Written By February | March 2014 : Page 12

WRITTEN BY PAUL BROWNFIELD House of Hard Knocks ON THE CREATIVE CAMPAIGN TRAIL WITH BEAU WILLIMON. ne of the more outré moments in the first season of House of Cards had the wife of a powerful politician masturbating the couple’s terminally ill Secret Service agent under his hospital blanket. The agent was dying of cancer and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), the aforementioned wife of House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), was offering something to the left of succor. House of Cards is a dark show—dark-hued and darkly themed. To enjoy it requires only that you believe politicians are capable of falling off the wagon, sending their bagmen to silence prostitutes, and committing the occasional homicide. But it’s also character-based, which is why the seemingly preposterous “hospital hand job” scene, as creator Beau Willimon calls it, was well with-in the context and tone of the series. “When I say the voice of the show it’s not just the dialogue or the way char-acters speak; it’s also what sort of story belongs in our show,” Willimon says. “There can be a moment that someone might come up with in a room that’s very melodramatic, where we’re gonna have some big blow-up fight, and someone’s gonna slap someone across the face and run out of the room screaming in tears. That’s not our show. In fact, they would never even have the fight. What they would do is find ways to express their conflict elsewhere and might take it out on other people. Or might turn that anger into focused energy.” It was a Saturday afternoon in late summer, and Willi-mon was having lunch on the Lower East Side. He’d driven through the previous night from the House of Cards Mary-land set to steal a weekend at home in Brooklyn. On this particular day, he was six episodes into production on Season 2. He’s on-set constantly—“from first rehearsal to wrap every day”—spending a lot of time writing in a trailer, “a little tin box,” as Willimon describes it, that he shares with each episode’s director. This season he was staying in a Baltimore Hampton Inn near the soundstages, to cut down on his commute to set. Willimon parses the subtext of “hospital hand job” this way: A Secret Service agent risks a deathbed declaration of love to the wife of his employer. But the congressman’s wife, rather than patronize the dying man, honors him with a truth of her own, a hard truth—she is not the ignored, love-starved wife the agent thinks she is. She is, in fact, capable of be-ing as cold-blooded as her husband. And to prove it, well… 12 • WG A W WRITTEN BY FEBRU AR Y | MARCH 20 14 O

House Of Hard Knocks

Paul Brownfield

ON THE CREATIVE CAMPAIGN TRAIL WITH BEAU WILLIMON.<br /> <br /> One of the more outré moments in the first season of House of Cards had the wife of a powerful politician masturbating the couple’s terminally ill Secret Service agent under his hospital blanket. The agent was dying of cancer and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), the aforementioned wife of House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), was offering something to the left of succor.<br /> <br /> House of Cards is a dark show—dark-hued and darkly themed. To enjoy it requires only that you believe politicians are capable of falling off the wagon, sending their bagmen to silence prostitutes, and committing the occasional homicide.<br /> <br /> But it’s also character-based, which is why the seemingly preposterous “hospital hand job” scene, as creator Beau Willimon calls it, was well within the context and tone of the series.<br /> <br /> “When I say the voice of the show it’s not just the dialogue or the way characters speak; it’s also what sort of story belongs in our show,” Willimon says. “There can be a moment that someone might come up with in a room that’s very melodramatic, where we’re gonna have some big blow-up fight, and someone’s gonna slap someone across the face and run out of the room screaming in tears. That’s not our show. In fact, they would never even have the fight. What they would do is find ways to express their conflict elsewhere and might take it out on other people. Or might turn that anger into focused energy.” <br /> <br /> It was a Saturday afternoon in late summer, and Willimon was having lunch on the Lower East Side. He’d driven through the previous night from the House of Cards Maryland set to steal a weekend at home in Brooklyn. On this particular day, he was six episodes into production on Season 2. He’s on-set constantly—“from first rehearsal to wrap every day”—spending a lot of time writing in a trailer, “a little tin box,” as Willimon describes it, that he shares with each episode’s director. This season he was staying in a Baltimore Hampton Inn near the soundstages, to cut down on his commute to set.