Beau Willimon doesn't want to talk about the two things everyone wants to know. The creator of Netflix's Emmy-contending drama "House of Cards" isn't ready to spill any beans about Season 3 (filming is set to commence in Maryland later this year), and he won't discuss his upcoming project on Jack Johnson, the HBO miniseries he's working on with Ken Burns. Despite the project being announced almost 18 months ago, the writer will only say it's still in the "early stages."
Yet "House of Cards" is a strong Emmy contender, poised to return to the top tier races after breaking in with its first season, meaning Willimon has to talk about something. With many developments during Season 2, topics aren't in short supply. While the future may be hidden, the past has secrets to explore. Below, Willimon discusses why the key events of Season 2 happened when they did, why he's happy to be working without viewing statistics, and that threesome...
So you subscribe to the big board philosophy of season planning, with dry erase boards laid out and mapped into grids for each episode. Do you have something as detailed -- or close to it -- for the series as a whole?
The first two seasons we knew we had guaranteed, for 26 episodes, so there was some thought put into some of the scenes that would happen in Season 2 well in advance. We always knew Francis should be President by the end of Season 2, and we knew that Zoe would meet her demise at the end of Episode 1 in Season 2 before we even started watching Season 1. But in terms of the detailed structuring of Season 2, we waited on tackling that until we'd gone through Season 1 because you learn things along the way.
A good example of that is the Rachel Posner character. She was always meant to just be a call girl in the first couple episodes and ended up becoming a major part of our story. [...] There is no secret uber grid for the series in its totality, partly because we don't know how many seasons we're going to have. Certainly, we've put thought into where the story could go in seasons ahead, but no definitive choices.
It's interesting you have a bible for each season as well as the entire series.
There's been a movement, I think, especially in cable television towards a series having a real beginning, middle, and end. "Breaking Bad" is a great example. You really feel like it was veering towards those final episodes, and it had a great deal of resolution and finality. In an ideal world, every show has that feeling. I'd certainly like "House of Cards" to have that feeling as well, to be able to accomplish that. But you have to be careful about prescribing things for yourself too far in advance because then you get locked in and can be blind to other choices around that you might want to pursue because you're trying to reach for this final moment, when in fact you may discover there's an even better one.
Having Francis ascend to the most powerful office in the world feels almost like an ending moment. Why did you always plan for it to happen when it did and is there anything you can say about where he'll go from here?
I can't tell you anything about where it will go.
Yeah, I didn't think so.
[laughs] But I applaud you for trying.
Well, you gotta ask. But in terms of why it happened in Season 2...
It just felt right. That was always the plan. It's not easy to become President. You really need to work for it, especially when you're doing it without being elected to the office. It felt like 26 hours and two years in a fictional world, it felt like something -- it was an ambitious time frame, but if anyone was going to achieve it, it felt like Francis Underwood was that guy. And what better way to end the season then to have him walk into the oval office for the first time and have it be his office?
And rap on that table.
That's a good example. We always knew we wanted the final scene of Season 2 to be him walking into that office, but the rapping of the table we didn't know would be a part of it. That's something we came up with pretty early in the series that took on a life of its own. I had an inkling we would give an explanation for it somewhere toward the end of Season 1, and we do when Tusk asks him about it. Then it becomes something that you might not have noticed through much of Season 1, but if you go back, you'd say, "Yeah! He's doing it throughout." But then it ended up bringing a specific, character-driven moment to that final scene, and I think it worked for us.
The other moment everyone was talking about, which you already touched on a bit, was Zoe's death.
When we cast Kate, she knew. She knew the season and the episode. That was a big choice and one we stuck to our guns on. Kate is an unbelievably talented actress. We all fell in love with that character, a very polarizing character. A lot of people connected with her and a lot of people didn't, but you couldn't deny her, and that was really what we were after. A big question of the series is, "How far is Frank willing to go in order to preserve himself and keep climbing the ladder of power?" He finds his own limits and boundaries being tested and expanding.
You can't be precious with any of your characters. This is, after all, the story of Francis and Claire Underwood, and everyone except each other is potentially expendable. It's a big choice to make. This is not "Boardwalk Empire" or "The Sopranos." Murders are not something you [laughs] typically see from our elected officials in Washington, and we're definitely taking an extreme, at times, exaggerated view at that world. In a dramatic sense, his willingness to do that is an important milestone for his character.
In regard to the Underwood's relationship, another big talking point was their threesome.
You know, a lot of people asked, "Why that scene? Why is that there?"And I feel like a lot of people are looking for a big plot or storyline to open up with that, and it's just the opposite. That scene exists in and of itself. The Underwoods are human beings after all. They have desires and sometimes people can drink a little too much, inhibitions lower, and things happen. I think what I'm most proud of in terms of that scene is how little we make of it. The next day, it's back to business as usual. It's okay. There's no freaking out about it. There's no hysterics. They're smart enough that they wouldn't have allowed for that sort of moment with someone they don't completely trust. It's important to see sometimes that they act irrationally, how they don't always add up in a purely calculated sense. That's what makes them human.
Do you read reactions online? It's gotta be a little different. Usually, showrunners get reactions every week to the same events -- you're getting everything at random times from the day it's released until who knows when.
Yes, I'm active on social media. I'm always interested in what our viewers have to say. I don't use it as a guide post to shape the story. The goal in reading those comments is not to have them inform where we're going, but it's always interesting and informative to see how people are reacting to the show for better or for worse. Any time people have criticisms about the show, usually none of those are surprises to us. We do make mistakes along the way. When you're striving for perfection, you're always going to fall short and by the time the show is released each season we're usually pretty well aware of the missed opportunities.
In regard to your audience, one of the most curious aspects of Netflix is we never see statistics on how many people are actually watching your show. Do you get to see those? Do you care about them?
I have no access to any of that data. I don't know how many people have watched the show. I don't know what the demographics are. I don't know what the viewing habits are, and I'm very happy with that.
You're not curious at all?
No. As long as Netflix is happy, then I'm happy. At the end of the day, I do this for very selfish reasons. I like to tell stories. I like to collaborate with directors and actors and the crew. It's a great privilege to have the resources to be able to do that and to work with the best people in the business. I hope the work we do that will connect to a lot of people, but I don't need to know numbers. I don't need to know who these people are, necessarily, in fine detail. I just need to know that there are enough people watching it that Netflix wants to keep making it, and that seems to be the case. So everybody wins.
I have friends who run shows at networks and are having those ratings pour in each week and getting a lot of this data and feeling a great deal of pressure because of it. I don't envy that in the least. I think it's amazing that they're able to keep their creative integrity despite all of that information, and I'm very impressed by those who are able to do that -- and thankful that I don't have to.