How 'House of Cards' Writer Beau Willimon Got the Inside Dirt on D.C.

House of Cards Premiere Mara Spacey Willimon Wright - H 2013
Kris Conor/Getty Images

House of Cards Premiere Mara Spacey Willimon Wright - H 2013

From idealistic Howard Dean staffer to lead writer of a show likened to a political version of "The Wire," the 35-year-old tells THR how he's built a career on revealing Washington's seedier side.

House of Cards, Netflix's glossy look at the bloodsport of national politics, has become a minor sensation in the nation’s capital -- a pulpy blend of sex, lies and bureaucracy. It's a treatise on power and its perversion, so who, exactly, is running the show?

Meet Beau Willimon, a scruffy trained playwright and former campaign staffer from St. Louis who looks even younger than his 35 years.

House of Cards, his adaptation of the acclaimed British miniseries, is a 13-episode slither through the dirty trenches of government that focuses on Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a scheming Democratic congressman from South Carolina. He is an antihero, combining Machiavelli’s ruthlessness and Bill Clinton’s Southern charm, sweet-talking enemies and allies alike before double-crossing and stabbing them in the back to get his way.

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Underwood represents the centrist, corporate-friendly wing of the party, taking on teachers unions and environmentalists -- the sort of policies that would have been anathema to Willimon in his early days in politics. The creator, showrunner and lead writer has seen the power dynamics and media shifts up close, registering endless political minutiae during a rapid ascent that began at the very bottom: canvassing the city streets.

Willimon, then in his 20s, became one of many young people to devote themselves to Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s Beltway-assaulting run for the 2004 Democratic nomination for president. The outspoken governor skyrocketed to the top of the early polls by harnessing the anti-war anger of the progressive blogosphere, as the forward-looking Dean team -- run in part by Willimon's college best friend, Jay Carson -- become the first major campaign to utilize the Internet for mass fundraising and volunteer organizing.

"[Dean’s war opposition] electrified so many people, especially young people who really felt being involved in politics is not just about tax reform and redistricting and all those alienating boring things that make people averse to politics," Willimon tells The Hollywood Reporter. "My being involved could actually end the war. That’s seductive. … It was devastating for me when he lost."

What he learned following the third-place finish in Iowa that would sink Dean's campaign made it even harder to swallow.

"One of the more disillusioning things was learning from Jay that they knew in the top circle of Dean’s campaign that he was going to lose Iowa several weeks before he did," Willimon says. "There were all of us campaigning our asses off in the trenches that had no clue and thought he was a slam dunk. They didn’t realize to what degree he was going to lose."

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In the days that followed the loss, the candidate -- always seen as a bit of a loose cannon, decidedly un-Washington -- seemingly was buried by the sound of his own voice. Fired up during a post-caucus rally, the governor let out a yelp -- soon known as the "Dean Scream" -- that was played on a loop all over television. The first Internet candidate had spawned a meme that many supporters say killed him; in retrospect, Willimon, who served as a full-time press advance staffer for the campaign, concedes that blaming the media for the candidate's downfall is too simplistic.

"The media doesn’t create narratives, really. They’re not that powerful," he contends. "What they do is they tap into narratives that are already bubbling amongst their viewership or readership. The good journalists are perceptive of what’s going on around them, and the narrative was already emerging that this guy might be a loose cannon and unprepared to be president."

For Willimon, the loss was a lesson in the bruising inside world of electoral politics, the imperfections of the media and the vulnerability that comes with idealism.

"Beau did the soul searching after that race," Carson says. "You're depressed after any race you lose, and a lot of people don’t know what to do with that depression. Beau turned it into a great play that went on to become a great movie."

"I was itching to write; I hadn’t written anything in six months," Willimon remembers. "Politics was on the mind, and I turned my attention to writing Farragut North." A play about an eager campaign aide for great liberal hope of a presidential candidate who finds himself entwined in sex and corruption, Farragut opened in Washington in 2007 and was staged off-Broadway soon after.

