Robin Wright Talks Directing 'House of Cards' and Keeping to David Fincher's "Format"

"Nerves go away, mistakes don't go away," the actress and EP tells THR about helming four episodes of the Netflix drama. "There's always something to learn."
Courtesy of Netflix

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from House of Cards' fourth season.]

In addition to her starring role on House of Cards as first lady Claire Underwood, Robin Wright had her hands full behind the scenes for the just-released fourth season of the soapy political drama. Wright directed four of the season's 13 episodes and was upped to an executive producer on the Netflix original.

This isn't the Golden Globe winner's first time behind the camera. Prior to directing season four episodes Chapters 42, 43, 48 and 49, Wright had three episodes of House of Cards under her belt from seasons prior.

"Now that I've done it and been bitten by the director bug, it opens up a new vessel of perfection, what the scene is about," Wright tells The Hollywood Reporter about her decision to return to directing. "You're always surprised. You think you've done all the homework, you think you have all of the accuracy and answers down to a tee, but that's the beauty. Everyone's an architect and we're all building this skyscraper together."

To hear more about Wright's time in the director's chair, THR caught up with the actress who is currently in London. Here, Wright reveals her process of directing while having to stick to David Fincher's format, the one scene she wishes she could re-shoot, and how her involvement in the series has changed with her now being an executive producer. 

 

What was the toughest scene to shoot as a director this season?

It's always tough to be in the scene because I always want to be on the other side of the camera. (Laughs). Maybe the dream sequence, the fight because we got pretty bruised (Laughs). It was fun and we had pads on and fake blood, but we really went for it. 

What were the conversations like with [creator] Beau Willimon about which episodes you would direct? 

I think what happened was they already had directors scheduled for certain episodes and those that were left open they just said, "Hey, we don't have directors for these. Would you be interested?" I mean I'm already there. (Laughs.) … I was like, "Sureee!" And I happened to get a couple of really good ones, exciting ones. 

So you didn't say you wanted to direct four, it was just "these four are open"?

No, yeah, I think they were just more available then not. And you know the scripts, they change and are added to and subtracted from every previous episode. The one previous will enhance what is to come and influence what is to come; there's that ever-changing art no matter. So when you think you got something as far as a bible goes, the bones of it don't change predominantly, but how you can expand on that and extrapolate from those ideas is ever-shifting.

 

How concerned were you with juggling your roles onscreen and behind the camera?

I had experienced it in season three for the first time and it was daunting, of course, in the beginning and that was the least of the stress  acting and directing. You want to make sure you're on your game and it's a game that's new to me so I was trying to find my way. Thankfully, I had the greatest teachers, my crew, a very seasoned director of production, and operators and the grip department. We just have a fabulous group of people working on the show. It's like working with family, I felt like I was working in my living room. I got cinema school over the course of two years.

Now you have to direct yourself. What's that dynamic like?

It's no different. We've all been doing it so long we can do it in our sleep, this particular show. It was no different then when I was acting and I'll call cut if it's not good. I'll be like, "Cut, cut, cut, let me go again." You do the same if you're directing yourself. I have to say though, I would catch myself in the scene, watching the other director instead of being as engaged and then I'd have to go, "Wait, wait, wait, let me get into it with you." Because I was watching from the sidelines, but I'm actually in it with you.

Your cast has given a lot of positive feedback about you as a director. What's it like hearing that feedback?

That's the best feeling because being an actor you understand where they are when they come onto set. If there's a confusion or again we, all of us, we kind of get locked into an idea of something. We do our homework and [say], "Yeah, I'm going to say that line in that way!" and there's this beat like, "Step outside of that thought and do something where there's the antithesis of that" having nothing to do with the scene, maybe. That kind of epiphany is what's so shocking in the surprise like, "I would never have suspected that would work." 

Did you get any feedback from Kevin about you directing this season?

