Editor’s Note: To hear Beau Willimon’s full interview with Katie Couric at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival, check out Aspen Ideas To Go podcast here.
Since the premiere of “House of Cards” two years ago, playwright and screenwriter Beau Willimon has created a show that has gone above and beyond expectations as Netflix’s first original series. From the gritty plot twists and the despicable yet strangely captivating characters, Willimon’s writing has garnered praise from critics and ordinary binge-watchers alike. And luckily for viewers, the new season is just around the corner, set to arrive on February 27th.
Willimon spoke about his writing process and vision for “House of Cards” at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival. Read below to learn more about how he went from aspiring artist to writer of one of the most critically acclaimed shows.
1. Willimon originally thought he was going to become a painter.
“I was drawing and painting before I could read or write,” said Willimon. “I was much more facile at that than I am at writing. And that’s what I thought I was going to do with my life.”
But after about 15 years of training with painting, Willimon realized that despite his incredible talent, he needed to find a pursuit that held more personal meaning.
“You can have a facility that will dazzle a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean you are struggling with anything original or really going to battle with the universe. It’s sort of on the surface. And that’s what I felt in college. I was doing hundreds of paintings, yet none of them were speaking to me.”
2. He decided to pursue writing because he knew he would most likely fail.
During his time as an undergrad at Columbia, Willimon said that he “needed to try something I knew I would fail at and writing a play seemed like the best strategy for failing.”
Willimon loved the theater as a child and decided to write a play called “The Goat Herd,” which he deemed as “terrible.” He submitted the play to a college contest and surprisingly won. With the win, Williman got the encouragement he needed to continue writing for the stage and eventually for the small and big screens.
3. Willimon is surprisingly optimistic about American politics.
Through college and into his mid-twenties Willimon worked on a number of campaigns, including those for Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and Howard Dean (whose campaign eventually inspired “The Ides of March,” a movie written by Willimon). While his time on these campaigns has helped influence the creation of “House of Cards,” the dark tone of the show does not parallel his own positive outlook on politics.
“A lot of people assume that all these campaigns must have made me incredibly jaded and cynical because they see ‘Ides of March’ or ‘House of Cards’ and go, ‘Wow that’s pretty dark. What happened to that kid?’” Willimon said. “I have to say, for the most part my experiences were pretty wonderful. I was surrounded by a lot of hardworking young people… And it really is a bunch of people who are working their asses off, 100 hours a week for very little pay, if any, because they believe in someone and they really do believe that in their own small way they can change the world.”
4. He never sees his characters in terms of good and evil.
While the characters in “House of Cards” can seem abhorrent because of their attitudes and actions, Willimon does not consider them to be evil. “In terms of evilness, though, I can’t write the characters if I think of them as good or evil because then I’m laying judgments upon them, which will limit my exploration of who they are,” he said. “What I have to do is put myself in their shoes, look at the world through their eyes, and no one thinks of themselves as evil.”
Willimon instead tries to make his characters engrossing for the viewer.
“Someone asked a question about likeability and my answer was, verbatim, ‘[expletive] likeability,’” he said. “I don’t give two [expletive] if someone likes my characters. I do care if they are attracted to them… I mean attracted as in you can’t take your eyes off of them and you are invested in them.”
5. He doesn’t think of “House of Cards” as a show about politics.
Instead, Willimon described it as “a show about power.” “All of these people happen to live in Washington,” he said. “They happen to work in the political sphere. But there’s so much about ‘House of Cards’ that if you really look at it… it’s not about people engaged in politics. Or if they are, we spend a lot of time looking at the sides of them that aren’t in the halls of power but are in the home, smoking a cigarette by a window.”
6. For Willimon, writing is and always has been an incredibly selfish pursuit.
“For me, [writing] is a very selfish thing,” he said. “I write to please myself. If other people are pleased and can connect with it, I am thrilled. But art making for a vessel for communicating something in a way other than something that is deeply personal for me is not fruitful,” said Willimon.
Willimon also said that despite the show’s popularity, “the show does not have a political agenda. All we try to do is have a certain degree of authenticity. We do have an extreme, exaggerated version of power for power’s sake, and it’s not a portrait of Washington in its totality. No show could be.”