David Zurawik

Watching a Netflix 'House of Cards' get built at the Baltimore Sun

A few weeks ago, a group of actors dressed as reporters clustered near a cafeteria in The Baltimore Sun building. I had to take a second look to make sure they were actors and not visiting reporters or editors. But as I walked by, one asked me if I was in the upcoming scene.

"No, I live here," I said without thinking. "This is the real world for me."

Soundstages are nothing new to me. I've been working them for stories on how television shows are made since 1976 — from "M*A*S*H" in the old era of Hollywood network production, to East Coast cable series such as "VEEP" today.

But even after more than three decades of haunting such places, I have to admit the one built on the same floor as the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun for "House of Cards," the Netflix series starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Kate Mara, occasionally throws me a little.

And I don't even have access to it — yet.

Wednesday, when I walked up the front steps of The Sun building on Calvert Street, I saw big letters outside reading "The Washington Herald." That's the fictional paper in this version of "House of Cards." Of course, I could guess the reason for the new signage, but in this era of media tumult, I don't need any artificial change; there's plenty of the real stuff.

I share some of this because I am in a bit of an awkward place, with the producers renting space and buying some privacy to do their work on Sun property — while I push for any access and information I can get. That's my job. But I respect their jobs as well.

I also share my feelings in the name of transparency so that readers can fully judge my reporting on this $100 million series.

Just having that kind of price tag and executive producer David Fincher directing the first two episodes would attract major attention. But after visiting the main soundstages in Joppa in March with executive producers Beau Willimon and John Melfi, I admit to being impressed on several levels with what Netflix is doing here. That includes a rare guarantee of 26 episodes without a pilot and the way this production could revolutionize the TV business in terms of how shows come into viewers' homes. (It will be avalaible to stream exclusively on Netflix in 2013, according to the company.)

One aspect that also impresses me, which has not been widely reported, is how much this production is intended to differ from the 1990 BBC miniseries on which it is based. While it's been called a "remake" and "reboot," that's not what Willimon says has been written in the 13 scripts for the first season.

"I don't really see this as a remake," said Willmon, who also serves as the show's head screenwriter, as we toured the Harford County soundstages. "We're cherry-picking some great archetypes and a few plot points here and there. But for the most part, this is a reinvention. And you know what? 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is a great example that whenever David Fincher gets involved, it's a reinvention."

The 1990 miniseries starred Ian Richardson in a universally acclaimed performance as Francis Urquhart, chief whip of the Conservative Party. Feeling wronged by the new powers in Parliament after favors are dispensed following a general election, he schemes to bring down his enemies and advance to the highest realm. Near the heart of his story is a relationship with a young female reporter. The relationship has the blessing of his Lady Macbeth of a wife. It's fabulous.

In the new Netflix version, Spacey plays Francis J. Underwood, majority whip in the House of Representatives. After he's passed over for higher office, he schemes to bring down the president. Wright plays his wife, Claire, with Mara as the young reporter, Zoe Barnes.

"We're creating an entire world there, so you can imagine, anywhere anyone works, they're not just working in a place," said Willimon, whose last screenwriting effort, on George Clooney's "The Ides of March," earned an Oscar nomination. "They have people they work for, people who work for them. We have people who are on the ascent. We have people who are on the descent. So you'll see a lot of rungs and a lot of ladders in the newsroom."

Willimon described himself as a "huge fan" of the BBC version.

"But look, they had a grand total of 12 hours to work with," he said, referring to the total running time. "And we already know we have more than double that. And it's an open-ended series. If we do well, we want to go on to Year 3 and 4 and 5 — and Year 97. So in order to tell that much story, you have to bring whole new layers of complexity to the characters you've already got, and you have to introduce a lot of new ones."

And then, there are major matters of cultural and media change from the U.K. circa 1990 to 21st-century Washington.

"First of all, we're setting it in America, and that's not just a different government," Willimon said. "It's different in terms of language, sensibility and culture. And we updated it as well. So we're looking at 20-plus years later, and the way the media have changed is a huge difference. Take into account the Internet, social media, 24-hour news."

TV drama has changed radically since 1990 as well, in the aftermath of such productions as "The Sopranos" and "The Wire."

"I think over the past 20-plus years, television has matured," Willimon said. "It's become incredibly sophisticated in terms of storytelling. You've seen a lot of great shows from the mid-'90s onward. "Oz" [an HBO prison drama] is really the first one on pay cable. And from there, it's grown and expanded, and audiences expect a lot So, you have to play to their sophistication."

One storytelling technique from the original that Willimon says he will use involves having Underwood address the viewing audience directly from time to time. In Richardson's hands, it was a great delight as Urquhart let viewers in on his wicked plots.

"We're definitely going to have direct address, which is still rare to find," Willimon said. "You have voice-over from time to time in movies and TV shows, but I can't even think of an example [of direct address] in recent time."

And he believes Spacey is just the guy to do it.

"As you may know, Kevin Spacey for the last nine months has performed Richard III on a world tour," Willimon said. "I can't think of a better preparation than Richard III, because there's a lot of Richard III in Francis Underwood."

As I was playing back my recorded interview with Willimon, I stopped at that point and went across the street to get a coffee. When I came back up Calvert, crew members were preparing the front of The Sun building for more screen time by dragging off the metal news boxes that house The Sun and b, its weekly sister publication.

They were replaced by three freshly painted boxes bearing The Washington Herald inscription. And they housed "real" versions of the paper, with front pages showing through the plastic screen.

"Major snowstorm blankets most of northeast," one of the top stories said.

Hollywood comes to Calvert Street — and I live here. This is the real world for me.