Q&A: Beau Willimon

Playwright Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North is currently making a splash at the Atlantic Theatre Company off-Broadway.

The play focuses on an up-and-coming press secretary whose political ambitions disintegrate after a series of personal and political blunders during an Iowa caucus campaign.
Willimon took some time out of his busy schedule – he’s currently at work on two other commissions – to answer some questions for musicOMH’s Richard Patterson.

Farragut North was previously announced for a Broadway run, to be helmed by Mike Nichols and possibly star Jake Gyllenhaal. What happened between that announcement and now, and are you happy with how the production has ultimately turned out?

I’m absolutely thrilled with how the production has turned out. Doug Hughes is one of the best directors in America and he assembled an incredible cast. And the Atlantic Theater has been one of my favorite theaters in New York since I moved here 13 years ago. Neil Pepe and Christian Parker (the Artistic Director and Associate Artistic Director of the Atlantic respectively) and the entire Atlantic staff have been so supportive of the play from day one. My goal all along was always to put up the best possible production at the best possible theater, and I think we’ve achieved that.

You’ve worked on several political campaigns. How much of this play draws on your actual experiences and how much of it is pure fiction?

All of the characters and events are entirely fictional. But I did draw loosely from my various experiences working on campaigns in order to create what (I hope) is an authentic political world. Some of those experiences include Chuck Schumer’s 1998 Senate campaign, Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, Bill Bradley’s 2000 Presidential campaign and Howard Dean’s 2004 Presidential campaign. Farragut North is not a reflection of any of those campaigns in particular, but it does conjure the high-stakes, adrenalin-filled atmosphere I experienced while working on them.

In the way the play is constructed, there are elements of Greek tragedy in how hubris ultimately brings Stephen, the protagonist in Farrgut, down. Is this something that came to the play naturally, or did you look to any other playwrights for inspiration?

To my understanding, the classic definition of a Greek tragedy is a play in which a hero is undone by his or her own ignorance, flaws or mistakes over the course of 24 hours. That’s essentially what happens in Farragut North, but I can’t say that I had the classic definition of tragedy in mind when I wrote the play. It just sort of came out that way. Among some of the playwrights I most admire (and there is nothing unique about this list) are Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett, Albee, Pinter and Mamet – and they all employ classic elements of tragedy to some degree. To the extent that all of those writers have had a great impact on me – along with the Greek masters – they’ve certainly influenced Farragut North and serve as an inspiration to all the plays I write.

The production of this play ends up being very timely, considering the recent election. Do you hope audiences will draw parallels with this current election, or do you hope they’ll view the play as altogether separate?

The subject of the play is not politics. The subjects are power, ambition and hubris – and those are relevant not just in the political world, but also on Wall Street, in Hollywood, in any world where power dynamics are at play, even within the microcosm of a family. So my hope is that the play would be just as meaningful outside of an election year as during one. Given the fact that the current production has taken place during one of the most historic elections in history, parallels are inevitable. I neither encourage nor discourage these parallels. If they serve to heighten someone’s experience of the production that’s terrific, but they aren’t necessary in order to enjoy the play. And if they can serve to illuminate something about political process, that’s icing on the cake.

Do you still hold any political ambitions? Or are your sights set solely on writing now?

Politics was never a career for me. Writing has always been my vocation. When I’ve worked on campaigns it was because I had time on my hands and wanted to help a candidate I believed in get elected. But I never had any aspirations to work full-time in the political world, and I still don’t. It’s an exciting world, and sometimes rewarding, but working in the theatre has always been the most exciting and personally rewarding life for me.

How important is it that this play is set in Iowa during the primaries and not in Washington, D.C. in the heart of the nitty-gritty of politics?

Well one of the many things the recent presidential election proved is that the nitty-gritty of politics is not in Washington but in the small towns and cities where primaries are fought and swing states are won. Iowa is particularly important for this play because it’s the first stop for anyone with dreams of working in the White House.

Paul Zara ends up being an unlikely mentor for Stephen after he fires him from his current campaign, providing him with some sagely advice. Are there any bits of advice you’ve received in your life, as a writer or in politics, that have stuck with you?

I suppose the most important thing I’ve learned over the years is that no matter what your goals in life are, you can never achieve them alone. None of us live in a void, and none of us can accomplish anything meaningful without the help of others. So you must seek out the advice, support and love of your family, friends and peers, and you must reciprocate with all the support and love you can muster.

You’ve written eight previous full-length plays, yet the name “Beau Willimon” isn’t a household name. How much do you write out of a sense of ambition and how much do you write for your own sense of fulfillment?

Anyone who writes purely out of ambition is doomed to a very unhappy life, and most probably doomed to very bad writing. It’s a tough racket and requires a great deal of discipline and passion – not just to overcome the myriad of professional obstacles, but also the personal obstacles of self-doubt and apathy. And all the discipline and passion in the world still doesn’t guarantee professional success. But that’s okay, because self-fulfillment is the true reward. It’s what keeps you sane and encourages you to press on. It’s what makes you a better writer. And no one can take it from you.

I’d heard the film rights to Farragut North had been bought by George Clooney’s production company. Are you still attached to that project, and what should audiences expect so see changed in the process of transferring the stage property to film?

The film rights were actually optioned by Warner Brothers, not Smokehouse Productions (Clooney’s company). Warner Brothers brought on Smokehouse and Appian Way (Leonardo DiCaprio’s company) as producers. When WB optioned the rights, they hired me to write the screenplay. I have since completed it. As for differences between the play and the film, audiences can expect to see more characters, more locations, and a broader story, but the core main characters will remain the same, as will the core trajectory of Stephen’s journey.

Are you working on anything new for theatre? Will you continue to write about politics? What should we expect to see from you in the future in terms of stage output?

Theatre is my first love and will always remain my top priority. While I’ve been fortunate enough to work in film, I’ll continue writing plays until I either die or my mind goes to mush, whichever comes first. Currently I’m working on two play commissions – one for Manhattan Theatre Club and one for the National Theatre of Great Britain. The MTC commission is about the world of championship chess – particularly human vs. computer players. The National Theatre commission is a play about the Byzantine Empress Theodora – a remarkable true story about a woman who clawed her way up from prostitution to becoming one of the most powerful women in all of Western history.

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