He's so great. He's such a pro, and he was great with me. He was very patient in the beginning because I was learning and what's so helpful with him, because he's so good, you don't really have to tell him much. You don't have to ask for much. He's going to give it to you anyway. It's going to come, you just have to be patient between take one and take three and by take three you pretty much have it. You've got this plethora of choices in the editing room because of his mastery. So that was such a great relief and he's such a pal. We crack up constantly in between takes, we're always just giggling, goofing off and we can riff off each other pretty good. We have a great rapport. If one of us goes up on a line, we know how to pick each other up, ad-lib with one another. It's a real gift. 

When we first talked to you about directing your first episode you mentioned making mistakes. After having directed before this season, do the nerves go away? Do you still make mistakes?

Nerves go away, mistakes don't go away. (Laughs.) There's always something to learn. I think the severity of your failures diminish, but there's always more to be had. You're always finished going, "Ahhh, I wish I had! I wish I could have done or I wish I had more time to do. I wish I could go back and re-shoot." That still resides unfortunately. (Laughs.) 

Any scenes now looking back you wish you could re-shoot? 

Of course. The assassination scene, I wish I had more coverage, so what we found in the editing room which is such a genius arena to be able to alter your piece. You're able to say, "Ok, this portion is without so how do we make an addition?" With a cut, with music cues, with fade outs, there's so many tricks you can use to enhance. Therefore, that's what ended up happening because I didn't have all the footage I needed. (Laughs.)

What's your directing process? What are your goals going into directing an episode?

It depends on the script obviously, but primarily on this show it's trying to find a way to convey while holding the style of David Fincher. What did he create for the show? There's a template that we have to follow. You can only use certain cameras; we can't use handheld or steady cam. There's a general feel of the wide frame: see the room, back up. There's not a lot of very close-up shots. … That was sort of my focus. How do I maintain the Fincher style to the show? And there's a prose to that, that he brought when he created this style and that was the challenge to tell you the truth. It was to not use all the tricks and get out of that. 

A lot of the scenes you directed involved large crowds: The church scenes, the audience scenes when someone was giving a speech, the Democratic convention. How were directing those scenes as opposed to ones with two or three characters?

With the church scenes, weren't they fantastic, that choir? And it was such a great group of people that day. They were so accommodating to keep up that energy for 10, 12 hours. They were amazing and when you get that gift you're just kissing the floor at the end of the day, "Thank God for those people. They're the ones who did it." They helped that scene be as enigmatic as it was and we did have that many extras that day, but the Democratic Convention of course we had to tile. We had the same amount of extras at the Democratic Convention that we did at the church, but then you got to multiply it times 100 and that's in post-production. That's a whole different beast! Where you're like, "Hey, group of 150 to 400 of you be in this costume and act in this way. Ok, now all of you go get changed, come back and I'm going to put you in a different location, the Democratic Convention Arena, and I want you to act this way and you're in different clothes because it's a different day and you're cheering for another candidate." That was a lot of strategic work. Keeping a lot of post-its if you know what I mean. (Laughs). 

How has directing impacted your other projects like Wonder Woman?

It definitely has impacted them in the sense when you know thoroughly the nucleus of the idea to the release of the project every step along the way. What were the stages? What stages did we have to go through? What questions needed to be answered? Knowing what the director is going through now on the film, how many answers you need to have. There's so much homework to do. And there's so many departments that need your guidance and you need theirs. It's a different playing field. You have to learn how to be a team player in a different way and a different communicator. A teacher, a listener, and a receiver. 

This is your first season as executive producer on the series. Were there any specific instances where you gave feedback to the show?

You're much more involved with the writing, though Kevin and I have always been. On a daily basis though, you know? But after each script read-through, Kevin and I are very much in the room together discussing what changes need to be made, what's great about this, what's weak about this. Honing in on perfecting each script. That's what's predominantly different. You're more involved in every department. 

Any instance where you and Kevin may have agreed or disagreed on a change or made a change?

We agree and disagree all the time, but that's a working relationship. We work really well together. I have to say it's a nice balance. We learn from each other and he totally gets my goat and shuts me down and is right, and me too sometimes. It's a nice balance what we have. 

What did you think of the episodes Wright directed this season? Do you hope to see her direct more in season five? Was she able to keep to Fincher's tone? Chat back-and-forth in the comments below and stay tuned to The Live Feed for more House of Cards coverage. 

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