What also helped speed the process was “almost complete creative freedom” from Netflix executives, very rare in a high-profile television series, Willimon said. He and his staff wound up creating elements of the show that “would never have gotten past the first or second round of typical network notes.”
Willimon, who wrote the play “Farragut North” — later adapted into the campaign film “The Ides of March” starring George Clooney — was brought onto the project about three years ago, when he got a call saying that Fincher wanted to team up for a remake of the British “House of Cards” miniseries. Willimon had never seen the show, but “it was a pretty good excuse to watch it if it would lead to a conversation with David Fincher,” he admitted.
That led to the current collaboration. (Fincher, also an executive producer, directed the first two episodes.) It borrows some pieces of the original but brings the story to the present day and injects a cinematic aesthetic. With the tale opening at a fancy New Year’s Eve party ringing in the start of 2013, House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey, chillingly evil) immediately breaks the fourth wall, smugly introducing viewers to some of the key players in the room, including the newly elected president. Everything quickly unravels when Underwood, promised the job of secretary of state, is passed over for the position. The president’s press secretary (Sakina Jaffrey) condescendingly tells him he’s needed more in Congress than the State Department.
Underwood begins to wreak havoc on everyone around him on Capitol Hill. This is with the help of his equally devious wife, Claire (Robin Wright), and an ambitious young reporter, Zoe (Kate Mara), who is desperate to ditch the Fairfax City Council beat for her own investigative blog — which makes her a joke among the old-timers in the newsroom.
Though the fictional newspaper is meant to represent “a very prestigious nationally read newspaper in Washington” (our ears are burning!), the scenes were filmed in the Baltimore Sun newsroom. Willimon, who worked on several presidential campaigns, said the producers wanted everything to be as authentic as possible. When it came to details of political life, that meant calling in a few favors — including asking such Washington media types as George Stephanopoulos and John King to play themselves in the show. Willimon said he was shocked at how many anchors excitedly agreed to participate.
The Sun newsroom was one of the many Maryland spots that the production crew used to its advantage. Willimon said they were eager to film near Baltimore, as quite a few neighborhoods have a striking resemblance to Washington, and it was close enough to film in the District when needed. The show offers sweeping views of the Capitol, the monuments and the Kennedy Center, and it even features a scene in the Metro. And Maryland’s “terrific” tax incentives for filmmakers didn’t hurt, Willimon added.