House of Cards showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese

By Iain Blair

Since it first premiered back in 2013, Netflix’s oh-so-timely political thriller House of Cards has been a big hit, delivering provocative, twisty plot lines peppered with surprises and shocks. It has also racked up dozens of awards, including 33 Primetime Emmys and fistfuls of Golden Globes along the way. But the biggest shocker of all was probably the real-life firing of star Kevin Spacey last year by Netflix, following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Writer Iain Blair (left) with Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese.

With Spacey — and power-hungry Frank Underwood — suddenly MIA, the upside is that girls now rule the world. This is great news for Robin Wright fans as the Golden Globe-winner and Emmy-nominee returns as President of the United States in Season 6, the final season of the series, which is now streaming on Netflix.

The show has added Oscar-nominees Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear to the cast, in addition to American Horror Story-alum Cody Fern. They join existing players Michael Kelly, Jayne Atkinson, Patricia Clarkson, Constance Zimmer, Derek Cecil, Campbell Scott and Boris McGiver.

Behind the scenes, Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese continue as showrunners for Season 6, and serve as executive producers along with Robin Wright, David Fincher, Joshua Donen, Dana Brunetti, Eric Roth, Michael Dobbs and Andrew Davies. Created for television by Beau Willimon, House of Cards is produced by Donen/Fincher/Roth and Trigger Street Productions, in association with Media Rights Capital for Netflix.

I recently spoke with Gibson and Pugliese about making the show and awards season.

When Kevin Spacey was fired, and you lost the show’s star, did you consider ending the series early?
Frank Pugliese: Yes, it was a huge thing, a big shock, and I think it had to be considered.

Melissa James Gibson: Everything was on the table as we wanted to make sure our way forward was the right one. We needed to regroup and carefully go through every possibility.

Pugliese: But pretty quickly we figured out that the best response was to try and tell the story without Francis on screen. So within a day or so, we were back at work, writing out ideas and discussing how to do it.

What can you tell us about the new season? Robin has said that it’ll be “a real shocker.”
Pugliese: Our hope is that it’s shocking but also feels inevitable at the same time, and we’re trying our best to give the show its most satisfying ending that has integrity and also serves a story that’s been told over many years.

Gibson: We tried to forge a brave way forward that would also be a reckoning for all of the characters We both knew that this season “reckoning” would be a key word, along with “complicity.”

Robin’s directed quite a few episodes over the years. Is it true she also directed the big finale?
Pugliese: Yes, and it seemed so appropriate. Remember, Season 5 ended with her saying, “My turn,” so even as we began exploring what to do this season, it seemed unacceptable to not have that examined and dramatized. It just seemed right that she would direct the last one, and the last scene of the whole story was actually done on the last day of shooting. So her as the lead and also directing just seemed right.

Gibson: It kind of all led up to that, and the focus was always going to be on her in Season 6.

Pugliese: So much had been set up at the end of the last season, and we’d talked so much during the planning of that season about how Season 6 would go, and about who really owns the White House. Pile on the power. And Francis says he’ll own the White House by owning her. No matter what, it was going to be all about her and the powers that be trying to own her — one of them being her husband.

Maybe it’s a very prescient arc, and America will elect a woman president next?
Gibson: Wouldn’t that be nice!

Do you like being a showrunners?
Gibson: We both love it. We came on as writers on Season 3 when Beau hired us, worked as writers on Season 4, and then began showrunning last season.

Pugliese: I really like it.

Gibson: It’s because I feel that a lot of the challenges Claire faces this season are the same ones you face as a showrunner (laughs). When you’re making decisions and setting priorities it says a lot about what you value.

What are the big challenges of showrunning?
Gibson: I’d say establishing all the priorities, both micro and macro.

Pugliese: We work very closely, and it probably goes back to our days in theater, but for me it’s establishing a collective communal work atmosphere. Your hope is that you can delegate a lot of the responsibility and then do the best work possible. If you can do that successfully, then the show’s successful. Helping establish all that really helped us with the new season, because in dealing with [the Spacey firing] we all felt that the best way to deal with it was to get to work and focus on telling the best story we could. Everyone agreed on that.

Where do you post?
Pugliese: We shoot in Baltimore, but all the post is done here in LA, and we do remote sessions using Pix.

Is that weird?
Pugliese: It’s weird until it’s not weird. If you think about it, it is, but you quickly get used to it and we can go over sequences in great detail.

Do you like the post process?
Gibson: We love it. It’s the third part of the entire storytelling, and I’ve learned so much dealing with post and editing and visual effects and so on. Our post supervisor, Hameed Shaukat, has been with the show since the very start.

You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
Gibson: We have about four at any one time, and many have been with the show for years, and they’ll hop-scotch around. We give notes, they’ll re-cut stuff, and we’ll have robust conversations about scenes and the tone and pacing and so on.

Pugliese: Some days we’ll get on the phone right away and they’ll cut some things to see if they’re even working or not. There’s a lot of back and forth.

You have a big cast and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
Gibson: It’s always about trying to balance the various competing elements and characters, and then this season we have a number of new characters and cast members, like Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear, so it’s all about calibration and the rhythm.

Pugliese: We work really hard to get the scripts in the best place possible, and we have really intensive and extensive tonal meetings where we go line by line and explain the intent to everyone involved. So if everyone’s on the same page when it comes to tone and intent, then they can go off and just do their jobs. That means less work for us, so we can then just focus on the overall storyline.

Gibson: It helps that there was a rigorous vocabulary established right at the start by David Fincher, so we had a great template to follow.

Pugliese: It also helped us in knowing when it was time to move away from that.

This show has a great score and great sound design. Talk about the importance of sound and music.
Gibson: It’s a vital part, and like Hameed, composer Jeff Beal has been with the show since day one, and he wrote that famous theme. He knows exactly what is needed. We also have a great sound team, with guys like supervising sound editor Jeremy Molod and sound designer Ren Klyce, who’ve also been there since day one. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine by now.

How important are awards to a show like this?
Pugliese: I get so excited when I see people in the show get recognized by their peers. Everyone works so hard.

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?
Gibson: It’s so good that people are now talking openly about the problems, and I think the industry as a whole is trying to make adjustments and make sure there are more women in the room, more people of color. But it’s not just that it’s the right thing to do ethically — it’s also about being good for the work. It needs to change.

Pugliese: Yes, it does need to change, and a correction is long overdue.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

 


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