This week, PART 1 of notes from an interview I went to see last year at the BFI in London with BEAU WILLIMON, writer of HOUSE OF CARDS.
Season 4 of HOUSE OF CARDS will be on Netflix on March 4th.
BFI – BEAU WILLIMON
Why do you write?
Because I have to – not a choice. If I didn’t write I’d go bonkers. If you need to grab at the cosmic, it’s for you. Reward not necessarily financial success or fame but the writing itself.
I’ve never really seen it as a profession. I get to do what I love. I started out doing painting, drawing. But there was no ‘voice’ to it – just craftsmanship. I knew there was nothing really there.
Needed to go into a zone where I was ill-equipped. Wrote a play – always loved the theatre. Wrote a play at 20 – quite late compared to friends. The Goatherd – the world’s worst play – but thrilling – it was all discovery. Not solitary like painting. Won a prize for it. Got onto graduate playwriting program at Columbia uni.
On the graduate program there was one person who believed in me – so important. So hard to believe in yourself – it can stop you before you get started.
Not a clear trajectory. While writing my first play, my friend was having a meteoric political rise – he asked me to work on his senate campaign. We won that race – an amazing experience. Working towards the election was such a rush. And later, when we lost – so crushing. But I never thought it would be a vocation. Did it when unemployed.
Worked for Hilary Clinton, Bill Bradley. Lost 2004 campaign. Drew on the experience for the stage play FARRAGUT NORTH and continued with HOUSE OF CARDS. I don’t know that much about politics, don’t feel that I’m a political writer – all writing is political. I’ve written 12 plays and only 1 of them is to do with politics. Politics itself doesn’t interest me – it’s power that interests me.
But I’m just as interested by the power relationship of the marriage – which is the real heart of the show (HOUSE OF CARDS).
In the political work I did I was much lower in status than the Ryan Gosling character in THE IDES OF MARCH. I did the advance work, setting up events. Long hours and lots of enthusiasm, for very little money. But Jay, my friend who hired me, told me a lot of stories, that have fed into my work. The play FARRAGUT NORTH was bridging these two experiences. All I’d done with the play was a staged reading before I got a call from George Clooney. Up to that point the play had been rejected roundly. But it had helped me get an agent, Broadway producers had liked it. Then it was sent out as a Hollywood sample – ended up at Warner where a reader recommended it to his boss.
So I’d never had a production of the play when Clooney and Leonardo Di Caprio said they wanted to produce FARRAGUT as a film.
The rarity of this can’t be over-stated. A play gets made into a movie occasionally after a Broadway run and a Pulitzer prize. But this was like winning the lottery.
I’d never been to LA before. Didn’t want to chase Hollywood. I had 80 meetings in 10 days. It’s impossible that 100% of any group will like anything. But people were trying to throw work at me. I knew this wouldn’t last long – used it to my advantage. This eventually led to HOUSE OF CARDS.
Adapting your own play is strange. Had to revise my brain to look at it as if I hadn’t written it. And rethink it visually. Pace to film narrative much faster than theatre. So much story-telling you can do without dialogue. eg people’s hands say so much about them – watching people’s hands on the underground for 10 minutes can tell you so much about their lives.
Some additions by Grant Hersov and George Clooney to the screenplay. I was fine with that – I knew they understood the core of the story and didn’t want to mess with that. The journey of a young man who becomes a monster. This story was achieved in the film – but not in the same way as in the play. Very grateful to George – these sort of films don’t get made anymore. An incredibly positive experience.’
PART 2 of this BFI BEAU WILLIMON interview to follow next week.
All the best
Feb 12th 2016