Beau Willimon arrived in Chautauqua Institution at 2 a.m. Saturday fresh from Washington, D.C., and two episodes into production on the fourth season of “House of Cards.” If he was exhausted during his lecture Saturday, it didn’t show.
The energetic playwright and showrunner of Netflix’s flagship political drama dropped by the Hall of Philosophy at 3 p.m. Saturday to conclude a week examining art and politics. He sat down with Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Sherra Babcock and took questions from audience members about his life, his philosophy and his popular show.
The series, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as a ruthless couple climbing the ladder of political power in Washington, D.C., was based on a four-part British miniseries of the same name. However, from the beginning, Willimon said he was not interested in simply adapting the series but rebuilding it as part of the American mythology of individualism and exceptionalism.
For example, the main character in the British series, Francis Urquhart, was a Tory from old money. Spacey’s character Francis Underwood is a South Carolina congressman who came from nothing to become a self-made man.
For Willimon, whether he works in entertainment or in politics, they both are powered by narrative. While researching president Franklin Delano Roosevelt for Season 3, he discovered political cartoons depicting him as a “healthy personage” despite his polio affliction.
“He could barely keep himself upright balancing on his braces yet the narrative and image he portrayed to the world was one of vigor, health and vitality,” he said.
The power of storytelling is elemental to politics, whether it is a democracy or a totalitarian dictatorship, Willimon said. The variance is the level of truth-telling.
“That’s the challenge — how to be authentic artificially,” he said.
Bill Clinton was an example of a politician he had personally met with boundless charisma and a love of politicking, a gift he said his wife does not necessarily share. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was an example of the opposite: an unflattering politician who nonetheless possessed great intelligence and savvy, according to Willimon.
The alchemic mixture of both is the key to our most visionary politicians. He said FDR was the prime example, noting the brilliance of his famous fireside chats.
Willimon graduated from Columbia University in 1999 and later attended the Juilliard School’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program. He met Jay Carson, a prominent political consultant and strategist, on the Columbia crew team. He later recruited Willimon into politics and acts as a producer and consultant on the show.
His first campaign he worked on was Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) in 1998 as a volunteer and intern. He later aided Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senatorial election, Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign, as well as Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“As you can tell, I’m a Republican,” he said. “Go Trump.”
For him, there was thrill in being “in the trenches” of politics, where he was fighting for victory for a candidate who represented his ideals. Sometimes it worked, as with Schumer and Clinton. In Dean’s case, not so much (he was one of people responsible for arranging the event that birthed the now-infamous “Dean scream”).
His experience as a political operative was thrilling, but Willimon has always considered himself first and foremost an artist. He began as a painter but fell in love with the written word in college. One of the techniques that carried over from the British version of the show was the main character’s asides that address the audience, a classic Shakespearean device.
“We’re professional thieves,” he said, before amending himself slightly.
He likened human storytelling to a stream with each storyteller, influenced and constructed by past stories, adding a drop.
“It’s more like the passing of genetic code,” he said.
In the intervening years of the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, Willimon returned to writing and came up with the play Farragut North. It was rejected by 40 theater companies until it premiered off-Broadway in fall 2008. It was noticed by actor George Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov, who obtained the rights. It became the 2011 film “The Ides of March,” starring Clooney and Ryan Gosling.
With the doors of Hollywood suddenly open, he came aboard “House of Cards” in 2012 while it was shopped around with director David Fincher and series stars Spacey and Wright already attached. It premiered its first 13 episodes on Feb. 1, 2013, starting trends of “binge-watching” and bringing legitimacy to Internet content producers like Netflix. In Willimon’s words, it was simply a case of “right place, right time.”
He has six writers who work for him on the series, and he hired them based on their theater experience. The fundamentals of stage writing lend themselves to good writing because of the direct connection between the words, the performers and the audience, he said.
“In theater, you can’t cheat,” he said. “You can’t cover up with special effects.”
On the show, film director Fincher, who directed the first two episodes of the series and developed it alongside Willimon initially, set the visual tone but, like in play writing, Willimon reserves the right to break them to make particular statements. While Shakespeare is famous for his use of iambic pentameter, he would occasionally also use prose. Willimon cited the famous line “To be or not to be, that is the question” as an example of breaking the rule by including 11 syllables instead of 10.
“We tell the director it’s like a sonnet: You have 14 lines, ABAB structure, and if you need an extra syllable or line because that poem calls for it, fine, but otherwise let’s maintain that framework,” he said.
His winding path to creator of one of the most successful television shows in the world is an illustration of his philosophy: Don’t plan ahead.
“I never had a plan. I have the drive, desire and ambition,” he said. “By design, I try not to have an end goal because by doing that you restrict your path and your thinking. For me, that’s a version of death. I like life.”
Last Friday, the day before his Hall of Philosophy visit, he spoke to 500 Capitol Hill interns. After telling them the value of not having a plan, he added his “four Cs” for success: curiosity, courage, community and commitment.
Having a community to offer support and improvement is imperative, as is the commitment to putting in the work to make dreams a reality, according to Willimon.
Curiosity can be having a conversation on a subway or going on an adventure. Courage is having the bravery to fail and risk as much as possible.
“Great things never come from being comfortable,” he said. “I had to write thousands and thousands of bad pages to write a few good ones, and it took me a while to find my voice. More than anything, it’s persistence. That, mixed some curiosity and the willingness to fail and take risks, is the answer.”