The Writers' Room (2013) s02e03 Episode Script

House of Cards

I'll steal a great idea from anyone.
I'll even steal one from John.
[Laughter] Russo is an addict, - and he neglects his children.
- Mm-hmm.
He cheats on his girlfriend.
Like, he's the good guy.
Drugs, alcohol, and sex.
It's okay.
[Laughter] Tonight on The Writers' Room, House of Cards, an American drama chronicling the lives of Machiavellian politician Frank Underwood and his equally ruthless wife, Claire.
This online-only series has challenged the traditional television business model and been rewarded with critical acclaim, including nine Emmy nominations.
You knew that House of Cards was gonna be an absolutely amazing show from the first scene.
Kevin Spacey with his bare hands kills a dog.
Frank and Claire are kind of amazing and scary at the same time, I would say, because you envy them for how powerful they are, and they really are partners, until they're not.
My friends and I made up a House of Cards drinking game.
[Laughter] Every time Frank's lying, every time Frank looks at a camera, we take a drink.
[Laughter] It has everything that you'd go see in a movie theater, but you can watch 13 hours of it back-to-back.
I binged again and again and again.
House of Cards, right now on The Writers' Room.
Outrageous success, horrible mistakes, last-minute changes.
The creators of today's most groundbreaking TV shows tell all in the place where it all starts Joining me in the writers' room, we have Academy-, Emmy-, and Golden Globe-nominated creator and executive producer Beau Willimon, story editor and writer Laura Eason, co-executive producer and writer John Mankiewicz, and Molly Parker, who plays the new whip, Jackie Sharp.
Additionally, we are pleased to have political columnist for Yahoo! News, Matt Bai.
Thank you for being here as well.
You've created this very dark vision of politics in Washington.
What do you think is striking a nerve with viewers? What is connecting with us about this world and these characters? One is the deliciousness of being able to see someone sort of-- like a knife, cut through butter in Washington and get things done in a political climate that is plagued by gridlock.
You know, what House of Cards does is it taps into the whole culture of Washington.
It's the media, it's the power brokers, it's Congress, it's the Executive Branch, and it's the sort of pervasive self-absorption - of all the characters.
- Mm-hmm.
How concerned they are about everything but the effect of what they're doing that, to me, you know, sadly often rings true - in a sense that this sort of-- - Yeah.
This moment after all the giddiness about President Obama and his coming that people have begun to wonder, "is it fixable?" This piece The New York Times Magazine did just really nailed this.
West Wing was what we hoped politics would become.
- Yes.
- House of Cards - is what we fear it could be.
- Fear.
What about the world of journalism and media? We also do dramatize the media, which is always a tenuous place to put oneself.
Yeah.
[Laughter] No, it's fa-- I find that fascinating 'cause House of Cards is the first show that's really caught the transitional moment of old media and new media.
It really captures the speed and the recklessness - Yeah.
- That the process creates in the Internet age.
I've always said that it's a show about power, and power can bleed its way into our personal relationships, our workplaces, and what you see in Washington are people who make their living thinking about power.
This show, more than anything I've done, every single scene is about power, whether it's, like, a romantic liaison or it's some legislation that's trying to get passed, and even "who's gonna sit where in this scene?" - Yes.
- Like, who's gonna sit on the couch, that makes you kind of go like this - Mm-hmm.
- And who's gonna get - to sit in the chair, and-- - Every scene is a game - Right.
- Between two people.
Who has the status? - Who has status - Yeah.
- And it shifts back and forth.
- Yeah.
Molly's character is the complexity of the ascent to power and what that's like, and Frank is so far along in his trajectory and how clear and strong, and he doesn't equivocate in his ascent, and there's some exploration that we were able to do a little bit this season of seeing someone who's younger on that journey and what that climb to power can do personally.
That was really exciting to write and to dig in on.
Another thing that's very strong about the show is the marriage, and one of the first things I said to Fincher when we spoke four years ago, is that I thought that this show should be as much about a marriage as it is about power in a political ascent.
