It’s a name that went from obscurity to white hot faster than it took to binge watch 13 hours “House of Cards” Season One. For Beau Willimon — the pen-man behind Netflix’s hyper-popular series — the climb to scribe success has been anything but conventional by Hollywood standards.
“It was all unorthodox for me. I never ‘pitched and sold the movie.’ I wrote a play (‘Farragut North’) and eventually that led to a movie. By that time, I had never even been in LA. In fact, when I first showed up to meet with [the executives] about ‘Farragut North,’ we’d already sold it to them.”
This is a point Willimon takes extra care to share with me.
But the story of how a Missouri-native, Columbia University grad, Julliard scholar, now Brooklynite has become one of America’s most celebrated playwrights without having to “peddle [his] wares” in Hollywood, is all the more sweet because of that unconventional route.
Over the span of four years, from 2008 to 2012, Willimon would pen his way to fame with theatre as his means of reaching Hollywood. And by 2011, with multiple moderately successful off-Broadway plays under his belt, Willimon’s team would option “Farragut North”, a script based on his time with Howard Dean on the 1998 Senate campaign trail, to Warner Brothers.
The star-studded film adaptation of “Farragut North”, renamed “Ides of March”, co-written, directed by and starring George Clooney, debuted in October 2011 to an opening weekend of $10 million at the domestic box office, with distribution through Sony Pictures. The film grossed roughly $40 Million domestically in a year, but Willimon’s true capital resided in his ability to palpably depict Capitol Hill, and the politics of power.
Two short years later, the world would watch that talent evolve and unfold before their eyes across two seasons and 26 episodes of political drama, “House of Cards”, which premiered in Feb 2013. “The advantage of writing about Washington DC is that you are dealing with characters for whom power is their way of making a living. They’re masters at it,” Willimon said in an earlier interview.
When looking at the overarching themes of politics and power and the participation of the “House of Cards” characters in threading those themes, Willimon tells me he approached the story through Chapters as he would a novel, rather than a serialized television drama. In fact, each “episode” of “House of Cards” is called a Chapter.
When creating “House of Cards”, “The biggest difference for us came in getting the two season guarantee up front. We knew we had 26 hours to work with. We think of it much more in terms of a novel with multiple parts — Part 1, 2, 3, those would be the seasons, then chapters would fill each ‘Part,’” said Willimon in our interview adding, “We [had] a lot of balls in the air at once, there’s a rhythm and a structure that isn’t down to the episodic model. Netflix also gave us full creative freedom, which is something the other networks weren’t offering.”
But, if the 31 nominations Netflix has received for the 2014 Primetime Emmy Awards signal anything (13 of which are just for “House of Cards”), Willimon would be the first to say that the tides of television history are shifting, appointment viewing is dead, and Netflix has baked the winning recipe of the digital future.
“All shows are for digital distribution. In reality people have been experiencing shows on multiple platforms for years. People are watching television on their iPads now, so I don’t see a distinction,” he adds.
Fundamentally this was the reason Willimon and the team (David Fincher, Eric Roth, Josh Donen and Media Rights Capital) decided to become the first television project to see first-run distribution on the internet, via Netflix. According to Willimon, everyone recognized that Netflix had helped end the “appointment viewing” mentality and that their understanding of how data could predict viewing success was advanced significantly beyond the competition. The creative freedom was also a primary factor for Willimon.
“None of us had done TV before. We didn’t know what we were doing. Netflix didn’t know either, they had never done TV before. We all walked in as neophytes so we didn’t try to make a ‘TV Show.’ What we felt confident in was our storytelling abilities, so that’s what we set out to do,” he said.
As Netflix and Willimon approach Season 3 of “House of Cards”, currently taping in Baltimore, Maryland, the creative community will have eyes on the 2014 Primetime Emmys to watch whether the series, and its home “network” Netflix, continues to break records, set precedents and shake the television business to the core.
And what’s in Willimon’s post-”House of Cards” future?
Well, Mr. Beau Willimon has a few projects in various stages of development* including two documentaries through his production company Westward Productions, but for now the scribe is fully consumed with taping “House of Cards” Season Three. And while Westward Productions has a strong slate of projects in the pipeline, Willimon does say his sights are set on taking the Directors chair at some point in his career.
At the rate Willimon has climbed to Hollywood fame, it wouldn’t be too surprising if his aspiration of becoming a multi-hyphenate are realized by 2015.
*This paragraph was updated to reflect new information provided by Willimon’s reps about his upcoming projects.