Beau Willimon is a powder keg of clean-cut realism, childlike curiosity and sharp wit. During his Bafta speech, Willimon covers political writing, research in everyday life and the importance of finding your characters’ inmost needs.
“I don’t think writing is a choice. It’s not a career. It’s something that’s born of necessity.
If I didn’t write, I’d go bonkers.”
A question commonly thrown at screenwriters is the big and heavy why. Why does one write? Beau Willimon (House of Cards, Farragut North) responds passionately. An expressive speaker, Willimon doesn’t cower from telling the brutal truth about life within his profession.
“There’s a lot about writing that’s not very pretty. In fact, if you can do anything else, you probably should. It’s life that’s full with rejection and humiliation, self-loathing and self-doubt.”
Writing for the screen isn’t your typical nine-to-five work. It doesn’t ensure financial security, healthy routines or social acceptance. In spite of this, Beau Willimon has evidently “chosen” this profession, and agrees that some not only should, but must write.
“If you need to grab at the cosmic and without it you have no bearing, then it’s the life for you and those are the things you need to endure.”
What Willimon keeps coming back to is that writing is not a “want”, but rather a “have to”. Spectacular artists are invariably driven by a certain urge.
Those who need to express something through a particular art-form, whether it’s music or writing, painting or cooking, are the ones who’re born artists. Knowing that your art may kill you, but having to practice it anyway because if you don’t, you’re already gone.
“Why do you breath? Because the air is your sustenance, and without it, you die.”
Straying from your comfort zone
If you’ve entered the world of writing, and decided to put your feelings on a page for the world to see, you’re already brave. This might be enough to write a decent script or two.
But if you wish to further your development, consider challenging your courage. Enter the land of “what the fuck am I doing” and you might just have a chance of arriving at “holy shit, I did it!”
If you can discipline yourself to do this, you’re not just brave, you’re commendable. I applaud you.
“I felt like I needed to do something to make myself feel uncomfortable, to fail, to go into a zone of complete mystery and a place where I was completely ill-equipped”…”I’ll write a play, because I don’t know how to do that.”
Human beings, at their essence, are remarkable. We continuously aim higher and strive further than our predecessors. It’s in our nature to explore, challenge and cognitively learn from those who came before us.
Even so, lots of silent bystanders sheepishly allow themselves to be herded through life. If you wish to be one of them, by all means, carry on.
My guess is, you don’t.
Consider Beau Willimon’s words, and dare do something only because you don’t know how. It will be difficult, and you’ll probably fail. But you’ll certainly grow.
On the subject of hiring fellow writers for House of Cards, Willimon says:
“The only thing I was interested in when hiring my writers was not whether they knew anything about politics or not, but if I read something of theirs; a line, a scene, some image, that I never in a million years could have thought of or come up with myself.”
To develop, let yourself be judged by those who can give you the advice you could never give yourself. Showing your work only to fans, might give you what you want, but won’t tell you what you need to hear.
The confidence boost from positive feedback has value, but at its own, it can make you ignorant of your own issues. These may side-tackle you later on if you’re not aware of them.
Work alongside people who challenge you and whom you, in turn, challenge to be better.
Beau Willimon on writing politically
“I think all writing is political, because we all come to the table with a believe-system, and politics is infused in your writing whether you like it or not.”
How we portray (or don’t portray) certain things and people, even without political intent, reflect our personal view-point.
A film isn’t, say, racist, simply because it has an all white cast. But when the industry continuously chooses not to portray coloured people (at least not often or in a heroic context), it becomes an issue.
Take a moment to consider not only what you write, but what you continuously don’t write. Further reflect on whether this is a conscious decision or if you’re excluding something out of pure habit.
Avoid excessive dialogue
There’s this delusional idea that a screenwriter’s job is writing lines.
Constructing story, building worlds and developing character psychologies is our responsibility. Great dialogue is vital, but it’s equally important to convey what’s not being said.
“There’s so much storytelling you can do without dialogue. Because, if you get close on a person’s hands, that sometimes can say much more than the best monologue ever written.”
Talking represents a tiny percentage of human communication, leaving the remaining percent to body-language and other non-verbal expression.
Consider a character is about to present a speech. He’s sweating, twisting his hands, pacing back and forth. There’s no need for this guy to say “I’m so nervous.” We get that.
Same rule applies when presenting the morals of a character. Never have a villain telling us he/she’s a badass. Show what the person does that makes him/her bad.
Writing for TV
Beau Willimon has the experience of having written for both film and television and explains some major differences between the two crafts.
”A movie is much more like a short story or a poem”…”It has to resolve itself within 90-120 minutes, and with a television show, it doesn’t.”…”If you really take your time with storytelling, you can dive into your characters in ways that are impossible to do in film, or even a stage play, because you have the time to do it.”
This is why television shows are so intriguing, for writers as well as audience. The characters develop alongside you, at a pace similar to yours. This allows you to connect with them on a personal level.
Another capturing aspect of television, is the dreaded cliffhanger. Since there’s a continuation ahead, a TV episode doesn’t need to resolve all issues and reach a final goal.
”It can actually end in a place of total lack of resolution, but with the feeling that you’re heading somewhere.”
Haven’t you ever thought you’ve arrived at the end of an episode, when – BAM – an unexpected plot-twist? Your heart is racing, and then… end-credits.
This creates an urge within you to watch another episode. You need to find out what happens. That urge is a brilliant tool for us writers, and a dangerous hook for our audiences. Make ’em sweat.