The show is about their behavior, their relation to power and to each other.
- Yeah.
- And I think there's so much in the zeitgeist right now about, what is marriage? - Yeah.
- Is monogamy important? [Chuckles] Why is it important? And I think the show is really right on the pulse of that right now in a very exciting way.
Yeah.
I want to talk about specifically the writers' room.
How do you tackle the season? I'd be interested-- Why don't you describe it, Laura? - Yes.
- Well, it starts with-- - Laura, describe Beau's world.
- Well [Laughs] It's our world.
It starts with crawling inside of Beau's head - No, no.
- A little bit.
I mean, he came in with a very strong idea of sort of the big arcs, and one thing that Beau also does that I think is fantastic is we do this exercise that's what you would never see on House of Cards [Laughs] And we do this exercise of throwing, like, crazy [bleep] up on the wall.
Yeah, for a whole day.
- For a whole day.
- Hundreds.
Hundreds, hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds.
- Mm-hmm.
- Oh, that's fantastic.
'Cause Beau is very much about we're not gonna fall into-- There's a sign on the writers' room wall that's "Subvert the Trope.
" Like, we're not falling into the trope.
- Ohh, fantastic.
- We're not gonna just write preconceived notions of what it's gonna be, so we throw all these crazy ideas up on the wall, and last season, a Civil War reenactment was one of the things we'll never see on House of Cards, and then that ended up being sort of the centerpiece of 205.
[Laughter] But in terms of the process, we have a grid, episode 1 through 13, our main characters or story threads, start talking about each character, what their journey for that season is.
Start throwing cards up on a corkboard, and then, you know, you move on to table read, where a whole bunch of other people's thoughts sort of come to the table, whether it's the director or the actors.
So they'll be rewriting on the spot.
I mean, we were shooting the final two episodes of season two, and Mank calls me one day and says, "look, I have a thought about this speech "that the President and his wife should give.
"What if they said 'x, ' 'y, ' and 'z, ' "and this is how it might make the next episode, the finale more compelling?" - And we talked about it - Mm-hmm.
And he was absolutely right.
I thought that was a great idea.
Now, we were in the midst of shooting those two episodes.
Some shows, it's like, if you literally change a comma - or something, it becomes, like - An issue.
- Some apocalyptic nightmare.
- Mm-hmm.
And I really don't see the point of that.
Well, I can say from my opinion is my words are precious.
[Laughter] They do never change my words.
How about your punctuation? [Laughter] There you go.
That's my resume.
Did you shop it around before Netflix? We worked for a year on the first script, and once we had that script and we had our team, then we did sit down with some paid cable networks that one would expect a show like this to end up on, and at that time, Netflix had made it clear they wanted to get into the mix.
Then we met with them and they offered us two seasons guaranteed and creative control - Wow.
- It blew all the competition - out of the water.
- I would say.
So that was an offer we couldn't refuse.
It's like the holy grail.
Yeah.
[Laughs] We kind of glossed over the idea that we're not getting any notes from Netflix.
I mean, that's a-- It's a big thing Oh, we-- I want to know about that.
To have it all on your shoulders and not have interference.
I mean, it's good and bad, 'cause if you screw up a show, - you can blame it on network notes.
- That is good and terrifying - that you have no notes.
- Yeah.
Well, they took a big risk on us.
- Yeah.
- Never was there any sort of dictate like, "you must do this.
" - That's the thing.
- Right, yeah.
That's what I'm talking about is, it is a conversation.
What we established was an ongoing dialogue where they had access to all the outlines and the scripts, but it was much more sort of a casual conversation.
On another level, a show being on Netflix like this changes the viewing.
We talk about binge-watching.
You sit down with friends, and they might be on this episode, and you're on this episode, so it really does sort of affect the way you watch the show.
A lot of people think because we released all 13 episodes in one day that we're saying, "you should binge-watch this.
" In fact, what we're doing is giving the viewers a choice.
I'm curious.
You guys came in on season two, and so did you guys.
How did you guys watch the show? As a binge? Did you spread it out? Oh, I binged.
