about the nitty gritty work of rethinking the story. A lot of the rest of the story didn’t need to be changed in major ways because it was insulated from that, but there is a ripple effect that occurs when you couldn’t get away from the fact that there would be page one rewrites in a lot of the episodes. Going back to four and five to lay the seeds. In our show we never set anything up, there’s no introduction. We always drop into the action in the middle, but you have to think about what’s ongoing in someone’s life.
AT: How many writers do you have? Any women?
BW: Six, and yes.
AT: I made the assumption that there were smart women on the team because the stuff with the women is ringing true. They are real, believable. Even though Zoe is sleeping her way into a situation, it’s great the way she stands up to her boss.
BW: A lot of your colleagues and peers hate her, and I listen to that. I think our portrayal in the media was not as sophisticated in Season One as the political world, partly because we had less real estate and had to move quickly through things. And she’s actually not sleeping her way to the top til episode 4 or 5.
AT: She’s very calculated, just like Francis.
BW: We’re not telling the story of Woodward and Bernstein. This is not someone who’s in noble pursuit of the truth. She’s in pursuit of access and influence, and she’s ambitious and young people who are ambitious will use whatever they have available to them.
AT: I loved the idea that you took her out of the newsroom.
BW: I’ve never wanted to be a White House correspondent. It’s not even been on my radar.
AT: That scene where she lays out for him what she is, which is a whore, is crucial.
BW: It’s a relationship based on power, not sex, which both parties are absolutely transparent about.
AT: And this is a big advance from the BBC series, in that one she’s just young and pretty.
BW: With a daddy complex. When Zoe goes in and knocks on his door, whatever the verisimilitude of that you can debate, she does of course wear the push-up bra and take her scarf off.
AT: Every woman journalist uses her allure to get what she wants.
BW: By guessing, by using her powers of deduction to figure out what the administrative agenda is, and then to say, ‘you would have made a great Secretary of State,’ then she gains his attention. It has nothing to do with sexuality. At the end of that scene where Claire walks in and she turns to Francis and goes, ‘does that work on anyone, the push-up bra and the v-neck tee?’ And he goes, ‘if it does I don’t know who they are.’ So many journalists want to jump to the assumption that we’re telling a story of someone sleeping their way to top when in fact the transactional relationship has been going on for four hours in the series before it evolves to sex. Sex has nothing to do with libido and getting one’s rocks off.
AT: He explains it. He says it’s power.
BW: Which she sees and acknowledges and then continues to accept. So then we have Janine Skorski who will later say ‘I fucked, jerked, sucked my way to the middle.’
AT: And then it became a liability which is when Zoe decides to change. How many women writers do you have?
BW: We have right now Laura Eastman and last year we had Sarah Treem and Kate Barnard and we also had Gina Gionfriddo do a freelance episode. It’s interesting that you asked that question because people assume that women writers are hired to write women characters. And maybe that’s the case on other shows but it’s not the case on mine. I hire people for their minds, I expect them to write everything.
AT: Any other series you admire?
BW: I steal all the time. My favorite show of all time is ‘The Wire.’ When people are writing dissertations about the Golden Age of Television 100 years from now, ‘The Wire’ will be the ‘Citizen Kane.’ ‘Deadwood’ is a three season masterpiece. Totally different from ‘The Wire,’ it’s heightened language, Shakespearean drama, perverse humor, the completeness and twistedness of this world.
AT: How much is the world of Aaron Sorkin something you pay attention to?
BW: I have huge admiration for him. I loved the ‘West Wing’ when it was on, but that’s not a helpful template for this show because we’re 180 degrees from it, and that’s a show about good people doing good things, it’s a noble fantasy and we’re the exact opposite of that.
AT: Do you have a start date for Season Two? Any new casting?
BW: I can’t comment on anything that would give you the slightest tidbit of information.
AT: Can you say that some directors like Carl Franklin are coming back?
BW: I can’t say anything. I will say in terms of Season One, I think Carl’s work was extraordinary. We all agreed episodes ten and eleven were among the very best. He’s not only a real pro but has real vision.
AT: Is Peter Morgan someone you admire, and his use of power in drama?
BW: Peter Morgan’s a fantastic writer. In fact there was a gig for a movie I wrote that won’t get made, or at least not my version, I wrote a movie for Fox 2000, an adaptation of Peter Morgan’s ‘The Jury.’ What he really understands is the subtlety of political gamesmanship when it comes to one-on-one personal interactions, in ways that are sophisticated beyond what most people are doing.
AT: One of the things I love about the show is the way you use the cell phone.
BW: You will have seen it in ‘Sherlock.’ I write the text as dialogue and figure we’ll do inserts or whatever. Fincher said, ‘what if we put them up on the screen?’ I love that idea. He hadn’t seen ‘Sherlock’ so I showed him a couple YouTube clips and he said ‘that’s exactly what I had in mind’. It’s a great way to dramatize texting which is part of the way we communicate, and allows for us to see the face and the reaction at the same time, and when you cut to the insert you lose that. Half the story is like, ‘if I’m telling a lie or how I’m receiving something and then responding.’
AT: In the Sentinel episode, you humanize Frank but also introduce a past gay relationship or love for another man. Is that there?
BW: I would veer away from any sort of labels. Francis doesn’t think of sexuality in terms of labels. What we mean to dramatize is a close intimate relationship with someone who happened to be a man. Call that whatever you want, I call that connection. And Francis himself says ‘when I want something, I take it, I go for it.’ We see that with Zoe Barnes, we see that in a totally other way with Claire Underwood and we see that in the past with Tim Corbet, so he’s a man with a large appetite.
AT: When you’re shooting, how many cameras?
BW: We have two cameras. We use the red. On some occasions we use three.
AT: Any interest in directing?
BW: Absolutely. I want to but I won’t be for ‘House of Cards’ Season Two. It’s a full time job to write the show much less be on the ground and produce.