These days, it’s hard not to argue that there’s generally better stuff on television, particularly cable, than what’s being offered on a regular basis in movie theaters. With so many creative types moving from movies to television, we always are trying to get on board with what we think will be a hot show before everyone else jumps on board, which brings us to “Da Vinci’s Demons,” the new Starz series executive produced by David S. Goyer.
Goyer’s probably best known for co-writing Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy,” but before that he was heavily involved with the “Blade” movies, directing the third one himself, writing comics as well as executive producing the short-lived “FlashForward.”
His new venture stars British actor Tom Riley as the young Leonardo da Vinci, the famed inventor and painter whose biography has only barely been touched upon by the historians who have tried to decipher his prolific output. “Da Vinci’s Demons” looks at his earlier life in Florence, Italy, where he’s called upon to help design weapons for the government and gets caught up in a violent battle between church and state. This isn’t a show that involves a lot of Da Vinci sitting at a drawing board inventing though, as he solves crimes, rides a horse and has impressive sword-fighting skills as well as a way with the ladies.
Back in October, ComingSoon.net got to sit down briefly with Goyer at the New York Comic-Con for a quick video interview that makes for a good introduction to the show – you can watch that all the way at the bottom of this article. A couple of weeks ago, we got on the phone with Goyer as well, after having seen the first couple of episodes, and got into more details about what is possibly one of the best new shows on television.
ComingSoon.net: I watched the show over the weekend and it’s really great, basically exactly what you said it was when we spoke in October. You described it fairly spot-on and wasn’t exaggerating at all about what to expect from it. (Note: again, see the video below for that conversation.)
David S. Goyer: Well, good. (Laughs) Hopefully you feel like we delivered.
CS: It’s hard to do interviews without seeing footage or anything and you were kind of telling me all this stuff. It was much bigger than what I was expecting and very different than what I was envisioning, so it definitely delivered. How long ago did you realize that Da Vinci could deliver so much storytelling potential. Obviously he had so much stuff going on in his life, but when did you realize that that would make a good show?
Goyer: Well, I mean, we were talking specifically about doing something historical. He’s one of the most recognized figures in history to begin with, so I think that he was much more than an artist. The truth is, he did spend a lot of his life working as a war engineer. There was this tantalizing element of half of his notebook pages have gone missing. We know he did over 13,000 pages and only 6,000 pictures or so are floating around. If he invented all of those things in the existing 6,000 pages, God knows what he invented in the other 7,000 pages. The other thing that was kind of cool is there’s gaps. There’s a four-year gap in his life, which is when some of our show would take place, where very little is known about what he was doing or where he was. Some people claim, including himself, that he was in Syria and Egypt working for the Ottoman sultan. No one knows who his mother was and it just seemed like, “Well, gosh, he was one of the most famous and celebrated people in his day.” At the time, Florence was the kind of beating heart of the world. It was definitely the city to be in. It’s where all the most famous thinkers and artists and people were at the time. And I just thought, “Why wouldn’t you do a show about him?”
CS: I was watching the behind-the-scenes footage and hearing the historians talk about the show and it’s interesting that you have them involved, but you also have all this room to play around with stuff. What was the dividing line between taking artistic license and trying to keep true to history and keep the historians happy?
Goyer: There is no dividing line and we debate about it constantly in the writer’s room. “Can we get away with this or not? Well, that’s not really what happened, but it’s more fun. What do we do?” There’s a constant ongoing debate. I will say (that) even though there’s a fair amount of invention and we’ve done compression and things like that, even shows like “Borgias” and “The Tudors” messed around with historical timelines more than we’ve done, so
CS: That’s true, but I feel like Da Vinci has been studied more over the years.
Goyer: He is, but then if you ask the average person on the street we don’t even know what he looks like. There’s that one supposed self-portrait of him as an old man that some people even say might not be him. The first biography of him was written 50, 60 years after he died, and even that biography claims that he could bend steel bars with his bare hands, which is obviously not true. Genuine historians are debating a lot of things. His sexuality is still up for debate. Like I said, who his mother was. So yes, we are inventing some things, but a great deal of this show was not invented and virtually all of the characters that are in the show were not invented.
CS: I was curious about that, because Da Vinci was obviously real and Count Girolamo I assume is a real person.
Goyer: Yeah, he’s real, Zoroaster was real.
CS: So was there a lot of stuff in his journals written about those characters as well?
