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Government, Politics & Issues

On the trail: 'House of Cards' creator talks St. Louis life - and power in politics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Beau Willimon is a member of an exclusive caucus within the entertainment industry.

With the runaway success of his television show "House of Cards," the St. Louis County native is part of a bumper crop of entertainers who got their start at John Burroughs School in Ladue. Willimon joins Jon Hamm of "Mad Men" and Ellie Kemper of "The Office" as one of a creative troupe succeeding both in the limelight and behind the scenes.

Before the gritty political drama, "House of Cards," debuted in February on Netflix, the Columbia University graduate had already penned the successful play "Farragut North," which was later adapted into the George Clooney-directed film "Ides of March." The script that he co-wrote with Clooney and Grant Heslov earned an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.

But "House of Cards" may be Willimon’s most ground-breaking achievement to date. Willimon created, wrote and produced Netflix’s first original TV show, an adaptation of a BBC miniseries of the same name. The show is a gripping parable about power focusing on Francis "Frank" Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a  talented, but self-interested, South Carolina legislator who uses his political acumen to maneuver through Congress.

Underwood’s harrowing legislative life is rivaled only by his personal proclivities. That includes a businesslike relationship with his wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), as well as a “transactional” sexual affair with journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). The show also details the exploits of his ruthless chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and a self-destructive Pennsylvania representative, Peter Russo (Corey Stoll).

Netflix broke television ground by releasing all 13 episodes of "House of Cards" at the same time. But the series also sparked rapturous discussion within entertainment, politics and media for its rich characters, unpredictable storylines and deeply unsettling questions about human nature. It certainly helps that the show features striking visual imagery, sharp writing and masterful acting.

In between crafting the show's second season, Willimon spoke with the Beacon about how his early years in St. Louis shaped his creative development, the Gateway City's cameo on the show and the show's take on power in American politics. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about your connection to St. Louis and how the city helped in developing you professionally.

Willimon: I moved to St. Louis when I was 10. My dad was in the Navy for 31 years before that so we lived all over the country. When he retired, we moved to St. Louis so he could attend Washington University to get his law degree and MBA. We moved out to Chesterfield, actually Lake Chesterfield way out on Manchester Road where it turns into Highway 100. I went to Pond Elementary for a year and then starting in 7th grade went to John Burroughs. A few years after that, we moved to Creve Coeur, and that’s where I lived the rest of high school. I went to New York for college, but my parents remained in St. Louis and are still there to this day. So I come back all the time for the holidays and to visit them.

The last time I was in St. Louis was not too long ago -- for the St. Louis International Film Festival (in November). I was head of the New Filmmakers Forum's jury. That was great because all the films that I saw were shown at the Tivoli, which is one of the theaters I grew up in. I remember when the Tivoli was just one screen. Joe Edwards’ daughter Hope Edwards was in my class at John Burroughs and was a good friend, so we spent a lot of time in the Loop. My very first job was at the Shady Oak Theater in Clayton, a one-screen cinema that’s no longer there. I also was a busboy at Brandt’s Café (in the Loop).

For me, St. Louis was just a great town to grow up in. John Burroughs made a huge impact on me. The arts program was outstanding and continues to be. I spent my time between the visual arts department and the theater. I was a painter mostly because that’s what I thought I was going to do with my life. And the art program at Burroughs is better than at a lot of universities.

Of course, the theater program run by Wayne Salomon – who still runs it – was better than a lot of off-Broadway theaters in New York. The commitment and vision he brought to that program -- and the training he gives kids who are 12, 13 to 18 years old -- are on par with the best training you can get anywhere. And it’s produced some pretty talented people, like Jon Hamm or Heather Goldenhersh. My friend Stephanie Sanditz is doing a lot of writing out in L.A.

(Salomon) had a pretty big impact on all of us and you see a disproportionate number of kids from my class and years surrounding it going off into entertainment in one form or another.

I was going to ask whether you, Jon Hamm and Ellie Kemper were part of a JBS cabal within the entertainment industry.

I saw Jon Hamm recently at a Burroughs event in New York. I run into him from time to time. We’re not close buds, but he is very good friends with some very good friends of mine in L.A. So we cross paths from time to time. I’m so thrilled for him.

