“House of Cards” Creator Beau Willimon Talks Washington, David Fincher, and TV Sociopaths

The writer and former staffer on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign catches up with us before his new show’s release today.

By: Sophie Gilbert

House of Cards, Netflix’s new Washington-set show about a congressman hell-bent on avenging himself against a presidential administration, comes out today, and it might just change the way we watch television. Created by director David Fincher and writer Beau Willimon, the show has a deal with Netflix that means all 13 episodes will be available for viewing as of today. It’s a risky and possibly brilliant strategy, capitalizing on a propensity for binge-viewing that Netflix’s own business structure encourages.

The format might be new, but the show’s main themes—power, and its corrosive, addictive nature—are as old as time itself. Based on a 1980s cult TV show, Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) turns against a President he helped get elected when the position he was promised goes to someone else, abandoning restraint to bring down anyone and everyone in his path. Willimon, who honed his political chops working on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, explored similar concepts in Farragut North, his hit 2008 play about a ruthless junior campaign manager. The play was later adapted into the Ryan Gosling/George Clooney film The Ides of March (Willimon received an Oscar nomination for his role co-writing the screenplay). We caught up with him to discuss adapting a classic, writing villains, and how he really sees Washington. For more on House of Cards, read our review.

First of all, how did you get on board with House of Cards? Had you seen the British series before you were approached?

Three years ago Fincher reached out to me to see if I was interested in doing House of Cards, and I’d heard of the BBC version but I hadn’t seen it. I knew it was a cult classic in the UK, but I’d never got around to checking it out. I thought it was a pretty good excuse to watch it if it meant having a conversation with Fincher, who’s one of my heroes, one of the most talented filmmakers around. I watched it and fell in love with it and immediately saw a ton of opportunities as to how to Americanize it, make it contemporary, make it our own. I got on the phone with David and two other of the [executive producers], and we talked, and my ideas were in line with theirs, and we decided to team up and get to work. I spent almost a year working on the first episode, and during that time we got Kevin and Robin onboard, and once we had a script we were all satisfied with, we teamed up with Netflix—and here we are.

What did you most want to preserve from the original series?

From the very beginning, the one thing we definitely knew we wanted to keep was the direct address. Turning to the camera and having that intimacy with the audience is so delicious in the BBC version, and we wanted to maintain that, particularly if you put it in the hands of Kevin Spacey, who’s been doing nine months of Richard III and turning to the audience in that same way. We felt that was going to be one of the stronger points of the show. And then there’s a lot in terms of the archetypes of the main characters that we maintained, and a few big signposts in terms of the plot, but pretty quickly we diverged from the original. We have a completely different tone, our story heads in a completely different direction with the schemes [Francis] employs. Of course, it remains a tale of ascendancy and power for power’s sake. But one of the central things I wanted to do differently from the original was to really bring Francis’s wife to the fore. In the BBC version, as great as it is, she’s not even a secondary character—she’s a tertiary character who comes in from time to time. She’s mostly a support mechanism, and we really wanted to tell the story of the two of them as a team, a true political pact and a truly complicated and deep marriage that isn’t just based on political transaction but is founded on deep mutual respect and love, and yet operates under a very unorthodox set of rules.

One of the things that really struck me from the first couple of episodes is when Kevin Spacey’s character talks about money and power, and how one is much more compelling than the other. Where did that come from?

The reality is that politicians, in terms of the amount of power they wield and the amount that they work, don’t actually make that much money. In Washington if you’re a congressman or a senator or the President, you make much more money than the average American, but you’d think that if you were the leader of the free world you’d be making major bank, and you don’t. So you have lobbyists—and the character of Remy is a great example—who oftentimes are earning by a power of ten far more than the politicians that they’re lobbying. I think people who remain in the political sphere as opposed to going into the private sector, really what they’re looking at is how in some ways the compensation is power. How do you place a price tag on the ability to affect millions of people’s lives? How do you place a price tag on the ability to determine the rules by which all of us play? Is that in some ways much more valuable than any eight-figure sum you could earn? People who make the decision to cash out, to go for the money as opposed to that greater influence, are looking at things in a fairly superficial way.

Do you think Washington in real life is as dark a place as it is in House of Cards and in your play, Farragut North?

That’s a good question. We definitely take an extreme view of Washington. We’re looking at it through a very dark lens, and I don’t believe that all people in Washington are bad or corrupt. There are certainly plenty of good people there whose main goal is to change the world for the better, and I think most people in Washington fall somewhere on that spectrum between the two. But I think even when people who have the best intentions in life find themselves with power in their hands there’s always the potential for corruption, and there’s always the potential for a shift from idealism to self-interest, because power is seductive. I’ve seen that up close to a degree on campaigns I’ve worked on, and I think it’s a story that is continually worth telling. I don’t take a cynical view toward Washington; I just think that what we wanted to do was explore the more dramatic, more delicious, and more terrifying dark side of it.

Do you think that the audience will be on Francis’s side? Did you want them to empathize with him?

Certainly we want there to be the opportunity for people to root for him. I can’t presume to predict how the audience will react to him. What I hope is that they find themselves rooting for Francis despite themselves. We’ve grown accustomed as audiences to rooting for villains—you can look at Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, or go all the way back to Richard III or Macbeth. On paper, if you look at what these folks are up to, most of us would say, “That’s some pretty dastardly stuff and I don’t condone that kind of behavior.” And yet when we see them fictionalized onscreen, we take delight in seeing them on the warpath. And I think that’s because through these characters we get to access a dark side of ourselves that we would never exhibit in our own lives. It’s in some ways a safe method of tapping into our own sociopathy. And that’s one of the things drama is there for. I think especially with the direct address, as you find Francis talking to you again and again, and you become intimate with him; in a way you become complicit in his misdeeds. You become an accomplice.

It isn’t exactly clear whether he’s a Democrat or a Republican. Was that intentional?

Absolutely. We didn’t want anyone to think we were approaching the series with a political agenda. Our goal was not to attack one party or another or to try to service some ideology. A Francis-type character could exist on either side of the aisle. So we made him a Southern Democrat, someone who lives in the middle who could easily be Republican. I think the pursuit of power for power’s sake is a very bipartisan thing.

You’ve gone from working on a political campaign to writing a play to writing a screenplay to writing a TV show. What will you do next?

I don’t know! I don’t know what I’ll do next. I do know that for at least the next year and a half of my life it’s going to be House of Cards [the original agreement with Netflix was for 26 episodes], and I hope we have the privilege of a third season and a fourth season and beyond. I was always a writer—working on campaigns was never a profession for me. It was something I did on the side, really, so the trajectory hasn’t been a political operative who likes to dabble in writing and finds himself into stumbling on film and TV—that was always my goal. I always wanted to work on a show like this. I never would have guessed that working on campaigns would have led me there, and I didn’t approach them as research—I was really trying to get these people I believed in elected. It was really after the Dean campaign when I came back to New York and was desperate just to write something that I had the first thought to write about this world. Politics was on my brain, and I ended up writing Farragut North. I never would have guessed it would have led to here, but I’m sure glad it did.