A version of this story appears in theComedy/Drama issue of EmmyWrap
Beau Willimon has approached White House correspondents, Pulitzer Prize winners and little-known bloggers about the portrayal of journalists in his show "House of Cards," the Netflix series about the lurid underground of our nation's capitol starring Kevin Spacey.
The one-time press officer for a number of politicians is particularly sensitive to this subject, not least of which because one of the show’s main characters, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), is a journalist who sleeps with her primary informant.
When Willimon stopped by TheWrap, we had to ask the guy in charge of one of the year’s most buzzed-about series a few questions of our own.
One of the most controversial things about "House of Cards" in Hollywood is that Netflix won’t reveal how many people are watching. What do you make of that
When you're not selling advertising, is the idea of a hit an antiquated notion? If you're a company like Netflix, the goal is to provide something for everyone.
They'll make a show knowing that it won't cause crazy ratings but feed underserved fans and make them loyal Netflix subscribers. Instead of trying to hit as many people with one thing, you try to hit everyone with lots of little things.
Do you get the numbers?
I have a certain amount of knowledge about the numbers, but I held off as much as I could. I'd be happy with Netflix saying, "We're happy." I don't really want to know much more than that.
Was there any sort of line that you couldn't cross in terms of what you could show — language, violence?
No, I never had a documentation that said, "You can’t do these things." If we had a guy raping a cow with a swastika tattooed on his forehead, then would someone maybe have said, "We are a little bit concerned about this?" Potentially.
Look at "Game of Thrones." You have full-on pornography, like incest pornography. We have Kevin Spacey giving Kate Mara cunnilingus in a tasteful way for 30 seconds, and it's more about the psychology of that moment — which makes it feel, probably, darker and more twisted than what we see in "Game of Thrones," which is just outright sex.
So what do you do that's darker?
I’ll give you a good example. I wanted to kill a dog in the first 30 seconds of the show. I wanted a movie-star entrance for Kevin, where he literally walks through double doors in a tuxedo because he's a f—ng movie star and we're starting a show! But I also wanted an anti-movie-star entrance [to] establish that this guy is capable of killing in the first 30 seconds.
There were a couple of people on the production side who had done TV for a long time, and they're like, "If you kill a dog within the first 30 seconds, you're going to lose half your viewership. You can kill as many human beings as you want, but kill an animal? It'll turn people off."
David [Fincher, who directed the first two episodes] and I agreed that people who are going to turn off at that moment are not our audience anyway.
What do people in D.C. think about the show?
A lot of people have to watch it just so they can be part of the conversation. I don't know how I feel about that. A lot of people I know are biased because they know me, but some of these hardened D.C. journalists who know the world better than anyone feel like it’s one of the most authentic portrayals of that world that they’ve seen.
There are other people in D.C. that are just going to decide that it's all totally bogus and things don't happen this way. They're wrong, because I know from first-hand experience.
What do you mean?
We don't f–k around. We do our research. We do break the rules sometimes, but we know which rules we're breaking, and you have to for the sake of drama. Technically, in Pennsylvania, if the governor left to be vice president, the lieutenant governor would just become governor until the next regularly scheduled election.
However, in West Virginia it would be a special election. In "House of Cards"-land, are we taking West Virginia’s rules and putting them in Pennsylvania? Yeah. Does it matter? No.
Did you look at how other political shows were treated for accuracy?
I honestly wasn't reading all the commentary and stuff when "The West Wing" was on. I was just a viewer that enjoyed the show. But the idea that the West Wing comprised about seven people who did everything, where your press secretary is also your communications director is also a senior advisor is also …
The amount of conflation and simplification that happened there was insane, you know? And yet there are a lot of things they did right. It was a noble fantasy, good people doing good things. I’m an Aaron Sorkin fan. I deeply respect his writing.
Have there been critiques of your show that you felt were unfair?
No. Everything’s fair game. People in D.C. are so psyched when anyone dramatizes them in an exciting way. They’re a lot more open to looking at the nastier side of themselves than the media is. And one of the arguments the show is making is that all these worlds are the same. If you really think that ambition, power, lust, desire are not as applicable in the media as in politics or on Wall Street or anywhere else, you’re deluding yourself.
Do you find your characters likeable?
You'll hear time and time again in the TV industry about likeability. I say, "F–likeability." I don't give a s— whether anyone likes my characters. I do give a s— whether they’re attracted to them, and those are two fundamentally different things. Because the most interesting characters — Shakespeare is a great example of this — are not likeable. Richard III is not likeable. Macbeth is not likeable. Hamlet is not likeable. And yet you can't take your eyes off them. I’m far more interested in that than I am in any sort of likeability.