Few knew what to expect Thursday as Beau Willimon kicked off his ATX Television Festival panel, mysteriously titled “Truth & Dare & Fear.”
But as Willimon’s disembodied voice welcomed them, one thing was certain: No one in the 200-seat ballroom knew where he was.
After a deliberate pause and a few more introductory words, none of which elicited a physical reaction from the crowd, Willimon finally gave up the ghost.
“I’m behind you!”
Then, like a movie scene where all attention immediately shifts to a singular point, everyone turned in their chairs to see the day’s speaker standing in what was indisputably the back of the room. There was the former “House of Cards” showrunner, as far as possible from the stage set up for him with microphones, couches and a nameplate reading “Beau Willimon.” All the seats were pointed one way and Willimon was demanding we look toward the other.
“I want to talk a little bit about expectations,” Willimon explained.
“You guys entered this room today and, without even thinking about it, picked a chair, sat down, and faced this way. There’s nothing that stopped you from going up and sitting on one of those couches. There’s nothing that stopped you from taking your chair and turning it this way, thinking, ‘What if the talk we’re doing today started back here instead of up there?’ That’s the thing you have to do when you sit down to write.”
Willimon would later explain how such predictable thinking exemplified his screenwriting frustrations – or, more specifically, his rejection of approaching writing as if it were a math problem.
“You read these bullshit books by [Robert] McKee and all those folks — that are really just the Trumps of screenwriters — and they’ll talk a lot about structure and Act I and Act II and Act III and the first exciting incident, but what they’re not talking about is the internal structure of a scene and the subtle turns and reversals that happen in the moment. Drama happens in the moment much more than it happens scene to scene.”
But before he could get into this, Willimon needed the audience. Citing a technique from his “friend and mentor” Spaulding Gray, he began an experiment that would last well beyond the scheduled end time of the 2016 ATX Festival’s opening panel.
As Willimon explained, Gray would hold events, often in a park, where he’d chat with audience members in the crowd before the show and call out some of their names to come on stage with him during it.
“There, in front of several thousand people, he would begin this process of discovering who this person was, and a story always emerged.”
Willimon proceeded to ask the audience to write down their two greatest fears, before calling on four brave souls to confess theirs to the group. The playwright-turned-screenwriter then invited the three women and one man onto stage with him in an effort to uncover their story and illustrate how their greatest fears could make them better writers — and better people.
After digging into fears related to wasting time (with a 21-year-old aspiring screenwriter from Florida), being thought of as a jackass (with a D.C.-born playwright) and being alone, even in a city of millions (from a wife and mother of two living in Austin), it was only fair Willimon shared his greatest fear: death.
“When I wake up, the first thought I have every morning is, ‘I will die,'” Willimon said. “To me, that’s a liberating thing because how can it get worse than that? But aside from that, it puts everything in perspective. Twenty-thousand years from now it’ll be snowing here and a thousand miles north of here will be covered in ice as the next ice age descends. And eight months from now, Donald Trump may be president.”
The last comment drew a large groan from the audience, all of which were eager to interact with the experimental endeavor. Laughs were heard, comments shouted and plenty of people voiced their opposition to the end. Even after spending time getting to know four people, the group of 200 audibly groused when Willimon said he’d keep going if it wouldn’t take months to finish.
“Did any of you feel cheated?” Willimon asked, citing how he never dug into “House of Cards” as a possible issue someone might take. The room went silent, briefly, until a few claps led to whoops and a general round of applause.
Then, fitting of its inspiration, the panel ended with Willimon walking to the back of the room to speak with anyone who wanted to continue sharing truths, taking dares and conquering their fears.
It’s safe to say, he might be there a while.
The ATX Festival is taking place from June 9-12 in Austin, TX. Keep checking IndieWire throughout for continued coverage.