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Q&A with Beau Willimon ’95

April 20, 2015

150420_Willimon_Sanditz_42218-228.jpgBeau Willimon ’95, the 2015 guest in the Alumni Speaker Series, visited assembly on April 20. Beau is the creator, head writer and executive producer of the award-winning and ground-breaking series, House of Cards. He was interviewed by classmate Stephanie Sanditz, a prominent actor and award-winning screenwriter in her own right. Excerpts from the assembly Q&A follow:

Stephanie: So you are executive producer, head writer and show runner of House of Cards. What does a show runner do?

Beau: Show runners do different things on different shows. In our case, I start the writing process, working with six writers, and we spend seven months trying to produce 800 pages of text. ... At a certain point, in the midst of that, we move to production. We film the show in Baltimore, Maryland. We have about 200,000 square feet in a converted warehouse where we have sets for offices, a cabinet room, a white house residence, and we play make believe for about 12 hours a day. I am there from the first rehearsal to the final shot. I'm working with the directors, the actors, the wardrobe department, the art department ... When somebody needs to filter the vision and get an answer, I always have the answer. It's not always the right one. Sometimes I make it up on the spot, but the train needs to keep moving. I work about 100 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.

Stephanie: So walk us through the crafting of a season.

Beau: First of all, it starts with the writers. I have a great team. It's the same team for the past three years now. A lot of them are playwrights. I think playwrights make better screenwriters because on the stage — and this is something I learned here — you cannot lie. All you have is language and the human body. In writing a play, you can't rely on the visual trickery of editing and scoring. In writing the show, we sit down around a big table, I come in with a few ideas about where I want the season to go. We make a big grid on the wall — 1 through 13 episodes — and we start almost arbitrarily filling in the boxes. Gradually things start to coalesce, to make sense.

Stephanie: How much political research do you do?

Beau: We do a lot. We're creating a world from scratch. The authenticity of that world is of supreme importance. We do a lot of book and online research, but more important than that, we talk to a lot of experts. We talk to former solicitor generals, Obama's personal attorney, people in the National Security Administration, ambassadors to the U.N., really everyone under the sun who is smarter than us, who can tell us what we are messing up and give us ideas about things we might want to consider. We typically make two or three phone calls a day.

Stephanie: Discuss your path of learning. I know you went to Columbia, I also want to talk about all your adventures outside of writing. I know that Farragut North was based on your working with several campaigns.

Beau: A big part of what you're doing here (at Burroughs) is getting ready for college. That's part of the larger plan for what's beyond. I was just like you. I was thinking about all the extracurricular activities I could do and studying for tests so that I would have a half-way decent transcript. For me, everything was about where I was going to get into school and what sort of adventure I was going to have after St. Louis. Once I got to college, I really had no plan whatsoever. I took a lot of classes. I worked hard. I did a few majors. I was always an ambitious, hard-working person. But I had zero plans. I really didn't know what my next step was. In the midst of school, mostly as a lark, I started working on the political campaign for Senator Chuck Schumer's first race in New York, mostly because it seemed like something interesting to do and it was high adrenaline. It was exciting. We were going all over the state. We had a blast. We won. I wanted to go back for more. After school, I worked for the Estonian government for a few months on a fellowship, mostly because it meant I could put off making any real-life decisions. After that, I sort of jumped around with some odd jobs. I did everything from detailing cars, working in a factory, bussing tables, teaching SAT prep classes. All I knew was basically two things: 1) that I wanted to do something in the arts, and 2) that I wanted to pack as much adventure into my life as possible. I just had this irrational belief that the more experiences and adventures that I had, the better. They would inform me as to where I should go. It's like when you are hiking through the forest without a path, you follow the contours, you listen for a bubbling brook. You are at the mercy of the terrain. But if you fling yourself into that terrain, and absorb everything, then you are preparing yourself in ways that you are not even aware of, ways that you can't plan ahead for. I have been a beneficiary of that. There's a lot of risk in that. One thing that I have been glad of is my wilingnes to fail. Great reward comes with great risk. Great risk comes with frequent failure. The writers' room for me is an exercise in constant failure. It's always trial and error. We fling a hundred ideas at the wall for only one of them to be good. I don't see failure as bad. I see failure as a stepping stone to the successes beyond. It's only by testing your limits that anything worthwhile will come back.

