David S. Goyer is best known for his superhero stories — he wrote the screenplays for “Batman Begins,” “Blade” and the upcoming “Man of Steel,” among others. So of course, though his new drama “Da Vinci’s Demons” is about an actual human historical figure, he’s managed to find something larger than life and extraordinary in the Renaissance painter, inventor and all-around genius. Played by Tom Riley, the Leonardo Da Vinci of the show is an illegitimate, restless twentysomething who gets caught up in the societal intrigues of Florence, the Vatican and a mysterious group called the Sons of Mithras.
With a cast that includes Laura Haddock (“Upstairs Downstairs”), Blake Ritson (“The Crimson Petal and the White”), Lara Pulver (“Sherlock”) and Alexander Siddig (“Cairo Time”), the series blends period facts with touches of fantasy and unapologetically crowd-pleasing scandal, sex and occasional sword fights. “Downton Abbey” this is not — nor is it Goyer’s first venture onto the small screen. He was a co-creator and showrunner for ABC’s “FlashForward” and a writer and executive producer on Spike’s “Blade: The Series,” though the premium drama seems a more natural realm for his vision. Indiewire spoke with Goyer in January about “Da Vinci’s Demons,” which premieres this Friday, April 12th at 10pm on Starz.
How do you see the aesthetic of the show? There’s something almost steampunky about it, except it’s before that era. What would you call that?
A graphic novel approach. It’s heightened history — history but viewed through a modern prism. Some of the musical cues, we’ve got an electric guitar, and some of the visual iconography of the show is definitely more modern. One of the things I had to wrestle with as a director was how to depict the world as Da Vinci sees it, how to get inside his head. I came up with this thing called “Da Vinci vision” — we based it on his actual drawings and we paused time and go inside stuff. It’s sort of x-ray vision as done through his sketches. It’s stylized. We’re not sitting there saying we’re a Discovery Channel show and this is exactly how it happened. He was a bigger than life character, so I think that necessitates a bigger than life storytelling style.
Da Vinci’s an incredible painter, an amazing inventor and happens to be great at sword fighting — are there difficulties in writing a character who’s so good at everything?
Sure. I think the biggest challenges on the show is that the guy was so smart that the mysteries and puzzle-solving have to be smart. He was very quick on his feet and constantly working on four cylinders and dealing with four subject matters at one time. We wanted the show to feel that way as well, so that you could watch it but also go back and say “Oh my god, I missed that.” They’re hard to write, they’re complicated. It’s definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever written.
The show as its own mythology to unveil — what can you say about its larger arc?
When you ask people about Da Vinci, they think of secret societies and mysteries. He embedded a lot of coding in his paintings, we know that, he wrote in mirror writing, things in code, nobody knows entirely why. Mysteries and secret societies are synonymous with Da Vinci, so I felt that in any action adventure show with him, we wouldn’t be honoring the audience if we didn’t have a certain component of that. Also I just like that kind of stuff, I think it’s fun. He gets involved with a historical mystery called the Sons of Mithras, which supposedly Plato and Aristotle were a part of.
They were kind of the original secret society, and without revealing too much, there’s something they’ve been searching for called the Book of Leaves. I describe the show as a cross between “The Borgias,” “Indiana Jones” and “Sherlock” — the Book of Leaves is Da Vinci’s Lost Arc. Every hero needs a quest, and that’s the thing he’s searching for. He’s also trying to figure out who his mother was. There’s a lot of mystery in real life and debate about who she was. He had photographic memory but he couldn’t remember his mother’s face. Things get darker, but also crazy — it’s the first time I’ve ever worked in cable, so it’s fun to be completely unfettered, to do whatever I want and to have total creative freedom. It’s just a rarity.
On that note, there’s always been speculation about Da Vinci’s sexuality — and the show seems to have a fairly pan-sexual approach to sex.
Historically, Florence at the time was like that. It was a very liberated society. Florence was a republic, it was a democracy, which was incredibly rare at that time in the world. Florence was in ways a more liberal place than modern day is right now. There are things that were accepted in Florence that were not accepted today. We’re not gonna shy away from that. Da Vinci was arrested a few times [for sodomy], he was put on trial quite a few times. We’re not gonna shy away from any of that in the first season, we’re gonna be dealing with all of that.
At the same time that there are all these progressive aspects to Florence, we see someone hanged essentially because he’s Jewish.
