'House of Cards' Creator Knows Why TV Viewers Are Attracted to Villains

Beau Willimon talks to Haaretz about the timelessness of the show and his work for Hillary Clinton.

Ruta Kupfer
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Ruta Kupfer

‘House of Cards’ is not about politics but about power,” says Beau Willimon, the creator of this new television series, which is set on Capitol Hill in Washington and follows the machinations of an unscrupulous politician. The protagonist is Francis “Frank” Underwood, a Democrat, who is the House Majority Whip. As the series begins, he falls victim to a political betrayal. The rest of the series is about his slow revenge, which is served up cadaver-cold.

“Power is a far larger subject than politics,” Willimon says by phone from London. “We all experience power on a daily basis, whether at work, at home or in a supermarket line when someone butts in ahead of you. It’s a microcosm of a dynamic with which we are very familiar. The series is devoted to people who are artists in power games − jugglers. They know how to exploit power in ways we do not understand well enough. These are people who have made a career out of flaunting power, in situations where others remain bewildered.”

“House of Cards” is an American TV drama based on a 1990 BBC series with the same title ‏(which, in turn, was based on a novel by Michael Dobbs‏). The lead role, Frank, is played by Kevin Spacey. Film director David Fincher ‏(“Fight Club”‏) is one of the producers of the series and also directed the first two episodes. These two Hollywood stars − the actor and the director − worked together in Fincher’s “Seven,” plus Spacey was the producer of another Fincher film, “The Social Network.”

Three years ago, Fincher approached Willimon, who has screenwriting experience related to the world of politics; his play “Farragut North” was made into the film “The Ides of March” ‏(directed by and starring George Clooney‏), which was an Oscar nominee for best adapted screenplay. Willimon subsequently became the creator and showrunner of the new series and assumed responsibility for every aspect of it. The American version of “House of Cards” also made TV history: It is the first original production of the Internet streaming service Netflix and it was offered on that platform in a new way: on the day of its premier, February 1, 2013, all 13 episodes of the first season were made available at once, rather than one episode a week. That seemingly technical detail also attests to a change in the viewing and consumer habits of TV content. New worlds are opening up in this realm.

“When we started to work with Fincher, three years ago, the only thing we were interested in was writing a superb script for the first episode,” says Willimon. This is his first venture into TV writing, with all the attendant hassles and decision-making: “We then brought in Kevin [Spacey] and Robin [Wright; “Forrest Gump”] and looked for a home for the series. We didn’t know we would get to Netflix in the end; we weren’t thinking about the concept of dropping all 13 episodes simultaneously. When we connected with Netflix we suggested that mode of viewing as an option − but that only happened after we’d already written half of the first season, so it had no effect on the way we wrote and presented the series.

“The series is meant to work even if viewed one episode a week. Delivering all the episodes up front is meant to let people watch the series as they wish − those who can will watch all the episodes consecutively, others will prefer different dosages. They will decide for themselves. I think in Israel people are watching it on a weekly basis, no?”

They’re watching in both of those ways in fact: The series is being broadcast on cable television ‏(HOT‏) and satellite television ‏(Yes‏). All the episodes are available via VOD through both outlets, as well as in weekly viewing. Yes has just begun weekly broadcasts of the series, while HOT has already broadcast six episodes on a weekly basis.

Still, the “binge-viewing” option − the intensive viewing of the series − probably suits it best. “House of Cards” develops somewhat slowly, and initially too familiarly, maybe because of the glut of political series on TV. However, like the clouds that cover the skies of Washington in the show’s marvelous opening sequence, the viewer is increasingly drawn in as the series progresses but then, suddenly, its gloomy, harrowing presence seems to darken the skies. After the first 13 episodes in the company of Frank Underwood and his wife, Claire, during which we are regaled with their base political moves − the viewer is primed for the second season. Willimon is currently writing the new episodes, with production due to begin in the spring.

Dramatic intimacy

In the British version of the series, set in the immediate post-Thatcher era, the protagonist, Francis Urquhart ‏(Ian Richardson‏) tended to punctuate his remarks with a rather charged phrase: “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.” In an interview with Empire magazine, Willimon noted, in reference to this, “No American can say that without sounding like a complete asshole. It’s not the way an American can speak. Unless with a Southern accent.” Hence, the decision to make Frank come from South Carolina, along with a great fondness for ribs, even for breakfast.

