Entertainment TV The Frank Underwood uprising: House of Cards

The Frank Underwood uprising: House of Cards

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Beau Willimon, the creator, writer and showrunner for Netflix’s House of Cards, loves to defend the ethical vagaries of his progeny, the deliciously Machiavellian, dog murdering, presidential aspirant Frank Underwood.

“The truth is, all heads of state are murderers and if you have elected someone that is not capable of murder, then you have elected someone that is incompetent,” declared a jetlagged Willimon who graced Australia late last year for a blitzkrieg visit.

“There is a rebellious streak in what we are doing. We are essentially film makers coming to TV and we liked the idea that our partners were as just as new to it as we were.”

“It’s not a pretty thought but it is a reality. And at least, in America we expect two opposite things from our leaders, firstly we want them to be effective leaders and do the things that are abhorrent to the rest of us and on the other hand we want them to be saints, and you can’t be both,” he adds.

The House of Cards will return to non-linear screens on Valentine’s Day when Netflix will release the entire second season in one fell swoop.

The partnership between Netflix and the House of Cards production team has allowed both parties to disrupt the traditional notions of television creation and distribution. Willimon revealed that the genesis of the House of Cards and its newly forged distribution matrix courtesy of Netflix, was predicated on risk rather than any kind of strategic vision or intent.

“None of us knew what the f__k we were doing,” Willimon said when he and producer David Fincher originally collaborated on the TV based project.

The non-conformist stance brought to the project by Willimon and Fincher, was the edge that allowed them to swing the right type of deal with Netflix, turning down HBO, Showtime and AMC.

“When you have not been shaped by the status quo of convention, you are figuring everything out for the first time  and that is the best place to be,” he said.

Photo: Supplied
House of Cards creator Beau Willimon Photo: Supplied

His creative approach mirrored the natural attraction between The House of Cards project and its non-conformist broadcasting partner Netflix. When he first met with Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos and programming VP Cindy Holland, the company had never had a single development executive on board. The meeting with the duo came the day after Willimon and Fincher had walked away from offers from HBO, Showtime and AMC for a full season upfront.

“Because we had not worked in television  before it was easy for us to walk away and then the very next day and we sat down with Sarandos and Hollands and asked for same thing- we want a season up front, no-pilot, no audition. Our view was that if we were pouring ourselves into this we wanted to have a committed full season to work with and they said “oh we are in the content business, how about 2 seasons…”

Netflix was the clearly the natural home for the show which Media Rights Capital owns and licences.

“There is a rebellious streak in what we are doing. We are essentially film makers coming to TV and we liked the idea that our partners were as just as new to it as we were.”

The outsider approach fulfilled the dream remit. For Willimon, producing 100 hours a week, nine months of the year, the experience is a “form of voluntary insanity that I love.”

The showrunner confessed that the notion and freedom of two seasons upfront was far more influential on the writing, doubling the real estate canvass that you can paint on.

That sense of screen time latitude brings the worlds of film and TV far closer, which Willimon claims the boundaries of which have all but collapsed. “There isn’t a distinction anymore between TV and film, the difference is now arbitrary and semantic.”

The only TV convention that was essentially  adhered to in Season 1 was the 13 x 1 hour format and retained for one reason only, international sales.  That convention is also poised to be bucked.

“It is something that I toy with in my mind all the time, how to break the mould on that.  I would love to do episodes that are 15 min or 2 hours 20 minutes or dispense with that all together and have a 12 hour stream. When you are subscription based service, which is the way most TV will head towards, there is no need to have particular length to episodes.”

House of Cards has resonated with audiences globally as the pulse  of the show is about the dramatization of  power, not a particular agenda. Willimon has created in his chief protagonist, all the complexities that embracing that power brings in one ethically questionable and mercurial man, but maintains that despite Underwood’s dark predilections, he is ultimately an optimist.

“In Frank’s world, ideology and ethics are a form of power. Your ideological and ethical code prescribes your behaviour and if you stick to it, it leaves you no choice.”

House of Cards season 2 launches on Saturday, February 15 on Foxtel’s Showcase channel.