I mean, I watched it all the way through in maybe two days.
- Wow.
- What if John said, "I haven't seen season one"? [Laughter] Yeah.
I think-- Yeah, people can watch it at their own pace, but if you want to keep up with the conversation, you better watch it quickly.
[Laughs] So we're gonna take a little break, and when we come back, we'll dig into the writers' room, and maybe we'll get some hints about season three just to make Beau nervous when The Writers' Room continues.
They picked up two seasons, and there's something terrifying about that.
Wonderfully terrifying, I mean, some stories are meant to be 90 or 120 minutes long.
But with ours, with so many hours to work with, you can take a novelistic approach.
You can go layer by layer.
We can see these people evolve over time.
That's not a slow burn.
It's actually that much more opportunity to see how they can surprise you at every turn.
Mm-hmm.
And the characters being a little enigmatic is also important to us.
It's important that, as we're peeling the onion and filling in some of the backstory, that it doesn't feel like this caused that or Claire is the way she is because of this, that we're continuing to try and make them as complicated as they were from the very beginning.
They surprise us in the room oftentimes as much as they surprise the audience, and I think that's the only way to keep it fresh and to keep it alive.
Welcome back to The Writers' Room.
I'm sitting here with House of Cards.
I want to talk about direct address as a writing tool.
Frank Underwood quite literally makes eye contact with us and summons us into this world.
Let's take a look at this fan tribute using direct address.
Yes.
Thank you.
Oh, I, uh, ordered this without whip cream.
- Oh, you didn't-- - It's-- It's not an issue.
- Don't even worry about it.
- Okay.
[Laughs] Sorry.
I'll wait.
I'll wait.
Go ahead.
- Go ahead.
- Okay.
Sandra's a sweet girl.
[Laughter] She's been working here about three weeks.
Can't ever seem to get my order right.
I smoke a Frappuccino sans the whip cream.
Sweet don't make you valuable in this world, - and sweet and [bleep] stupid-- - Oh, um-- Hmm? What's-- [Laughter] I said I was sorry, so-- No, there's no need to apologize.
- Well, you're being-- - No, you did a great job.
You're just being so mean.
Well, no.
Absolutely not.
- You're-- - Okay, I'm-- - Yeah, great.
Okay.
- Okay.
Be good.
People want to see the best in everybody.
She wants to call me rude, that's just fine, but life ain't fair.
It's a happy meal without the toy, and she's the fries at the bottom of the bag.
[Laughter] - Not too bad, huh? - There was a BBC version in 1990 which used direct address, and we just outright stole it, but they were stealing it from Shakespeare - Yes.
- And from the Greeks - before them.
- So it's okay.
Everyone's allowed to steal from Shakespeare.
Well, writers are professional thieves at the end of the day.
We either steal from each other - Steal from the best.
- Or from our own lives.
I'll steal a great idea from anyone.
I'll even steal one from John.
You know? - And-- - Even from John? [Laughter] But one of the great things about the direct address is it gives you an intimacy with Francis as an audience member.
You become complicit in the game.
Do you think that it connects you to him, - that you excuse behavior - Oh, yeah.
You're definitely in on it.
Because he's, "come into my world"? You're in on the secret, and what I like even better than the direct address-- and actually it's better than Shakespeare-- is what we do with the direct look.
- Yeah.
- You know? It's like someone says something, and the audience sees Frank go-- You know, roll his eyes.
I mean, that-- You know, you can't do it in theater.
It's tricky.
I think it's one of the trickiest things we do, and mostly we leave it up to Beau.
In what way? Like, a judicious-- - To be judicious with it, or-- - Well, the thing about the direct address is-- You know, we were figuring it out as we went, and we found the direct addresses in which he's giving the sense of his world view or some sort of political insight or just plain entertaining, you're in on the joke, worked great.
When they are sort of more purely emotionally driven, sort of stream of consciousness, giving you that sort of vulnerable side of Francis, they don't work as well, because that's far more affected when you show it instead of tell it.
