Card Sharks

Beau Willimon's House of Cards grabs us and doesn't let go.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2014
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Though he’s never worked on a campaign before, Carson senses that this one is special. Much later, he will remember it as “one of those times when a group of people comes together and it’s all the right people — the next generation of talent in a party. That was that race.” He tells Willimon how much fun it is.

Willimon, in his paint-splotched pants, is interested. He shows up at Schumer headquarters in Midtown, ready for action. The senior staff christens the two friends “Beau and Luke Duke,” after the freewheeling Georgia cousins in the 1980s TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. (Carson is a little miffed that he’s lost his name, while the newcomer gets to keep his.) The friends work tirelessly, a pair of unpaid interns too naive and energetic to say anything but “Yeah, absolutely” when asked to do something.

For instance, Schumer has a campaign stop in Buffalo tomorrow, but the shipment of yard signs has failed to go out. The last planes have left La Guardia, so there’s no way to overnight them. It’s a cold night, sleeting and snowing. The senior staffers look around the war room and see Carson and Willimon sitting there. “Hey, guys,” one staffer says, “can you drive these yard signs to Buffalo tonight?” Carson and Willimon look at each other, then at the staffer. “Yeah, absolutely.”

Beau and Luke Duke drive their own rented version of the General Lee all night to Buffalo, get the signs there, and meet the Schumer motorcade the next morning.

In an upset, Schumer wins the election. Carson, who will become press secretary for the presidential runs of Howard Dean (2004) and Hillary Clinton (2008), still calls the Schumer race “the greatest campaign I’ve ever done.”

Willimon, too, remembers it as “an incredible experience. Your candidate wins, and you feel that in your own minuscule way you made a difference, and helped change the face of the country.” After Schumer, Willimon goes on to work with Carson on Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign of 2000, and Hillary Clinton’s Senate run of the same year. His idealism and optimism are riding high.

Then comes the Dean campaign.

“SUBVERT THE TROPE.” These words pop from a sign plastered in an office in New York’s financial district. The walls are otherwise covered with dry-erase boards and corkboards. This is the writers’ room, where Beau Willimon is bunkered this summer with six handpicked writers, in the midst of a seven-month writing binge that will result in thirteen more hour-long episodes of House of Cards.

The writers spend the first few weeks plotting a grid (episodes one through thirteen across the top, characters down the side), looking at the season as a whole and figuring out characters’ story lines and the big plot moves. Then they dive in, episode by episode. Each episode takes about six weeks to write. “It’s an intensive process,” Willimon says. “Monday to Friday, eight hours a day. A bunch of brains launching themselves against a wall, hoping to break through. The creative process is always a trial-and-error game. The moment it stops being trial and error is when you’ve gotten comfortable, when you’re not taking risks, when you’re doing things you already know how to do. We endeavor to challenge ourselves to do things we don’t know how to do, and the only way to do that is to bang your head against the wall until you break the wall or the wall breaks you.”

“The more you become addicted to power, the less control you have over yourself, because of what you're willing to do to acquire it or maintain it.”

One of the writers in the room is Frank Pugliese, a playwright and scriptwriter who teaches at Columbia’s School of the Arts. Born in Italy, Pugliese grew up in the Italian-American neighborhood of Gravesend, near Coney Island — “a very masculine place with a real vocabulary of violence about it.” His family was ostracized, considered foreigners, outsiders. As a teenage writer contemplating the theater’s empty space, Pugliese wanted to fill it “with language, music, and people that aren’t often seen there,” he says. For him, that meant his Brooklyn neighborhood. “As difficult a place as it was, I wanted to put it in that space and celebrate it and share it with other people who had similar experiences — to say, I know your suffering, I know your joy. We can share that.”

His play Aven’U Boys, about three young Italian-American guys in Brooklyn, was produced off-Broadway in 1993, when Pugliese was twenty-nine, and won an Obie Award for best direction. Though Pugliese went on to a successful career writing for television and film — including winning a Writers Guild Award for his work on David Simon’s TV series Homicide, and writing the HBO movie Shot in the Heart (2001), about the executed murderer Gary Gilmore — he has never stopped writing plays.

Willimon is partial to playwrights. He feels they have an advantage, being steeped in a form in which “you can’t hide, you can’t edit your way out,” and for which there is scant financial reward. “Those are the people I want,” he says. “So hungry they’ll crawl across a desert to tell a good story.”

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