'House of Cards' Creator Beau Willimon on Making Power Struggles Cinematic
'Mary Queen of Scots,' directed by Josie Rourke and written by Beau Willimon, views a classic story through a 21st-century lens.
Power struggles are inherently interesting fodder for the screen. Few know this better than Beau Willimon. The House of Cards creator built his screenwriting career penning the intricate machinations of Machiavellian types. Now, he tackles one of history's most infamous feuds: between Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, of England. In an exceedingly rare occurrence in the history of the Western world, the queens ruled the twin kingdoms independently—that is, without a king. Respectively, they were subject to sexism and double standards from their subjects and their bevy of male counselors. Worse still, they had to navigate the pressures of the monarchy while embroiled in centuries-old political enmity between Scotland and England as well as religious violence between Catholics and Protestants. Mary complicated matters further by challenging Elizabeth's succession to the English throne.
Most accounts of this historical discord are told from the perspective of Elizabeth. Not Mary Queen of Scots. It is through Mary (Saoirse Ronan) that we view her rivalry with Elizabeth (Margot Robbie)—one that begins with earnest attempts at unity and ends with a public beheading.
“Ruling side by side, we must do so in harmony, not through a treaty drafted by men lesser than ourselves,” writes Mary to Elizabeth at the beginning of the film.
Eventually, isolation, increasing distrust, and the mounting pressure to produce an heir to the throne will drive them apart. “I am more man than woman now–the throne has made me so,” utters Elizabeth towards the end.
No Film School sat down with Willimon to discuss how he pens complex political narratives through the creation of vivid characters, why he chose he depart from the history books and exercise his creative license at the end of the film, and more.
No Film School: What was interesting, specifically, about Mary's story, given that it's often Elizabeth's story that's being told?
Beau Willimon: Well, what initially drew me into the project was a phone call from Josie Rourke, who's an old friend, someone I knew from the theater world. The two of us had wanted to work together for years. We always imagined that would be in the theater, but she had the opportunity to direct this film and gave me a call and asked if I'd be interested in collaborating with her. Knowing that Saoirse was gonna play Mary and that Josie was gonna direct and being a big history buff myself, it was a no-brainer. It's not often you get to work with a stellar team like that on such a well-known and dramatic story. It was an enthusiastic yes from the get-go.
"While a fair number of things I've written about take place with a political backdrop, I don't actually start ever with the politics. I start with the characters."
Willimon: In terms of Mary's story itself, the other thing that excited me about it is right away Josie said, "I want to approach this story in a way that feels fresh and poignant to the here and now, not just another retelling. What can it reveal to us about 2018?" At the heart of that was investigating the dynamics between Mary and Elizabeth and overturning a lot of their stereotypes that have been handed down over centuries. Mary's often been portrayed as an over-emotional, reckless, naïve young woman, and Elizabeth has often been portrayed as a cold and heartless, calculated, political machine. In fact, at that time, early in both of their reigns, the opposite was true of both of them. Mary was actually quite politically savvy and deliberate in many ways, a more capable leader than Elizabeth was. Early in her reign, Elizabeth was only in her late 20s, so in the portion of the story we're telling, she was quite insecure, indecisive, and still figuring out how to be a queen.
"They just couldn't get past the starting line of a woman being in power."
We were really interested in not only overturning those stereotypes, but also asking, "What do they reveal about what it meant for these two women to be in power?" At that time, it was extraordinarily rare for women to be ruling monarchs. They were the only two people that could understand what it was like to be in the other person's shoes. Their instincts were to actually find ways to amicably coexist— not to be antagonistic to one another, which is how they've often been portrayed. Really, it was the political tectonic forces of the day that forced them to be antagonistic.
The pressures they were under....the threats they were facing from their own inner circles, the double standards—that was placed on all their decisions. Even down to their appearance. These are all things that women in power unfortunately in many ways are still contending with, 450 years later. It was really important to Josie and certainly to me to make sure that we were paying a lot of attention to that as we conceived of the story.
NFS: Some of the most interesting tension in the film comes into play in the ways in which the women's femininity comes into direct opposition for their quest for power. How did you build that into the script itself?
Willimon: Well, it's interesting because certainly their contemporaries—meaning both the nobility and commoners—often reduced Mary and Elizabeth to their gender. They just couldn't get past the starting line of a woman being in power.
"It was really important to dramatize the tension between their public and private lives—to see the masks that they had to put on in order to rule, and at the same time...make them accessible to us in 2018."
Mary and Elizabeth were both contending with that reduction of themselves in the public eye, but at the same time, were young human beings in their teens and 20s, trying to figure out life and love and lust and joy and loss and trust and betrayal. So, we felt it was really important to dramatize the tension between their public and private lives—to see the masks that they had to put on by necessity in order to rule, and at the same time have access to very intimate moments that make them accessible to us in 2018 in very universal ways.
Whether that was a love scene between Mary and Darney—which I thought Josie filmed in a really extraordinary way, to put it truly in Mary's point of view—or even Mary's menstruation, where we're not trying to reduce Mary to the female body, but don't want to deny it, either. It gives us an opportunity to see these women who not only have to bear the burden of ruling nations, but also had to exist as regular human beings.
