This is, after all, the man behind the adaptation of House of Cards. As he imparts his thoughts and musings, you want to stop him mid-sentence to write it down.
At just 38 years of age the Missouri-born screenwriter and playwright has achieved such success with philosophies on politics, marriage and society deeply embedded into the words spoken by Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Inspired by great writers and historic characters, he also draws upon the world around him.
“You see a homeless guy screaming into the wind and no-one listening to him and you find yourself putting him at the end of the second episode, saying ‘How would Francis respond to this?’” he suggests.
“There’s a certain amount of indifferent pity. Isn’t that what we often do when we see a homeless person? We think to ourselves ‘Oh my god, isn’t that terrible, but I’m not really going to stop to help them get their life back on track.’ They become voiceless because we become deaf. Francis Underwood sees that person and goes up to them and actually tells them the truth, which is ‘You mean nothing to anyone here.’
“It’s brutal but what has he done? He’s at least spoken to the guy, which is more than most of us would do.
“I think we all live under the illusion that our lives make sense and that everything happens for a reason and can be traced back to a source. But our lives are far more irrational than that, and far more out of our control than that.”
With its themes of power, ambition and corruption I ask how much of an influence Shakespeare has been in the Washington world of Frank Underwood?
“When I first started writing Season 1 Kevin was on a 9 month world tour doing Richard III with his company from The Old Vic. So Richard III was someone we were speaking about from the get go. But anytime you have a larger-than-life protagonist like this who is dealing with issues of power, ascendancy, ruthlessness and betrayal and all these big universal themes that power invokes, you’d be an idiot not to look at Shakespeare for inspiration and guidance,” he says.
“All of his plays go to the very core of what makes these very large characters universal and relatable.
“Whenever you can steal from the Bard and glean a thing or two and try to infuse it in anything you’re doing, it usually improves them.”
So is borrowing from Shakespeare stealing or do we justify it as an homage?
“Never ‘homage’, always steal! Writers are professional thieves. Always steal everything you can, unapologetically!” he declares.
“I steal from all sorts of places. There are real-life characters that I look to for inspiration. Lyndon B. Johnson is a great example. Or epic figures like Napoleon, Genghis Khan. People whom you can’t quite fathom their appetite for acquisition.”
The hit Netflix series, directed by David Fincher, is of course an adaptation of the BBC House of Cards starring Ian Richardson in 1990. Willimon reveres the original source material, but notes how much his version has changed in style and content.
“Tonally (the original was) much more tongue in cheek. It’s satire more than drama and more condensed with all 3 parts combined constituting 12 hours. Our entire first season alone had 13,” he notes.
“So when I saw it and talked to (David) Fincher about it, it wasn’t so much about doing an adaptation or translation, as a total reinvention -picking and choosing elements we liked. But really using it more as a springboard to tell the story.
“So we have a lot of new characters, even characters based on archetypes from the original are different in fundamental ways. Some of the dynamics are fundamentally different. For instance in our version in the marriage, Claire is front and centre. But the marriage between Francis and Elizabeth in the BBC version is not nearly as important an element.”
Changes from a Westminster system to Constitutional government are the least of the changes.
“I don’t think they’re that different because politics is politics and the different governmental systems lend different opportunities. But you have to remember in 1990 with Ian Richardson who played Francis Urquhart, who is our version of Frank, that there had really been no anti-heros on television in a major way and now we have a ton of them. Walter White, Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Dexter –so I think that was revolutionary at the time,” he explains.
“Also the world has changed a lot, not just in terms of politics and culture, but in terms of television. Viewers expect a sophisticated kind of storytelling that has evolved over time.
“The serialised narrative has really come into its own in ways that didn’t exist in 1990. Very few television shows needed to be watched in order, from week to week or episode to episode. Each episode was a one-off for a lot of shows and the characters didn’t change much over time. But since HBO with Oz and The Sopranos, it introduced a type of television which has now become ubiquitous.”