One of the challenges is that a lot of incredible things were invented and made possible during the Renaissance era, but something like 90% of the population believed in demons, in spirits and things like that. People believed that Lorenzo Medici had an imp trapped in his ring that he could sic on people and it could kill them. How do you wrestle with all of that? It’s a time when people were hung for being Jewish or being Turkish. There’s a line in the second episode — “When fools are in doubt, they simply kill a Jew.” One of the things we’re trying to depict is that Lorenzo Medici was an incredible character, but he was capable of extreme violence. One of the great things about cable television is that everyone doesn’t have to be lily white. You can depict conflicted characters in a way that a lot of movies shy away from these days. I like telling stories of imperfect people because most people are imperfect.
You’re someone who works in both television and film, and this is certainly an ambitious project in many ways — do you feel that TV has become a more welcoming landscape for that?
Yeah — we are in the golden age of television right now. There are so many incredible shows that are happening in cable television in particular. I honestly love nothing better than digging into a really good serialized show, whether it’s “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones” or “Justified.” There’s nothing better than being able to watch something that has almost a novelistic approach where you can sit back and know you’re going to go on a journey for four or five seasons and watch characters grow and change. It’s an exciting time for storytelling. Some of the most groundbreaking work is happening in cable television right now.
Was having more space, narratively, to stretch out something you had particular interest in?
I personally like serialized storytelling. You don’t tend to do as much of it on network and cable loves it. There are certain goal posts that you want to hit at the end of the season, but it’s nice to be able to stretch out and say you don’t have to resolve that story this episode or even this season. That’s cool.
You’ve made superhero comparisons in speaking about the show. Would you say it’s a tendency of yours to find those qualities in your characters?
Of course. I grew up reading comic books, pulp books, mystery and science fiction and fantasy. I’m a geek, I make no pretensions otherwise. It’s the stuff that I love writing about. I like creating worlds. In a way, doing a graphic novel approach to Renaissance Florence is not that different from creating a science fiction world, because there are things we know but there are also a lot of things we don’t know that we have to make up and take an educated guess at.
And that means getting into the mindset of a society that’s very different from ours — like the way the crowd reacts to that hanging.
Right, where they all cheered. A hanging was like, hey, they’re gonna put on a show. Or worse — they’re going to draw and quarter someone or break someone on wheels. They’d be vendors that would sell food. It was just crazy. Da Vinci was the greatest artist of all time and yet Da Vinci went to hangings. There’s a sketch that Da Vinci did of a person who was hung who’s a character we see in this first season. Renaissance Florence is where humanism was invented, but there were also these incredibly inhumane things going on. That juxtaposition is what makes for a really interesting show.
There’s also the class structure, and that sense of frustration for Da Vinci because of how he was born.
He was a bastard, so he wasn’t allowed to inherit wealth, he couldn’t inherit land. His father was Lorenzo’s notary, kind of his lawyer, and his father would come across him in the streets — this is true — and would literally ignore him and pretend that he wasn’t his son. This was a guy who was one of the greatest men in history, who couldn’t get his dad to acknowledge him. They had a lot of issues between them.
How much of the supernatural can we expect in the story?
There are things that are going to happen in the show that may or may not be supernatural. We’re going to skirt the edges. There’s something that happens in the cave that is one of the mysteries of the show that we hint at in the first episode. Something will happen later on in the season that seems paradoxical. Mysticism and the supernatural are embedded in the show — it’s called “Da Vinci’s Demons” for a reason, and it’s not just metaphorical.
You’ve said that 80% of the series is based on things that actually happened. To what degree did you feel beholden to historical fact?
We were beholden to it in the sense that if we were going to diverge from history, we were very clear on what did happen or how something might have worked. More than anything, when we would invent stuff it would be if there were blank spots in the historical record — fortunately, in the case of Da Vinci, there are quite a few. I feel like that gives me a lot of license as a creator to do whatever I want.
Plotting out this eight-episode arc, did you build things in for the idea of further seasons?
Before Starz greenlit the show, I had to prove to them that it could last at least five seasons and had to pitch them an overall arc. I absolutely know how the show ends. There are actually some Easter eggs hidden in the first scene in the first episode that will hint to how the whole show ends.
How do you prepare for that? I’m sure it’s a more comfortable position to be in than, say, a network show where it might not make it through a season, but it still requires the ability to shift that end post around.
You never know. You hope that you go on that long. I know that Starz is really happy with the show — they’ve been incredibly supportive of where I want to take it creatively. More so than any other situation I’ve had with television, that’s for sure. I deliberately attempted to challenge people’s expectations, so hopefully we’ll get there, we’ll go at least five seasons.