<br /> <br /> Willimon parses the subtext of “hospital hand job” this way: A Secret Service agent risks a deathbed declaration of love to the wife of his employer. But the congressman’s wife, rather than patronize the dying man, honors him with a truth of her own, a hard truth—she is not the ignored, love-starved wife the agent thinks she is. She is, in fact, capable of being as cold-blooded as her husband. And to prove it, well…<br /> <br /> “Does it go too far, is it too gothic, is it twisted for its own sake?” Willimon says. “These are all questions that we ask ourselves all the time. I as a writer tend to want to blow shit up. I don’t mean explosives; I mean take risk, failure, and embarrassment with every scene. There’s the pyramid, right? And at the very top of it is a tiny triangle of brilliant. Then there’s a thin little sliver beneath that of disastrous, terrible, awful. And then there’s the huge base of mediocre. And the line between brilliant and disastrous is a fine line. I want the show to have that muscularity, that sense of reaching. And to be ambitious and to make the most unexpected things happen.” <br /> <br /> He returns to the problem of doing a deathbed confession scene without it coming off as predictable or treacly. “There’s so many millions of ways to make it awful. And probably for some people it was. There were probably some people that were like, ‘Really? Come on. She’s gonna talk to a dying man who confesses his love to her?’ Well, that’s one way to take off the curse. It could be to get rid of the scene or to push it to some bizarre place that isn’t bizarre for its own sake but reveals things out of that situation that you were not expecting to learn.” <br /> <br /> House of Pies?<br /> <br /> “I didn’t believe it,” Eric Roth says of the scene.<br /> <br /> Roth, the Academy Award–winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump, says it quickly and simply, paying blunt homage to the idea that as long as a writer was willing to take risks, failure would always be an option.<br /> <br /> As one of the show’s executive producers, Roth weighs in on Willimon’s scripts but has no interest in lead-footing him. Because Netflix is a distribution service and not a studio, Willimon answers creatively to three executive producers—Roth, David Fincher, and Joshua Donen—none of whom, presumably, are fond of the phrase You can’t do that. And so hospital hand job remained. “There’s a touch of arrogance, which I think is okay,” Roth says of Willimon. “You have to have that. He defends his work to the death. It’s hard to move him off the dime sometimes.” <br /> <br /> If Willimon is overwhelmed by this opportunity (Netflix greenlit 26 episodes of House of Cards before a single frame was shot), he hardly betrays it. At 36, he has a hipster’s whiff of a mustache and beard and an air of native self-confidence reminiscent of leading dramatists in television right now. Before House of Cards, Willimon had never written on a TV series, much less been its head writer. In college, he intended to become a painter before moving over to playwriting, getting his MFA at Columbia in 2003. A two-year playwriting fellowship at Julliard followed. By the time Fincher was reaching out to see if he might be interested in adapting a BBC political miniseries for American audiences, Willimon was not all that far removed from the days of teaching SAT prep courses in Long Island to make ends meet.<br /> <br /> But the seeds for House of Cards previously had been planted.<br /> <br /> The Political Base <br /> <br /> At Columbia, Willimon befriended Jay Carson, who would go on to become a political advisor and strategist for the senatorial campaigns of New York’s Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, as well as presidential runs by Bill Bradley and Howard Dean.<br /> <br /> While Willimon embarked on life as a fledgling New York playwright, he occasionally escaped his world for one of Carson’s campaigns. In 2004, he found himself working on the advance team for then-Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean. Ahead of the Iowa Caucus, Willimon was part of “a small team of sleep-deprived people” who, as Dean went from stump to stump, had to make sure a venue had been secured, a crowd would show up, and even that there was enough toilet paper in whichever bathroom the candidate might use.<br /> <br /> But Willimon’s principal duty focused on press-wrangling.<br /> <br /> “Like, I would create these little gift bags for them when they landed,” he says of the reporters. “Where I knew that soand- so liked Twizzlers, and so-and-so liked mini-carrots, and so-and-so liked peanut butter and graham crackers. Because happy reporters write better stories.” <br /> <br /> Dean’s presidential bid famously ended with a third-place finish in the Iowa primary and “the Dean scream,” the unpresidential shriek of enthusiasm he let loose that night while addressing supporters. Once back in New York, Willimon started constructing a play out of all that he’d experienced, until he realized the person he was trying to write about was his best friend, Carson.