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Optioned by Warner Bros, the play ultimately would become that George Clooney-directed drama The Ides of March, earning Willimon an Oscar nomination for co-writing the adaptation. It is widely accepted that the young campaign aide at the center, played by Ryan Gosling, was based on Carson.

In the midst of it all, Willimon received a call from David Fincher, Josh Donen and Eric Roth, asking if he had any interest in adapting the two-decade-old BBC version of House of Cards. Willimon binge-watched the series, took the meeting and soon found himself dedicating almost a year of his life to writing the pilot, then nine more months pounding out the remaining 12 episodes of the first season.

Three weeks after Netflix made first season available for streaming all at once, Willimon has begun writing the second set of 13 episodes. (The series received an initial two-season commitment.) In a sense, he owes this all to a boring summer of studying the original political dramas.

He was a student at Columbia in 1998, wilting in the New York heat while studying Greek classics at the uptown Ivy, when Carson -- coming off an internship with George Stephanopoulos -- tempted him with tales of his work on a Senate campaign. Congressman Chuck Schumer, a gregarious Democrat from Brooklyn, was a longshot in the party’s primary, but Stephanopolous assured Carson that he would win. Carson started out as an unpaid intern for Schumer and ultimately brought Willimon aboard.

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"I think there were only four people working on the campaign at the time," the writer recalls. "I wasn’t particularly enjoying or doing well in those summer courses, so I thought, 'This sounds a lot better than accelerated Ancient Greek.' It was a lark, really, but I immediately became addicted."

Schumer was trailing former vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro by nearly 30 points in the Democratic primary when Willimon hopped aboard, joining a staff packed with tireless twentysomethings. Three months of hustling -- "we were working 30 to 40 hours a week while we were going to college," Carson says -- and a 50-point swing later, the congressman won the primary and went on to topple longtime incumbent Republican Alfonse D’Amato in November.

That was a formative experience, the first fix of the amphetamine rush of campaigns and gamesmanship, a potent cocktail when swirled with young idealism. Willimon studied to be a playwright in graduate school while Carson rose through the ranks. In the midst of his studies, he joined his friend to work Hillary Clinton’s run for Senate in 2000 and then on Bill Bradley’s insurgent campaign for president that same year. Although it was a losing effort, Willimon contends that the former New Jersey senator’s candidacy was the opening salvo in the war for the Democratic Party.

"You look at Bradley as being a candidate who really opened up the door to the quote-unquote alternative candidate," he says, turning political scientist. "He was saying things that were not necessarily in the mainstream, and there was a thirst for that sort of honest and contrary and rhetoric out there. There wasn’t enough thirst and, ultimately, money to make him a viable opponent to Al Gore, but the door was opened a little bit."

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Bradley was the precursor to Dean, who in turn paved the way for the current commander in chief, the writer contends. House of Cards' Underwood is, ideologically, on the other end of the Democratic caucus, often watering down liberal legislation. As the show's conniving protagonist, he confesses early on in the series his willingness "suck at the teat" of corporate lobbyists.

"The decision to make Frank a Democrat is an important and laudable one," columnist and author David Sirota tells THR in an email. "In popular culture, the Republican Party is caricatured as the sole party doing corporate interests' dirty work, while Democrats are similarly caricatured as the (often ineffective) party of the little guy. By rejecting that and showing that corporate cronyism and avarice is also a major force in the Democratic Party, the show does a public service by reminding us that the hackneyed red-versus-blue cartoons often hide the transpartisan nature of corruption."

Carson cautions against putting too much stock in their early political adventures with Dean; both men have participated in many campaigns, and he currently runs the environmental coalition led by President Clinton, a moderate Democrat, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is pro-business and socially liberal.

"Neither of us are ideologues, and I’ve always liked candidates that took a practical approach to getting the job done," he adds, noting that Underwood is his own kind of D.C. outsider, playing by his own rules to buck the party establishment. A longtime political spokesman, trained in appealing to the mainstream, Carson says he has not caught flak from any lawmaker or lobbyist friends in Washington because none of the characters is based on real people. That disclaimer, for instance, allows the show to cast Robin Wright as the cold executive of an environmental nonprofit with ties to corporate donors and lobbyists, a character that would seem to draw from people in Carson's current orbit.

