Is House of Cards TV?
Its creator doesn't think so. A conversation with Beau Willimon about streaming, the creative process, and the meaninglessness of the word "television"
When all House of Cards first hit the Internet a year ago, the buzz around the show said that the way it was created and distributed—as an entire season developed outside of the traditional network structure, made available for streaming all at once—would change entertainment forever.
Phase Two of that supposed revolution kicks of 3 a.m. Eastern Friday, when the Emmy-nominated political drama's second season goes online. But now the hype is more about the show itself: What dark dealings will new U.S. Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), his wife Claire (Robin Wright), and the reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) get up to under the stylish direction of David Fincher?
But it's worth marveling just how quickly people have come to accept the prospect of getting to watch an entire new TV season at your own pace, wherever you want. And it's worth wondering how the rise of streaming affects not only how shows are watched, but how they're made. Does it change the creative process to know half your audience will consume your show's entire season in one week?
I put that question to House of Cards creator Beau Willimon last December, as production on Season Two was wrapping up. Willimon began his show-business career as a playwright and received an Oscar nomination for helping pen Ides of March. But outside of collaborating on one scrapped pilot intended for AMC ("a historical drama that took place on a plantation during the Civil War where one of the slaves was a spy for the North," he says), he had never worked in television production before House of Cards. And to hear him tell it, he's not really working in television now. That's because "television," he says, is a word that's lost all meaning.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
You hail from the world of theater originally. What were your impressions of TV screenwriting before you got started with House of Cards?
I had a few friends working in television, but every story is so vastly different. Every network is different. Every show is different. Every team is different. So it’s tough to have expectations because there’s no real schema to it all.
What I knew was that we had to get 800 pages under our belt. I had put a lot of thought into the broad strokes of what would happen during Season One. And I had the benefit of knowing from the get-go who our two stars would be and what they would bring to the roles. But at the end of the day, creating something is always a banging-the-head-against-the-wall game. Whether it’s a play that you’re going to do for an audience of 50 or whether it’s a TV show that you want to do for millions. You have to get in a room, you have to start coming up with ideas, and most of those ideas will be bad. Eventually you arrive an idea that is good. You explore it, you wrestle with it, you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until you think you’ve got it.
You’re describing what sounds like a pretty pure creative process, where you’re just focused on coming up with the best way to tell the story. Where my impression is, if you talk to TV writers not too long ago or even now in a network environment, it’s pretty different—you have your commercial breaks to write around, and you have a lot of constraints from the higher-ups. Do you work feeling "thank god I don’t have those constraints," or were they just never even there in your head?
I definitely feel very lucky that I don’t have to take into consideration a lot of the constraints that a lot of more traditional TV shows have to contend with. You’re absolutely right that if you’re writing a network show, there are specific act breaks where commercials are going to happen and you have to hit an exact minute mark. And you also often have to submit to many layers of corporate notes, and that just wasn’t the case on our show. Netflix gave us a huge degree of creative control.
There are still certain fundamental parameters. Our show still generally has to be around an hour because we still sell internationally to networks that will traditionally air it week-to-week with commercials sometimes. But I didn’t think about commercials or act breaks or anything like that.
I guess the biggest thing that affected the writing of our show was not releasing all 13 [episodes] at once—we didn’t know we were going to do that until about halfway through production of Season One. It was always a possibility, but a traditional week-to-week release was a possibility as well. So were other permutations between those two extremes. The biggest thing was knowing we had two seasons guaranteed. Because it meant I could think about something layered in early in Season One that might not boomerang back till the end of Season Two. It meant a much broader canvas, and not having to force arbitrary cliffhangers or frontload Season One for the sake of jacking ratings for the fight for one’s survival. It makes you think about story in a totally different way.
That makes sense. You originally wrote the pilot not knowing it’d be on Netflix, right?
Right, and we never say it was a pilot because we never intended to do a pilot. We either wanted to do at least a full season or not do the show at all. I understand the business model of wanting to do pilots: A network is going to invest a great deal into a show and they want to see something before they make that investment. But, at the same time, that can sometime have a detrimental effect on the show itself because one feels the need to sell the show with the pilot. It puts an incredible amount of pressure on those 60 minutes or those 30 minutes.
Once you knew all the episodes would be released at once—I guess this applies more to Season Two—has that affected the way you’re thinking about telling the story?
Not at all. No.