<br /> <br /> The epiphany led him to write Farragut North. The play, rejected multiple times, would change his life several years later when it was bought by Warner Bros., which ultimately partnered With Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, and George Clooney’s Smokehouse Productions, to make The Ides of March [screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon]. The film focuses on the behind-the-scenes reckoning for a talented young campaign operative who betrays his mentor and is cast out of his determined, idealistic world.<br /> <br /> The Ides of March seemed to have its finger on the pulse of the excitement-into-disillusionment that people were feeling about the “hope and change” president. In Hollywood, Willimon became known as a writer of contemporary political material, an image he confesses to exploiting to the hilt. “I’d written a lot of plays about other things besides politics, but Farragut North was the one that people connected to,” he says. “Or at least out in Hollywood.” <br /> <br /> Carson, still a close friend, is now a consultant on House of Cards. (Until recently Carson, a onetime deputy mayor of Los Angeles, was heading the C40-Clinton Climate Initiative, which merged the global climate efforts of former President Bill Clinton and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On House of Cards, Claire Underwood heads the similarly global Clean Water Initiative.)<br /> <br /> The Next Wave of Auteurs?<br /> <br /> The big twist in doing a Netflix series, of course, is that the episodes come out in bulk, giving viewers the choice in how little or how much they watch in a single sitting. That several years passed as Willimon and company developed, outlined, and wrote the first 13 episodes lent the turnaround on the upcoming Season 2 more urgency. People were hooked on the show, but now they were also waiting for more.<br /> <br /> Willimon blanched when I said I’d read that the new episodes will debut February 2014. “I don’t know where you would have read that because we haven’t announced,” he said.<br /> <br /> “That was sneaky.” Then he laughed. If his life is not his own right now, there also aren’t too many show creators operating without the threat of cancellation. Willimon is now arguably part of a next wave of TV auteurs in a medium enjoying a newfound expansiveness in its storytelling. He’s sort of a Sopranos baby—still an undergrad in college when that groundbreaking series began, and now part of the post-collapse-of-the-network-model generation of TV writers, free to examine his characters and their motivations without watching his ratings. Even Willimon says he doesn’t know what the audience is for House of Cards. Much like HBO, Netflix doesn’t do ratings, preferring the fizzier cocktail of critical acclaim, Emmy nominations, and star power from film actors like Spacey.<br /> <br /> Meanwhile, some of the show’s original writers left in the expanse of months between Seasons 1 and 2. The departed include Rick Cleveland (Mad Men, Six Feet Under, and The West Wing) and Sarah Treem, creator of the forthcoming Showtime drama The Affair. Willimon promoted his writer’s assistant, Bill Kennedy, to fill one of the vacant seats, while David Manson, whose credits include HBO’s Big Love and FX’s Damages, was brought in as an executive producer.<br /> <br /> House of Cards, in addition to giving the Netflix brand instant credibility, has started to shift the conversation on how far writers working in digital media can stray from old-fashioned templates. As Willimon points out, House of Cards has a one-hour format not because Netflix dictates it but because the show has international buyers airing it week to week in a traditional lineup.<br /> <br /> “I’m interested by the fact that technology more and more is allowing for the narrative to dictate the form as opposed to the form dictating the narrative,” he says. “The only reason we have half-hour and one-hour shows is because at one point in television’s history, you had a bunch of network executives looking at a grid on a wall and filling up the day. And [they] needed to be able to say, ‘Your advertising is going to be here.’ Now there’s as many or as few hours in the day as you want there to be.” <br /> <br /> Willimon was unfamiliar with the 1990 BBC miniseries House of Cards, but after screenings he had ideas on how to change and Americanize it. With Fincher, Roth, and Donen, a philosophy evolved of “stealing” what they wanted from the original in fashioning something original. The four-hour BBC miniseries, written by Andrew Davies from a novel by Michael Dobbs, swirled around a Thatcher-ite Conservative Party leader, Francis Urquhart. After being passed over for a high position in government by the new prime minister, Urquhart avenges the slight by scheming to bring down his own party’s leadership.<br /> <br /> As played by Ian Richardson, Urquhart is a charming sociopath whose public—and very British—sense of decorum is contrasted devilishly with his deceitful behavior and monologues delivered straight into the camera. Willimon’s Francis Underwood shares many of these attributes, but he is younger than Urquhart, with Spacey’s relaxed facial features and his sardonic way of throwing a look. Frank, from small-town Gafney, South Carolina, rises to become the Democratic Majority Whip in Congress, only to be spurned by the president for the Secretary of State post. It is this wound that, as the series begins, sets him on a course to tear down and remake the power structure around him in his own image.