Q-and-A with ‘House of Cards’ writer Beau Willimon
“House of Cards” tells the story of an amoral Democratic congressman from Gaffney as he seeks to satisfy his lust for power in the nation’s capital. Think “The West Wing” as told by Machiavelli.
The orbit of House Majority Whip Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, includes an ambitious reporter, a Lady Macbeth-esque wife and a drug and alcohol binge-disposed Pennsylvania pol.
The show is based on a 1990 BBC TV series of the same name, which itself was based on a novel.
The entire first season of the Netflix-exclusive series, 13 episodes, went live last month, allowing subscribers to set their own viewing pace. Some observers believe the quality of the political drama and it’s innovative model has the potential to change how we watch shows.
While the first season was shot in Maryland, it featured one episode set in Gaffney and another in a fictional version of Charleston. In the Lowcountry-centered episode, Underwood visits his military college Alma mater, “The Sentinel.”
Developer and lead show writer Beau Willimon took a break from work on planning the second season of “House of Cards” to speak with The Post and Courier. Willimon, a playwright and screenwriter, is a 35-year-old former Democratic campaign staffer. His family owns a goat farm outside Greenville.
P&C: The world of “House of Cards” is a really dark place. How much of this based on some of your own experience on campaigns and how much of it just dramatic license?
Willimon: “Well we certainly take an extreme view. When you tell a story, it’s all about how you focus the lens. And our lens is a dark one. In terms of what I drew from in order to create our version of “House of Cards,” I certainly drew from my campaign experiences. I have a lot of friends that work in politics, so I relied on those relationships, and a lot of roll-up-the-sleeves research in order to create a degree of authenticity which we hope exceeds that of any other political drama to date.
There are times when you have to reduce or simplify or take a dramatic license but in terms of the thematic thrust of the show, which is power, any time you put a large amount of power in anyone’s hands it has the potential to corrupt. And we’re focusing on a hero or antihero, whichever you want to call him, that desires power for power’s sake. That’s gonna be a dark world.”
P&C: The fact that the lead character is from our state has gotten a lot of attention here. What went into the decision to have the character be from South Carolina?
Willimon: “It started from a very simple place which was there’s a catchphrase from the BBC version...where Ian Richardson says numerous times ‘You may well might think that I couldn’t possibly comment.’ It’s something I wanted to keep a couple instances of as an homage to the BBC version.
But that particular phrase isn’t idiomatic to the American vernacular, typically. And then I thought about it for a moment and I thought, well, a lot of my family, all of my family on my dad’s side is from South Carolina, I’ve spent a good deal of time down there myself. And if you took a South Carolinian Upcountry accent, and I’m going to do a bad version for you right now (Willimon switches over to a Southern drawl): ‘You may well not think that I couldn’t’ possibly comment.’ It rolls off the tongue and it works.
So I made the initially arbitrary choice to make him from South Carolina in order to make that catchphrase work, but that opened up a whole world of possibilities to me. In the BBC version, Francis Urquhart is from Scottish origin. He is a man of privilege, a modern-day aristocrat. And the American mythology of ‘anyone can be president’ seems more in tune with our show. The idea that Francis could come from a small town the same way say a Bill Clinton did or a Harry Truman did, and assume higher office was the thinking to me.
I talked to my dad for a little while who grew up in Greenville, and I said ‘Greenville is a little too big. I want something, a town, that’s a little smaller. The sort of place that you might drive past on the interstate and not think of stopping, but that has a lot of texture and history and dimension to it.’ And he named a few places, but the first one out of his lips was Gaffney. And I asked him a little bit about Gaffney. He had spent some time there when he was a kid. And I did a little research on Gaffney, and it seemed just like the sort of place.
I subsequently did a research trip where I travelled out to Gaffney and met with folks there and spent a couple days in the town. It seemed right in line with the story we wanted to tell, which is someone who came from a small town and rose to prominence.”
P&C: I think also you’ve made the Peachoid (a striking, peach-shaped water tower that sits near the interstate in Gaffney is featured in an episode of the show) kind of like a celebrity now.
Willimon: The Peachoid was a celebrity in its own right before ‘House of Cards’ ever came along. I believe it’s been — I don’t know the exact examples — I think if you look it up on Wikipedia there’s been a couple instances where it’s appeared in movies or TV shows a couple times. I don’t think we’re the first, but we may be the first to devote an entire episode to it.”
P&C: How did that come about, just the thought of “OK, we’re going to take this (the Peachoid) and run with it for an entire episode?”
Willimon: “Well we’re really interested in dramatizing sort of ‘small-ball’ politics for at least an episode. We had a lot of high-stakes political gamesmanship going on in the show, but at the end of the day, Francis was still a congressman, he represents a district. It’s a real place with real people. And we thought it was important to show his constituents and the sort of things that congressmen often have to deal with that might distract them from some of the quote unquote ‘bigger things’ that they’re working on in Washington.