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"There’s no agenda in the show as to whether Underwood’s worldview is right or wrong. That’s for the viewers to decide for themselves,” Willimon says, working to avoid any accusations that he is condemning the machinations of his lobbyist-pleasing, master-manipulator protagonist -- and thus, a large part of the Washington establishment.

Still, simply pulling the curtain back on the backroom dealings that move the levers of power in legally and ethically perverse ways is its own form of activism, Sirota insists.

"Showing the system unto itself is the commentary. In that, it is very Wire-ish," he says, comparing House of Cards to the seminal HBO series about the twisted ecosystem of drug dealers and police in Baltimore. "It also treats the audience as mature in the sense of not having to hit you over the head with some sort of ideological message. In that way it is more "show" than "tell" -- that is, it is more effective in delivering a critique by illustrating the realities of the ugly political world rather than by having the characters make sententious speeches."

Both Dean, who would go on to become the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and President Barack Obama, who Willimon and Carson call his successor as outsider candidate, became part of the establishment. In the same way, Carson has one foot in the biggest fundraising circles in the country and another in a show that exposes its more flagrant -- if extreme and outlier -- abuses. As such, it's best to claim fiction, even if Carson does admit to scanning Politico and other papers daily for stories to send to Willimon.

"If you know where to look in Washington, you can find countless incidents of drama that are worthy of the big screen," he leads, stopping short of providing any concrete example. And yet, there must be many, given the show's whirlwind writing process.

Most of the first season's episodes were written before production began, pounded out in a three-story house in Venice Beach while Spacey spent nine months in London staging Richard III. Naturally, Carson serves as the show's main political consultant. Fincher, another executive producer, directed the first two episodes, which flow into each other much as a film might.

The production of the first batch of 13 hourlong episodes had budget problems, despite the hefty commitment, and ran over schedule -- issues that plague many high-end dramas, especially those with rookie showrunners.

Typical problems aside, the series has proved a major hit, at least according to Netflix. The service does not need to worry about ratings -- it is the ultimate in time-shifting television -- and will say only that House of Cards is its most-streamed show at the moment.

There exists, with that endless data Netflix is collecting, the possibility of perfectly tailoring a show to fit viewers' demands, repeating moments that they most often replayed or ditching the sort of scenes that inspired them to turn off the show altogether. Dana Brunetti, one of the show's producers, tossed cold water on the idea that Cards would take advantage of the so-called Big Data opportunity.

"That's something that can always be done on all Netflix's series," he says. "With Nielsen's ratings you couldn't do it. It's an antiquated system. [Netflix] gives us more creative control, just to make what we want to make and not have to be like, at 15 minutes we have to do this or that. I guess you could be super-sophisticated and try to do that and that's what the super-execs of the future will do, but I think we'll avoid that."

The reviews also have been solid, some better than that; THR's Tim Goodman wrote that it is "a heavyweight new contender in the drama category," on par with the top cable dramas. In an age of acclaimed cable antiheroes, from Tony Soprano to Don Draper of Mad Men and Breaking Bad's Walter White, Cards' gravitational center fits right in.

"The extent to which viewers watch it and enjoy the complicity makes them in a way accomplices," Willimon says. "And what does that say about you the viewer if you find yourself rooting for a Francis Underwood? Why are you rooting for this person? Maybe there’s a part of Francis Underwood in all of us."

With production of the next 13 episodes on the horizon, Netflix and production company Media Rights Capital have brought TV vet David Manson aboard as an executive producer to help guide Willimon through the second season; if there are any hard feelings, he holds them close to the vest.

"It’s great to have David on board," Willimon says. "He’s a real pro, and we’ve brought some new writers on as well, and I’m really excited about our team this go around. Frankly, I’m simply excited at the idea of getting to spend time with all of these complicated people and see where they take us."

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