Beau Willimon on writing female characters
“I really am against the notion that a female writer should write the female characters and the male writers write the male characters. I mean, what is writing if not putting yourself in other people’s shoes?”
If we could only write characters similar to ourselves, every screenplay out there would be a dud. There would be no conflict, and nothing of interest.
Whether your character is male or female, black or white, rich or poor, is such a small part of the actual character. That’s just the physical stuff. How does the character act under pressure? What does your character fear? These are the types of questions you need to ask.
“We are all limited by our own experiences. There are certain things I will never be able to access because of things that are genetic, things that are in my up-bringing, things that are cultural”…”But I think writing is an attempt to acknowledge those and sometimes get beyond them and find the universal in all our experiences.”
Now, this is crucial. Whether you’re writing a dark drama or an animated comedy, finding the universal in our experiences is key to creating emotion.
People work differently, and that plays an important part in how you’re writing your characters. But there are certain emotions that we all experience, no matter who or where we are.
A white female lawyer in America can experience humiliation, loneliness or joy, just as well as a black male hunter in Africa. The fact that we are different does in no way eliminate our ability to understand each another.
Gender, ethnicity and status put aside, try to understand the inner workings of a human mind.
“I take a little bit of issue with strong female characters. Why do you have to put the word “strong” in front of it? There are strong male characters, and weak male characters. There are strong female characters, and weak female characters. There are strong and weak trans characters. I mean, they’re human characters.”
Finding story in everyday life
“You can see something on a sidewalk, like a man screaming. A homeless man screaming on a sidewalk; that’s research. If you absorb it.”
Being observant is a strong attribute for any writer. If you can see plot, character and conflict in everyday situations, your stories will find you.
Take every opportunity to absorb what’s already around you. Listen in on conversations on the subway. Notice how different people walk differently. What do people do when they think nobody’s watching?
It’s in your job description to be a little creepy and intrusive. Go right ahead.
Many writers, especially up-and-coming ones, have day jobs. This can take up a lot of precious writing time. So use it as best you can. Whatever you do, there are probably people around you. Observe them.
Even when you’re not writing, be a writer.
“Just think of what you do when you’re alone. Like, take an hour, in your house, when you’re alone, and just really objectively look at what you do. You do some really weird shit.”
You’re never as genuine as when you’re by yourself. Just like you, your characters will have things they do when nobody’s around.
As a writer, you often try to find those special moments that define your characters. It’s just as important to find the ordinary moments. Or, should I say, the moments that are ordinary for that character, but may seem peculiar or interesting to us.
Any person, or character, can enter a house and proceed to the kitchen. But if someone, for example, has to stop by every mirror on the way to observe his/her own reflection, that says something about the character.
“I believe character is behaviour. That’s it.”…”Ultimately, all their character is, is what they do. Because that’s all we see.”
Finding you character’s needs
Just as Beau Willimon spoke of his own need to write, he similarly speaks of needs within his characters.
“If you know what they need, they don’t need to know necessarily, but if you know what they need, then all their behaviour will be dictated by that. And then their needs will conflict with other people’s needs, and that’s where you get the conflict of drama.”
One major difference between a need and a want is that people often are oblivious to their needs. Not knowing ones need is often a cause of being way too focused on the want (capitalism in a nutshell).
Even people who are aware of their needs can, out of laziness or fear, ignore to acknowledge them. It’s tough, because it means revealing your flaws, which is sensitive. However, doing so will most likely lead you to a more truthful existence.
When it comes down to your characters, try to separate the need from the want, and it will help you figure out which behaviour is suitable for which person in which situation.
“They’re not plot-driven. It’s not like, “this person needs to get a new job”- that’s plot. A need is, “this person needs respect”, “This person needs love”, “This person needs validation”, “this person needs warmth”.”
On getting shit done
“The only real advice I can give is to do the work.”
A seemingly obvious statement, which we must repeatedly remind ourselves of.
We all have heaps of un-finished work. No matter how great, nobody outside your private circle will consider reading it, unless you’ve actually reached “fade out”.
“The only thing you can do, that is completely within your control and that will ultimately make you successful – at least financially or whatever – is having the pages and putting in the time.”
It’s not every day that you’re going to wake up and want to write. Inspiration seldom strikes when you wish it to. Beau Willimon has a rather original approach to self-motivation.
“My first thought every day, like my mantra, as soon as I have a conscious thought, is “I will die”. Which sounds morbid, but it’s not. To me, it’s completely liberating, because it can’t get worse from there. You have that thought, and you go “Let’s get to work.””
What you do with your time is what will be remembered of you. If you don’t even take a shot at being extraordinary, how are you ever going to be brilliant?
You have a limited time to show what you wish to be seen, and say what you long to tell. Better get crackin’.
So what’s next for Beau Willimon?
“I have some very concrete thoughts about that, and I have some really big and vague thoughts about that, and I’m not going to share those with you. That’s for me.”
A brave and wise response, from a brave and wise man. Willimon chooses not to stain his future stories with expectations until he’s ready to tell them and they’re ready to be told. All we can do, is wait impatiently.
Beau Willimon does, however, have one goal he’s willing to share with us. One we should all share with him if we ever want to reach places previously undiscovered.
“Ultimately, all I want to do, is figure out the secrets of the universe.”
Camilla Beskow is a screenwriter, and former student at the Gotland based film school Storyutbildningen. Among her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth and Good Will Hunting.