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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Pugliese is one of four playwrights in the writers’ room. “The quality and level of the writers is tremendous,” he says. “Some of the best writers in the city, and particularly in the theater, are in that room. Writers who are strong at character, who have a real sense of the subtextual power behind relationships, which provides a lot of energy — there’s a titillation in the subtext between characters that’s fun to watch and even more fun to write.”

Like a musical ensemble, the writers play off each other, riffing, noodling, telling stories, composing. Good is never good enough; there is always a sense that a thing can be better. In such a demanding atmosphere, trust is paramount. “If you’re not allowed to fail in the writers’ room, then why would you bring something in tomorrow?” says Pugliese. “When you do, that’s when the great stuff happens.”

It all starts with Willimon. Television, its literary profile raised over the past fifteen years by shows like The Sopranos, Oz, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, is considered a writer’s medium. The writer runs the show.

House of Cards is fortunate to have Beau in charge,” Pugliese says. “Beau is there from the beginning to the end, and so carries the story in hand. He’s the protector of that story; he champions it, argues for it.”

And he’s serious about that sign on the wall.

“What’s amazing about Beau,” says Pugliese, “is that he has this strong sense of structure, yet also a profound and courageous ability to experiment and go for it and break rules — to do the unexpected.”

It's caucus time '04 in Iowa, and Jay Carson has a decision to make. The press advance isn’t up to snuff. As Howard Dean’s press secretary, this is Carson’s problem to fix. Carson calls his friend Willimon and asks a big favor.

The past few years have marked a change for Willimon. Back in his senior year of college, frustrated with the narrative limits of painting, he entered the competition for Columbia’s Seymour Brick Memorial Prize for playwriting. His play, which he would later describe as “terrible,” won the cash award. This gave him just enough confidence to keep writing. After graduating, he lived on the Lower East Side and worked odd jobs, then audited a playwriting class at Columbia taught by Eduardo Machado. Machado, who was the head of the playwriting program, saw Willimon’s promise and urged him to apply. Willimon did, and was accepted. Among his classes was a screenwriting course for playwrights taught by Frank Pugliese.

Now a year out of grad school and busy with his writing, Willimon answers Carson’s call. Like Carson, Willimon caught the political bug during the Schumer campaign, and the chance to work for the insurgent candidacy of the former governor of Vermont, whose antiwar message and Internet army have made him the unlikely front-runner in a field that includes John Kerry and John Edwards, is seductive. Willimon moves to Iowa to be the press advance guy for Dean.

“Age-wise,” says Carson, “we were children. I’m still amazed at how much responsibility I had at twenty-six, and wonder why anyone gave it to me.”

Willimon enters this campaign as he did the others — with the highest hopes and deepest desire to contribute to changing the country.

In Iowa, Dean finishes a disappointing third. During a never-say-die speech to his supporters, the candidate unleashes a hoarse battle yell. Microphones isolate Dean’s outburst from the crowd noise, and the media play the clip ad nauseam. A month later, the damage done, Dean drops out of the race. Willimon is heartbroken.

A few years later, Willimon writes a play, Farragut North, loosely based on his experiences on that campaign. The protagonist is Stephen Bellamy, a precocious, ambitious twenty-five-year-old press secretary for a presidential candidate, who falls prey to backroom politics. The play opens off-Broadway in 2008 to excellent reviews, and moves to Los Angeles the following year. The film rights are sold to George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio. Willimon is suddenly very hot. Trips to LA, meetings, phone calls. One of those calls is from director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network), who wants to remake House of Cards, the British miniseries based on a novel by former Conservative Party chief of staff Michael Dobbs and written by Andrew Davies. Willimon watches the show and loves it. He has a million ideas. So does Fincher. The two are in sync. They see it. They hear it.

In 2011, the film version of Farragut North, titled The Ides of March, is released, and Willimon earns an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay. Meanwhile, he writes a pilot for House of Cards, and it doesn’t hurt that actors Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are attached to the project. He has meetings with the big cable networks, and also with Netflix, an online-streaming and DVD-delivery giant that wants to get into the original-programming game.

Using its subscriber data, Netflix sees potential for a remake of the esteemed British show. Still, the whole thing is a gamble — neither Netflix nor Willimon nor Fincher has done TV before.

No matter. Netflix proposes something extraordinary. As Willimon will later put it, “They made an offer we couldn’t refuse.”



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