<br /> <br /> In 2011, Willimon moved to L.A. temporarily, renting a threestory house in Venice. He slept on the top floor, and his writers’ “House of Hard Knocks,” room was on the ground floor. “I wanted a house because creative spaces are important, particularly when they’re collaborative. I wanted us to treat our work in a professional, hardworking manner, but I wanted the creative process to feel the opposite of corporate or showing up for work. So I wanted two conflicting things. I wanted a place where we could focus and get our eight to 10 hours of work done each day, but also feel like we weren’t at a job.” <br /> <br /> The table should be square as opposed to a conference table that would project a hierarchy. Willimon and his assistant went to Ikea and assembled the office furniture. There was a lounge area with couches and shelving for all the books being used as research. “Sometimes what I’ll do is, I’ll just say, ‘All right, let’s all go to this side of the room.’ I mean literally, if you get out of your seat that you sit in every day, and you sit on a different piece of furniture facing a different wall, you never know. It’s all voodoo, man.” <br /> <br /> Season 1 writer Sarah Treem, who has known Willimon since both were in the New York playwriting lab New Dramatists, says the writers spent a considerable amount of time both on the Claire Underwood character and the story arc for Peter Russo, the drug- and alcohol-addicted freshman congressman memorably played by Corey Stoll.<br /> <br /> “One thing I admire about Beau is his total willingness to toss out any idea, no matter how thoroughly we’ve developed it, if something better comes along,” Treem says. “He’s got his favorite scenes [or] moments, as all writers do, but by and large, he is actively and consistently at war, with himself, to do better.” <br /> <br /> For Season 2, the writers’ room was moved from Venice to a space in Tribeca.<br /> <br /> Power Players <br /> <br /> Frank Underwood manipulates all of the people Urquhart did on the BBC series—his president, the chief of staff, his colleagues in Congress, and a young reporter looking for scoops. Even when his actions turn homicidal, we remain in his sway, his deceptions exuding a sage disillusionment about the whole shebang of Washington.<br /> <br /> Whereas a contemporary figure like Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch Mc- Connell uses ideology, or the appearance of it, as a line-in-the-sand tactic to obstruct his political enemies, Willimon says, Underwood is about using power to forge self-interested compromise.<br /> <br /> “Francis believes that ideology is a form of cowardice, that a strong belief system prescribes your behavior so that you don’t have to figure it out for yourself,” Willimon says. “It limits you and it prevents compromise, and ultimately compromise is what government is all about.” <br /> <br /> It is probably worth noting that House of Cards has come along at a time when the totems of idealism and hope personified by the 2008 election of Barack Obama have given way to the turn-off of partisan politics, where the grubby action continues. Arguably the most thinly written character on House of Cards is its Democratic president Garrett Walker.<br /> <br /> On House of Cards, the guy running amok with power is also the guy not quite in power. We love Spacey’s Frank for his cynicism, perhaps, but the thrill of the ride-along involves his ability to maintain his equilibrium as the distance between what he says and what he’s doing widens.<br /> <br /> Willimon, to that end, says he’s not as interested in serving a scene with words as he is situation and behavior.<br /> <br /> “My view on television or playwriting or film writing is that it’s not about the words at all,” Willimon says. “All that a script is is a blueprint for behavior. It’s giving an actor an opportunity to do something interesting. For them to do something interesting, you have to give them a great story, and you have to give them the sort of lines that will elicit the emotions and behaviors that you’re interested in seeing. But no one is tuning in for a TV show, or watching a movie, or even watching a play, honestly—which is much more about the language than the other two media—because they want to hear pretty words. That’s not where the drama is. The drama is in the faces and bodies of these people.”<br /> <br /> Beau Willimon is now arguably part of a next wave of TV auteurs in a medium enjoying a newfound expansiveness in its storytelling. He’s sort of a Sopranos baby—still an undergrad in college when that groundbreaking series began—and now part of the postcollapse- of-the-network-model generation of TV writers, free to examine his characters and their motivations without watching his ratings.

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