For me, the final session at Screen Forever, the 2013 SPA Conference, was the best. It was inspirational as well as fascinating.
Beau Willimon, showrunner for the Netflix series House of Cards, spoke to The Age’s television writer Debi Enker about the creation of the show. Debi began the session by explaining that the new series was the first to be commissioned by the online delivery organisation, heralding a new chapter for the television industry. When it was released, all episodes were released simultaneously, allowing audiences to view them one by one or binge the entire season if they chose. And many did.
Beau began by posing five thoughts, saying that he said he hoped the audience would disagree with them all.
One. I don’t think there is any distinction any more between film and television.
Two. Viewers have absolutely no interest in brand.
Three. Data is not a predictor. Data can only shed light on what has been, not what will work in the future.
Four. The entertainment business rewards risk-takers. Suffocate creativity and you suffocate your product.
Fifth. As cinema was the definitive art form of the 20th century, the definitive art form of the 21st century will be video games. Video games are where the future is.
Debi – You’ve described your arrangement with Netflix as a group of people with no experience in television.
Beau – None of us knew what the fuck we were doing. Neither David Fincher nor I had worked in television before. We didn’t think of it as making a TV show at all. For me, it was more of a novel. We didn’t have a single development executive. Not one. Netflix said to us ‘we will get the story you want to tell out to the world.’
Debi – How did you get to Netflix?
Beau – David Fincher approached me to write it for the production company MRC (Media Rights Capital). I don’t know what MRC’s deal was with the BBC, who did the original series written by Andrew Davies.
“We sat down with the usual suspects,” said Beau. “On a Sunday all three of those networks came to us. We said thanks for coming, we don’t want to do a pilot, we want to be commissioned for a whole series. I’d put a year of my life into that script.”
“The very next day we sat down with Netflix. I wasn’t sure what they wanted. We said the same thing, we wanted a season up front. They said ‘we’re in the content business and we would need two seasons.’ We said ‘okay, we’ll get back to you.’”
“So with Netflix, we had creative freedom and two seasons guaranteed. That blew the competition out of the water.”
“When you haven’t been shaped by the status quo, you are kind of figuring it out as you go. When I’m doing something, I want to have no idea what to do, how I’m going to tell the story. As my dad told me: ‘a job you know how to do isn’t worth doing.’”
Debi – Knowing you had two seasons up front, what sort of freedoms did it give you?
Beau – Knowing we had 26 hours, I knew I didn’t have to fight for survival the way a lot of shows do, creating cliff-hangers to entice audiences to come back next week. At the end of Season One there was not a question about whether there would be a Season Two. So that doubles the real estate canvas you can paint on.
Debi – At what point did Kevin Spacey come on board?
Beau – Kevin came on board after I’d done several drafts of episode one. When David and I spoke to the networks we only had the script of one episode. I had ideas about the progression of the series, and I gave them some ideas on where we might end up. They wanted to have some notion of where the first season might take us.
I worked on the first episode for almost a year, going through several drafts. David started having conversations with Kevin, who he knew well as they’d worked together on Se7en. He also knows Robin Wright from way back when. David and I both felt that if we didn’t get those two stars, if they said no we just wouldn’t do it. Without them you were just limping in. So we put the script in their hands, and thank god they said yes.
Debi – Did they have any input into the writing?
Beaut – Absolutely, and they still do. That the difference between television and film, you have a constant and evolving dialogue.
As the showrunner, I’m on the set from the first rehearsals to the final shot. We have 140 shooting days a year. Kevin and Robin are both incredibly incisive when it comes to script, and willing to push themselves. I talk to them about throwing out a story and introducing new ones. We will also change things at the last moment on set, if we feel something can be improved. I’ll watch a few takes and say what if we do this? Right until we do the last setup of a scene.
I saw that Pierre Rousseau had an amazing interaction with Kevin Spacey on the set, so I built up his role and changed a lot of scripts to accommodate that. I had a staff of writers to help me.
I don’t mind changing things at the last minute. I don’t agree with this idea that the script is a Rosetta stone and completely unmalleable, because with that approach you are completely shutting out the input of the director and the actors. I’m meticulous, going through 6 drafts of every script. But refusing to allow any changes means you are saying you’ve achieved perfection. I think a script is a blueprint for behaviour. People don’t watch something because of the script. I think that a great story should function on mute. You should understand everything that is going on with the sound down. The script is the strategy for achieving this great behaviour. You have to have a great script as a jumping off point. You are all simply there to try and capture magic.
Debi commented on the opening of the show, where Francis Underwood does something rather brutal while dressed in a tuxedo.
Beau – That’s one way to start a show! It’s based on the English show written by Andrew Davies. Right up front, David Fincher said he had no interest in doing an adaptation of the British show. A lot has changed in 20 years in both television and in politics, and we wanted to have our own tone, our own stories and our characters.
Originally, I started the show with Kevin going through a New Year’s Eve party, and it felt a little tepid. I wanted it to not feel like an introduction, but more like a punch in the face.
I wanted it to be a movie star entrance. Underwood was in a party so he’s in a tux. That’s good. And you can have the double doors open and Kevin comes out and that’s good, that’s a movie star entrance. So why does he come out, I thought? Maybe it’s a car accident. OK but maybe it’s a dog. Why don’t I have him kneel down and put this dog out of his misery. He speaks to camera and he kills another life-form and it’s his world view of being able to be ruthless.
