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by Alison Willmore
January 29, 2013 1:20 PM
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'House of Cards' Showrunner Beau Willimon on Netflix, Ideal Politicians and Working With David Fincher

Robin Wright in 'House of Cards' Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

"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.

"You can't be an effective leader and do these ethically questionable things and also be a bastion of moral integrity."
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?

Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix
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.

Chuck Cooper and Michael Kelly Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

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.

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