David Goyer Interview: Da Vinci’s Demons

Tom Riley and David S. Goyer on the set of Da Vinci's Demons
Behind The Scenes of 'Da Vinci's Demons': Tom Riley and David S. Goyer (Creator, Writer and Executive Producer) - Photo © 2013 Adjacent, LLC.
Screenwriter David S. Goyer (the Dark Knight trilogy) has brought some of the best superhero tales to the big screen and now he’s using his talent to bring Leonardo Da Vinci’s life to the small screen in Da Vinci’s Demons premiering on April 12, 2013. And while Da Vinci wasn’t a superhero with super powers, he was a man unlike many who have ever walked the Earth. With the new Starz series created and executive produced by Goyer, viewers are provided a glimpse into the world of a 25 year old Da Vinci as played by Tom Riley. This is a Da Vinci who can handle a sword, who’s a smart aleck, who’s a genius that doesn’t seem to filter his thoughts or actions. And, he’s sexy and unlike how most of us picture the Renaissance figure.
The Plot:
The secret history of Leonardo da Vinci’s tantalizing life reveals a portrait of a young man tortured by a gift of superhuman genius. He is a heretic and skeptic intent on exposing the lies of religion. An insurgent seeking to subvert an elitist society. A bastard son who yearns for legitimacy with his father.
He finds himself in the midst of a storm that has been brewing for centuries. A conflict between truth and lies, religion and science, past and future. His aspirations to improve his position in life bring him into contact with the two opposing forces of the time—the Vatican and the Medici family who both try and lure him onto their side.
Leonardo must take up the fight against foes who use history to suppress the truth. A hero armed only with his genius, da Vinci stands alone against the darkness within, and the darkness without. Facing an uncertain future, his quest for knowledge nearly becomes his undoing as he explores the fringes of his own sanity. Da Vinci uses his unparalleled genius as a weapon against his enemies and emerges as an unstoppable force that lifts an entire era out of darkness and propels it into light.

Exclusive David S. Goyer Interview:

