'House of Cards' Showrunner Beau Willimon Talks 'Curt,' A Short Doc Screening at SLIFF Nov. 11

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

St. Louisan Beau Willimon won’t make it back for the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival screening of “Curt,” but he will come home for Thanksgiving, he says. His folks still live out here, in Chesterfield—but right now, season four of a little drama called “House of Cards” happens to be taking up most of the showrunner’s time.

But he’s thrilled “Curt” is showing at SLIFF. He grew up here—a John Burroughs School alum, taught by Jon Hamm in the school’s drama program. The Tivoli Theater, where he went “all the time, back when it was one-screen” will be playing host to the documentary he co-produced. The doc tells the life story of, well, Curt, a 50-year-old surfer with autism who’s beloved by the SoCal surfing community and still hits the waves to compete.

Curt from Brendan Hearne on Vimeo.

The documentary comes out of Willimon’s production company, Westward Productions, which he co-founded with producing partner Jordan Tappis. They tuned into Curt Harper’s story, Willimon says, because Tappis is a former pro world surfer. He and the director, Brendan Hearne, grew up surfing with Harper and the three have stayed close over the years.

Tappis was the day-to-day producer of the 17-minute short, filming over a six-month period. Willimon says most of their projects are like this, a give and take of who leads and who supports. Willimon was very much on the ground with “House of Cards” during that time, weighing in toward the end of “Curt” on editing and music and “what have you,” then working on outreach with the autistic community to create awareness of the film (it’s received a hugely positive response from those organizations, he says).

"Curt" still | photo credit David G. Wilson

“Curt” still | photo credit David G. Wilson

As a SLIFF attendee and past recipient of SLIFF’s Charles Guggenheim Award, Willimon’s choice to reach out to the festival to see if they’d screen “Curt” was a natural one. “Luckily for us, they said yes,” he says.

“I think Hearne directed an incredibly moving, poignant and honest film,” Willimon says, adding that Harper’s voice comes through in a meaningful and interesting way. “I think what drew us to this story … was here you have a 50-year-old autistic man diagnosed at 2, and the doctors recommend he be institutionalized for life. His parents, a stockbroker and a teacher, said, ‘No, we believe our child has the potential to have full and rich life.'”

Willimon says that Harper began surfing at a young age, and it “opened up new universe for him.” He began competing, then driving kids to the beach to surf if their parents were working. In doing so, he began to be a big brother, a friend and a mentor to both regular kids and future surfing greats like Kelly Slater and Dane Reynolds—a role Harper still cherishes today.

“He’s proven that, given the support and belief of people around him, he could have life as full and rich as anyone else’s,” says Willimon. “That story of hope and compassion and generosity is extraordinary and one that goes beyond autism itself—although it has a lot to say about what is possible for someone diagnosed with autism …

“In a way, we’re all part of autism because we all know someone affected by autism or know someone whose lives are affected. The person you buy groceries from at the deli might have autistic child and managing that affects their approach to life. Numerous organizations are behind the film because it illustrates exactly what many are trying to advocate, which is that autism doesn’t necessarily need to be ‘doom and gloom.’ It can be difficult and challenging. There are people with far more debilitating diagnoses than Curt Harper, but there is a lot that is possible and by providing support and encouragement, you will be surprised by what is possible.”

But it’s not just about Harper’s autism and how it’s shaped his career. At the end of the day, it’s a deeply interesting character profile about a man who’s followed his passion. And that day, well—as Willimon puts it: “A day in life of Curt Harper is not only interesting but extraordinary.”

“Curt” shows Wed., Nov. 11 at 5:05pm at the Tivoli. Check back Wednesday for a top tip on staying creative from Willimon. 

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