All 13 episodes of the first season of "House of Cards" will arrive on Netflix on Friday, Feb. 1, and a second season has already been commissioned. Big gambles like that don't come cheap: "House of Cards," an adaptation of a classic British miniseries, reportedly cost $100 million.
It looks it: I've seen the first two hours of the drama, which stars Kevin Spacey as a ruthless Washington, DC operative named Francis Underwood, and its production values resemble those of a pricey feature film. "House of Cards," which stars Robin Wright as Underwood's equally ambitious wife, has the muted, somber colors, ambiguous morality and chilly characters you find in the films of David Fincher, who is an executive producer and directed the first two episodes of the Netflix series.
Will Spacey's Francis Underwood be too dark a character for Netflix subscribers? That's the question that hangs over the series, which concerns Underwood's devious political maneuverings after the election of a new president. Beau Willimon -- the "Ides of March" screenwriter who served as executive producer and showrunner for "House of Cards" -- said told The Huffington Post that Underwood is a natural descendant of the characters of "The Wire" and "The Sopranos."
"You’ll hear time and time again in the television world about likability and I say, 'Fuck likability,'" Willimon said. "I do not give a shit whether my viewers like my characters. I do give a shit whether they’re attracted to them. And those are two fundamentally different things."
With a decided lack of interference from Netflix (which also has new episodes of "Arrested Development" on the way), Willimon and Fincher were able to make an intensely serialized drama that doesn't have to shy away from its characters uncharitable, or even evil, qualities. I'll have more to say about "House of Cards" just before it arrives on Netflix, but for now, here's my conversation with Willimon about the project's genesis, its differences from the British original, and the filmmakers' approach to storytelling on this platform.
This interview has been edited and slightly condensed.
What about “House of Cards” takes advantage of Netflix as a platform and makes it a better fit than Showtime or HBO or a network like that?
Well, I started this process with David [Fincher] three years ago, and when we first began, we didn’t know where the home was going to be. But we always talked about it from the very beginning as a 13-hour movie for the first season. We wanted to take a cinematic approach. We wanted the storytelling to be something that really spoke to the sophistication of the narrative and the layers of the characters and not necessarily try to adhere to any [existing] TV model.
The partnership with Netflix was perfect because they guaranteed us two seasons up front. And what that allowed me to do in terms of the writing is -- it liberated me. I didn’t have to feel like the show had to sell itself for its own survival with artificial cliffhangers and things like that in the first few episodes, where [on TV networks,] you’re playing the ratings game. We knew that we could lay something in the first couple of episodes that we may not see until late in Season 2. So we just had a much grander scale to think about in terms of the storytelling.
[We also had] a huge degree of creative control. We didn’t have to jump through a lot of network hoops or get reams and reams of notes ... They said to us from the very beginning, “We place our faith in you. We believe in you and as artists, we want you to make the show you want to make.” And while we were always in communication with Netflix and always kept them in the loop, we never had anyone breathing down our neck.
Was it always the plan to deliver the whole season on one day?
Once we did team up with Netflix, that certainly was a consideration from the very beginning as a possibility, but it wasn’t set in stone. We thought about all sorts of models: Should we do a traditional [one episode per week]? Should we do it in chunks, like four episodes, then five episodes, then four episodes? And we eventually arrived at [offering] 13 all at once because that speaks to what Netflix has to offer that really no other network does. Its subscribers watch content when they want to watch it, how they want to watch it, in what chunks they want to watch it. And so it puts the decision in their hands.
And while all of our episodes certainly do have their own beginning and their own end, it really is meant to be watched serially. I guess, conceivably someone could watch it backwards. That would be a sort of avant-garde viewing experience and they have that choice, you know?
Even on a number of cable networks these days, there's a sort of push-pull quality to serialization -- you can sense that showrunners and executives are wondering at which point they might lose the more casual viewers. Did the partnership with Netflix liberate you to go as deep as you wanted to in terms of having a very tightly serialized story? It doesn't look like the kind of show where you can skip three episodes and then just dive back in.
That’s an interesting question, whether it’s like more serialized than say, “The Sopranos” or “The Wire.” “The Wire” is one of the greatest shows that was ever created, maybe the best to date. And I wonder, could you start in Season 3, Episode 5 and get into it? I don’t know. If you’re not really following the intricacies of the wiretap and who they’re going after, I think it diminishes your experiences, you know?
I don’t know if I’d say ["House of Cards"] is more serialized. I think the way it allowed us to go deeper [regarding] the chances we took both in subject matter, character development and -- I don’t know how to characterize it other than to say "the unexpected." Like the moments you’ll see like in the first two, you know, that are like texture.
[In the second episode, there is] purely a character moment [for Spacey's Underwood]. It doesn’t really necessarily contribute in any meaningful way to the plot, you know? And you could see a network exec saying, "Do we really want to do a whole setup and spend a third of a day shooting this? It doesn’t push the story forward." We just never had to even contemplate that possibility that someone was going to say no.