Just because you’re releasing all the episodes in one day doesn’t necessitate that people are going to binge-watch. There are plenty of people who watch it one episode here, two episodes there, who might space it out over a matter of weeks or months. If you look at shows like Sopranos or Breaking Bad, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, all these great shows have come out in the last decade and a half, all of those shows were released in the traditional week-to-week format. However, many peoples’ experience of those shows was a binge-type viewing either through boxed sets or DVR or On Demand. So without the term “binge watching” having been coined yet, those shows were working. All the writers were thinking about was telling a really great story. You can say we had a reverse experience where we knew that binge-watching was going to be a possibility, but ultimately, since that wasn’t the only mode by which people might watch, it had to be able to work the other way as well—a more traditional way.
So I don’t think you can think of the delivery model as something that inherently affects the nature of the story. I mean, Charles Dickens books were released serially, a chapter each month. But a lot of people don’t know that, and most people read them as a novel. It’s the strength of the story which allows them to exist in either format.
I guess if you were doing a show that was more episodic as opposed to serial it could affect the writing. I believe Arrested Development took this into consideration, the notion that episodes could be watched out of slated order. I think that you might see more innovation in what’s possible in terms of form in the years to come. It’s certainly something I’d like to experiment with.
I don’t know how much longer the idea of a “season” will be something that we feel like we need to adhere to in television. Even the idea of an episode. I think with streaming, you might have shows in the future where you have three or four hours released. And then three months later you’ll get another couple hours. And then nine months later you might get six more hours. I mean, do all of those constitute a season, or do you sort of dispense with the notion of seasons altogether?
I’ve toyed with the idea for a show that doesn’t have episodes at all. That would simply be one eight-hour stream for a season, and the viewer decides when they want to pause, if at all. That definitely could affect the writing of a show. But we’re in an in-between period now,where we have traditional broadcast networks on one end of the spectrum and streaming on the other, meaning that shows kind of have to be able to live in both worlds.
That’s interesting that House of Cards episodes have to be an hour-long for an international market—do you feel constrained by it?
Is it a constraint to make a sonnet to fit its meter? Well, you’ve chosen to write a sonnet. It’s a structure. It’s a structure that you choose to work within, and structure can be good. It forces you to make choices. There’s a certain rhythm to an hour of storytelling.
But. Having said that. Take [House of Cards] Episode Seven from Season One, which is the episode where [Peter] Russo is having second thoughts about running for governor. About three quarters of the way through the episodes, he’s convinced [to run] because Christina comes over and tells him it’s something he should do. One could make the argument that when he goes into the basement and tells Francis, “OK, I’ll do this,” then the story of the episode is over.
Yet there’s eight more minutes to the episode. And that’s the scene where Francis goes over to Zoe’s apartment and it’s Fathers’ Day. You have an eight-minute scene where she ends up on the phone with her dad, wishing him a happy Fathers’ Day. Francis talks to us about the nature of secrets, and then he proceeds to give her cunnilingus while she’s still on the phone with her dad. Now, that whole scene is like a little one-act play. It’s almost an eight-minute episode in of itself. Because it really has nothing to do with the plot of the previous 40 or so minutes before that. But what it’s valuable for is as an exploration and an expansion of these two characters.
So we call that all one chapter, Chapter Seven. But in a way, there’s two chapters in there. What I was toying with in that episode was even though it constitutes one hour, roughly, it’s almost like there’s two episodes within that episode. So I am working within the structure of one hour but also finding ways to try to push the envelope on what the traditional rhythm of the hour might feel like. Plenty of shows have done that. But that’s the way you stick to the rules and you break them at the same time.
By the way, you ruined Fathers’ Day.
[Laughs.] Well, I hope that a lot of fathers in America when they’re on the phone with their daughters this Fathers’ Day are going to wonder what they’re up to when they’re talking with them. No, my goal was not to ruin Fathers' day.
But that’s a great example of the sort of scene that certainly I doubt would get past the censors in broadcast network television. I mean, who knows? Network shows are actually getting much bolder. I think that they’ve really gotten hip to the vanguard of television making that really started in the mid to late ‘90s with HBO and then really expanded to other paid cable networks. It’s quite exciting. Sometimes I’ll be watching quote-unquote traditional broadcast network and I’ll see a show and I’m actually shocked by how far they’re willing to take things these days.
Going back to that idea of making an eight-hour, episode-free work, how far along are you in playing with that idea and how do you think you’d approach that?
Well, ideas like that have to percolate in an organic way. I don’t really want to jinx it by telling you what I have in mind. But it goes to the more fundamental question, which is: Does television exist anymore? And I would make the argument that it doesn’t, and neither does film. And what I mean by that is the differentiation between film and television is gone. If I were to ask you: “What is a film? How do you define a film? How do you define a television show?” What would you say?