Mm-hmm.
So they're great in terms of sort of framing a moment or casting a moment in a new light, but for the emotionally resonant story that we're trying to tell, it's much better if he doesn't turn to the camera, and that's a trial-and-error process which continues to this day, and some people don't like the direct address at all.
For some it's an acquired taste.
Others grow sick of it.
- It's a strong device - Yes.
And ultimately you just have to own it.
Yes, absolutely.
And we enjoy it, but it also drives us friggin' crazy - at times, you know? - Yeah.
This is your first foray into TV, or being a showrunner, - for sure, right? - Yeah, mm-hmm.
That's not an easy task, running a show.
No.
I mean, look, ignorance can be a form of bliss.
Not knowing how big a task it is in a way was wonderful.
You know, in some ways, season two is even more intimidating 'cause I actually knew what it took to make a season.
- Yeah.
- But ultimately, relying on the expertise and hard work of one's collaborators is the smartest choice you can make when you're doing something for the first time, and I was very lucky to be surrounded by the very best people in the business.
That's nice, and then, Laura and John, you both came on season two.
- Season two.
- Mm-hmm.
- Yes.
- And, Laura, where were you previous to that, or-- - I was a playwright.
- Okay.
Working in the theater.
Wow, in the "theat-ah.
" - And this-- In the "theat-ah.
" - Yeah.
Was there a shock to the system as you got into TV? Because this feels like it's a wonderful world for playwrights obviously.
Yes, it absolutely-- It absolutely is.
The show's so character-based, and it's so much rooted in that.
And coming from what I'd done in the theater-- From an ensemble company where we do this kind of collaborative work, and the writers' room is so collaborative-- And I've also done a lot of adaptation, which is-- Just, for me, ended up being really helpful, because so much of what you're doing is you're writing to the voice and the tone of the show and trying to match that.
Absolutely.
I mean, and for you, John, before this-- I've done a lot of TV, and I was the only TV writer in the room.
[Laughs] And it-- Fantastic.
Were you hazed? [Laughs] I was totally hazed.
[Laughter] He was worshipped, is what he was.
- Was he worshipped? - Yes.
Why? In what way? There's no substitute for experience, and Fincher and I and Netflix, none of us had really done television before, so it's so important to have someone like John in the room, who's been around the block, who's seen everything that could possibly happen in television, and in your gut knowing what conventions are, if only to break them.
There is no substitute, so it's so important to have a writer like John on the team.
And, Matt, you made your screen debut-- Or is it your screen debut, in season two? Oh, no.
It's my screen debut.
Okay, how did it go? [Laughter] - Quite likely the end of my - No, no! - Stage career.
- How did it go? I think he's got a big future.
It was wild.
I play myself.
It's a lot harder-- Being me is a lot harder than I thought it was.
[Laughter] What has the reaction been to the show in Washington? I think everyone takes it as entertainment.
I think just Washington's so happy when people talk about them.
[Laughs] The thing about Zoe Barnes is she doesn't actually care about the story or the politics.
She cares about her own exposure.
- Yeah.
- She mostly cares - about getting famous.
- It's still power.
She mostly cares about power.
- It's still power.
- So that's right.
- Yeah.
- And that's actually truer in a universal sense than I would care to admit for journalism.
Matt, it feels like you're just this power-hungry person - in front of us.
- I also only care about power.
I'm failing miserably, by the way.
[Laughter] All right.
When we come back, we'll talk more about their writing process.
And we're gonna get that season three spoiler that I'm promised You know I'm not gonna say anything about season three, right? When The Writers' Room continues.
Welcome back to The Writers' Room.
I'm sitting here with House of Cards.
So we asked some fans what scenes got them the most worked up and that they would want to discuss with you, so let's take a look at some of those in a segment we call "Defend This Scene.
" I believe it was the first scene of the series where Frank's standing over a dog that had just been hit, and he strangles the dog and kills it.
It was like, "oh, man, like, is this really happening right now?" So talk to me about that decision.
