10 things we learned from the House of Cards director’s commentary
Ivan Radford | On 05, Jan 2014Reading time: 7 mins
House of Cards Season 1 now has a director’s commentary available exclusively on Netflix. Is it just a gimmick to promote Season 2? Are DVD buyers missing out? We tuned into the optional audio track for Episodes 1 and 2 of the Netflix Original show, aka. the ones directed by David Fincher, to found out. Because if anyone’s going to give good chatter, it’s the man who made The Social Network. (If you’ve seen digital vs film documentary Side by Side, you’ll already know how in-depth his comments can be.)
From how they made the House of Cards title sequence to their use of green screen without you realising, here are 10 things we learned from the House of Cards director’s commentary:
1. Kevin Spacey warmed up with Richard III
The original BBC show House of Cards is widely acknowledged to have been based, at least in part, on Shakespeare’s Richard III. Kevin Spacey was approached to play the part of Francis Underwood by David Fincher just before his run at London’s Old Vic playing the lead in the famous history play. Was the delay a problem? No, in fact, Fincher and showrunner Beau Willimon agreed it would be a good rehearsal for the role.
2. House of Cards was mostly shot in Baltimore
Only two days of House of Cards were shot in DC. The rest? Baltimore. Mostly for financial reasons, but helped by the fact that it was such a short drive from Washington anyway. They shot a lot of cafe scenes in the same location used by The Wire. “We helped to refurb a cafe before shooting in it,” explains David, “and everyone else said ‘Yeah, on The Wire we filmed here three times a week’.”
All the Washington Herald scenes, meanwhile, were shot at the Baltimore Sun, whose offices were left empty after the paper relocated to a new building.)
3. House of Cards is not funded by Apple
There may be iMacs and iPhones everywhere, but House of Cards is not funded by Apple. “It always cracks me up when people infer [that],” says Fincher, “but I wish we got loads of financing from Apple! We didn’t!”
Kevin Spacey, he points out, has a Blackberry, because that is the kind of professional phone people at the Capitol would have. The rest is all based on photo research of offices, which they used to make the sets as realistic as possible.
“Every computer in [Underwood’s] office is a Mac… then you look down the hallway and all of them are Dell… It’s this thing where we shot an enormous amount of photo evidence… the kind of photos in the main offices… it made it easier to say ‘make a desk look like this’.”
As for anyone who told him they “really want Kevin to have an iPhone”, his response was simple: “Tell them Kevin strangles a dog in the opening scene.”
4. Francis Underwood is partly inspired by President Obama
“There’s a photo of Obama, I don’t know who he was with, and he’s on the steps of this great public building and there’s a woman passing by and both he and this other gentlemen are looking at this woman’s arse and that was our inspiration for how Zoe would end up in Francis’ life,” explains Fincher in Episode 1. That story is true – although Obama’s motivations in the photo have been given another less leery explanation. His companion is, perhaps inevitably, Nicolas Sarkozy.
It’s actually another President who provides most of the inspiration: 36th POTUS Lyndon B. Johnson, who succeeded after Kennedy’s assassination. He spent a lot of time towering over people.
“This idea of leaning over people is based on the handful of photographs we have littered around the office of LBJ invading people’s personal space…” says Fincher.
5. House of Cards uses some of same shot angles as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
“I got a lot of flack from people saying you’re repeating a lot of the same angles as The Social Network and Dragon Tattoo,” says Fincher. “My response was how the fuck else do you shoot somebody at a computer?”
6. Most scenes are shot with two cameras
To achieve the speaking-to-audience effect, most scenes were shot with two cameras, one positioned to the side of Kevin Spacey, or over his shoulder. “There is a ballet [to balancing attention between the two],” says Fincher, “it’s not as easy as Kevin looks.”
7. Green screens are used everywhere and you don’t even notice
It may not come as a surprise to those who have seen the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, but David Fincher used a lot of computer effects on House of Cards – a lot of it without anyone even realising.
The cars, for example, are all green screen.
“We could go out and shoot plates with the Red and would mount them on the sides of a mini-van and we would drive through downtown DC and then we would kind of catalogue those… backgrounds kind of blurring by and they would be turned into Quicktimes and we would take those Quicktimes and just project them through LED panels so the LED panels were on the soundstage against a green screen and we could do all of our driving stuff very, very quickly. We didn’t have to go out with a giant dog and pony show that’s normally associated with towing car footage.”
Other things that are green screen:
- Walker’s inauguration, which is overlaid against existing footage of crowds.
- Francis Underwood’s doorstep – after one location shot screwed up outside Underwood’s house, they filmed Zoe, Frank and his bodyguard later on green screen, then matted them into the shots from location.
- All the TV screens on Capitol Hill, so they could negotiate footage with CNN or CSPAN later.
- The opening credits (see number 9).
8. The prostitute Rachel was only meant to be in it for one scene
The prostitute Rachel Posner (played by Rachel Brosnahan) was only meant to be in the show for one scene. “We cast her not knowing that the prostitute would come back,” says Fincher. But after seeing what Rachel could do, Beau “wrote this big storyline for her and I remember reading this scripts for this Rachel character… and I said we don’t what she can do. But [Beau] was right…”
9. How they did the House of Cards title sequence
One of the most stunning things about House of Cards is its time-lapse title sequence. It was shot by an artist called Andrew Geraci, who they found on Vimeo.
“[Editor] Angus Wall, who was responsible for the title sequence, happened upon a Vimeo site that Andrew Geraci has of his time-lapse work and we went ‘Wow, this guy has a leg up and he knows exactly where everything is’. I met him in a train station and we told him what it is we wanted to do and he disappeared for a couple of months with a bunch of Canon 5Ds and came back with hours of time-lapse footage that we used.”
All that computer effects work, though, didn’t stop with the show itself: the title credits got the post-production treatment as well, just to set the tone of the show.
“The one thing that bothered me… I couldn’t put my finger on it… was that there were all these people in it,” says Fincher. “So we then had a group of dozens of artists paint out all the little people. It was all about the cars and edifices and the city of DC, but it wasn’t about the people.”
10. The on-screen text messages were not influenced by Sherlock
Watch BBC’s Sherlock reboot and then see House of Cards and you’ll notice one similarity: the use of text messages displayed on screen. But Fincher insists they weren’t influenced by the UK show’s signature visual style.
As a simple matter of practicality and pacing, “it couldn’t be cutting away constantly to people’s devices”, he says. Then someone else pointed out: “You know on Sherlock Holmes, they do that… And we said ‘God, we thought we were so smart’.”
That’s just 10 things from a whole host of behind-the-scenes nuggets revealed by David Fincher in the first two episodes of House of Cards. With another 11 chapters to go in Season 1, including commentaries by Glengarry Glen Ross’ James Foley, Parks and Recreation’s Charles McDougall, Homeland’s Carl Franklin, The Soprano’s Allen Coulter and Batman & Robin’s Joel Schumacher, you can expect to find out much, much more.