Beau Willimon arrives in Fast Company’s office and, before long, he’s painting a picture of the decidedly unglamorous Maryland community where he’s spent much of the last six months filming his next project, the political thriller House of Cards. “Exit 77 on 95. If you ever find yourself there, there’s a nice Waffle House nearby. The Denny’s burned down, unfortunately. It was arson. So it’s just the Waffle House right now, and a gas station. Welcome to Edgewood. And then Joppatowne, exit 74, is where that guy ate off his roommate’s face. That’s um… anyway. It’s exciting. It’s life in the fast lane.”
He’s joking about the fast lane bit, but Willimon’s been moving at breakneck speed ever since 2008 when his play Farragut North, based on his time working for the 2004 Howard Dean campaign, had its Off-Broadway debut. At that time, Willimon was a complete unknown: this was the first play he’d ever had professionally produced. Before Farragut had even had its premiere, Willimon got a call saying that Warner Brothers wanted to make it into a movie with George Clooney attached to produce. “I was driving, actually, in Long Island at the time, and almost crashed the car,” he says.
Willimon went on to co-write the screenplay for the movie, which was retitled The Ides of March, and earned an Oscar nomination for the project, his first attempt at screenwriting. House of Cards will constitute his first job writing for television—sort of. House of Cards airs not on broadcast, not on cable, but on Netflix, which will put the entire first season, all thirteen episodes, online February 1. In addition to being the sole writer, Willimon is also an executive producer on the series, along with David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes, and Kevin Spacey, who stars as a corrupt Congressman, and the three of them split the “created by” credit between them.
Consider the implications: Five years ago, no one knew his name. One year ago, he was nominated for an Oscar. Now, he’s working with some of the top names in Hollywood and with them inventing what television will look like in the years to come. Life in the fast lane, without a seat belt. Co.Create spoke to Willimon about the upcoming “paradigmatic shift” in television, and why it’s important to let artists bang their heads on the table in peace.
I think we’re at the cusp of a paradigmatic shift. People have been talking about there being a confluence of the internet and TV ever since the internet was invented, but the technology wasn’t there. And now it is. So places like Netflix can actually get into the game. Pretty soon, there’ll be no reason why there has to be a half-hour, hour-long mandate length for anything. That comes from a bygone era of having to fill up 24 hours in a day, seven days a week, and that’s not how people experience content anymore. People’s attention spans are less and less being carved up into this half-hour, one-hour, and two-hour format, for instance. Why can’t you have a 13-hour movie? There are webisodes that are five minutes each, where you get an entire season’s worth in 45 minutes. The whole reason [films are] 90 minutes to two hours is because of the length of reels, right? That goes back to a celluloid time, and how a projector functions. If you’re telling a story through images and language, and I’m watching it on this [iPad] instead of in a movie theater, is it still a movie? If you start to question what actually defines the film, and it’s these more arbitrary things that were based solely upon the technological limitations of the time, I think, in this more abstract, broader, and meaningful sense, there are none of those limits.
The same goes for television. What’s happening in TV is like what happened to film in the 70s. It’s the Wild West. People are putting major resources—real money—behind provocative ideas, in ways that they’re not in Hollywood. We’re treating the cinematography, the tone, the feel of [House of Cards] as very filmic, and so we see this as 13 hours of a story, whether you want to call it television or film or streaming or whatever. I think those designations will stop mattering very soon.
“I feel very lucky to have had the trajectory I’ve had so far. A lot of work went into it, but certainly, like anyone, I had some very lucky breaks along the way, and then I think it’s just about seizing those opportunities, and whatever door’s open just kind of jamming your foot in. There’s always doors and there’s always feet, but it’s the jamming… It’s interesting. Farragut, for example: I wrote that when I was 26 after coming back from the Dean campaign. There had been plenty of years before that where I was working everything from factories to detailing cars, barista, SAT prep courses that I taught out in Great Neck, you name it, and just sort of felt like I was screaming into the wilderness and no one could hear me. But I kept writing and trying to find the most mind-numbing jobs I could find so that they wouldn’t take up my brain space and I could just make enough to pay the rent.
When I wrote Farragut, I sent it out to 40 theaters nationwide. None of them wanted to do it. Most of them didn’t reply; those that did were like, Thanks, we like it, but no thanks. So I put it away, and I thought, Okay, I’ll move on. What do you do in that case? You write the next play, and then the next one, and then the next one, until someone will do something of yours. A couple years later I signed up with my current agent, and he read my stuff and said, ‘I want to send this play out.’ And I said, ‘Good luck. No one will want to do it, but be my guest.’ The '08 campaign was now on the horizon, and there was also the fact that an agent was sending it, which makes a difference, and it got to the right people at the right moment when they were receptive. You like to think that a lot of that was the script, but you know, a lot of that was also that politics was in the air, that people were engaged. It was just a time, you know?
In any case, then we sent it out to L.A. We got immediate interest from commercial Broadway producers, which was crazy because I’d never had a play produced. So we were emboldened by that to send it to L.A. as a writing sample, thinking maybe I might get a meeting or two. That was one of those Hollywood moments where I got a call: Warner Brothers wants to turn it into a movie, with Clooney and DiCaprio attached and producing. I was driving, actually, in Long Island at the time and almost crashed the car. What do you do with that information? So it was ass backwards; I sold the film rights before I’d even gotten the play produced, and began writing the screenplay before it went up.
There was a lot of hard work getting to that point where things happen very quickly, and then you have to make sure… If you get your moment at the top of the hill, it’s very easy to get knocked down, and it’s like, alright, let’s put the crampons, and the ice, the pick, I’m holding on now. I wrote a few movies that didn’t get made after that, but kept working, kept having good opportunities. And then Fincher had read Farragut North, so three years ago, we started speaking, and that’s led to this.”
You always want to try, in everything you do, to attempt something you’ve never tried before, and the only way to succeed at that is through failure, and the only way to succeed through failure is just banging your head against the wall over and over until you get to that interesting thing on the other side. That’s a scary place to be, because there’s no guarantee you will get to the other side. So what’s problematic, if you’re getting a lot of interference, is that it’s a very personal and difficult thing to wake up each day and say, ‘It’s more likely that I will fail today than I will succeed. Awesome, let’s get to work.’ Alright, boom boom boom. [Mimes banging head on table] And someone, while you’re doing that, is like, ‘Hey, by the way, maybe you should hit with this side of the head instead of the front because I think— Oh, you know what, you’re bleeding too much. How about you stop and we give you some stitches and you dye your hair brown and black…’ It’s like, just let me bang my head against the wall by myself.
In the best possible scenario, whenever you get notes from people, they’re good notes, and they see things that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and they make you a better writer. I have writer friends who I know will not hesitate to tell me if something is shit, and thank god for them because you can’t always know yourself. I’ll get a script back from David [Fincher] where he’ll highlight something and he’ll just say, "Better." And it’s so refreshing. You look at it and you’re like, "Yeah, it needs to be better, doesn’t it?"
I don’t desire happiness. I think it’s a myth, and I don’t think it’s… and it makes you complacent. I feel very satisfyingly uncomfortable. I have the freedom to feel uncomfortable in the way I want to, is maybe a way to put it. When you’re lucky enough to get paid a nice chunk of change to write a movie or a TV show, you have no right to complain, really. I guess it’s more of an appeal to the powers that be that the less they interfere, the more likely, actually, they are to get something that works, I think. In my humble opinion.