My first few drafts, the script started with the New Year's Eve party, but we wanted a movie star entrance for Kevin Spacey first and foremost, 'cause we have a friggin' movie star.
- We might as well.
- Mm-hmm.
What's more movie star entrance than two double doors opening and someone descending stairs? Now I need the reason for the two double doors to open up.
What if he hears something outside? A big, loud noise.
- See how sophisticated-- - Yes.
So I'm like, "okay, well, a car crash Hits a dog.
Now he's outside.
What does he do?" Well, confronted with a dog that is dying in front of him, I thought there was a great opportunity here.
He has a choice.
"Do I let this dog suffer? Do I do something about it?" And ultimately you arrive at "I do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.
" It's an act of ruthless mercy, so in the first 30 seconds, you see a guy who's willing to kill, you see a guy who's ruthlessly pragmatic, and you establish the direct address in a way that's unforgettable, or I hope.
Boom, now we had a real opening, and going into the New Year's Eve party - with that as your context - Yeah.
- Changes everything.
- Yeah, that's true.
So now I want to show the scene that got most fans talking.
When Frank killed Russo in the car and made it look like a suicide, up until that point, you thought of him as a master puppeteer.
He controlled all the strings, but now he's crossed the line.
He's a full-blown murderer.
What made you make that decision? So let's see that.
Nice.
So talk to me about that scene.
It is a game changer.
Every politician who gets to the highest offices of power is a murderer.
They have to be willing to be a murderer.
Whether it's killing someone in a garage or whether it's sending 100,000 troops off to war, you are making decisions that are life and death, and the result of those decisions - is that some people may die.
- Yeah.
There was a strong belief that, if we didn't see Francis take the ultimate step and if we didn't see one of our main characters be sacrificed in a way, we really wouldn't have fully made clear to the audience how far he's willing to go.
I love that about this show, that there is sort of this initial, like, "whoa, I can't believe he just did that," - and then bit by bit - Yes.
We start to understand and be drawn into the complexity.
And, I mean, anyone could do anything at any time.
As a viewer, I'm still mad at Beau for killing off Russo.
None of that.
[Laughter] No, but Peter Russo is an addict.
- Mm-hmm.
- Yeah.
- And he neglects his children.
- Yeah.
He cheats on his girlfriend.
Like, he's the good guy-- - Drugs, alcohol, and sex.
- Right.
It's okay.
[Laughter] That's right.
When we come back, Molly and Beau are gonna answer some fan questions.
We will also talk endgame and, yes, Beau, that season three spoiler when The Writers' Room continues.
Welcome back to The Writers' Room.
I'm here with Beau Willimon and Molly Parker from House of Cards, and we are going into a segment we call "Fan on the Street.
" So many dramatic things happened in season two.
When you were shooting season one, did you already have season two mapped out? A few big signposts, a few big events we knew from the very beginning, but mostly season two, going into it, there was a lot of questions to answer and a lot of things to figure out, so it's a whole new process of discovery.
Yeah.
I didn't know what was gonna happen in season two while we were shooting.
- There you go.
- So-- So there's just an unknown.
That's how the information flows, you know, downhill.
Constant unknown.
Can you speculate an endgame? Do you have an endgame in your mind for Frank, or just this world is? It's your sneaky way of trying to get me to talk about season three.
No.
That-- What are you talking about? [Laughs] This is the most innocent way to get in on this.
I actually do have one image that has been in my own mind for quite some time, but I'm not gonna say a thing about it.
[Laughs] One thing you could probably be sure of, spoiler alert, is that after that image, there will be credits.
- Boom.
- Yeah.
You heard it here first.
There will be credits.
[Laughs] Well, I think we nailed it.
So I want to thank Molly and Beau for being a part of this and the whole panel.
That's all the time we have.
Thank you for joining us on The Writers' Room, and for us, why don't we all take a book [Laughs] And act like we just created our own book club? [Laughter] And everyone shares something.
You have a dictionary.
Read one passage.
I have these wonderful images of typical grasses.
- That's it! - Fantastic.
[Laughter] Thank you.