Goyer: Some. What I like about Zoroaster is he was a real historical figure. You can Google him, but there’s not a lot known about him, and he seems like kind of a shady character, and yet he was known to have been one of Da Vinci’s best friends. I always thought, “There must be a story there. Why is the most celebrated man in the ages friends with this guy, this sort of self-professed gardener, goldsmith, occultist, who has a made-up name?” That just fascinates me, why they would be friends.
CS: We talked a little bit about the casting of Tom Riley, but what I was really impressed with was that there were so many new faces or people you’ve seen on other shows but not realized it. Other than James Faulkner and Hugh Bonneville, whose work I know, a lot of them feel like people we haven’t seen a lot. I was curious about going in that direction as opposed to what’s the current tradition, which is bringing in big names to bolster the show.
Goyer: Well, I think that a lot of these actors are new for American audiences, and even for a certain extent, for British audiences. I felt very strongly that in the case of “Da Vinci’s Demons,” the concept was I think when you have a real known concept like Batman, Superman, a lot of Americans don’t know who Henry Cavill is, for instance, but they know who Superman is, so you don’t necessarily need a superstar at all if the concept is well known. Everyone has heard of Da Vinci. I think certain times it can also be distracting if you cast–particularly when you’re doing such a celebrated, well-known historical figure–if you cast someone that already has a very well known personality off the screen. So I argued that it was a high concept enough that we could cast people that were kind of fresh faces and that were just the best actors, period, and fortunately, my producers and Starz agreed with that.
CS: You mentioned you saw 500 people for Da Vinci. Were there any known names that were pushing to get the role?
Goyer: Yes, there were, but I can’t talk. I’m not going to tell you.
CS: Of course not. I was just curious because you spent so much time looking that you could’ve gone that route as well.
Goyer: We could have, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we went through a lot of known names, but I think one of the things that was interesting about “Game of Thrones” is–with the exception of perhaps Sean Bean and even then, I’m not sure how many American audiences were completely aware of him–“Game of Thrones” was largely, for American audiences, new faces. It did not seem to make one bit of difference. The same with “Mad Men” or “The Walking Dead,” things like that.
CS: I loved the first two episodes, but the third episode was interesting because it goes into the supernatural and we see Da Vinci as a detective a little bit more. Are the other five episodes in the first season more like that in terms of standalone stories?
Goyer: Yeah, it’s a combination of both. I mean, it is a serialized show. There’s an element of episode three that is kind of more standalone. I would say, for lack of a better word, there is a kind of I don’t want to say caper, but there are standalone elements of episodes and there are serialized elements. Episode three I’m glad you saw, because episode three kind of introduces the strand of “The Prisoner” and things start to get more complicated with episode three.
CS: One of the things that really impressed me was the production design and creating Florence. I was watching the time lapse of them building the set in the behind the scenes and that was a huge construction. Where did you find that space?
Goyer: Well, I mean, we did second unit in Florence for our visual FX plate shots and things like that, so when Vanessa is sitting on that cliff and Da Vinci is sketching her, she was actually in a parking lot against a green screen. Then we needed a big space. We found an old Ford auto plant that was disused in Swansea (Wales) and we converted it into a studio and it’s now one of the biggest soundstages, if not the biggest soundstage in Europe. One of the things that we ran into, we wanted to shoot in the UK, and we were having trouble finding a place that was big enough for what we needed. There were some stages in Cardiff, and they weren’t big enough, and some other stages up around London were booked, and so that’s when we thought, “Well, what if we just create our own studio?”
CS: This show covers a lot of locations in the first three episodes, so will that continue on and you’ll end up doing a lot of traveling and shooting in different places?
Goyer: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, we shot a lot on location and then the show itself will take place in a lot of different locations.
CS: I wanted to ask about animating Da Vinci’s notebooks, because I thought that was a cool touch.
Goyer: Yeah, we sort of refer to that as “Da Vinci Vision.” I just wanted to come up with a way of trying to filmically articulate what it was like to be inside his head, because he looks at the world in a different way, so those little artistic flourishes are something that we spent a long time developing and I think they’re fun. People seem to enjoy them.
CS: Do you have access to all of his journals? Is that something that you’ve been able to find?
Goyer: I’ve seen some of the real pages myself, but we obviously don’t have them in the production office. Fortunately, they’ve all been scanned and they’re online now, so to that extent, we did.
CS: Another nice touch is the torture devices like “The Widow’s Tear” in Episode 2, one of the more excruciating moments in that episode, I would have to say. Will see a lot more of those kinds of things?