Beau explained to the audience how in television, as in film, you can kill as many humans as you want, but if you kill a dog, the audience goes insane. “We discussed it and we weren’t cavalier. Anyone who was repulsed by this, they probably weren’t made for this show,” they decided. “We felt like it was a sort of litmus test for who was going to connect with it. If we had been in a network, we would have been told by someone that we couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t even have been a conversation. A focus group would have told you, you just can’t do it.”
It was a great beginning because then you see Underwood wash his hands and go into the party.
Debi – You’ve described him as some kind of optimist. He’s driven by ambition.
Beau – In terms of Francis being an optimistic, I firmly believe that. I am seeing it from his point of view. I don’t have an agenda. In his view, ideology is a form of cowardice. Your moral code proscribes your behaviour and leaves you no choice.
“If people say I’m not going to bend on my moral code, it’s a form of paralysis. A great example of that is the recent shutdown in the US. What was the result? People suffered and died. That definitely happened. That was the result of people who refused to bend from their morality.”
“Do the ends justify the means? Francis would say absolutely. The truth is, all heads of states, all Presidents are murderers. We entrust our leaders to kill on our behalf. They decide where the troops go. If we elect a leader who doesn’t, they’re incompetent. That’s not a pretty thought, but it’s a reality.”
“In America we want our leaders to be effective, but also to be saints. They can’t be both. And that’s why we are always disappointed with them.”
Beau added that Abraham Lincoln was a moral president but he did things that were illegal, that were unconstitutional, because he had to. “We forgive him as we understand that he did what he had to do.”
Producer/writer Susan Bower asked about the production schedule for House of Cards.
Beau – “We shoot 6 pages a day, shooting two episodes at a time. We complete one episode in 10 days and shoot for 20, so a director can spend 20 days working with us, which allows a director to settle in with the cast.”
Beau mentioned that Steven Soderburgh, who famously announced his imminent retirement recently, is doing a show called The Nick about a hospital in New York at the turn of the century. Soderburgh is apparently shooting all ten episodes simultaneously, and he is directing and also director of photography, hand holding the entire thing.
“We have very strict rules for our DP. It comes from Fincher’s ideas on filmmaking. No pans, no steadicam, no long lenses. You’ll never see bright red in our show, because vibrant colour is comedy and black and white is drama. In case you didn’t know.”
A discussion ensured about whether this was true, and Pedro Almodovar’s vibrant colour palette was mentioned, even in his dramas. But for Willimon the director’s work is best as comedy.
Q – how does the writer and director work together?
Beau – It’s very much a collaboration between a lot of people.
Beau talked about working with David Fincher. He was warned initially that he would have more interaction with Fincher than he could possibly want.
“We share a lot of similar approaches,” Beau said. “He has this vast mind. He is a savant. He went to the RED factory and showed them how to build a RED camera. He is one of the great minds on editing. If you see him with a DP, he will tell them where all the lights should go, and names each one.”
“He does a lot of takes but I think that’s a strategy to get actors not to act.”
I’ve never gotten better notes on a script. He’s a great guy, deeply collaborative. Even now when he’s shooting Gone Girl (2014) he’s looking at every edit of House of Cards.”
Note – a quote on directing from David Fincher on IMDB: “People will say, ‘There are a million ways to shoot a scene’, but I don’t think so. I think there’re two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.”
When asked what constitutes great notes, Beau retorted that the questioner was looking for a schema or a formula, and they can’t get that. “You need a brilliant person to give great notes,” he said. “I don’t say that to be an arsehole, I think it’s true. We want the best outcome possible. David wants to achieve clarity of story, sophistication in terms of character development and originality.”
“Fincher has years of experience and a sense of honesty that few people have. It’s very hard to find people who give great notes. A lot of times people who are giving notes are doing so to justify their own paycheck.”
“Sometimes the best thing a producer can do is to get out of the way. Sometimes a great producer knows when to get in the way, when someone’s ego is getting in the way, or it’s just the fact that you can’t bat a thousand all the time. Producers like Scott Rubin know about story.”
Willimon said that sometimes David Fincher will highlight a couple of lines and say ‘better.’ “But I know what he means. Other people might give that note and I would have no idea what they mean.”
Beau said that they stole the piece to camera style outright from the BBC version. “It’s sort of like Richard the Third, the Shakespeare play. Kevin Spacey calls him ‘Dick the Shit.’ Because he lets you in on it, it builds conspiracy from the audience.”
Willimon suggested that the 13 by one hour format of the show is driven by the need for international sales. It has to be in one hour chunks. However he feels that this comes from a bygone era, and he’d love to have episodes of different lengths, or dispense with episodes altogether and have one continuous 12 hour stream. “I’m serious,” he added.
Like being the President, there’s no way of preparing for the job of showrunner, said Willimon. “You have to wear a ton of hats. Collaborate with a lot of people. Editing it. Thinking of the design of sets. It’s what a film director would do times 7.” He said he worked 100 hour weeks for nine months of the year. “It’s a form of insanity, like making 7 feature films in one year. You get to make a feature film every 20 days. Plus, I get to work with the best people in the business.” However he said that he has never been able to grow a beard, so he’s hoping that as he goes grey he’ll eventually look older than 15 years.
Finally, Willimon told the audience that the only award he’s ever won was the AACTA Award in 2011 for Ides of March. He showed us a photo of it sitting on a table in a diner in LA after the ceremony. “I turned up to this full-on event with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. So thank you Australia.”