I think you’d think of TV as more episodic. I think that is the one distinction that still seems significant to people.
By episodic what do you mean?
That it’s in chunks, that it’s in chapter-like form. Whereas a movie, you sit down and it’s a unified experience.
What is The Godfather? Parts 1, 2, and 3. You know? If you start thinking, well a TV show is a half-hour to an hour long and it’s in chunks, and a TV show is an hour to two hours and it has a beginning, middle, and end and then it’s done—those are pretty weak definitions, right? It really just comes down to formal, structural things. It’s like if I said to you there’s no fundamental difference between a sonnet and a haiku. Like, they have different meter structures. But they’re both poems. They’re both trying to express something. The words within them don’t know that they’re a haiku or a sonnet. If a television show has an episode that is 90 minutes long, could that episode in itself constitute a film? And what if you have a movie that’s 45 minutes long? We typically call that a short. But how different is that than a standalone episode of TV?
I mean, are we just talking about length? Because it doesn’t make it a movie [just] because you go to a movie theater to see it. You could show House of Cards in a movie theater, or Orange Is the New Black or The Sopranos. The quality and the sophistication of the filmmaking these days rivals what you see in the cinema and in some cases is even better. The level of talent, for the directors and the actors being drawn to television, is on par and in many cases better than what you’re seeing coming out of studios in Hollywood. For kids that are being born right now and will grow up with a smartphone or some sort of tablet in their hands, there’ll be no differentiation for them between watching these things on their phone or their tablet or their television.
We used to talk about television as a small screen. Well, a lot of people now have a 60-inch screen. The experience at home is now in some ways more cinematic than in a movie theater because that screen takes up a greater percentage of your field of vision than if you’re sitting halfway back in a movie theater. A lot of people watch a movie on their phone.
All of those experiences are valid. So if you were to say, “I want to make an eight-hour thing,” I can’t think about it as a television show. I can’t think about it as a movie. Right? And so I don’t know what to think about it as. I mean, the closest thing might be a novel. You have to think, “Well, what are the rhythms of that?” If you don’t have specific breaks in it, it’s got to be symphonic. It’s got to be something that has its natural fissures and places where it ebbs and flows. You’re really talking about making an eight-hour film, or a season of television without breaks. And those are sort of inferior ways of trying to describe the thing you’re trying to make. I’m not doing a good job answering your question because I don’t really have the words to describe something that doesn’t exist.
Once we’re in this world where anything is possible, what do you think people might want to create? How might people want to experience their stories? Are we going to default back to segmented things because there’s something about the way that works that people like? Or not?
I hope there’s no one answer to that question. What you’re asking is, what’s everything going to be? Is it going to be A or is it going to be B? I hope it’s a mixture of all of these things. I think one of the things that was smart that Netflix did—brilliant in fact—was they recognized that viewers were deciding how they wanted to watch television shows. And some of them were watching it in pieces, some of them were watching it all at once, some of them might watch it in two days, and some of them might watch it over the course of two years. And they said, rather than try to make a choice that will appeal to the most people, or the biggest segment, why don’t we just give them the option to decide for themselves? So as long as you have this trend towards viewer empowerment, I think you’re going to see a more eclectic mix of formats and delivery systems in order to satisfy all of these niches in behavior and viewing patterns.
At the advent of television I’m sure people were asking, “So, is this going to replace movies because nobody’s going to go to the movie theater anymore?” Well, what did we end up with? A mixture. So I think a lot of different models are able to coexist. The more the merrier.
And I haven’t introduced videogames into all of this. That’s going to be the primary art form of the 21st century. In 1913, if I’d said to you film would be the dominant art form of the 20th century, you would have laughed in my face. Videogames are young. Often, you find that where some of the greatest artistic innovation is happening is where the most people are engaged and the most money is to be made. Videogames dwarf film and television in terms of their revenue potential. Videogames can make more money on the first day of its release than the most successful film of all time can make over its whole existence.
Are you interest in getting in getting into videogames as a creator?
Sure. I grew up on television and videogames. There’s something that feels very natural to me about that world. At heart I’m a writer; I don’t know quite yet how to meld my writing with the world of game development. Maybe there’s not a place for me. But it’s something I’m certainly intrigued by.
Getting back to House of Cards: What do you know about how people consumed it? You seemed to be pushing back against the idea that everyone was binge watching it. What has the data you’ve seen—
I don’t have the data.
Not any data?
Nope. All I know is that there’s a diversity of viewing habits. Obviously there were a good number of people who binge watched, however you classified that—is it over a couple days, is it a week? Is it over two weeks? There’s no set definition for what constitutes a binge.
