From the very first moment that Kevin Spacey broke the fourth wall as the devilishly charming House Majority Whip Frank Underwood in “House of Cards,” Netflix’s first original TV series, we knew that we were in for “Richard III” in D.C. It’s so David Fincher, who signed on as exec producer and director of the first two episodes, while writer-showrunner Beau Willimon (“The Ides of March”) plotted the political machinations with transcendent glee. (Our in-depth interview with Willimon is here.) No wonder the series has induced binge viewing and Emmy buzz.
I recently spoke with the three Bs of below-the-line craft on the acclaimed, $100 million political thriller, which is in pre-production on its second season: cinematographer Eigil Bryld (“You Don’t Know Jack”), costume designer Tom Broecker (“Saturday Night Live”), and composer Jeff Beal (“Blackfish”), whose two-disc soundtrack is available on Varese Sarabande. They all attest to the fact that TV bended to Fincher and not the other way around.
“I hadn’t done episodic before, but when I heard that David was involved and read the first four scripts, I was hooked on the dark political backdrop,” admits the Danish-born, Welsh educated Bryld. “For me, Kevin Spacey is the poster boy politician who can then become a predator or serial killer. ‘All the President’s Men’ was the only film that we watched. David didn’t have deliberate references but the task was to create an undercurrent of suspense, danger, power, and gravity in every shot.”
For Fincher, the fascination of “House of Cards” was exploring the political class and how it perpetually finances the bureaucracy. Spacey’s Underwood portrays the power broker who put the president (Michael Gill) in the White House in exchange for appointment as Secretary of State. When the president reneges on that promise, Underwood vows revenge and steps into action as the puppet master of D.C.
Bryld, who shot 11 out of 13 episodes, had 10 weeks to prep with Fincher in Baltimore and used the Red Epic for the first time on a series. “David likes the Red and got them to customize matte boxes, remote systems, and wireless technology to be as mean and lean in adapting technology to our means,” he says. “Preparation was about being economical in how we lit everything in telling the story. David had a rule that there could only be 25 crew members on set and no hand-held. He didn’t want it to seem like there was anyone else present in the complicity between Frank and the viewer.
“We customized our own camera van, which was very small and almost like an assault vehicle that could roll in right next to the set, and the cameras could roll off on the dollies and be ready at any location in less than 20 minutes. We shot two cameras with Master Prime lenses for low-level lighting. It was all about shaping and balancing the light with existing light sources whenever possible. A lot of the exposure came from laptops and practical lights. We wanted to create spaces of light and not flood a scene.”
It was a delicate balance between blocking and coverage, allowing the actors the choreographic freedom to sustain the intensity. With Underwood, however, he doesn’t merely stay five chess moves ahead of his political rivals — he overturns the chessboard.
“David’s mantra was trying out ideas, executing them, and then evaluating if they worked,” Bryld adds. In playing tag team with such varied directors as Joel Schumacher, James Foley, Charles McDougall, Carl Franklin, and Allen Coulter, the crew found themselves doing variations on a theme.
Then again, dressing up the D.C. gang was especially fun for Broecker. “Kevin loves politics and President Clinton is a very good friend and took off one of his ties — a bright blue one — and gave it to him. Kevin wears only five suits in the series, primarily a navy blue and gray, but he wanted a nod toward a higher end British look in honor of the original British series, and so we made a deal with Gieves & Hawkes, which Kevin works with when he’s in London. His were the only European suits.”
By contrast, Underwood’s wife, Claire (Robin Wright), a powerful environmentalist and political animal in her own right, portrays a quiet and steely Lady Macbeth figure. “Claire’s backstory, which is not explored in the first season, is that she comes from a wealthy family and they probably bankrolled Frank’s first few campaigns,” Broecker continues. “Robin is such an exquisite woman and to have the layer of cold, calculating woman on top of that is interesting. She is perfectly tailored and nothing is out of place. There’s the public and private persona and we wanted to create the idea that there’s never anything casual about this couple.”
Musically, Fincher recommended that Beal drift back to the ’70s and reacquaint himself with the title track from Supertramp’s “Crime of the Century” (an apt thematic metaphor). The composer was inspired to riff on the tantalizing trail of piano, strings, and sax for his main title theme. “We talked a lot about Frank and his wife in Shakespearean terms, and David mentioned that a movie producer reminded him of Frank,” Beal recalls. “It’s not intentional malevolence — power is their drug of existence; that’s just who they are.”
As with his feature films, Fincher asked Beal to write some sketch pieces before production, which appealed to the classically-trained composer who also dabbles in jazz. “The main title grew out of ‘Crime of the Century’ as well as a couple of the sketches with a base line and dark melody on top of it. ‘One Bite at a Time’ is the puppet master theme for the predatory Frank and the base line became his leitmotif.”
Beal composed a noirish romanticism for the conspiring husband and wife with a chromatic solo piano (“I Know What I Have to Do”). In season two, though, Beal says Fincher would like to get even more operatic in tone for his contemporary game of thrones.
But even the most despicable people have their humanity, which is why Fincher has us hooked on “House of Cards.”