‘House of Cards’ creator Willimon caps week exploring nexus of art, politics



There’s an artistry to politics, Beau Willimon said. Conversely, there’s also a certain amount of politics in art.

Willimon would know about that overlap — he’s the creator and showrunner for Netflix’s “House of Cards” and the writer of the film “Ides of March.” But for years in his 20s, Willimon also worked on campaigns for politicians like Chuck Schumer, Howard Dean, Bill Bradley and Hillary Clinton.

“A lot of politics is theater,” Willimon said. “It’s about shaping and controlling the story, whether you’re running for office, trying to get something passed or persuading someone. You’re creating a narrative. You’re trying to get others to believe it. Whoever has the strongest and clearest story usually wins out. … It’s about what mask you’re putting on, how you’re selling the lie or shaping the truth. It’s an art.”

Willimon will deliver the inaugural talk of the Barbara Vackar Lecture Series at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy. The first in the new lecture series is presented in partnership by the Chautauqua Women’s Club and the Department of Education. Already confirmed by the education department for a special Saturday lecture, Willimon fills the 3 p.m. Contemporary Issues Forum slot left vacant by a cancelation from Bradley.

“It’s such a great way to cap the week,” said Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education. “It is art, and it is politics, and [Willimon] is such a vibrant, fresh voice in both.”

Babcock said there are many followers of political TV shows, but “House of Cards” is “tremendously influential.”

“It can be compared to other political dramas, but it’s nothing like the ones on the networks,” she said. “Discovering he had both a political background and this fabulous production background made it important for us to have his voice here.”

Despite experiences on both sides of the artistic and political aisle, Willimon said his life has been “heavily lopsided on the art side.”

“That’s always been my calling,” he said. “Any work in politics or on campaigns was more sporadic, more of an adventure.”

He never wanted a career in politics, but when he was enlisted to work Schumer’s campaign in the late ’90s by his friend Jay Carson, Willimon discovered he “adored” the work.

“When you’re young, it’s about lots of coffee and no sleep and changing the world,” he said. “There’s a thrill. There’s a lot of adrenaline and … in your own tiny, infinitesimal way, you’re contributing to history.”

In life, Willimon said, there are very few instances where people can see definitively “in that moment, if you’ve won or lost. But with politics, you do. There’s a satisfaction to that.”

And the first campaign Willimon worked on, New York Senator Schumer’s, did in fact win. His friend Carson was then on a “meteoric rise” in the political world, and Willimon tagged along.

“I would have glimpses of what was going on at the top of the mountain, sometimes with my own eyes or through what Jay was telling me,” Willimon said. “He had this bird’s-eye view, in the inner sanctum, and I was in the trenches.”

Politics informed Willimon’s art. From Carson and their work on the Dean campaign in 2004, he drew inspiration for his play Farragut North. Farragut North became “The Ides of March,” the film starring George Clooney and Ryan Gosling. That work then led to the American adaptation of “House of Cards,” a show about Machiavellian politician Francis Underwood.

“There’s a lot in ‘House of Cards’ that’s extremely authentic,” Willimon said. “We’re rigorous in our research, but we’ll condense or exaggerate for that sense of dramatic pacing, rhythm and power. … You don’t tune in to ‘House of Cards’ to watch C-SPAN, but the moves that are made, the dynamics, are true.”

In short, Willimon said, “we know the rules we’re fudging,” whether it’s election law in Pennsylvania or the time it takes to pass legislation or conduct a BRAC hearing. And people in Washington, D.C., appreciate that, he said.

But “House of Cards” is not a “ripped from the healines” show, Willimon said. He can read a headline as they begin filming a season and want to use it, but by the time it makes it way to Netflix, it could be irrelevant.

“We’d be shooting ourselves in the feet,” Willimon said.

But sometimes art imitates life in almost prophetic ways. Willimon cited the Season 2 storyline centering on Claire Underwood and Jackie Sharp clashing over a sexual assault bill. He had been inspired by an early screening of the film “Invisible War,” which addresses assaults in the military. At that time, the issue wasn’t on a lot of radar screens. But the show incorporated it into the storyline, and as they were filming, the issue hit the news in a big way, with senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill lobbying for a similar bill in Congress.

“We never could have predicted that would happen,” Willimon said.

Another example, he said, is Russia — a source of major conflict in the third season of “House of Cards.”

“My big concern when we were developing that story was that no one would care,” Willimon said. “Sochi was in the news, but I was worried the whole ‘Russian troops going rogue’ thing would seem over the top, and the general consensus would be, ‘No, Russia behaves itself, more or less.’ ”

But Willimon thought a growing conflict with Russia was a possible storytelling conceit, and the show should explore it.

“And then Crimea happened,” he said. “Reality seems to be more unrealistic than a storyline sometimes. … Oftentimes, we had these coincidences popping up. I don’t think we’re prophetic, but I do think there’s a zeitgeist we’re tapping into. It was very, very strange.”

Essential truths exist in the show, Willimon said, but in heightened ways. Take Frank Underwood, for example, and the fates of self-destructive politician-pawn Peter Russo and journalist Zoe Barnes. Underwood is a character in the shadows of Shakespearean villians, and his ruthlessness extends beyond back-room deals to outright murder. Willimon wanted to make sure the agency of the drama was in Underwood’s hands “in a very visceral way.”

“That’s an essential truth — politicians do ruthless things to protect themselves to stay in power, and we wanted to amplify that,” Willimon said. “I needed to see that Francis was going to go to the next level, that he would truly do anything it takes to maintain his path to ascendancy. It had to go beyond [a murder of opportunism]. I needed to see the premeditation and the ruthlessness at his core, to see that he was capable of that. We heightened the emotion in a moment that is incredibly improbable but not necessarily impossible.”

Ultimately, Willimon said, “House of Cards” is not supposed to be a reflection of Washington, D.C., and its politicians. He’s more interested in making the show “reflect [Underwood’s] soul, and his wife’s soul.”

“To presume that Frank is a reflection of all politicians is the opposite of what we’re doing,” Willimon said. “He’s his own being. We’re interested in him because he’s so unlike them. His lust for power, his ruthlessness — those are aspects of all politicians. But most are doing it for the right reasons. They want to serve their country, and ambition and service are not mutually exclusive.”