“Writing Is My Oxygen.” Beau Willimon Talks ‘The First,’ & ‘House of Cards’
Powerhouse film and TV writer Beau Willimon sat down with Creative Screenwriting Magazine to discuss his writing process and views on the craft.
“I don’t have any tricks up my sleeves. I don’t really have a schedule. Writing is sort of like oxygen for me. If I don’t breathe, I suffocate,” confessed screenwriter Beau Willimon. “I feel more compelled than inspired to write. It’s my lifeline.” The writer behind House of Cards, The First, The Ides of March, and Mary Queen of Scots believes in discovery above all else.
“I try to think of myself as a deeply curious person. I try to figure out the things 7 billion other people are figuring out. The strategy as a writer is to investigate the spirit and dive into the soul to gather some sort of understanding of human behavior. Your hope is that you can do that with the dedication and carefulness so you might stumble upon things worth sharing with others.” Profound thoughts from the A-list scribe.
Willimon learned the foundation of his writing work from the prolific Tony Gilroy. Gilroy, the man behind hits like Michael Clayton, Rogue One, The Bourne Trilogy, Proof of Life, Armageddon, and The Devil’s Advocate, told Willimon he only wrote for five days of the year. The other 360 days of the year were meant for tedious, backbreaking, dismal, difficult chaos to help those important five days. But, the joy of that individual work week made the rest of the pain worth it.
Exploring The Story
As a screenwriter, Willimon works to avoid over-analyzing himself as it can often lead to second-guessing. Instead, he enjoys exploring new worlds and new characters. He’s known for his political thrillers on the big and small screen, but he’s also written 14 plays between blockbusters to grease his creative cogs.
In The First, his new TV show, Willimon is exploring the hypothetical first journey to Mars, which stars Sean Penn and landed on Planet Hulu. “It couldn’t be more different than House of Cards,” said the screenwriter. “It’s more meditative and lyrical. It focuses on the best we have to offer as humans versus the cynical lens from House of Cards. But, at the heart of both, I’m interested in dignity and ambition.” These two character traits help define him as a writer.
As a screenwriter, he’s obsessed with how people find value in their careers. House of Cards focuses on selfish ambition whereas The First focuses on a noble mission from a group of astronauts. More importantly, the aspects of the different TV shows are universal as they both explore life’s purpose.
“It’s people pushing themselves to their limits, which I find incredibly interesting,” added Willimon. “It’s at those limits where people find their true selves. Oftentimes, people think of selfishness in a negative way. There are certainly negative aspects to it, but you can also think of selfishness as the need to investigate and invest in yourself to accomplish whatever you wish to accomplish.”
The screenwriter actually classifies writing as a selfish act. “What is worth spending 360 days of your year struggling in order to write on those other five days? You think of the act itself—sitting alone behind a computer and living in your own imagination—appears as if you’re not engaging with the rest of the world. It’s a selfless, yet generous way to think of screenwriting. You finish the process and you have a story that may expand to a collaboration of other people. Your script becomes bigger than one person.”
As a screenwriter, Willimon views writing as something that eventually shifts from a selfish act to a generous act. “You try to please yourself and grapple with what’s on your mind, but then there’s an opportunity to connect with many other people. Doing so reinforces and expands your story to others. Selfishness is warranted to reach generosity. You can’t connect to the audience if you haven’t connected to yourself first.”
Willimon started in the theater, but had no intentions of moving into film and television. Rather, he felt like he had a chance to stage a play because it wasn’t as overwhelming as making a movie or series. “Nothing can stop you from gathering a few friends together and performing at a bar or in the basement of a bookstore.”
His love for the theater started at an early age. His parents would take him to a small theater where he experienced the infectious sound of 5,000 people laughing together. As he got older, he volunteered to tear tickets or work on the sets just to be around that process.
As he began to write, he realized the loneliness of writing, but then saw it as a stepping stone to a collaborative effort to please an audience. “The play becomes a living organism and you feel like you’re part of that community. Plays are different than screenplays because you don’t have as many tools available. There’s no editing and there are no special effects. You only have the human body so you have to dramatize human behavior and learn how to write a 25-minute scene.”
Eventually, he learned the rhythm of writing dialogue. Writing plays forced him to learn human behavior in a more detailed manner. He was able to bring that toolset with him to film and television. Due to playwriting, he realized that a character’s hand fidgeting could express the same emotion as 10 lines of dialogue, but this could be seen on screen and not from the back row of the theatre.
“When you take a behavior and you focus on the visual side of it, it’s really exciting. I wouldn’t say that playwrights are better than screenwriters, but they have this unusual toolbox, and then when they collaborate with actors, it becomes clear as to what works and what doesn’t work. You can write for the actor’s body and their skillsets.”