I mean, look, I don’t think the first 30 seconds of the series would make it past most network executives.
That does seems like that would be the first thing that they would ask you to cut.
Yeah, and when you have that sort of creative responsibility placed in your hands, you take it very seriously. If it ever goes bad, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
One thing I wanted to go back to was this idea of whether each episode has a beginning, middle and an end. Telling the story over 13 installments seems like it would be a very different creative journey than making a feature film.
Kevin’s done a few episodes of “Wiseguy,” but most of us are kind of entering this with no TV experience. But I have storytelling experience and we’re all veterans on that front. And a story is a story is a story. And you have your instincts in terms of its rhythm, its texture, its tone, how to keep those engaging. So whether you’re talking about 13 hours or 13 minutes, some of those sorts of tricks of the trade apply.
You want a certain degree of resolution for the hour that you just watched. But the way I look at, there are three tiers. There’s the singular episode that has its beginning, middle and an end. But then you might have storylines within that episode that are branching over the course of two or three or four episodes, a sort of mid-range arc. And then you might have uber-arcs that are season long. So you get to have your cake and eat it too. You have the beginning, middle, and end of that episode, but you have other storylines that are feeding into it or branching off of it that will stretch over numerous episodes.
One of the things that struck me is that Kevin Spacey’s character and his wife are dark, driven people. I certainly know and like that kind of show. But how do you sustain an audience’s interest in a character who’s just willing to do anything and be that ruthless and cruel?
I mean you could ask the same question of ["Sopranos" creator] David Chase, right? Was Tony Soprano not [dark]?
But he’s also a family man who cared about ducks. That’s the first thing we know about him.
Yeah, sure. Not to compare the two shows really but ... it’s far more interesting and engaging and entertaining to watch someone who doesn’t play by the rules than someone who does.
I mean, how often do you want to really sit down and watch a story about a goody two shoes, you know? So we definitely take an extreme approach to that but, you know, you will see things throughout the course of Season 1 that deal with a multifaceted, complex person who can’t be reduced to the moniker sociopath.
But, you know, it’s like you’ll hear time and time again in the television world about likability and I say, “Fuck likability.” I do not give a shit whether my viewers like my characters. I do give a shit whether they’re attracted to them. And those are two fundamentally different things.
Right, and I don’t require the people I watch to be likable. I require them to be worth my time to watch for whatever reason.
Yeah, well, that’s up to you. I mean, you may decide this is not a world that worth your time and then, you know, you won’t watch it.
I have no regrets about watching the two hours I watched and I look forward to seeing see more. I’m just sort of proposing a devil’s advocate argument. You know, will people get on board with 13 hours of material this dark? I guess I’m just curious about that.
We’ll see. I think it’s delicious material and its darkness makes it the forbidden fruit. There is a part of all of us that wishes we didn’t have to play by the rules; that wishes we could indulge in remorseless self-interest; that wishes we could throw caution and morals to the wind and purely pursue our wants and desires for our own sake. Is that a dark notion? Maybe, but it’s also an honest one. And I think that people, given the opportunity to vicariously tap into someone who engages in that sort of behavior and takes that world view, without having to take those own risks in their own life -- I think that’s attractive.
I think what people will see in Kevin Spacey is not just purely someone who is dark and ruthless, but there’s a great deal of charm and humor to him. And, you know, the tone of our show while at times is very dark -- it also veers into black comedy ... it can even be quite light. We wanted diversity of tone and style throughout Season 1 and I think you’ll see that expand on both ends as you make your way through the season.
[Note: What follows below is not a plot spoiler about "House of Cards." It's an element of the show, however, that viewers may want to discover on their own, hence this very mild spoiler warning.]
I thought it was an interesting approach to have Kevin Spacey's character address the camera directly because it makes the audience kind of his co-conspirators, if you will.
Exactly. The original BBC version did have direct address. We cherry-picked some things [from the BBC's "House of Cards"] and there are definitely a few similarities, particularly in the first couple of episodes with the BBC version. But, [generally] we kind of started over from scratch.
The one thing though we all definitely wanted to keep from the very earliest discussions was this direct address, because when you place it in the hands of a great actor like Spacey, it only amplifies the drama and it gives you access to this Machiavellian mind. That makes it more dangerous in some ways, but also more palatable. It’s just fun and entertaining and it does exactly as you say -- make you a co-conspirator. So, you find yourself rooting for him despite yourself, because everything that he morally stands for or doesn’t stand for is against [your beliefs], and yet, because he’s giving you this intimacy and this access, you find yourself rooting for him -- that’s where tension with the audience is really exciting.
All 13 episodes of "House of Cards" premiere on Netflix on Friday, February 1.