Seven Questions for Keith Huff, One of the Minds Behind ‘House of Cards’

The playwright launched his career in Chicago, and now he’s writing for the addictive White House Netflix drama. Here’s a preview of what he plans to do next.

Keith Huff has the kind of career arc that writers dream about. He went from working at a medical journal by day and penning plays by night (for about 20 years, so stick with it, y’all!). Then, one of his moonlighting efforts, A Steady Rain, went to Broadway, starring Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. A six-figure screenplay option for that play followed, as well as offers to write for Mad Men, and later, among other gigs, helping develop Netflix’s first original series, House of Cards.

While many of us are devouring the latter—a sexy White House drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright—Huff has moved on to other things, including developing pilots of his play The Detective’s Wife and collaborating on projects with Brad Pitt and Steven Spielberg. He’s also returning to Chicago in June, to debut his play Big Lake, Big City (directed by David Schwimmer) at the Lookingglass Theatre.

But, let’s get back to House of Cards for a minute. . .

 

You are credited as a producer on the show. It seems like that word is thrown around quite a bit in Hollywood. What exactly does it mean, in your case?

On House of Cards, I was a writing producer. This means I was in the writers’ room from Day 1 breaking storylines, seasonal arcs, creating characters, writing outlines with the other writers [including Rick Cleveland, another Chicago theater scene grad]. We create the outlines for our assigned episodes (in my case, chapter three and chapter 11). Once the outlines are approved (usually after bringing them back to the writers’ room where they are critiqued, torn apart, and put back together again), the writer leaves the writers’ room for a week to actually write the first draft. Then that gets critiqued, torn apart, put back together again.  

Does a panel of Washington insiders help you pepper your plots with realistic details?

Storylines and characters are plucked from the writers’ combined resources: the traditional mixed bag of real-life experience, research, and pure imagination. Jay Carson was our political consultant on the show for season one. He was Hilary Clinton’s press secretary during her presidential primary campaign. We would run storylines past Jay and he would tell us if they were authentic or too far-fetched. The fact that nothing we came up with was too far-fetched in his eyes tells you something about the state of affairs in our nation’s capital. The writers also took a long field trip to D.C., where we were fortunate enough to meet with many power brokers, most of whom were extraordinarily generous about sharing their insights and stories.

Is accuracy important, finally?

Accuracy is always important. What really matters, though, is authenticity. If audiences feel you’ve “jumped the shark,” they stop watching.

What does writing for TV allow you that writing a play doesn’t? That said, what do you miss about playwriting when you are working on TV? 

TV allows a writer to write as part of a team. Playwriting is solitary confinement with a pen or computer. If the TV writing team is good— really a team—then the team can come up with scripts that are truly better than any one person could come up with on his or her own. I know this sounds wildly idealistic, but then I’ve only been working in television for three years now. Ask me again in a few years and maybe I’ll be singing a different tune.

With House of Cards, we knew we were writing for Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and that David Fincher would be directing. Knowing specifically who you are writing for is a privilege you don’t often get in playwriting. Additionally, you get instant feedback on pitched ideas in a TV writers’ room. You rarely get feedback on a play until you have a full draft. Ironically, when I write for television, I miss working alone. When I write plays, I miss working as a team. 

Is House of Cards season two in the works already? Anything you can share?

Yes, it is being written now. But as with most of the season one writers, I chose not to return for season two. I have quite a few new projects in development that I wanted to give my full attention. Although I do know a few surprises that are in store for season two, I am not at liberty to share them. I took the Fincher-Spacey oath of silence.

What do you think of the Netflix model of releasing all the episodes at once? Is that the way you watch TV? Are there any particular shows you are obsessed with?

My wife and I cut the cable cord a few years ago, so I think it’s great. We basically watch TV on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus. We use Apple TV and Roku. We still have access to network television, of course, but even then I tend to wait until entire seasons of shows are available to watch. For example, I’m finally watching Num3ers on NetFlix, and that was canceled a while ago. I watched The Wire years after it was off the air—and, because it’s so great, I watched it marathon-style. I remember watching season four (13 hours) in a single day. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, given everyone’s busy schedules and budget limitations, that consumers should be listened to when they say “I want to watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it.”  I’m obsessed with Breaking Bad—a truly great show.

Can you share what you’ve got in store for us with Big Lake Big City, coming to Lookingglass Theatre on June 19

It tells several interweaving stories, all set in Chicago. It moves quickly. The action begins in close-up—we experience the stories of dozens of characters, none of which connect at first. But as the play progresses, the point of the view of the audience broadens and, eventually, everything coincides with the solution of a mystery. The Lookingglass production will feature an amazing cast of ten actors playing more than 20 roles. David Schwimmer, who is directing, helmed two workshops of the project over the past year and the result, given his unique comic and dramatic sensibilities, promises to be a lot of fun.

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