Before he wrote for the Netflix drama House of Cards, Beau Willimon wrote for the Estonian government. This was back in 1999, when Willimon had just graduated from Columbia University. He bummed around New York’s East Village, travelled and worked various odd jobs. One of his employers was the Estonian Ministry of the Interior.
“I read thousands of pages of immigration and asylum law and condensed them into little two to three page documents that they could take to E.U. conferences,” Willimon says. “I knew nothing about immigration, knew nothing about asylum, knew nothing about Estonia. Somehow they thought it was worthwhile to entrust this responsibility to me.”
Estonia notwithstanding, the political connection makes sense, given that politics and writing are the two main threads in Willimon’s life. When he gets lucky, they converge. With House of Cards, he’s hit the jackpot.
To understand how Willimon found himself at the helm of The Show That Changed Television—the first digital-platform drama to earn Emmy and Golden Globe nominations alongside network and cable series, with a best actress Globe win for costar Robin Wright—one must go back to the pre-Estonian era. While an undergrad, he was asked by a friend to audition for a play she was directing. Rather than scour library stacks for the perfect monologue, Willimon wrote his own.
“It had something to with Muhammad Ali and a manned mission to Mars,” he says. “I wrote it, I memorized it and I got up the next day and performed it.”
He didn’t get the part. But he did discover a desire to write for the stage. After graduation he bullied his way into the classroom of playwright Eduardo Machado, then head of Columbia’s graduate playwriting program. Machado—whom Willimon calls “a great mentor” that saw “something in me that certainly hadn’t matured”—let him sit in on the class, then accepted him into the program.
Willimon worked as a staffer on Howard Dean’s campaign for the 2004 Democratic Presidential nomination, for which his friend Jay Carson served as press secretary. “When he came back, he started telling me about it, and I said, ‘Beau, write about that,’” says Machado, who has written for Hung and Magic City. “Once he started writing about that, everything happened for him.”
It’s common for playwrights to turn success on the boards into work in television and film. But Willimon’s career trajectory has been, as he puts it, “ass-backwards.”
Farragut North, about a young political spin artist working on a presidential campaign, was the third play that Willimon wrote after graduating from Columbia with an MFA in playwriting. He sent it to more than 40 theater companies and was turned down by them all. Then his agent “sent it out to L.A., thinking maybe I’ll get some meetings out of it.” He got more than a meeting.
“I got one of those Cinderella calls one day,” he says. “My agent told me Warner Bros. wants to turn this into a movie and George Clooney and Leo DiCaprio would produce.”
Willimon estimates he took 80 meetings in 10 days on his first trip to L.A. In time, Farragut North was adapted by Willimon into the screenplay for The Ides of March, with Clooney directing and costarring. For the play and the film, Willimon—who has worked on campaigns for Dean, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Bill Bradley—drew on his political experiences. Those experiences would serve Willimon well when David Fincher called.
Neither Fincher, who directed the pilot and is an executive producer, nor Willimon had done any television before they began collaborating on House of Cards. Willimon worked for a year on the script. Then, with Kevin Spacey and Wright attached, the producers took the project out in search of a home.
“We spoke to the usual suspects in the paid cable world that you might imagine,” Willimon says. “I don’t think any of us had really any sense of what Netflix was up to.”
The Big Deal
Netflix’s offer of two seasons up front and creative control, “blew everything else out of the water.” The decision to release the episodes all at once came halfway through production on season one. It did not, Willimon says, affect creative decisions.
Also not affecting creative decisions are viewership numbers. Netflix is tight-lipped about how many people watch its original programs. Willimon claims not to know or care what the numbers are. “All I care about, honestly, is if Netflix is happy. Then I’m happy.”
Netflix will release 13 new episodes of House of Cards on Feb. 14—Valentines Day. (“There’s nothing more romantic than bingewatching House of Cards!” he says.) Willimon won’t say whether another season is in the works. But no matter how long the show goes on, he sounds pleased with what’s been accomplished thus far.
“There was a paradigm shift, and we were in the right place at the right time with the right partners, with the right project, and the world paid attention because a new page was turning in the history of television,” he says. “But if it’s not a good TV show, that paradigm shift is squandered. It seems that the general consensus thus far has been that it delivered.”