TRUMPED BY REALITY
Truth has indeed turned out to be stranger than fiction, House of Cards creator Beau Willimon tells Justin Burke
For Beau Willimon, creator of the hit television political drama House of Cards, real-life events on the US campaign trail this year have surpassed anything he and his team dreamed up in the writers’ room. “Truth is now stranger than fiction,” he says, speaking to Review from New York. “There were times when we thought we were really pushing the plausibility of our story. It’s supposed to be an exaggerated view of the lust for power — something might have been unlikely, but it had to remain possible.”
Willimon says he agonised over a season four storyline in which his protagonist, president Frank Underwood, could survive a scandal involving a family member photographed with a Klansman, well before the revelation that presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s father’s had “seemingly substantive connections with the KKK, which he sailed right past”.
Whether the show will up the ante in the recently announced season five — due to air on Netflix early next year — will be a matter for the new showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese. Willimon, 38, has announced his departure, citing a desire to move on to “new endeavours” and paying lavish tribute to the show’s “two incandescent stars, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright”.
But ahead of his talk at the Vivid Ideas festival in Sydney on May 28, he is eager to talk about the path that led him to the helm of streaming TV’s hottest commodity, an adaptation of the celebrated British 1990 miniseries written by Andrew Davies. It began in a painter’s studio, and was born of frustration.
“I began painting before I could read and write. It was something that came to me very naturally, but few are able to turn that talent into something honest and deep and necessary,” Willimon says. “While I was able to impress my peers and teachers, I rarely impressed myself. I don’t beat myself up as much about it these days; I was still finding my voice.”
It was while studying visual arts at Columbia University that Willimon wrote his first play. “It was mostly to escape painting for a few months, I was throwing myself to the artistic wolves,” he says. “It was like learning to draw all over again, I was ill-equipped, I didn’t know anyone in theatre. But it really opened up in me the realisation that I wanted to tell stories, and that paintings were too limited in that capacity.
“The idea you could tell a story in real time — in flesh and blood — was exciting and I was drawn to it almost by accident; grappling with one medium led me stumbling into another.”
Besides the visual sensibility he brought to House of Cards, a broad set of life experiences has informed his writing. Willimon was born in Virginia, but his family followed his father’s navy career to Hawaii, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and finally St Louis, Missouri. “Examples like the Philadelphia shipyards in season one — I lived in that shipyard for four years growing up. I have a lot of family from South Carolina. There is a whole slew of things I stole right from my personal experience and background, though I don’t see any reason why people should necessarily care,” Willimon says.
He also worked as a campaign staffer for several Democratic political candidates, an experience that influenced his acclaimed 2008 play Farragut North, which was staged in New York and Los Angeles before being turned into the 2011 film The Ides of March, starring and directed by George Clooney, for which Willimon was nominated for an Oscar.
“I did do some work in politics, I worked on several campaigns, a couple of presidential [Bill Bradley, Howard Dean] and Senate races [Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton] many moons ago in a galaxy far, far away,” he says. “The experiences I had were low on the totem pole, but they certainly influenced my thoughts about politics and opened my eyes to the stories that politics avails itself to.
“That said, there is a tonne in House of Cards that none of us could ever have experienced, where we had to rely upon technical consultants or good old-fashioned book learning, but moreover, part of being a writer is being able to absorb those external stories. What finally ends up in the frame is bigger than any one of us.”
The critical accolades certainly bear that out: the Netflix show has won two Golden Globes, a swag of Primetime Emmys, and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Spacey. Moreover, it has captured the zeitgeist of an American public angry about its political leaders, in stark contrast to the optimistic tone of the last great US political drama on TV, The West Wing.
Willimon is reluctant to talk about his next project, thought to be a TV series based on the life of Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion. “I’m keeping pretty tight-lipped about that, other than to say I have been hard at work.” But he does hope to impart a message to his Australian audience on his passion for putting in the effort.
“For someone like me who has always felt like writing wasn’t a natural thing, something that I stumbled into, I’ve always had to work really hard to make up for that,” he says. “I think that good work can only come from hard work, the art is only as good as the amount of time and effort, blood, sweat and tears I put into it.
“It’s such an ephemeral thing to try to create [something] original, and you need to put in the hours, and care about every detail as if the entire endeavour depended on it.” will appear at the festival at Sydney Town Hall on May 28.