House of Cards‘ delayed sixth and final season makes its Netflix debut on Nov. 2 (read our mixed review here), but the sprint to the finish line will be shorter than originally intended. The dismissal of leading man Kevin Spacey and resulting reconstruction of Season 6 led the streamer to scrap the handful of episodes already in the can while also reducing the new season’s episode count from 13 to just 8. But, as showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese tell TVLine, not all the pre-firing footage was lost.
In the following Q&A, the duo — who assumed control of House of Cards in Season 5 in the wake of series creator Beau Willimon’s exit — open up about the “mourning” period that took place in the wake of Spacey’s departure and share the big “discovery” they made about Robin Wright’s Claire in the midst of retooling the season.
TVLINE | What was the biggest challenge you faced as you rebuilt Season 6 from the ground up without Frank?
MELISSA JAMES GIBSON | Dealing with the fact that Francis would no longer be on screen, [while] still feeling his presence in story. Trying to figure out how to dramatize it, navigate it and not run away with it.
FRANK PUGLIESE | Francis’ absence creates an opening for all of these other characters to try and fill [his shoes] and possibly be [Claire]’s allies or rivals.
TVLINE | You had to scrap several episodes that had already been shot, as well as an entire season’s worth of pre-planned story. How painful was that?
GIBSON | It was a significant recalibration. Certainly there was a mourning period. But we had to respond to the given circumstances — in the [real] world but also the world of the show. We knew it was really important to not end the story without [a proper conclusion]. We were very committed to ending it organically and with integrity.
PUGLIESE | We had close to 11 episodes worked out and ready to go. It’s hard to lose that. But the only response you can have is to be creative and tell the best story possible. So those 11 episodes became part of the process. You can’t mourn too long.
GIBSON | A lot of that [lost] material we recast as background information and homework that could hopefully enrich a new version of the story.
PUGLIESE | We [already] knew that this season was going to be about [it being Claire’s] turn. And who owns the White House. We had that. And we knew it was going to a very tenuous and difficult situation for a female president to be owned somehow.
GIBSON | Francis, at the end of Season 5… was essentially vowing to control her presidency in Season 6. And, to some degree, he tries to do that from beyond the grave.
TVLINE | Were you able to use any of the footage you shot from the unaired episodes?
PUGLIESE | Some of Doug’s scenes [were salvaged] because he was apart from the main story at the [beginning of the season].
GIBSON | And some of Claire’s [early scenes]. But it was very little. We had only been shooting for two-and-a half weeks [when Spacey was fired].
TVLINE | One of the happy byproducts of the overhaul was we got more scenes with Claire and Doug.
GIBSON | They’re each others’ downfall or salvation. And it’s consistently one or the other over the course of the whole season.
TVLINE | Flashbacks to Claire’s childhood are sprinkled in throughout the season. Was that something we would’ve seen in the original Season 6?
GIBSON | That was a discovery of the rejiggered season. It became clear that Claire was going to have to [examine] herself in a rather profound way and it made sense to dig into how she wound up where she is. An igniting image for us was the opening image where you see her as unfettered and fully self-possessed as a child. That was a little bit of a North Star for the character in terms of what she could get done this season.
TVLINE | How much did you have to alter the series finale?
GIBSON | We were still in the process of discovery about Episodes 12 and 13 [when Spacey was fired].
PUGLIESE | We knew that there was an emotionality we wanted to arrive at [in the finale]. But how we would arrive at it and how it would play out, that’s something we would’ve discovered as we worked on the season.
GIBSON | But we did know that the last episode of the show would to some degree speak to the first episode of the show.