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‘House of Cards’ Screenwriter Beau Willimon Thinks Writing Is Like ‘Grabbing at the Cosmic’

'House of Cards' Screenwriter Beau Willimon Thinks Writing Is Like 'Grabbing at the Cosmic'

The final installment of the BAFTA BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series featured the screenwriter and playwright who brought audiences the political drama “The Ides of March” and the popular Netflix series “House of Cards.” So, it came to a surprise to everyone that one of Beau Willimon’s first admissions of the night was that he doesn’t actually like politics.

READ MORE: ‘Why Pioneering British TV Writer Jimmy McGovern Thinks American Writers Are The Lucky Ones’

Willimon candidly said, “politics was never like a ‘thing’ for me. I’m not a
political junkie, I don’t probably know
more about politics than most of the
people in this room. There’s a lot of things
I have to research in depth in order to
write the show…The reason you guys probably
showed up is because of ‘House of
Cards,’ and so the two things that I’m
most known for, ‘Farragut North’ and ‘Ides
of March’ on the one hand and ‘House of
Cards’ on the other both are in the world
of politics. But that’s not a subject that
interests me.”

What does interest the accomplished writer who has made millions sign up for Netflix, is power. Willimon is able to write creatively and enthusiastically for “House of Cards” because he deems politics to be “a subset of power… I’m just as interested and
fascinated by the power relationship
within the marriage between Frank and
Claire Underwood — which is the real
subject of the show, not politics, if that
makes sense.”

Although Willimon was modest about his knowledge of politics, he was cognizant of the fact that writing is his calling. When asked why he writes, Willimon quickly explained that he simply has to.

“I don’t think that
writing is a choice, it’s not a career, it’s
something that’s born of necessity. If I
didn’t write I would go bonkers. And there’s a lot about writing that’s not
very pretty. In fact, if you can do
anything else, you probably should. It’s a life that’s filled with rejection
and humiliation and self-loathing and
self-doubt, but in the pursuit of
something that’s cosmic, however corny
that sounds. And if you need to grab at
the cosmic and without that pursuit you
have no bearing, then it’s the life for you,
and those are the things you have to
endure,” Willimon said. “I
can’t give you a reason other than, why
do you breathe? Because the air is your
sustenance and without it you die.”

Sheepish about the gravity of the statement he made, Willimon humorously said that escaping Hurricane Joaquim to fly to London for a single day was the perspective enough about the incredible life he lives. Willimon can vouch that he oftentimes thinks of himself as a fraud, because he cannot believe how far he has come. Relating to most writers, Willimon said, “it’s really hard to
believe in yourself. I still struggle with it. I
often think I’m a fraud and that I’ve
somehow pulled the wool over
everyone’s eyes. You become
accustomed to that, it’s something you
live with, it’s sort of like a spirit animal,
that feeling of fraudulence. But it can be
crippling and stop you before you get
started early on, and Eduardo, I feel like
he saved my life because he allowed
me to realize that this is what I needed to
do. He said, ‘you should be breathing
oxygen, and here’s an oxygen tank, and
now the rest is up to you’. And without it I
would have suffocated.”

The Eduardo who Willimon casually referred was Edurado Machado, the great Cuban playwright professor at Columbia University. After being a painter and casually writing stories on his own, Willimon somehow bullied his way into getting an education at the university without even being enrolled. “I just showed up, and I wasn’t
enrolled, I hadn’t been admitted… I mean, right after you’ve
had a nervous breakdown there’s a lot
of shit you’ll try, and I just said, ‘Look, I’m
no longer enrolled, I’m not paying tuition,
I want to sit in on your class.'” Machado agreed.

It was because of Machado’s help that Willimon had the confidence and wherewithal to write the play “Farragut North” — and then adapt it for the 2011 George Clooney film. “Adapting your own play is a very strange
thing,” he admitted. “There’s some basic differences
between the two mediums [of plays and films], one is more
verbal and the other is more visual. There
are exceptions to all these columns that
I’m going to say right now of course, but
generally speaking that’s the case.
There’s a pace to film narrative that is
much faster than theater narrative
pacing…There’s a direct connection from
what is happening on the stage to what
is happening in your body. And when
you’re watching a film, all you have is
photons on a screen and some speakers.
It’s not the same sort of connection
which means it’s much harder to sustain,” said Willimon.

