TRUMPED BY RE­AL­ITY

Truth has in­deed turned out to be stranger than fiction, House of Cards creator Beau Wil­limon tells Justin Burke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Beau Wil­limon Vivid Ideas

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.

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