Before Beau Willimon created the American version of House of Cards, Web TV (not including YouTube) was largely made up of network program outtakes—or worse, discards. But the writer behind the Netflix series as well as the Broadway play Farragut North (later adapted into George Clooney’s Ides of March) disrupted that notion. In its first two seasons, HoC gleaned the first Emmy noms for an Internet-first show and took home the first acting Golden Globe for an online property. Adweek spoke to Willimon about how the online cosmos have evolved since his days on the Howard Dean presidential campaign.
Adweek: House of Cards really elevated the Web video sphere. Were you always behind the idea of the show going to the Internet?
Willimon: No. When we first started out, we just set out to make a great TV show … and find the appropriate place to license [it]. At that time, we had in mind the usual suspects: HBO, Showtime, AMC. When we sat down with Netflix, we weren’t really quite sure what they had in mind. It’s sort of funny to think about several years later. Internally we debated whether it made sense to release a show exclusively on the Internet, to do so with a company that was just getting into the TV business. At the end of the day, a few things sort of played into the decision to want to team up with Netflix, not the least of which was two seasons guaranteed, which was huge, and creative control, which was huge, but also the opportunity to do something new and different. We suspected that if this all worked out, it would possibly be a paradigmatic shift in television, and that excited us. I think the rebels in us were very excited about teaming up with some rebels. In a lot of ways, we were in the right place at the right time at the right project. We didn’t start out on Day One that this would end up on the Internet, but we’re thrilled that it did.
That must have been an interesting conversation to tell the stars of the show: “Hey, so remember that TV show we were doing? Yeah, it’s going on Netflix.”
Dana [Brunetti, executive producer] has always been forward-thinking in terms of technology and where the industry is going. I know that he spoke directly to Kevin [Spacey, the show’s star], and said, “I think there is an opportunity there to do something exciting and new.” Kevin has always been progressive and forward-thinking and a risk-taker himself in art and producing. [Co-star] Robin [Wright], she trusted David [Fincher, executive producer]. She trusted the strength of the story, and realized no matter where we were there was an opportunity to dig her teeth into a character she was really excited about.
You’ve always used real world events to inspire your work. Has the prevalence of the Web changed over the course of your career?
The [Howard] Dean [2004 presidential] campaign revolutionized the way campaigns engaged with the Internet. Now, it’s a matter of course. At the time it was an extraordinary thing that [campaign manager] Joe Trippi pulled off where he created an online grassroots movement by making supporters part of the conversation. If you go back to 2004, we did something on the Dean campaign that no one had done before. We created a wireless bubble that could travel wherever the campaign was, which allowed in part the journalists to file directly from wherever they were on the move. Also, we had our own bloggers who would travel and in real time say what was happening. The idea of someone from the campaign being able to say this is what’s happening the moment it’s happening was novel and extraordinary. Now, it’s a fact of life that we get information as it’s happening. The wire services used to be the ones that got the closest to that. Now it’s everyday citizens. It can be generated from someone in a campaign or someone standing in a junior high gym in Oelwein, Iowa, punching out a tweet.
You could also argue that Dean’s campaign was crushed by a viral video before the concept really came out.
You could only imagine what would have happened if YouTube did exist, and then there would have been all the parodies and someone would have set it to music and made it a techno thing or what have you, and it may have reached many, many more millions of people. … It wasn’t viral in the way we think about it in terms of the Internet.
How does writing for a Web series differ from writing for network TV?
It doesn’t differ at all. You can call it a Web series, you can call it a TV show, you can call it a 13-hour movie. I don’t really think about it in any of those terms. It’s distributed via a streaming service on the Internet, but it is a serialized narrative. It has to be able to work whether it was distributed on the Internet or not because the fact of the matter is, not everyone binges it. You have to be able to make this story work whether it’s watched in 13 hours or over 13 weeks or more. What Netflix did, which was brilliant, was say, “We’re going to give you, the viewer, the choice upfront of how you are going to experience this show. We leave that to you.”
How do you prefer people watch it?
I watch TV the way a lot of people watch TV. Some things I binge. Some things I don’t. A lot of it has to do not with the show but what my life is like at the moment. My preference is that people watch it, however they watch it.
You talked at the Tribeca Film Festival about how Netflix hasn’t given you metrics on your show. Is that a good thing?
I prefer it. My only job is to tell the best story possible. If Netflix is happy with the number of people watching it, that’s all I need to know. You don’t want to ever have that sort of data influence the writing because you run the risk of pandering, and pandering is the antithesis of creativity.
What’s the last thing you watched on Netflix?
Rachel Getting Married. I was rewatching it. I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Demme, and that’s a really great film. Mostly what I watch on Netflix is documentaries. I think it’s one of the greatest repositories for documentaries on the planet. I spent most of my waking hours in scripted land, so when I want to watch something I usually want to watch something that’s unscripted. The next thing after that is The Story of Film, Mark Cousins’ great, 15-hour documentary. Then, Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design, Season 2, The Meaning of Life (laughs).