Willimon added in the interview that this background situates his hero more squarely within the American ethos: as a hero who came from nowhere and rose to greatness − “which is the exact opposite of Francis Urquhart, a man of privilege and an aristocrat, as it were, who has a sense of entitlement.”

It comes as no surprise that Spacey plays Underwood to perfection, without stumbling over the pitfalls of caricature. He was part of the deal from the outset, Willimon says: “We thought of him from the beginning, as soon as I hooked up with Fincher and started to work on the first episode. It wasn’t worth doing with anyone else. You need an actor of his magnitude, talent and range to succeed in a role like this, especially with the use of an aside directly into the camera, which is a tricky task.”

The credits that appear at the beginning and end of the episodes − for writing, direction and development − suggest that Fincher played more of a preliminary, marketing role in it, while Willimon is the true driving force behind it. Not so, Willimon says: “Never have I worked with someone who has more of a vision, a work ethic and a desire to be involved than he [Fincher] does. He is there at every step of this project: from the micro to the macro, from the initial idea to the last shot, postproduction, marketing, everything. He has tremendous ability and also lets others share in his creative activity. He directed the first two episodes, and then we brought in very talented directors to go on from there.

“He still remained involved, commenting on scripts, working with the directors, taking part in the casting stage and also in the design. He is not one of those film directors who show up, direct a pilot and disappear. He is a constant presence in the series, and that presence was a challenge to us and improved the series.”

The American series, which is far longer than the British original, still drew more from it than its frame story. What else?

“We used character types from the original series, and there are elements of Francis Urquhart in Frank Underwood, also a few plot lines. But overall we ‘reinvented’ ourselves. Not only was that series shorter, it was made more than 20 years ago, and the world has changed very much, not only in politics but also in media and culture terms. Besides that, the series was adapted to the American political system. The most distinctive thing we left from the original series is the hero’s direct speech into the camera. That offers the viewers direct access to his thoughts and plots, and it also creates an intimacy that heightens the drama.”

Although there is not much resemblance between “House of Cards” and the comedy series “The Office,” both are American adaptations of British series. The American creator of “The Office” said in an interview to Haaretz that when he changed the British boss into an American one, he made him more likable, which is something that seems to be enshrined in the culture. I put it to him, however, that no such consideration guided him in converting Urquhart into Underwood.

“I will never be preoccupied with likableness − I’m not even sure what it is. I suppose the idea is that you want the hero to be your friend, someone you can go out for a beer with. What interests me is for the audience to be attracted to our main characters. And by that I don’t mean sexual attraction, even though in certain cases that also comes into play, but characters that rivet you to the screen, irrespective of how much you like them. Sometimes you will even find yourself hoping they succeed despite your loathing for them.

“There are a few characters like that on American television: Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Soprano. They are not especially likable. They are more like forces of nature, antiheroes whom you can’t take your eyes off. That is what I wanted Francis to be.”

But there is a difference, I say: Possibly the idea behind being liked is to create identification, and heroes like Draper, White and even Soprano arouse identification at first. Their failures and wrongdoings are depicted only after the viewer has been captivated by their charm, after a connection has been forged. With Frank, who is a truly Machiavellian character, we have the opposite process. From the very first scene it is clear that he is a villain. He betrays his desires directly into the camera and is even seen killing a dog with his bare hands. He is a cold, cruel person whose rationale we get a glimpse of later on.

“That’s so,” Willimon says in reply. “The comparison between the characters is not perfect and is not meant to be. After all, we want to invent characters of our own and not copy others. It’s interesting you use the word ‘villain.’ Orson Welles once said that all of Shakespeare’s best characters are villains. Take Richard III, Macbeth − even Hamlet is a villain in his way, if you think about it. All those characters exist on the axis of evil, yet we have been drawn to them for 400 years.

“I do not treat Francis as an evil man, though I am aware that many viewers take him as such,” he continues. “But when I write him − and this is true of all the characters I write − I cannot be judgmental. I simply have to put myself in his shoes. He certainly does not see himself as a villain. There are quite a few immoral characters in this series, but they do not perceive themselves as evil.”

If you’ve mentioned Shakespeare, his influence seems to be more pronounced in the British series. Is that also an American thing?

“We talked a lot about Shakespeare during the work on the series. Kevin had just finished playing Richard III on a world tour. You can find a fair number of allusions in the series to ‘Richard III,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Othello’ and a host of other Shakespeare plays. We were not trying to create a modern version of any play of his. We used an aside because it exists in many of Shakespeare’s plays. Everyone who writes is influenced by Shakespeare and knows his work. He is a kind of friend who sits by your side during the writing and sometimes whispers in your ear when you get stuck.”

