Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Quote of the Day (‘House of Cards’ Beau Willimon, on Ambition and Plans)

“I never had a plan. I have the drive, desire and ambition. By design, I try not to have an end goal because by doing that you restrict your path and your thinking. For me, that’s a version of death. I like life.”— Beau Willimon, playwright and House of Cards showrunner, quoted in Sam Flynn, “Willimon: ‘Great Things Never Come From Being Comfortable’,” The Chautauquan Daily, August 3, 2015

Bill Bradley was supposed to speak this past Saturday at Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. But this last day of a theme week devoted to art and politics came to resemble more closely the theme of the week immediately following, “Vanishing,” as the former Knick great, Senator from New Jersey and Presidential candidate canceled at some point between his announced appearance in the winter and this weekend.

Fortunately, Chautauqua found an excellent replacement in a worker on his 2000 Presidential race who went on to his own kind of fame: Beau Willimon. In a question-and-answer session with Sherra Babcock, Chautauqua’s Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, the creator of the American adaptation of the British TV series House of Cards, about a Washington power couple of untrammeled ambition, described for a packed mid-afternoon audience at the Hall of Philosophy how his own personal drive manifested itself in an unconventional career path. I counted myself lucky to have found a space at all there--and to have heard such amusing and insightful thoughts.

Many of the college interns he encountered in Washington in a talk just before coming to Chautauqua, he said, not only had intelligence and ambition but a specific plan. His own experience was quite different—and, as indicated by the above quote, it had unique advantages.

The most direct preparation for his career as a writer for the stage and television was the Juilliard School’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program. But the subject matter that has obsessed him in the years since--politics--came about through nothing like design.

In 1998, while attending Columbia University, Willimon saw in Chuck Schumer’s campaign for the U.S. Senate as an opportunity to get out of two courses. That race led to his involvement with other races, including Bradley’s Presidential run, Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senatorial election, and Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

After the most notorious point in that last race (setting up the event that became the setting for Dean’s “scream”), Willimon poured his frustration and depression into a drama set in the Presidential primaries. Approximately 40 theater companies rejected the property before, resubmitting it a few years later, it was finally accepted and premiered off-Broadway in fall 2008 as Farragut North.

George Clooney purchased the rights to the play and adapted it as the 2011 film, The Ides of March. Later, that background in writing about politics would come in good stead when Willimon teamed with actor Kevin Spacey and director David Fincher (both previously attached to the project) in developing House of Cards for Netflix.

The character played by Spacey, unscrupulous politician Francis Underwood, uses unsavory tactics on the path to power. In contrast, Willimon offered to the Capitol Hill interns—and Chautauquans—far more inspiring traits needed for success, the “4 C’s”: curiosity, courage, community and commitment.

(I took this photo of Willimon mingling with audience members after the event was over.)

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