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SXSW: Behind The Scenes Of ‘House Of Cards’
by Stephen Becker 16 Mar 2015

AUSTIN – The first thought in Beau Willimon’s head each morning is, “I’m going to die.”

Willimon is the show runner for House of Cards – basically the guy who guides the ship. And reminding himself of his mortality actually frees his mind up creatively. That’s because, for him, creativity is about failure. Of a thousand ideas he has for the show, maybe five will be good by his estimation, and two might be original. The rest are all failures. And when you fail that often, it’s healthy to remember that at least you’re not dying in those moments.

Sunday afternoon, Willimon guided a packed hotel ballroom full of budding writers and directors through his process for creating House of Cards, which just released its third season on Netflix last month.

A major topic of discussion was diversity – specifically, how a show can portray a diverse array of experiences in an honest and real way. What frustrates Willimon is when he sees a television show or movie in which, say, a minority character is really just a token.

“We’ll make the judge black, because that way we’re gonna show this very smart, powerful, intelligent person sitting behind the bench who’s African American,” he said. “OK, but you’re creating a symbol or a cypher. You’re not actually writing a character. That in its own way is another form of neglect.”

He takes the same rigorous approach to diversity with his female characters. Since the beginning, Claire Underwood has been positioned as her husband’s equal. And in the new season, presidential hopefuls Heather Dunbar and Jackie Sharp go toe-to-toe with the president and don’t back down.

Which doesn’t mean that his characters are genderless.

“Claire has hot flashes. That’s a real thing. It would be really weird if Frank had hot flashes,” he joked.

The trick is not allowing the gender-specific aspects of the characters to define them.

“One should not reduce that character to those experiences. So if her only story – or her main story – was parimenopause, then we’d be sort of reductive in relegating this female character to something that only a woman can experience. It’s much more interesting if that’s just a real part of her life that we touch upon because it’s happening, but it doesn’t drive her story.”

Another topic during the session was how the show balances its real-world feel while playing in what’s, essentially, an alternate universe. Barak Obama isn’t the president in House of Cards, etc. That makes viewers wonder about the more ripped-from-the-headlines plot points. For example, Season 3 has a major Russian storyline.

But as Willimon reminded us, those scripts get cooking a year before we see the episodes.

“When we started working on that storyline, my biggest fear was that nobody would care about Russia, because Russia wasn’t in the news,” he said. “Eerily, as we were filming Season 3, Ukraine and Crimea happened.”

A similar thing happened with a Season 2 storyline about sexual assault in the military.

“We’re not prophets – we don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “We’re participating in the same zeitgeist that you guys are. And if you’re just open and absorbent, sometimes you stumble upon things without even realizing it that everyone cares about but just doesn’t know it yet.”

Other odds and ends:

Willimon grew up in St. Louis and had the same 7th grade acting teacher as Jon Hamm and Ellie Kemper. … In the original British version of the show, the main character is named Francis Urquhart – a name that was a little too Scottish for the American show. So Willimon changed the character’s last name to Underwood because, well, it was fitting to keep the same initials. … As for a Season 4 – all Willimon would say is no formal announcement has been made yet.