Best known for creating and showrunning Netflix’s first original series, “House of Cards,” Beau Willimon is at the vanguard of modern television. Speaking to Gordon Cox of Variety on Sunday at IFP Independent Film Week, Willimon had a lot to stay about the increasingly blurred line between television and film. He offered a new hallmark for the measurement of the success of a television show — an important distinction in the changing landscape — and spoke about the inception of “House of Cards,” creative inspiration, binge-watching and his “crazy” next project.
On the birth of “House of Cards”
[When we started “House of Cards,”] the only real given was that none of us had any idea what the fuck we were doing. I had never done TV before, Fincher hadn’t, Kevin and Robin hadn’t. We came into it with no template, no expectations. We had a story we wanted to tell well. I wrote the first episode as an hour-long drama, worked on it for almost a year. I had no sense of how it would be distributed. Fincher and I shared all the same impulses. We always knew this was a cable show. Our production company came to us and said, “Netflix would like to meet–they want to get into original programming.” We spent a year working on the first episode; we wanted to throw ourselves into this 110% and we didn’t want to audition anyone. We were willing to give 110% if we knew there was a first season guaranteed. When we sat down with Netflix, [we told them this]. And they were like, “We’re in the content business. How about two seasons guaranteed? Complete creative control; we don’t have any development executives currently employed.” It was an offer we couldn’t refuse.
We weren’t worried about the fact that they hadn’t done TV before, because hell, we hadn’t either. It was more like: Are we really going to put our show on the Internet? But it was clear that’s where things were going. We were in the right place at the right time with the right elements. There’s something of a rebel in all of us, and the idea of being the first… even if it’s a miserable failure, we’ll at least have done something interesting and new.
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On the benefits of working in serialized TV
Hyper-serialized narrative–seen from “Oz” on– is much more like a novel than anything else. It can have the size and scope of “Anna Karenina”: hundreds of characters, weaving in and out of stories, the focus shifting for chapters at a time. It allows you to delve into characters in a way you never could in 90-120 minutes–whether that’s stage or film. In terms of execution, I find it closer to theater than to traditional filmmaking, which has a discrete beginning, middle and end. In theater, you get into rehearsal. You’re in a room. You’re watching what the performers are doing. You’re adjusting the text because it’s clear what works or what doesn’t. You make changes.
I have an idea for my next project: A season will be a 6-hour stream. There is no break. There is no episode. You pause when you want to, or not at all. At that point, what is it? Is it a TV show, is it a season, is it a 6-hour film? Who knows and who cares, really? We always talked about “House of Cards” as “the movie”; we thought of the first season as a 13-hour movie. We don’t make episodes that have a beginning, middle, and end and exist in and of themselves. The reason we don’t have episode titles–we call them “chapters”–is because of that. It doesn’t have to fully resolve. In the Writer’s Room, we don’t talk about A story or B story, or schematic things that you’ll find in that horrible section of Barnes & Noble that presumably tells you how to write a script.
On binge-watching and release strategy
In the case of a lot of the great, great shows that have been made over the past couple decades, no one had any notion that an entire season would be watched at a time. It worked because they were great stories. You can’t write towards one thing or the other. A lot of people don’t binge-watch. That’s where it’s similar to a novel again: if someone puts out a 600-page novel, there’s going to be someone who reads it all at once, and someone else over years. It has to work either way. The most important thing is audience empowerment. You’re giving the audience–especially with a full-season release–the ability to choose their experience. If they choose, they’re more likely to receive it in a way that’s conducive to the way you want it to be received.
