‘You might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.’ It’s the phrase common to both the original BBC show and the US remake of House of Cards. Beau Willimon, creator and show runner of the US version, is explaining during the BAFTA – BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series that it’s included in the reboot as homage to its source material.
Later he describes the BBC version as ‘brilliant’, Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart as the ‘performance of a lifetime’ and explains why his House doesn’t adopt the same satirical tone. ‘He becomes prime minister after four hours and Mattie Storin is off the roof of Parliament a few hours in. Satire works in a shorter version but it runs out of steam, which we didn’t want.’
Earlier Willimon explains how he wanted to include the ‘You might think that …’ catchphrase in his version but was worried it was not the way Americans speak. He looked for an accent similar to English and eventually asked his father to say the immortal line.
Another difference was that while British politicians tended to come from privilege, in the US much is made of Americans who have come from nothing to be president. ‘My dad is from South Carolina and I asked him to name somewhere there and he suggested Gaffney.’ This became the birthplace of Urquhart’s US compatriot Frank Underwood (note the repeating FU initials) played memorably by Kevin Spacey.
Willimon went researching there and viewers will remember mention of the peach-shaped water tower built to reflect Gaffney as the home of peaches but which some think of as an erotic sculpture. The ‘peachoid’ features in the US version: ‘People would complain it was making their son gay. Truth is always stranger than fiction,’ remembers Willimon.
Like winning the lottery
Perhaps to best understand Willimon we need to go back. Why does he write? ‘Because I have to. I don’t think of it as a choice. It’s not a career. It’s something that’s borne of necessity. It’s like asking: ‘Why do you breathe?’ Air is your sustenance and without it you would die.’
Willimon’s route to writing success is unconventional. At first he was a talented artist but found his own work empty and superficial. He wrote his first play when he was 20 but was unhappy with it. After a short period working for the Estonian government and a nervous breakdown he turned up for a college writing class without being enrolled. He persuaded his tutor to teach him if a class member didn’t show up. They didn’t – and Willimon had found someone who eventually believed in him.
Later Willimon worked on political campaigns which were to provide the inspiration for his play Farragut North. He was temping in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza ‘stapling things and putting them in the mail’ when he received a call saying George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio were interested in the script. ‘The rarity of this cannot be overstated. The only plays that get made have to have had a Broadway run and a Pulitzer. I’d never had a play in production. It was like winning the lottery’
The script became film The Ides of March which earned him BAFTA, Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for best adapted screenplay. A lack of success followed until a telephone call from filmmaker David Fincher about House of Cards and thinking of each 13-hour season as one movie.
‘Politics is not a subject that interests me’
Willimon is talking about chess player Garry Kasparov and how his genius was not thinking 15 moves ahead. ‘It’s the same with great politicians: they get to step two and things have changed. The skill is in how they react to it. It’s like the call and response of jazz. The very brightest politicians know how to create chaos and make it work for them.’
Willimon is asked for comparisons in his own work and he remembers how Spacey once arrived on set with a bandaged hand. How to incorporate into filming? A scene was written where children spill hot coffee onto it and Spacey’s character recalls how much he despises children, explaining a great deal about Underwood’s own life and marriage.
Despite the working on campaigns and the subject matter of his best known works, Willimon springs a surprise. Politics is not a subject that interests him. ‘Power is what really interests me. Power and the relationship in the marriage between Frank and Claire is the real subject of House of Cards.’
Willimon’s advice for aspiring writers? ‘My first thought every day when I wake up is: ‘I will die’. It sounds morbid but to me it’s completely liberating. It can’t get worse from there. It’s very much: ‘OK, let’s get to work.’
- The BFI regularly runs Q&As with authors, filmmakers and cast members. More details.