Beau Willimon: ‘We all live political lives’

Written by Ben Duckworth on 28 October 2011 in Culture
Ben Duckworth interviews Beau Willimon, co-scriptwriter on new political thriller The Ides of March. Once taught drama by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, he talks about seeing his play, Farragut North, being made for the big screen by George Clooney

This article first appeared in the November issue of Total Politics

The film takes place during a presidential campaign, but its themes – betrayal, loyalty, trust, deception, ambition, hubris – are more universal than just politics. We could have made a film about Wall Street or Hollywood, or about sibling rivalry. This film frames it in a story with incredibly high stakes. You’re talking about the next leader of the free world.

Certainly, it’s a darker look at politics, and brushes up against some of its more cynical sides, but it’s important to expose those. Those whom we elect, and the people who work for them, are constantly coming to moral forks in the road. No one sets out to become evil. It’s a cumulative process, when you find yourself, time and time again, having to make moral decisions. If you make enough of the wrong ones for the right reasons you can lose your grounding and become ethically lost.

You’ve worked on political campaigns. Did you get involved for the same reasons as the main character in the film, Stephen Myers? A real believer, with a cause he’s willing to fight for?
I’ve got a lot of friends in professional politics, so when they needed someone to throw in some sweat and toil, they’d often pull me on board. And I’ve had the luxury of only working for people whom I had a fierce belief in. My idealism has gone up and down over time, like a sinusoidal wave. I was incredibly idealistic going into the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, for instance. When he lost, and John Kerry subsequently lost to Bush, I was disillusioned. My idealism went back up when Clinton and Obama were running; for the first time in years we had two great candidates for the Democratic ticket. Either one would make a great president. Over the past couple of years, when you’ve seen Obama’s and Congress’ inability to deliver on a lot of the promises they’ve made, it starts to dip again. For people working in politics, it consumes their lives. And once you start to lose idealism, it’s tough to get it back.

The theme running through your work is how power plays out in everyday relationships. Is politics the same as other spheres of life, or is it super-charged power? How does the power in your fictional political relationships work?
I don’t know if it’s exactly the same, because of the stakes involved. But, to argue with myself, two siblings who fight for their father or mother’s approval – to them, those are the highest stakes in the world, and just as important as who’s going to be the next president of the US. We all live political lives, whether that’s in terms of whom we elect to office or the politics of daily interactions. We’re all trying to achieve personal goals and fulfil needs, and we brush up against the often-conflicting personal goals and needs of others. The way in which we handle those conflicts is political.

We sometimes have to become chameleons – the way you’re interacting with me now is different from the way you’d interact with your friends at the pub. That’s not to say that how you and I are talking to each other now is disingenuous, but you have to write a story for your paper by the deadline and I’m trying to get people interested in the film. It’s political, what you and I are doing right now.

We’re all weighing how much power we have or don’t have in any given situation, more often than not subconsciously. The Ides of March is an extreme version of that, with very high stakes, but it explores themes that are universal. Whether you’re a political junkie or politically averse, anyone who sees the film will walk away with something meaningful.

You’re also currently working on an American House of Cards series. How did you get involved with that?
Netflix bought the rights to two seasons, 13 episodes per season, before we’d shot a single frame. It’s the first major TV show in America – potentially worldwide – to bypass regular network television and be broadcast directly to the internet. Kevin Spacey will star, and Robin Wright will play his wife. It’s set in DC in the present time.

I’m a big fan of the BBC mini-series that aired in 1990 with Ian Richardson, but this will be much deeper, more layered and just as delicious in terms of the Machiavellian scheming and twists and turns. For the most part, it’s a reinvention where we use some of the best stuff and then create most of it ourselves. It’s an exciting thing to be working on. Not only do we know that we have 26 hours, at the very least, of storytelling ahead of us, but also to be able to work with people like David Fincher – he’ll direct the first episode – and Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright is a dream come true. I hired a bunch of great writers, and we just finished breaking the first season. I’ve sent them off to go write their first script drafts, so we’re well underway. We’ll be shooting our first episode sometime in the spring.

Do you have any faith in next year’s presidential elections after writing about the compromises people make in politics?
Compromise is good governance. You’re taking people with diametrically opposed belief systems and they all need to find something to agree on. Everyone has to give up a little bit of something. It becomes dangerous when you get so used to giving up a little bit here, a little bit there, that you start to eat away at your ethical foundation. We need compromise, but compromise is also dangerous.

In the current US Congress, there are a lot of people with very strong beliefs, but because they won’t compromise there’s no progress. I have an unwavering belief in the democratic system when it works, but in order for it to work, you have to put in people who have a belief system and can compromise at the same time. That’s up to the electorate. We’re just as culpable as the people we put into office. And that goes for any democracy.

Do I have any faith in the elections?
Absolutely not, we’re too far out. I personally hope it’s Obama, but only time will tell.

You still have faith in Barack Obama, the man?
I don’t know who ‘Barack Obama, the man’ is, but I do know who Obama the politician is – or at least what he’s shown himself to be over the past few years.

They were tough times when he came into office, and I never expected he’d be able to fulfil all the promises – I wish he’d been able to fulfil a few more, but I don’t lay that all at his feet. Congress is, in a lot of ways, more to blame than he is. He’s certainly better than any of the alternatives on the Republican slate. And he’s certainly a huge improvement over who we had in office for eight years prior to the last election. In the big scheme of things, I’m putting my chips behind him. Again.

The Ides of March is out in cinemas nationwide on 28 October

Tags: Beau Willimon, Film review, George Clooney, Ides of March, Issue 41

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