My very first writing gig that I got paid for was co-writing a pilot at AMC with a buddy of mine. But at the time, they were developing "Mad Men" and they hadn’t cast Don Draper yet.  I know Matt Weiner was wracking his brain and trying to think whom he wanted to cast.

A year later when it went on air and I saw it was Jon Hamm, I was so, so happy. He’s such a talented guy. In fact, he came down to teach drama my senior year. When I was in 7th grade, he was a senior. When I was a senior, he had come back to start teaching in the drama program alongside Wayne. I didn’t study with Jon. But I was in a play with him. We were both in "Stage Door" together.

I could go on and on. But aside from school, St. Louis just has an incredible cultural history and dynamism. I mean, any city that’s produced T.S. Eliot and Miles Davis and Tennessee Williams is a city I want to be from. And I think that cultural dynamism has persisted. St. Louis has some of the best art museums in the world – the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and St. Louis Art Museum.

I used to go to the St. Louis Art Museum almost every day after school  because it was free and nearby – and a great place to hang out. I could walk through that museum in my mind and tell you where every painting is. And I think the theater scene has really kicked up in the last decade or so. There was certainly a fair amount going on while I was there.

The redevelopment of downtown and Washington Avenue – and places like South Grand, the Loop and the Central West End – is really becoming more and more exciting. I think you’ve seen a resurgence in the arts that’s really wonderful. We are products of where we’re from -- and I’m proud to be from there.

There is a direct link to St. Louis in "House of Cards." Francis Underwood travels to St. Louis to meet with billionaire Raymond Tusk. Was that meant as a personal stamp? And what went into creating Tusk, who seems to have a lot in common with Warren Buffett?

That’s exactly right. I’ve always been fascinated by Warren Buffett because here you have one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country and he chooses to live in Omaha and works in the same office he started out in decades ago. He lives a homespun, folksy existence. But at the same time, he’s one of the most sophisticated and savvy businesspeople that the 20th century produced. I find that fascinating.

So in creating Raymond Tusk, the idea wasn’t to create an exact parallel or analogy. But (the character) certainly was inspired by Warren Buffett. But I didn’t want to set him in Omaha. That would have been too on-the-nose. Like I said, we weren’t trying to recreate Warren Buffett. You write what you know, an I’m always looking for ways to fit St. Louis into whatever I’m working on when it’s appropriate. It seemed like it made perfect sense.

That’s not reflective of my time in St. Louis. I didn’t know any billionaires. Certainly Burroughs being in Ladue, there is a certain amount of wealth and privilege in that part of St. Louis. But I wasn’t drawing from my experience rubbing shoulders with billionaires. That was not my experience.

"House of Cards" is groundbreaking in how it's presented. Netflix made all 13 episodes of the first season available for viewers immediately. How do you think that’s changed the way people absorbed the show?

That’s a trend that was well underway when we came into the picture. With on demand DVR, box sets of an entire season and streaming services like Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Instant, you’re already seeing people binge watching.

We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Netflix wanted to get into original programming. We were there with a new show that we wanted to make. Netflix offered us something that no other network had the depth to offer – two seasons upfront and creative control. So that was an offer that we weren’t going to pass up.

We didn’t know even when we first teamed up with Netflix that it was going to release all 13 episodes at once. It was certainly a possibility, but so was releasing it in a traditional week-to-week format. So in the writing of it, I felt that it should be able to work both ways. Even if we released all 13 at once, (some) people would watch it in a slow burn fashion. Binge watching was not required.

I wrote it to work either way – or at least that was the aim. The thing that most affected the writing was that we had two seasons guaranteed upfront. I could look at the story in a very big way. I could think of things that happen early in season one that might not pay off completely until the end of season two -- which allows you to think of a lot more layers to the story.

I think you’re going to continue to see shows released in this format. Certainly Netflix plans to. But as other online players get into the game and as traditional cable networks struggle to keep up, you will find more and more shows being released entire seasons all at once.

Really, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be. The only reason shows are released week-to-week anymore is because people are conditioned ... that way from the days of live television when you were actually rolling the cameras at a certain day and at a certain time. Now that everything’s filmed in advance, there’s really no reason that needs to be the case.