Stephanie: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

Beau: I started out as a painter. I thought that was what I was going to do with my life. People can have a natural ability to do something, but there's always a next level. There are a lot of really good guitar players out there, but only one Jimmy Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan. I felt I was making all these paintings that would impress people, but they were not satisfying to me. They were superficial. I wasn't telling the truth. So I wrote a play for a competition at Columbia. I wrote this terrible play, mostly to force myself to do something I had never done before. I thought I would learn something from it and that it might inform my painting. I stumbled into writing, mostly in trying to solve problems in another medium, and it became pretty clear that that is what I wanted to do. One of the reasons I hire playwrights is that there is no fame and fortune in the theater. It's not Hollywood glitz. People who want to be playwrights would crawl across the desert to tell a story. That hunger and thirst is what I want in my writers. I never expected that I would make a penny as a writer.

Stephanie: How much do you write to entertain vs. educate?

Beau: It's not my responsibility on the show to educate. I have nothing to teach an 80-year-old widow who has experienced all the trials and tribulations of life. If anything, she has something to teach me. I think we know most the lessons of life instinctually. Art gives access to the lessons we already know. I think it is presumptuous for me to think I can teach anyone anything. The whole reason I'm doing it is to learn. I don't think the show is really about politics. It's about power, which is a much bigger subject. Politics is a subset of power. Power is something we all experience in our own lives. There are power dynamics at this school. There is also power between parents and children, siblings, married couples, in the work place. If there is anything to be gleaned about the political process from our show, that's fantastic. But it's not our expressed aim.

Stephanie: The relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood is depicted as a calculated and co-conspiratorial quest for power.

Beau: Frank and Claire are two power-hungry people, who don't operate through any sense of ideology. They found each other and realized they make each other stronger. I think there is real love and respect between them.

Stephanie: It's been discussed that this is a show of anti-heroes. ... Do you think that to be true?

Beau: What is an anti-hero? In the Greek sense of the word, the hero is in a struggle with fate. We don't have fate in the 21st century. Fate in the Greek sense is the gods pre-determining a course of events. In Greek trajedy, the hero believes he can out-wit, out-maneuver or overpower fate, which is a fallacy in the Greek world view. In the 21st century, where we don't have fate in the same way, we are the masters of our own fate. Power is the closest we come to cheating death. The one thing we can all agree upon is that we are all going to die. When we have power, we have the illusion of mastering our own destiny for the short time we are here. It's the closest you can come to being god. Isn't every hero an anti-hero now? I don't know what the modern equivalent of a hero is. I don't think Frank and Claire believe in good and evil. They are fundamentally amoralistic and not idealogical. Frank talks two kinds of pain. Pain that causes suffering (useless pain), and pain that makes us stronger (useful pain). He sees the world with a sort of pragmatism — what is useful and what is useless. He believes that ethics is a form of cowardice.

Stephanie: What would you say are some of the common characteristics of people you respect the most?

Beau: Courage doesn't mean "not being afraid." It just means you look your fear in the face and don't let it stop you. You can be courageous in love. You can be courageous in your career. You can be courageous in your compassion. You can be courageous in your defiance. Courage is about not trying to skirt the path to avoid your fears, it's about grappling with them. I think that is the noblest pursuit there is. I also respect people who are able to accept contradictions in themselves. We tend to create these narratives about who we think we are. We are constantly contradicing our own narratives, and that is ok. My favorite Walt Whitman line is "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes." I admire people who are willing to absorb these multitudes, to allow themselves to be more than one person, who are willing to contradict themselves, to be large, to assume multiple identities. I admire people who don't add up.

From Stephanie Sanditz's ’95 introduction of classmate Beau Willimon:

Beau Willimon ’95 — a screenwriter, playwright and producer — is the creator of Netflix's original series House of Cards, for which he serves as showrunner and executive producer. House of Cards made television history in its first season, earning nine Emmy nominations, including Best Drama, the first online streaming show to ever be so honored. Since then the show has garnered multiple Emmy, Golden Globe and Producers Guild, and SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television & Radio Artists) and WGA (Writers Guild of America) nominations, and gone on to win in many categories.

Beau earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University in New York and then studied at Julliard, where he was awarded the LIla Acheson Wallace Julliard Playwriting Fellowship. Beau went on to have a number of plays produced all over the world. One of those plays, Farragut North, would be made into an Academy Award-nominated feature film, Ides of March, produced and directed by George Clooney. Beau's company, Westward Productions, is a film and television production company currently producing several documentaries.