And you have the issues that are important back home are just as important to those residents as any national issue that their representative might be working on in Washington. So in thinking about different things that could be going on in Gaffney, well certainly the Peachoid is front and center whenever one is talking about Gaffney, and it just was too delicious, no pun intended, to not incorporate it. And I guess our thought was if we’re going to go for it, let’s go for it 100 percent.”
P&C: Do you have any personal opinion about what it looks like?
Willimon: “All of my personal opinions, which are completely irrelevant, I think are named ad infinitum in the episode itself. (Later in the interview, Willimon returned to the topic) A lot of people were surprised that it was real. It’s one of those cases where truth is stranger than fiction. I’m a big fan of the Peachoid because to me it’s a public works example of imagination. I know it’s been controversial to a degree in Gaffney over the years, but if the show hasn’t made it evident already we’re fans of controversy.”
P&C: One of the other interesting South Carolina-themed plot lines was when Frank goes back to “The Sentinel” military college in Charleston. Did you change the name of the school for legal reasons?
Willimon: “It is a fictional school in our show, so it’s not meant to be a parallel or sort of placeholder for The Citadel per se. The school certainly is inspired by military colleges across the nation, of which The Citadel is one. My dad spent 31 years in the military, retired as a captain in the Navy. I grew up on naval bases.
Military life is a very particular way of life, and one that — you know I deeply value the time I spent living on naval bases and living amongst folks serving the country. There’s a particular sort of code and ethics and discipline and commitment that people who serve share.
I was interested in investigating that as part of who Francis is. Seeing how it may have informed who he has become. And at the same time revealing a bit more about where he came from. And so, I think those were all the things that went into creating a fictional military college. Certainly ‘The Sentinel’ sounds a lot like The Citadel.
People who want to draw comparison, that’s their prerogative. But the main reason to create a fictional place, the same way we create ‘The Washington Herald’ (a fictional newspaper on the show), was to give us absolute liberty to tell the story we wanted to tell. When you name a real place or a real institution, for those people who care about facts — and we do — that can be limiting and we didn’t want to be limited in that way.”
P&C: So I believe I read that the scenes that were represented as Gaffney in the show were shot up north?
Willimon: “They were shot in Maryland in a town called Havre de Grace. We would love to have shot in Gaffney itself but unfortunately that’s cost prohibitive to move an entire production down to Gaffney. We talked about it at one point. We looked at what that would cost because we really wanted to. But it was just a bit too far away.
Our production was based just outside of Baltimore. And to get the crew assembled down in South Carolina, move out 20-plus trucks down there would have eaten up too much time and cost too much money. So we did our best to create the sense and feeling of Gaffney in what was a little closer to home in Havre de Grace, a town that’s on the Chesapeake, but has that small-town feel and a deep and textured history of its own was a pretty good way to do that, we thought.”
P&C: Do you plan to film most of season two around the Baltimore area as well?
Willimon: “Yeah. We have stages built in Edgewood, Maryland. And so all of the stuff that we shoot on the stages in gonna be there. And because that’s our home base, our locations tend to be nearby, either in Baltimore city or in the surrounding counties, places like Havre de Grace. On occasion when we can, we try to shoot in D.C. itself. Is it conceivable that we could get a little farther away into another state, another place? Anything’s possible but there’s a lot of factors that go into deciding where you shoot, and logistical and financial efficiency is high among them.”
P&C: So back onto the show itself and the themes of the show, one of the things that seems to be a big takeaway is Frank is obviously a Democrat but ideology doesn’t seem to matter much in the way that the characters interact and the way that the show plays out. Was that done intentionally?
Willimon: “Absolutely. Unapologetically and intentionally. Francis Underwood adheres to no ideology other than self interest and one of the questions that I hope this year poses is what the value of ideology is? We see a Congress currently paralyzed by gridlock. We see a White House that constantly struggles to push its agenda forward. Often times that’s because you have people entrenched in ideologies from which they’re not willing to compromise from.
The nature of good government is compromise, even though that’s become an evil word to people over the last few years. What is at the heart of it? People with disparate views coming together somewhere in the middle and agreeing to move forward. Not everyone is 100 percent happy, but at least some form of progress is made.
And so Francis takes that to the extreme. He goes to himself, ‘Well, I won’t allow myself to be entrenched in any ideology, and that gives me the most flexibility to get things done.’ And he does get things done. And I think that’s attractive to some people. He poses the question: do the ends justify the means? And in some cases, the answer might be yes. Does it matter that he’s doing it for personal self interest if progress is made? Well that’s for the viewer to decide.
P&C: What do you want people to take away from watching the show, if anything?
Willimon: “We don’t have a particular agenda or political point of view. Our goal is not to have a have a takeaway, a point to the show. It’s really more meant to be a complex investigation of power. And what you take away from it will partly be due to what you bring to the table as a viewer. Our hope is that people have a lot of different thoughts about the show. It’s great if those views contradict one another because that will catalyze discussion. And discussion is a lot more interesting, to me at least, than everyone taking the same thing away.”