The author of the play that became George Clooney's The Ides of March talks about the journey from unknown campaign worker to Oscar-nominated screenwriter.
Beau Willimon doesn't like the word "cynical." "I was after authenticity," says the writer behind Farragut North and its subsequent film adaptation, The Ides of March, which competes with four other films for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards on Sunday. "And if that makes you cynical, or you think that's a cynical take, I think that's more in your viewing than anything else."
He's had little reason to be cynical lately. A Columbia graduate and longtime aspiring writer ("I was watching my friends from high school earning a six-figure salaries, and I was trying to make stories"), Willimon eked out a living at factories and coffee shops until the script for his unproduced play, Farragut North, caught the eyes of both George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio. The film, eventually retitled The Ides of March, came out last October to positive reviews and a final worldwide gross of nearly $70 million.
As the writers behind The Ides of March prepare to compete at the Academy Awards, The Atlantic interviewed Willimon about the origins of the story, the process of adapting his work for the silver screen, and the overlap between contemporary politics and Hollywood:
Spoilers for The Ides of March to follow.
Your background is in politics. Were the people you'd worked with concerned when they heard you were writing a play on this subject?
A lot of them didn't even know I was a playwright, and I didn't work on any campaigns thinking, "Oh, I'm going to use this for some kind of material." I worked on the campaigns because I believed in the candidates, and I wanted to see them get elected. And I was so obscure and unknown as a writer. I don't think anyone was shaking in their boots if they heard I was writing a play about it.
Let's talk about adapting the play for the screen. How did your co-writers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov, first come to the project?
When I first wrote the play in 2004, I sent it to about 40 theaters across the country on my own. I didn't have an agent at the time. Months and months and months went by. A lot of them didn't even respond at all, and those who did said "thanks but no thanks." So I figured "all right, this isn't the one," and put the play back on the shelf.
"In 'Farragut North,' you never see the candidate, because I really wanted to focus on the behind-the-scene folks."
Why did you take it off the shelf again?
I teamed up with my current agent, and he read my work and wanted to send it out. I said, "Good luck. Maybe you'll have better luck than I did." And he did. I think part of it was the fact that an agent was sending it out, and part of it was it was getting close to two years out until the 2008 presidential election. Politics was in the air, it was a very important election for obvious reasons, we were at war. And I'd like to think a little bit of it had to do with the play connecting with readers, and people actually liked it.
So at that time you weren't trying to make it as a film?
I first teamed up with Jeff Richards, who produced Spring Awakening and Homecoming. He came out to lunch with me and said, "I want to put your play on Broadway." So boldened by that, we sent out the play to L.A. I don't know exactly how—I still haven't been able to figure it out—but somehow it made it into the hands of the folks at Warner Brothers. I got that fairytale phone call from my agent one day: "Look, Warner Brothers wants to option your play into a movie, and by the way, George Clooney and Leo DiCaprio's companies want to produce. How does that sound?" I probably didn't respond with actual words—I think it was more like sounds.
Were you brought on to the adaption right away? Was it always the idea you'd adapt your own play?
Yes. That was part of the deal from the beginning. We said that right away. My agent said, "Beau would like to adapt it," and they said, "Great, we want him to." That's also another rare thing. I wrote the first few drafts of the screenplay, and then George decided he wanted to direct the movie. And when he directs movies, he always likes to have a hand in the script. So I turned my screenplay over to George and his writing partner, Grant, and they did a few drafts.
What were their biggest changes to your original screenplay?
Their biggest contribution was the addition of Governor Morris [the character played by George Clooney in The Ides of March]. In Farragut North, you never see the candidate—he is referred to and mentioned many times, but it was my choice not to make him a character, because I really wanted to focus on the behind-the-scene folks. The folks in the shadows.