Willimon spoke about the surreal experience of being a playwright-turned-screenwriter: With the encouragement of an agent who read his work, Kevin McCormick of Warner Bros. got his hands on it, too. Within the blur of a few days, Willimon recalled getting a call from Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio saying that they wanted to produce his script, and turn it into a movie.

“I’d never had a production
of a play. I was temping at a place in
Rockefeller Plaza where my job was to
staple things and put them in the mail, [so] I shat myself, and then when I
cleaned that up I went
out to LA… The rarity of this can’t be
overstated. It’s very rare in America at
least that any play gets made into a
movie. Usually it has to have had a very
successful Broadway run and won the
Pulitzer Prize, then it’s got a shot at being
a movie. The fact that this hadn’t had a
production, hadn’t won any prizes, that I
had zero credits to my name, and that it
was being made potentially into a movie
at Warner Bros. with those names is really
like winning the lottery,” said Willimon.

He continued, “I
immediately thought, ‘Okay, this is not
going to last very long, so I’ve got a
pinky toe in the door, and now I’ve go to
shove the rest of my foot and my knee
and my thigh and my whole body, and
you know they’re trying to use me to get
to these people, well I can use that to
my advantage.’ And I did. I was able to
line up subsequent jobs, and that
eventually led to ‘House of Cards.'”

Although this was Willimon’s first shot at major exposure in Hollywood, he was tuned in enough to know what exactly was happening. Moreover, he knew how he could use it to his advantage. Willimon said that “when those names are attached to anything in Hollywood, people pay a lot of attention. Not so much because they think the writing is good, but they think that George and Leo think the writing is good, so if [Clooney and DiCaprio] think this guy’s writing is good, then maybe we can do something with this guy. Then they’ll want to do something with us. So you become this like ticket.” It’s something that Willimon admits he used 100 percent in the right way.

What has been enjoyable for Willimon has been working alongside “House of Cards” director David Fincher. Fincher approached Willimon about the BBC version of “House of Cards” in hopes that he would, too, would fall in love with the premise. Not only did Willimon delight in the show’s storyline potential, but he also just fell in love with Fincher. Willimon raved about working with Fincher, saying he “has
a savant-like knowledge of the craft and
the history of filmmaking. He is incredibly
clever and witty, but also concise and
deep and blunt and profound in his
thinking about art. His synapses fire faster
than just about anyone I know, and I just
felt through the phone like I was dealing
with this life force that I wanted to tap
into — I wanted to hold onto and work with
and be around [it].”

Together, the creative duo has made three seasons of a show that has become a cultural phenomenon for its smart dialogue and aesthetic. For them, they’re not making a slew of hour-long television episodes; in their minds, they “make a movie that just
happens to be 13 hours long.”

Willimon doesn’t foresee himself stopping any time soon. He loves writing these characters and understanding humanity through reactions on top of their intentions. For Willimon, his passion for the theater lives on through his work with Netflix, as he hopes to evolve his characters with ongoing dialogue.

Like with the theater, in writing for a television series, “it’s like you have
this crew and this family that you’re
spending a lot of time with, and just
discovering things with as you would in a
rehearsal process for a play. And
something that you discover in say
episode two, even though you’ve
planned out the whole season, might
influence scripts to come and have this
ripple effect, so there’s a lot more
dialogue between the collaborators
going back and forth than I think you
have on a film, where most of the time
you have the script and then the director
takes it and directs it.”

Yet, it hasn’t always always been easy to work with Hollywood executives in Willimon’s mind. During the audience’s favorite moment of the evening, Willimon comically retold the story where he had recycled a treatment he wrote in college about slaves as spies for the North during the Civil War. It hit the mark for period drama and mystery series that studios were calling for, so he had high hopes. However, when he pitched it, the studios instead ended up making the “show about advertising execs in the 60s.”

“A funny moment along the way is, at one point they gave us the script and they said, ‘Can you make yours more like this?’ And we said, ‘Alright, we’ll read it.’ It said ‘Mad Men’ on the front. It was the pilot for ‘Mad Men.’ And after reading it, I go like, ‘Do they want the slaves to be like stirring cocktails? Make it more like this?’… Without batting an eyelash they just say, ‘Well, you know, just better,'” mused Willimon.

It didn’t help that he was so nervous pitching to AMC that he made sure to “dress for success.” Embarrassed, he admitted that he dressed up in a three piece suit for the pitch.

One thing Willimon can say for certain now is that “you’re not supposed to wear a suit in Hollywood if you’re a writer. Write that down!”

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