I think that finding that balance was something that Josie and I talked quite a bit about, and she did a wonderful job in giving us access to both of their points of view to look at them through the large lens and the small lens, and she was instrumental in working with me and helping guide me through what she felt was the best approach to that.
NFS: Period pieces like this are often very visual, and that is often reflected in the script. When you were putting this pen to paper, so to speak, did you account for the film's visual weight?
Willimon: Quite a bit. I've worked on the film/TV side for eight years or so, and one of the primary differences of course between stage and screen is that the screen avails itself to visual storytelling in a way that the stage can't. You have closeups, you can change the angles within a scene, you can lead the eye where you want it to go.
I knew right away that there were going be aspects of the story that I felt could be told better through visuals and not necessarily through dialogue. One example of that is the scene where Elizabeth sees a mare with a baby, and the head of her council, Lord Cecil, is trying to advise her on political matters, and she sort of dismisses him and wants a moment alone. We see her bunch up the hem of her dress so that the shadow on the ground looks like a pregnant belly. Here, I wanted to dramatize her contending with the possibility— or impossibility, rather—of motherhood. We're able to see on her face longing and loss of knowing that [this reality] may never be. Then, she smooths the dress so the belly is gone.
"When [visuals] are done right, they can be quite magical and can say much more than any dialogue can."
That's the sort of thing you can do in film. When it's done right, I think can be quite magical and can say much more than any dialogue can, especially when the character doesn't have the liberty to even speak about [the topic]. This is not something that Elizabeth really could confide in others about, so how do you dramatize that visual moment? That's where the visual really can come into play.
Josie, as a theater director, is very visually minded. If you've seen any of her stage productions, a great amount of care is put into the visual theatricality. Here, she was taking the visual skills that she's applied to the stage and just rewiring them for cinema.
NFS: Where did you take your creative liberties in terms of departing from history books? Were there reasons for these decisions?
Willimon: There was really only one main place that we significantly departed from the historical record, and that's in the meeting between Elizabeth and Mary in the washhouse towards the end of the film. In real life, they never met in person. Their entire relationship was through correspondence, either through letters or through emissaries.
"There's historical truth, and then sometimes there's an essential narrative truth that has to be accomplished in another way."
We talked to John Guy [the author of the book on which this film is based] quite a bit. Josie and I both felt that it was really important, in order to dramatize the essential truth of the dynamic between the two women, to be able to put them face to face. There's historical truth, where you can go by the letter of history down to the very last detail, and then sometimes there's an essential narrative truth that has to be accomplished in another way.
We felt that scene was really important. Also, just from an audience expectation standpoint, to have these two extraordinary actresses in the same movie and not ever let them share the same screen would feel sort of counter to the narrative expectations that an audience has. We knew full well what we were doing in breaking the rules there, but we felt that we could access the emotional truth of these characters more accurately with that scene than by leaving it out. We felt in that one case, that the narrative trajectory demanded something other than what the history books show. That's the reason we made the choice we did.
Everything else is pretty damn accurate, and John Guy was extremely helpful in going through scene by scene with me and making sure that anything that felt a little off or anachronistic, we corrected.
NFS: Obviously, you're no stranger to writing about power dynamics, given your experience with House of Cards. Is there anything that you took from your process on House of Cards that you brought to this film to tackle another case of power dynamics?
Willimon: That's a great question. It's a difficult one to answer because I don't spend a lot of time mucking around in my own process or overanalyzing myself. That's partly out self-protection and maintenance of sanity. You can start to kind of become perched on your own shoulder if you're looking too much at your own process.
Every new thing you write is in part a product of everything that you've written before, and hopefully you're also breaking new ground and taking on challenges that you haven't confronted before so that you can continue to grow and evolve.
Willimon: I guess I can say this, though. While a fair number of things I've written about take place with a political backdrop, I don't actually start ever with the politics. I start with the characters. I start with them as humans, and I try to think about them in terms of where I connect with them. I've never been a president of the United States. I've never been a queen of Scotland. Where do I begin in understanding these people? It's the same universal thing that we all contend with. It is the same human emotions, the same strengths and frailties.
"If you approach the historical record with an open mind, Mary and Elizabeth will actually tell you their own stories."
Once I've begun to do that, then I ask myself, "How would they behave given this incredibly high stakes backdrop?" That amplifies all of the universal things that we all know and understand in ways where truly your life is on the line, and decisions and actions that you carry out could affect not just you and your own personal orbit, but an entire nation.
NFS: Did the historical records give you access to any clues as to inner states of these women?
Willimon: If you read Guy's book, you'll see that he is really digging deep into every bit of correspondence—everything we know about these two women. If you approach that with an open mind, Mary and Elizabeth will actually tell you their own stories.
What you have to battle against is the historical record, where so many people who have interpreted that history have prolonged these stereotypes about these two women. If you're willing to eschew those and approach the historical record as though you're hearing about this story for the very first time, it's quite revelatory. [Mary and Elizabeth] will tell you quite a bit in terms of what they were feeling and thinking.
A lot of their letters were written in a language that's a bit more stilted and gilded compared to our contemporary diction, but that's just the nature of the way people spoke and wrote at the time. If you really sort of absorb that and read between the lines, a lot of the emotion is there.