Former Missouri state Sen. Jeff Smith penned an article for Buzzfeed looking at what "House of Cards" got right and what it got wrong in terms of legislative procedure and politics. What went into fashioning the political mechanics of the show? And what’s your response been to people's reactions to the show’s picture of Washington politics?

I worked on a number of political campaigns over the years. My best friend Jay Carson – with whom I went to college – brought me into Chuck Schumer’s 1988 Senate race [in New York]. And I was hooked after that.

Jay went on to become a political wonderboy. He rose very quickly through the ranks in Democratic Party operatives. He pulled me into Hillary Clinton’s [Senate] campaign in 2000, Bill Bradley’s [presidential] campaign in 2000. In fact, I helped set up a couple of events for Bradley in Crystal City where he grew up. And then I went on to work for [former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean] in 2004. And I took from all those experiences. Actually, I remember Jay was helping out on [Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan’s] Senate race before he passed away.

I not only drew from those experiences and all the relationships I made in politics, but we did a ton of research for this show: trips to D.C., talking with experts in the political world, the lobbying world, the media world. 

Many of [my friends and people who work in the political world] think that this is the most authentic portrayal of Washington to date. It’s a very hard world to get right because it’s very specific. And of course we have to exaggerate or simplify at times for the sake of drama. But all in all, I think most people have come down on side of the fence that this is a pretty authentic portrayal.

There are people who will find issue with certain things that we do. But I think those are the exceptions to the rule.

One character who's provoked some controversy is Zoe Barnes, a ruthlessly ambitious journalist who has an affair with Francis Underwood. What went into developing Barnes? And what’s your take on the reaction to her?

It’s interesting because I’ve spoken with a lot of people in the media world about Zoe Barnes and about the way the media are portrayed in general. And we’re certainly taking a darker look at it. What I always say is we’re not trying to portray Woodward and Bernstein. This isn’t a story about noble journalists who are seeking the truth.

Zoe Barnes is not seeking the truth. She’s seeking access and influence. She’s deeply ambitious, and deeply ambitious people will do whatever it takes to get what they want. That is as true in the media world as it is in politics, finance, our love lives or at home. We are all politicians in a way. We are all dealing with power plays in the pursuit of what we want.

I can tell you for a fact that there are journalists who sleep with their sources. I know a few examples personally. While that might be rare, it is not unheard of.  The (media's) job in life is to hold a mirror up to society. And yet when the mirror is turned around on them, they get very, very uncomfortable.

Anyone who is shocked and alarmed [about] a character like Zoe Barnes is living in a dream world. Those people certainly do exist, particularly in Washington, which is one of the most competitive media markets in the United States.

So look, everyone’s fair game on our show. And if there are people who take issue with a young woman using her sex appeal as one of her tactics, so be it.

We have a diversity of perspectives within the show. You see powerful female characters like Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) or Claire Underwood who complete that spectrum. So people may focus on Zoe Barnes. But if you look at the show as a whole, everyone’s using what they have available to them – man and woman.

Peter Russo, for example. No one takes issues with the fact that he’s lying about his sobriety or he’s lying to his girlfriend or his children. People really like him. In some ways, his ethical behavior is a lot more questionable than Zoe Barnes’.

What do you think your show says about American politics and human nature? It seems to have a darker tone than a lot of political shows. What do you think it says about our system of government?

We don’t have an agenda with this show. And the goal is not after 13 hours for people to have a takeaway. We’re not trying to teach you lessons here. And we’re not honestly trying to tell people things that they don’t already know or expect about politics.

The show’s not really about politics. It’s about power. And power is universal and it extends way beyond politics. We happen to focus on a political world because we get to see power dynamics played out by experts of the game. A lot of people assume that I’m a cynical person because of the darkness of the show. In truth, I’m a rather optimistic person. But I look at everything through the lens of realism. I think there is truth to what we portray when it comes to how power can motivate, affect or destroy people.

People are thirsty for someone who is pragmatic and effective – like Francis Underwood. He is unabashedly pursuing power for power’s sake. But if he actually gives you forward momentum, does it matter that he is unapologetically self-interested?

That’s a question that we don’t answer but it’s one that we pose. And the audience can make what they will of it.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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