But I also know for a fact that there were plenty of people who spaced it out over time. And there are people who are still discovering the show. Right now, someone in the world is watching Episode One and that person may watch it all over the next 13 hours or they may space it out over the next 13 months. Who knows? But I don’t have the precise numbers and I don’t know the precise proportion.
The fact that you don't have data on how many people have watched House of Cards is a crazy thing, right? How do you think about whether something’s a success?
Well that’s a great question. It’s an industry-wide question: What are the metrics for success? It used to be very simple. Whichever shows got the most viewers were able to sell the most expensive advertising. But I’m writing the show for a company that does not sell advertising. They sell subscriptions. What does it mean to run a subscription-based company? A big part of that is meeting the demands of your subscribers. We know this well in the theater. Most nonprofit theaters have some sort of subscription model, and they know who those people are and they know what they want. Some shows maybe aren’t intended to satisfy all of their subscribers. They might be intended to satisfy a portion of those subscribers. And if you have an eclectic programming slate then maybe what you’re doing is satisfying all of your subscribers, but in niches that cumulatively add up to more people than you might hit with just one show that’s trying to hit the four quadrants in a traditional broadcast way.
And then there’s also the value of a show being in the zeitgeist. I mean, there are plenty of shows out there where their ratings don’t compare to anything you would see on a broadcast network, but they’re on the news a lot and there’s a buzz around them and they draw attention tothe company or network.
Take a show like Arrested Development. Its numbers when it was originally airing weren’t enough to keep it on the air. And yet if you took those same numbers now, that would be a massive hit on a broadcast network.
Did you watch the new Arrested Development season?
Some of it, but when I’m in production I fall way behind on everything so I am woefully behind on some of my favorite shows.
Ah, well, never mind. But it really did play with what you could do with Netflix.
Well you know, just because the model didn’t necessarily affect the way that we wrote our show doesn’t mean that there isn’t the potential for it to affect the way other shows are created and written. We are a serialized drama. If you watched it out of order, you would be having the House of Cards avant garde experience. But I don’t know how much sense it would make or how much it would resonate.
But even for a show that can be watched in any order, there’s still some level of story and some way in which all of those things have to connect and resonate even if it is more choose-your-own adventure. Fundamentally, that process of creation is the same. You’re still talking about characters, behavior, and story.
One of the interesting things about a Netflix is that you have this archive this repository of content that conceivably never dies. Someone could discover a show 20 years after it was made. It used to be that a show had its life, and then, the most successful of the shows would go into syndication, and eventually the syndication would taper off, and that was it. But now the shows can live forever. There may be shows that when they are first aired on broadcast television don’t receive huge numbers, but 10 years later actually become huge hits because they were ahead of their times.
You think about syndication, that’s interesting too because it’s what drove a lot of television making prior to cable and Netflix and all of the things that we’re seeing now: Can it exist in a syndicated format? In a syndicated format, you’re always showing things out of order. So in more episodic shows, you don’t necessarily have tons of character development over time. It’s tried and true. You’re familiar with the characters and what they do and how they act and you can watch it out of order. I can watch any episode of Cheers from any season and enjoy it. Yes there was story development over time, but in a glacial way that works well for comedy because you have these archetypes that you become familiar with and you want to see over and over again—it’s the place where everybody knows your name, right? But a lot of television making was driven by how well it would succeed in syndication, and that really lent itself to sitcoms that you could watch out of order.
Now that syndication is not the only way for a show to live on, a company like Netflix can say, “This is a show I want to live on on our website because there are subscribers or people who could be subscribers who want a show like this.” That changes the game completely. It means the type of shows being made expand.
Is there still a gatekeeper thing going on with TV, where you need a big name associated with the production, even on something like Netflix, to get the attention that you need?
I don’t know the answer, I don’t know if there’s enough of a track record. If you look at Netflix, Orange Is the New Black I think is a huge success and that wasn’t name driven. Look, we at House of Cards benefited from the fact that David Fincher and Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are there, but ultimately the story has to live up to the names as well. So I think that ultimately that if it’s a great story then it’ll find its audience, and sometimes there’ll be big names in involved and sometimes there won’t be.
I do think more and more you’ll find big names drawn in. You already see that happening in television. Huge movie stars are gravitating towards television, for a reason. They know what good stories are. They know the right projects to do. They know where they will be able to exercise the most of their talent. There’s more opportunity for that in television now.
Which then goes back to: Is it television, is it filmmaking, what is it? Who cares? I think that you’re going to see some of the iconic actors in the next 20, 30 years may never do a film.