Frank Underwood’s breaking of the fourth wall, as he speaks directly to camera, were retained from the original series. In the hands of Kevin Spacey, the raised eyebrows and editorialising are a key feature of the storytelling.
“We stole that outright from the BBC version. Ian Richardson did an incredible job with it, but it’s a very tough thing to pull off. We’re much more accustomed to it on stage,” says Willimon.
“On screen it can seem quite invasive and in cinema, which I think TV is at this point, it’s something that tends to lend itself more to the naturalistic kind of storytelling. So when you get someone turn to the camera you get something incredibly stylised. It takes a great actor to pull it off and keep the momentum of the drama going forward. Ian Richardson is certainly one of those actors and Kevin is too.
“It felt so distinctive and it allows you to have an intimacy with Francis that you wouldn’t otherwise have. That intimacy becomes a form of complicity. And if you become complicit with him then in a way you’re rooting for this guy who’s doing these ostensibly terrible things. That makes for interesting, dramatic tension for the audience.”
Central to the series is the complex relationship between Frank and wife Claire (Robin Wright). When I suggest they are masterful puppeteers in the backrooms of Washington, Willimon corrects me. Political outcomes require more complicated forces than those solo, or even dual, puppet masters can manipulate.
“How do I manipulate the gravitational pull of all these celestial bodies that creates a solar system in sync with what I want it to look like?” he asks. “Politics is a chaotic endeavor. There are a lot of people who have very different ideas about things and each want their own version of the world to exist, but each have their own personal hang-ups, baggage and goals that conflict with others.
“None of them can achieve their goals without interacting with the other.
“Francis employs all sorts of strategies: persuasion, seduction, intimidation, blackmail and at times violence. But it usually ends in a situation where everyone wins. If you can orchestrate a scenario where everyone feels like a winner then you have the greatest political triumph.
“It’s a form of symbiosis.”
Infidelity between the couple is agreed, where it facilitates a desirable outcome. Indeed, is it even infidelity for Frank and Claire?
“What’s interesting to me about their marriage, and why I like writing about it, is it’s successful, which is not something we often see. Or if we see it dramatised it’s often done in a saccharine, fantasy version. I think successful marriages, more often than not, have nothing to do with the vows. They have to do with discovering a set of rules that allow you to remain a strong and productive partnership,” he explains.
“The rules they have set for themselves happen to be the opposite of what many would consider to be the rules of marriage. But if it keeps them together and results in continued mutual respect, admiration, love and mutual ascendancy, then who are we to judge the rules that they have set for themselves?
“Yes they do love each other. A lot of people ask how can you love someone and cheat on them? But they wouldn’t see it as cheating. Cheating implies that you are breaking a rule. But their own rules dictate that that’s not breaking a rule at all.
“A lot of what it means to stay with someone for many years of your life is to adapt and manage expectations that are suited to who you actually are, not who you pretend to be.”
Willimon refuses to divulge any details of the second season. But Netflix will again drop all 13 episodes to its subscribers in a single day, which Foxtel will match in Australia.
The entire business model of internet-produced content, and binge-viewing has been a wake-up call to Hollywood’s traditional broadcast heritage. But House of Cards recently won 3 Emmy Awards and was nominated for 9. Given there were some nerves about whether it would even qualify, Willimon is very happy.
“It meant that Hollywood and the television industry had embraced is with open arms. Not just our show but other Netflix shows got nominated as well. But it meant that they said, ‘Hey we want you to have your seat at the table,'” he says.
“That was deeply satisfying because they are your peers and the respect they have for you means a lot.
“So to win a third of those, you can’t really ask for more.”
House of Cards airs at 12noon AEDT this Saturday on Showcase and is repeated at 8:30pm on Showcase and SoHo.
Showcase subscribers can binge-watch all 13 episodes via On Demand, Foxtel Go and Foxtel Play until midnight March 15.