How Beau Willimon Built 'House Of Cards'

Beau Willimon and Ken Burns | © Peabody Awards/Flickr
Beau Willimon and Ken Burns | © Peabody Awards/Flickr
Photo of Ashley Jones
11 January 2017

The angst-filled political television drama House of Cards met with critical acclaim when it launched in February 2013. Much-warranted buzz currently surrounds the show’s creator, the American playwright and screenwriter Beau Willimon.

Born in Virginia, Beau Willimon lived a nomadic lifestyle as a child as a result of his father being a captain in the U.S. Navy. He attended high school in Missouri where he partook in drama classes led by Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm. After attending Columbia University and graduating in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in visual arts, Willimon found himself in a string of positions relating directly to politics. These endeavors included an internship for the Senate campaign of Charles Schumer and various jobs for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 campaign, Bill Bradley’s 2000 campaign, and Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign.

Beau Willimon 5 | © Peabody Awards/Flickr

These roles would provide Willimon with a working knowledge of the inside dealings between politicians and of the industry in general. When commenting on this occupational stint as a young man, Willimon stated, ‘Like any young person who gets into a political campaign, I joined out of a highfalutin’ desire to change the world. But you start to see the sort of tactics people use. You start to see politics not only in the macro but in the micro of the campaign itself. Some people get turned off by this side of it. Other people are drawn to it.’ However, Willimon has made it quite clear that he is by no means a politician dabbling in the writing craft, but that politics were merely a side job, and that writing, television, and film was always his chosen and main career goal.

As a result of this occupational focus, after completing a fellowship with the Estonian government in Tallinn, Willimon relocated to Vietnam to work for a magazine. It was during this time that Willimon conducted research for his first screenplay, based on the life of Columbia professor Tomas Vu. In attempts to perfect his craft, Willimon returned to New York City to continue his studies at Columbia’s School of the Arts.

Admittedly, Willimon expressed that the beginning of his studies were by no means simple, he had to consciously work at perfecting his craft as he had no prior education or experience in writing plays. After graduating with his MFA in playwriting from Columbia, Willimon worked a number of odd jobs before enrolling at Julliard School’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program, where he was the recipient of a fellowship and the Lincoln Center ‘Le Compte du Nuoy’ Award.

Marin Ireland / Beau Willimon | © Peabody Awards/Flickr

Utilizing his prior experience in politics as a catalyst for incredible art, Willimon wrote Farragut North, inspired by his time as a press aide for Howard Dean’s campaign. The play premiered off Broadway in 2008 and was adapted into the Academy Award-nominated film, The Ides of March, in 2011. Willimon penned a number of other plays that were performed in numerous theaters across the U.S. and internationally.

However, Willimon’s mainstream success came in 2013 with the development of the Netflix hit, House of Cards. In 2008, director and producer David Fincher was shown the original BBC miniseries House of Cards and was immediately interested in adapting the show to an American audience. After searching for a network to produce and program the show, Netflix outbid other major household networks including HBO, Showtime, and AMC.

Although incredibly optimistic about a show of this nature garnering a wide audience and positive ratings and reviews, Fincher understood the importance in finding a writer who could accurately depict the trials and tribulations of parliamentary politics. As a result of Willimon’s political background, he was brought onto the project and completed the pilot in 2011. However, Willimon saw opportunity past simple adaption. Instead, Willimon simply worked off of the original miniseries to create a show even larger and more complex, with more profound characters and thematic depth concerning power, cunning, and manipulation.

Beau Willimon / Jayne Atkinson | © Peabody Awards/Flickr

Willimon’s version of the show is set in Washington, DC, opposed to the original miniseries which took place in the United Kingdom, and centralizes around the character Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey), a South Carolina Democrat who creates an intricate plan to elevate himself to a position of higher power after being overlooked for appointment to Secretary of State. The show received positive reviews and praise from critics for Willimon’s writing, Spacey’s convincing portrayal as an inwardly menacing politician, and earned 22 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and seven Golden Globe nominations for seasons one and two combined.

However, in January of 2016, Willimon announced his departure from the show. Willimon once explained, ‘The political world is a dark place. If you want to portray it accurately, authentically, you’ve got to turn out the lights from time to time.’ Although his parting may be bittersweet, there are many thanks for the man who was unafraid to dig into the dark political world in order to create one of the best Netflix series to date. As his infamous character, Frank Underwood once said, ‘I don’t know whether to be proud or terrified or both.’ Indeed, fans are both equally proud of Willimon and his accomplishments and terrifyingly excited to see what he brings about next.

Frank Underwood's taking over Delhi too. | © Connie Ma/Flickr

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