Goyer: Yes, that’s my perverse interest. That particular episode I co-wrote with Scott Gimple, who is now the showrunner on “Walking Dead,” and we worked on “FlashForward” together. He actually gave me an app of medieval torture devices. (laughs)
CS: That’s an app that shows you what they do?
Goyer: Yeah, yeah. There are a couple of apps, actually.
CS: I’ll have to check that out. I feel as a director, your films have been smaller, more character-driven, but this is so much bigger. Where does this fall in far of the stuff you’ve directed? Does it definitely feel bigger than anything else you’ve done?
Goyer: It was very big in the scope of it. It’s a big swing and it’s the TV equivalent of a summer movie, so yeah, “The Invisible” and “Unborn” were definitely more intimate films than this and this is a big sprawling world. It was fun, but it was a pain in the ass to do. (Laughs) When I showed up in the UK, I said, “I don’t think of this as a TV show. I think of it as an eight-hour movie and I want it to have a very cinematic feel.” You know, I want this to feel big.
CS: Do you hire a DP and crews who’ve done a lot of films?
Goyer: Yeah, a lot of film or premium cable shows like we had people from “Game of Thrones” on our show, and there’s another British show I really like, the British “Sherlock,” people from that. That’s got a very cinematic quality as well. It was a mix and match, but the television people that were involved, a lot of them had done the bigger shows.
CS: I talk to a lot of actors these days and most of them are feeling that the best writing and roles and jobs are on television these days.
Goyer: I agree.
CS: I was curious how you felt about that as a producer and director who has been doing features but also “FlashForward” and a couple other shows.
Goyer: I think in particular, cable and basic cable, we’re kind of in a golden age for entertainment, and hour for hour, some really spectacular stuff is being done in the cable world.
CS: The amount of entertainment for your dollar is just stunning. The fact that we can watch an entire season of “House of Cards,” and that’s 13 hours pretty much for free, is amazing. How far have you gotten along in terms of writing Season Two of this?
Goyer: It hasn’t been greenlit yet, so we’re waiting, obviously, for the premiere in a few weeks, but they’ve certainly asked us to get working out the stories.
CS: Have you created a bible so that it will be a certain number of seasons or an end game to it? Have you gone that far into it?
Goyer: Roughly, if we’re lucky enough, six seasons.
CS: That would be good. I’m assuming we’ll never get a chance to see old Da Vinci?
Goyer: Don’t be too sure.
CS: “Don’t be too sure?” Okay. Maybe some flash forwards? (bad pun, sorry)
Goyer: If we have our way, yes, you will see him at the end of his life as well.
CS: Can you give us a little tease for episode four of the show?
Goyer: A lot more blood and mayhem. (Laughs) People dying.
CS: We see a bit of that in the first two episodes definitely, and then the third episode was different. Do you feel that people need to have sex and violence on cable shows these days to get them to tune in?
Goyer: Well, I mean, no one said you have to have this many deaths or this many love scenes or anything like that, but I think that things in the first season ratchet up to a nice climax, and I think personally I like my seasons to end on cliffhangers. So I would expect them to have that for “Da Vinci’s Demons.”
CS: How have you been involved with DC as far as moving forward after “Man of Steel?” I know that’s a big movie for them, so will you start writing a sequel soon?
Goyer: You know, I get asked that all the time. (Laughs) I can’t really comment on that.
CS: No problem. Do you think we’ll hear any announcements any time soon? “Man of Steel” was announced and went into production but everyone is wondering what’s going to happen next.
Goyer: I think we just need to get the movie out first and then go from there.
CS: Will this be like “Iron Man” where the Monday after “Man of Steel” opens, we’ll get an announcement for the next four years?
Goyer: We’ll see. We’ll see.
CS: As far as your other movies that you’ve been developing. After working on the show, are you doing some things that are smaller?
Goyer: I’m developing “The Count of Monte Cristo” to direct, and then I’ve got another television show that I’ve sort of been developing in the background, so we’ll see.
CS: “The Count of Monte Cristo” is interesting because obviously there’ve been a lot of movies. Do you have to kind of avoid everything that’s been done before and just try to go for something different?
Goyer: It’s a reinvention, yeah. The last one was a while ago, and it’s certainly a classic and there’s nothing wrong with doing a reinvention of it.
And as promised, here’s a much shorter video interview done with David back in October, which gives you a brief overview of the show and other things not covered above:
“Da Vinci’s Demons” premieres on Starz on Friday night, April 12, following the Series finale of “Spartacus: War of the Damned.”