I always knew what the first two seasons of “House of Cards” would be, if we were so lucky. Having those first two seasons guaranteed affected the writing far more than the notion of binge-watching. We had a big discussion: What does this mean if we release it all in one day? I was all for it. At that point, the term binge-watching wasn’t ubiquitous. But I had binge-watched a lot of my favorite TV shows. I had binged on the “Sopranos” and “Deadwood.” Early on, it was part of the conversation. But we also talked about a traditional week-to-week release. Now it seems like, how could it be any other way? But we didn’t make that decision until late in the game. I liked that we weren’t bound to specific minute marks. But, you have to understand: At the time, Netflix didn’t exist in most international markets, so it was going to be sold to broadcast networks. So, all over the globe, “House of Cards” is watched with commercials. I have no idea where they put these commercials in. I don’t want to know. A lot of places show it week-to-week. So we’re kind of still in this interim period where if you want a television show to be available to all those markets, you still have to work within those parameters. In the coming years, I think we see TV liberated completely from all of these restrictions.
On the difference between TV and film
If you’re saying the difference between TV and film is a matter of length, that’s a pretty bogus differentiation. You might have a 10-hour film. You might have a 10-minute film. The primary difference is that film has an avante-garde and has for many years now and TV has typically not, because television-making was the purview of networks. But you’re beginning to see avant-garde TV on the internet. People are independently financing their projects to be released and experienced in an episodic way. That’s exciting. Then all the walls are coming down. You’re beginning to see the creation of shows for niches. In TV typically, the goal was to hit as many people as possible. The lowest common denominator, hitting your four quadrants, because you’re selling advertising. But the value of the show these days is not how many people watch it, but are you serving a niche that feels underserved elsewhere?
Take “Girls,” for example. Not many people watch it, actually, compared to broadcast networks or even a lot of other cable shows. Its numbers are pretty low. But because there is an element of its subscribership that’s fiercely loyal to it and feels like they’re not getting that programming anywhere else, it has value beyond merely numbers. Because there’s a lot of press and buzz around it, and because it has a place within the zeitgeist, it has an added value. When you see shows that are being made where the goal is not to hit as many people but to offer something that wasn’t there before, that is the spirit of independent filmmaking. Netflix or Amazon or other outlets are open to all sorts of different kinds of storytelling, and some of them are really out there. They’re independent in spirit. And they can be done rather cheaply.
On what’s wrong with bad TV
I always assume that the audience is really smart and has a good memory. One of the problems with bad TV is assuming that you’re smarter than the audience. That you have to dumb down. That you have to make things exceedingly repetitive because people are cooking their Hot Pockets in the toaster instead of paying attention to the show. If you assume the audience is paying close attention, they will.
On what makes a great story
A great story hinges on a great character. A great character hinges on truth, and truth hinges on all the contradictions that make us human.
On achieving creative success
I try not to over-analyze. It’s not like I’m reading headlines all the time. You follow an impulse, you feel something electric in your gut. Rachel, for example: I have no idea where that came from. You try to stare down the scary parts of yourself… the things that make you nervous, that you’re ashamed of. You try to access the parts of you that experience joy, betrayal, all of the things that make a story universal for us all. And then you fling a lot of pasta against the wall and see what sticks. For every 100 ideas, 99 of them are unhelpful. It’s a real trial and error game. You bang your head against the wall until you break through. And a lot of times you don’t. You’re just lying in a fetal position with a bloody head. But there’s a few moments where you just feel like maybe you did something interesting and original here. It’s instinct and a lot of perspiration. More than inspiration. Thomas Edison was right about that.
On his crazy next project
I’m a huge documentary freak. Whenever I have time to myself, I watch docs. Netflix is one of the great repositories for docs these days.
The craziest thing to do is make a documentary. It requires so much work and there’s absolutely no money in it. Why would someone do such a thing? Because they’re passionate about their subject matter. But now, you have so many more people watching documentaries because they’re made available.
I’m making a film about a paratrooper who decided one day that he wanted to compete the longest continuous walk in human history: 36,000 miles, from the southern tip of South America, all the way up to Alaska, across the Bering Strait on foot, through Europe, and back to his hometown in England. He started on November 1, 1998 and has been walking ever since. He’s been shot at, imprisoned, fallen in love, hacked his way through a jungle, given himself first-aid in the middle of a desert… everything that can happen to a human being. It’s an extraordinary story of human perseverance. He still has about 15,000 miles to go.