Willimon will often tell his actors that everyone on set—the camera, the dollies, the crew—are there to capture an actor’s voice and emotions. This complimentary pressure often helps the actor understand the importance of the individual scenes and single lines of dialogue, but it also opens up the door for the scene to cater to the actor.
The screenwriter then paraphrased a quote by Orson Welles, which described a theater set as the infrastructure to capture the unimaginable. “In that sense, a screenplay is the blueprint to discover a way for the actor to discover something unexpected on screen.”
Breaking The Rules
Typically speaking, there are like hundreds of professors telling thousands of screenwriters of the causality of subsequent scenes. Scene A must lead to Scene B at this particular moment. But, Beau Willimon doesn’t necessarily agree with this rule, which is evident in his work such as House of Cards on Netflix.
“Linear storytelling can be quite powerful, but I think we’re drawn to it because our lives are chaotic and disconnected. Yet, our memories are hinged upon connecting things and making sense of them, so we often edit out things do not apply to this causality or meaning. It’s natural, that in art, we have that same impulse.” We can construct meaningful stories from snippets of our imaginations.
“A big part of the writing process should focus on what you leave out, rather than what you leave in,” mused Willimon. “I had a playwriting teacher who once told me that a play is simply the most interesting two hours of a person’s life. When you think about it that way, you’re editing out the majority of someone’s life to focus on two hours. You’re saying, these are the two hours worth paying attention to…”
He doesn’t view causality as wrong, but he agrees with Director David Fincher about the theory “Drama is behavior over time.” Linear storytelling tracks changes in behavior over time, but when searching for truth, it’s also important to acknowledge the irrationality of a behavior.
“You can’t always say I’m acting this way because of A, B or C,” continued the screenwriter. “More often than not, we’re living our lives as we behave, but we’re not self-aware to make those linkages. When you put yourself in character’s shoes, you almost have to remove yourself from the awareness of causality. At the same time, as the writer or architect, you have to step outside to see the causality that the character is not privy to. I’m interested in storytellers who do not lean into the causality.”
In one example, he referenced the great David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick, who often avoid the typical screenwriting guidelines when making a film or series. “The end of 2001 became much more expressionistic where you can’t boil that down to A leads to B leads to C. Not everything needs an explanation because that’s life.”
“We can have an important conversation about filmmaking and a bird can shit on my head. That bird doesn’t care about what we’re discussing, it just needed to take a shit. I’m going to react in a way that has nothing to do with our discussion. It’s an arbitrary event and you have to be open to that. You can’t fall into the trap of there being a right way for the character to react. There is no correct way. The characters are often built on contradictions. That’s what makes them interesting.”
Like most other writers, Willimon doesn’t have an exact formula for taking a story idea to the finish line. But, he’s often thought back and tried to dissect the origins of ideas, which is also equally difficult. Sometimes his ideas start with an image, while others will begin with a moment of dialogue.
“Sometimes I’ll hear something on the radio that gets my mind working,” recalled the screenwriter. “Sometimes there’s source material and you’re looking to add your vision. Each project is different in terms of conception. In that early stage of an idea, where things are murky, I try not to force it too much. If something emerges in my mind, I’ll let it roll around in there for months sometimes.”
By not forcing ideas, Willimon uses a filtering process to see which ideas remain with him for the long haul. “If I’m thinking about it years or months later, those ideas have often expanded. Then, there’s something there that I need to investigate. If it dissolves, I may have been curious but it wasn’t necessary to investigate further. At a certain point, it feels right.”
The screenwriter suggests writing in a natural way, but there are other situations where he’s given deadlines or asked to unravel an idea, which pushes some stories ahead of others. At that point, he’s required to take the marinating idea and bring it to the page in a more disciplined manner.
When it’s time to write, it’s time for Willimon to figure out the things he does not know, which is what will make the project work or not work. But, and perhaps more importantly, he describes himself as a writer who needs to live in order to write. Between projects, he needs to explore the world and replenish his creative well.
“I need to get out and travel and take myself out of the routine and out of my comfort zones,” said the writer. He also enjoys taking in other work that is diametrically different than his own. By exploring diverse genres or new media, he’s able to discover new theories about his own work between assignments.
“When you find an oasis, you need to replenish yourself as much as you can so you can prepare for your next journey into the desert. Get out of your bubble and try to be open. My goal is to not hold anything back. I never want to say, ‘I’ll save this for Season 3.’ Leave yourself exposed. When you open up, something new will cross your path for you to gravitate towards. Your needs will become evident to you.”
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