Years before he started putting diabolical words in Francis Underwood’s mouth, screenwriter Bill Kennedy ’07 found himself at a crossroads familiar to many Duke undergraduates. It was the fall of 2005, and Kennedy had nabbed a final-round interview for an internship at Bear Stearns. But his heart wasn’t invested in banking. “I was lying to these people, telling them that I loved reading The Wall Street Journal,” Kennedy recalls. “I had never read The Wall Street Journal— I was just faking it.” Kennedy didn’t get the position (which was lucky: Bear Stearns went under three years later), and Kennedy was forced to reconsider his options.
Ever since he’d seen Pulp Fiction as a kid, Kennedy had wanted to work in film. He didn’t see a path until he took creative-writing courses at Duke, including Christina Askounis’ personal-essay and short-fiction classes and Elisabeth Benfey’s screenwriting seminar—both women noted Kennedy’s ear for dialogue and encouraged him to pursue writing. In the summer of 2006, he enrolled in the Duke in New York program, where he interned at The Weinstein Company, working ten hours a day without pay and reading all the scripts he could. After graduating, he took the money from writing awards he won while at Duke—the Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts and top honors at the St. Louis Short Story Competition— and headed to Los Angeles.
Kennedy quickly landed a job at Media Rights Capital, a top production company behind the films Babel and Ted. Kennedy liked his bosses, but it was still the archetypal first Hollywood job: soulcrushingly long hours of answering phones and scheduling meetings. “I was totally killing myself,” he says. “One of my bosses came in early and saw me sleeping on the couch and thought I was living in the office—that gave me a lot of street cred.”
Kennedy was gunning to become a producer, but he’d never stopped writing. On his second day in L.A., he met Isaac Feder, a young director who wanted Kennedy to write the screenplay for his coming-of-age comedy Sex Ed. Over the next three years, Kennedy turned in around thirty rewrites, and in 2010, actor Haley Joel Osment (known for his starring role in The Sixth Sense) became attached to the project. Kennedy threw himself into his screenwriting aspirations; he’d load up on coffee at the end of the workday so he could write through the night. “I was still thinking to myself, if this doesn’t work out, I’m going to go law school,” he says. “But I didn’t want to be in a situation where I was working in the business for eight years and hadn’t gotten any traction, and it was because I hadn’t been writing or I hadn’t been working hard.”
After more than three years at MRC, Kennedy quit his job, but asked his bosses for a meeting with Beau Willimon, the creator of House of Cards, which MRC was producing for Netflix. He was unemployed for a month before getting hired by Willimon as a writer’s assistant, and he used that time to write a crime-thriller called The Fixer. He had to put that screenplay away, however, because the hours on the Baltimore set of House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, were crazier than anything he’d experienced before. For the second season, Kennedy was promoted to staff writer, and in December 2013, The Fixer was named to the uberprestigious Black List, a survey of the buzziest unproduced screenplays chosen by Hollywood insiders. (Films like Juno and this year’s Oscar contender The Imitation Game graced the Black List in previous years.)
Now twenty-nine, Kennedy is a fully actualized screenwriter—law school or investment banking no longer loom. He’s writing a studio feature called Firestorm for Fox, The Fixer is in development, the third season of House of Cards is in production, and on November 7— after years of stops and starts—Sex Ed finally was released in theaters and on demand.
Yet as accomplished as Kennedy has become through his own hard work and talent, he still looks back at the sophomore year creative-nonfiction class with Professor Askounis that opened the floodgates: “That class was the first time I could actually be a writer.”