Away from current events

You are no stranger to the world of American politics. You also worked in several election campaigns. Let’s hope the reality is better than what’s reflected in the series.

“Obviously this is an extreme, amplified and exaggerated version of Washington, seen through a lens darkly. Nevertheless, it bears a certain authenticity in regard to the American political system and to politics in the world in general. Although the series is set in the United States, it deals with universal themes, such as betrayal, relations of trust, ambition and lust, which are true of every country, every culture and every political system. So I hope that people in Israel can enjoy the series as much as people in Canada, France and the United States.

“I was involved in part of the election campaigns of two presidential candidates, Howard Dean [in the 2004 Democratic primaries] and Hillary Clinton [who contested the Democratic nomination in 2008]. But I was at a pretty low level, more of a kind of trench soldier. Close friends of mine were in the inner circle, as high as you could get, and through them I learned about what goes on there, and I definitely used their stories to write ‘The Ides of March’ and ‘House of Cards.’ I don’t want to say that everyone in politics is bad, because that is far from the truth. There are enough people who go into politics because they want to make the world a better place and contribute to the nation. But, as we know, power corrupts, and what happens with Francis Underwood is that he has no pangs of conscience about his pursuit of power. He is used to using manipulations to get what he wants. There are people like him in the world; they think the means justify the end.”

Still, you kept a safe distance away from real events.

“Yes. The war in Afghanistan is mentioned briefly and there are a few more things to remind viewers that this is 2013 − but we were definitely careful about being overly situated in current events. This is not a series torn from the headlines. We didn’t want viewers to try to find parallels between the series and what is happening in the White House. We wanted the series to be outside time, but also connected to reality as far as that is possible. That is because our goal was not to create a series about politics but a series about power.”

The character of Frank refers to the question of power in one of the latter episodes of the first season. He quotes Oscar Wilde, who said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Frank and Claire are married ‏(Robin Wright plays the ice queen with impressive refined restraint‏), and power plays a more important role than sex in their relationship. In contrast, Frank’s sex with a young journalist, Zoe ‏(Kate Mara‏) is more of an exercise of control. At one point, Frank returns to the university he attended and sees friends, and it seems that this is a place where he had true relations of love.

When is it sex, when is it power and when is it love?

“In the case of Zoe, it’s about give-and-take ties: She gets information and influence from him, and he needs someone through whom to ‘plant’ information. Those are very transparent relationships. Both are aware of their roles, and the relationship develops into a sexual one, based more on power and control than on physical attraction. With Claire, however, it’s a lot more complicated. They truly love each other deeply and thoroughly. It might be a different love from what most people think of as love, but there is genuine mutual respect and trust. It’s a marriage of equals. She is the only one whose opinion matters to him, and he needs her endorsement. They are partners in the full sense of the word and ... have been for 20 years, even if theirs is not an orthodox sort of marriage. Their relations are successful and strong − more than in most marriages. Whether you define it as love is up to you.

“As for one of his university friends,” Willimon continues, “[Frank’s] encounter with him and other friends reveal another side of Frank. There was a time when he was capable of showing he cared, of maintaining ties with all sorts of people, but he turned his back on them. He sacrificed those ties for a goal he considered more important. The past relations are meant to remind us that he is not a total sociopath, not a black-and-white character but one of different shades. Just when you think he is the most evil person on earth, you discover that he has human sides, which you can identify with, and that it’s hard to pigeon-hole him.”

I understand that your program is more about power than politics, but do you have an explanation for the current plethora of political series, of which yours is a part?

“Political series and movies have been around for a long time, from Frank Capra’s ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ to Robert Redford’s ‘The Candidate’ and down to Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The West Wing.’ America has long since been enthralled by the political world. It’s true that there are currently a few more political series than in the past − not only in the United States, but also in Europe, with ‘Borgen’ and ‘The Thick of It.’ And if you have a political series in Israel, I will be happy to see it, too.

“I am not a sociologist, so I am not in a position to say why there are a few more political series now than was the case a decade ago. In America, at least, there seems to be increasing political awareness. The turnout was higher in the last election, people are paying more attention to the news, for better or worse. Sometimes art responds to reality and to what people are taking an interest in.

“What’s interesting in political stories is that they deal with strong people, people who take risks, experts in power games, as I said, and who maneuver one another with high efficiency. When they do it well, it creates fine drama, and when it goes wrong the result is superb comedy.”

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