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Da Vinci's Demons creator David S. Goyer on premium cable, papal corruption, and da Vinci's alleged homosexuality
The co-writer of the Dark Knight trilogy returns to television with a historical fantasy premiering Friday night on Starz
Tom Riley as Leonardo da Vinci, hard at work.
Tom Riley as Leonardo da Vinci, hard at work. 2013 ADJACENT, LLC.
M

eet Da Vinci's Demons, a new series that offers a kind of hybrid between historical dramas like Showtime's The Borgias and fantasies like HBO's Game of Thrones

The series, which premieres on Starz this Friday night at 10 p.m. EST, is a historical fantasy-drama that follows a young Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) as he becomes embroiled in both political and supernatural conflicts in 15th-century Florence. (Watch a trailer for Da Vinci's Demons below.) The show depicts da Vinci as a charismatic, mercurial genius far ahead of his time, unafraid to ruffle the feathers of people with the power to have him killed. Though the series has not yet been renewed for a second season, the buzz on Da Vinci's Demons is positive enough that an analyst recently upgraded Starz's stock on the strength of the show's early reviews.

Da Vinci's Demons' creator, writer, director, and showrunner David S. Goyer is most famous for co-writing Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and this summer's upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel. But Goyer has had an equally robust career in television production, with major credits on shows including CBS' Threshold, Spike TV's Blade: The Series, and ABC's FlashForward.

I recently spoke on the phone with Goyer. Here's the (slightly edited) transcript.

Da Vinci's Demons is obviously a fantasy, but it's informed by so many real-life characters and events. How much research went into the show? 

A ton. I don't even know how many books my writers and I read. Even though it's a historical fantasy, and even though there are places we veered into invention, we were always well aware of where reality ended and invention began. I spent a month or two just reading any and everything I could about da Vinci and the era, and jotting down things that interested me. And usually, what happens when I write — I don't know why this is — but there are other things I'll be reading at the same time that will dovetail. I know it sounds odd, but I was also reading a lot of magical realism, Jorge Luis Borges. And it kind of fused together in my mind. That's how this show became what it became. 

Most people think of da Vinci as an old man, but you're tackling da Vinci's mid-20s — a relatively unexplored period in his life. How did you decide when you wanted this story to begin? 

After working on the Batman mythology and the Superman mythology, I guess I've become interested in telling stories about mythic figures before they become mythic. Even though da Vinci is a person that existed, historically, he exists in the public consciousness in this sort of rarified, mythical place. In that way, I think he's not dissimilar to Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent. We have the hindsight to know that this guy was one of the greatest geniuses of all time. Because we have that hindsight, we can see him before he was "Leonardo da Vinci," and know that he'll become that. 

Was it any different to write about an actual historical icon instead of a fictional icon like Batman or Superman?

It really wasn't. Da Vinci lived in a time period that was 500 years ago, and there are very few firsthand accounts of him. We've got his journals, but even the first biography of him was written about 50 years after his death. And he is a uniquely mythic figure; if you read [Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari's] biography of da Vinci, he describes him as being 6 feet tall, and able to master just about any discipline, and literally being able to bend steel bars with his bare hands. He sounds like Paul Bunyan. So da Vinci wasn't different from Bruce Wayne, in that regard, because clearly a lot of confabulation has been built up around da Vinci in terms of what he was like. He was clearly a genius, but I'm sure a lot of stories about him have been exaggerated.

The show integrates many real-life stories about da Vinci that the average viewer might not know: His vegetarianism, the fact that he was born out of wedlock, a strange encounter with a bird as an infant that was psychoanalyzed by Freud. What surprised you most during the research process for Da Vinci's Demons, and what made you decide you had enough material for an open-ended TV series?

I knew that da Vinci had invented a lot of things — including a lot of weapons — but I thought it was interesting that a man who was a self-professed humanist, and who valued animal life so much, spent most of his life as a war engineer. I'd had no idea that he and Michelangelo hated each other. The two greatest artists, probably of all time, physically came to blows on more than one occasion. I just loved that. We think of him as this kind of abstract and aloof old man. We think of him as the self-portrait that he purportedly did, although some scholars claim that might not even be him. We don't think of him as this sort of vibrant person, but he seems to have had a bit of a big mouth. He seems to have been kind of arrogant. Michelangelo criticized him for being a flashy dresser all the time. He was sort of this bundle of contradictions. He probably wasn't always pleasant to be around, but I think that makes for an interesting character to build a show around. There was a lot of controversy surrounding da Vinci throughout his life. 

Da Vinci's sexuality has been the subject of much modern scholarship and speculation — particularly since we have a historical record indicating that he was brought up on charges of sodomy in 1476. Is that something you plan to address in the series?

Yep. Without giving too much away, it comes into play later on. I argued, successfully, that we would be doing the show a disservice if we didn't go there in the first season.

Da Vinci's Demons also depicts the papacy as both sinister and corrupt. Are you worried that there might be backlash over such a negative depiction of a major religious institution?

We'll see what happens. I'm not criticizing religion, but there's no question: The papacy of the 15th century was not like the papacy of today. [Pope Sixtus IV, played in the series by James Faulkner] was a very controversial figure. He started the secret archives, he employed Swiss mercenaries, which became the Swiss Guard; he started papal intelligences. It was what it was. There was a pope, relatively shortly before Sixtus, that was a pirate. He was actually actively attacking other ships — raping and pillaging, and things like that.

This is the first time you've done a series on premium cable, and Da Vinci's Demons isn't shy about depicting explicit sex and violence. How has that freedom changed your approach as a storyteller?

It's been great. Never say never, but it's hard for me to imagine going to back to network television. One of the things that [Starz CEO] Chris Albrecht said to me when we started preparing Da Vinci's Demons was, "If you do this show with us, we back our creators. And even if we have disagreements, more often than not, we bet on creators." And he's been true to his word. There have been some spirited disagreements at times, but when push came to shove, he said, "Do you really believe in this?" and I said, "Yes," and he's backed me. That wasn't always the case on FlashForward. I think there's a reason why cable and basic cable shows are winning most of the Emmys. I think it's because those creators are afforded more latitude.

From Batman to Superman to Leonardo da Vinci, you've had the chance to write about so many iconic figures in your career. Whether fictional or historical, are there any other icons you'd like to tackle?

[Long pause] There is one I'm tinkering with, but I'm actually talking to some people about this person. There is a specific other person out there, yes. I can't say any more.

Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com. He has written about film and television at publications including The AtlanticOutside Magazine, and Think Progress.

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