You know, I have never in my wildest dreams imagined Da Vinci as a sexy young man. Never. So, how did you come up with this idea?
David Goyer: “Well first of all, I mean if you believe the accounts he actually was quite a good-looking guy and also quite an athletic guy. He was nearly 6′ tall, he was known to be a good swordsman and a good horse man. I didn’t make any of that up – that all appears to have been true. Known to be very attractive, known to be a flashy dresser and a particular dresser, and all of that is true. I think most of the reason people don’t think of him that way is because the only picture we have of him of this purported self-portrait that he did of himself when he was 65 years old, although some scholars dispute that that’s even him. So if the only image you have of somebody is a bearded, bald old man, then that’s all you’re ever going to think of him.
On the other hand if you…there’s a statue of David that I believe Verrocchio made that is in the one of the museums in Florence – and I’m blanking on which museum it was, it might have been Uffizi but I may be misquoting it, but we saw it when we were there. Rumor is that the model for that statue of David slaying Goliath was Da Vinci at age 14 and the guy is really good looking, stunningly good looking. So who knows?”
Isn’t it bizarre that we just don’t know that much about his younger years to the point that not even the fact he was considered good-looking is widely known?
David Goyer: “I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Da Vinci. There was a guy named Vasari who did a biography of Da Vinci and he describes him as being gorgeous and tall and handsome, and literally able to bend steel bars with his bare hands. A friend to an all and all sorts of crazy things.”
He’s also in Da Vinci’s Demons a bit of a smart ass. Is that something from the research that you came up with or just something you added to the character?
David Goyer: “No, I think he was. I’ve read all of his journals and he was very opinionated. First of all, he was thrown in a jail a number of times. He was very opinionated. At least until the very end of his life he was kind of anti-organized religion which was not a particularly popular stand for the day. He appears to have said some things that angered the Medicis at some point and angered Pope Sixtus. He and Michelangelo famously hated each other and came to physical blows on more than one occasion. In his writings, he’s very critical of – even though they were friends – Botticelli’s perspective and his background. He just seems like he kind of had a big mouth. And, he was arrogant but he had the talent to back it up. So I don’t think that’s something that I made up.”
He sounds so fascinating. Why haven’t we learned more about his younger years? Why do you think something like this series hasn’t been done before?
David Goyer: “I have no idea. I mean when we started talking about doing a show about him I was kind of amazed that no one had ever done a movie about him or a television show about him because he really was a once-in-a millennia kind of guy. I can’t really think of anyone else who mastered so many things in his lifetime. He had a crazy life. Just the fact that he did not earn most of his keep as an artist, he spent most of his life working as a war engineer which I also think most people don’t realize.
Even though there’s a fair amount of invention in the show, the bulk of what you see is real and happened. Even my producer sometimes would cry foul on me and I would show them the documentation of some crazy thing that Da Vinci had done or said and he would say, ‘Okay.'” [laughing]  
Was there anything when you were looking at his journals that particularly stood out to you about Da Vinci that you needed to make sure got into the series and that people understood about him?
David Goyer: “First of all, I like anti-heroes. I do think he was a fascinating guy, but I don’t think he was always a nice man and I think that makes for an interesting lead character. I liked House and I like the British Sherlock because those guys are kind of arrogant pricks as well. I like Walter White on Breaking Bad. You don’t have to always have a squeaky clean character. He’s a hero but he’s also kind of an asshole. I like that. And, he’s conflicted. I think he’s often his own worst enemy and he’s famous for starting commissions and not finishing them, angering people and leaving in a huff. It’s called Da Vinci’s Demons for a reason; I think he was a very tortured person. At least for me tortured people make for good television.”
When you did come across parts of his history that you needed to fill in for Da Vinci’s Demons, was there a limit to how far you would push it? I imagine you don’t have to worry about historians tuning in and saying something was or wasn’t correct, and of course you have to make it entertaining, but you couldn’t turn him into a superhero of that age.
David Goyer: “No, he doesn’t have telepathy; he just has his smarts and his wits. [Laughing] I’m not making the show for historians and historians may have an issue with some of things we did, and we certainly have some cases where there are a few characters that are amalgams – more than one character that we compressed – or when certain events have taken place. That having been said, we’ve done far less compression than a show like The Borgias or The Tudors did, in terms of historical events. We may have moved events forward by six months or something like that in our show but not by decades or anything like that.
You know, I was fascinated by the fact that he was a humanist and he believed deeply that information should be shared with all. He was also a vegetarian in a time when that was almost unheard of and yet he made a good living designing weapons that were to kill people. That conflict, that juxtaposition, is really interesting.”
I was fascinated by the first two episodes and one part that really grabbed me is the mention that he couldn’t remember what his mother’s face looked like. Is that something created for the series or is that something you read in his journals?
David Goyer: “What’s interesting…okay so that, to a certain extent, that’s an invention and elaboration. And yet one of the genuine mysteries surrounding Da Vinci is that no one knows who is mother was. To this day scholars, there’s a huge debate as to who his mother was. Very recently, I think in 2012 or 2011, scientists examined some of his fingerprints on some of his paintings and they found these whirls in his fingerprints that are often found in people of Arabic or Turkish descent, something like that, something that’s rarely found in Caucasian people. And with some scientists it’s led them to believe that perhaps his mother might have been a Turkish slave from Constantinople. So, the fact that he might have been only half Caucasian is interesting as well, but no one really knows.
There’s this strange lack of knowledge or mention in all of his journal pages, thousands and thousands of them, about who his mother was. There’s a lot of discussion about who his father was. He appears to have been born illegitimate out of wedlock, which was a big deal back in those days. It prevented him from inheriting wealth, largely, and land and nobility and things like that. I found that curious. On the other hand, the incident that happened in the cave – that really happened and he does reference it in his journals. He doesn’t say exactly what happened but clearly something bad happened to him in a cave when he was younger.”
Does he mention in his journals at all not remembering what his mother’s face looked like?
David Goyer: “He doesn’t but here’s what’s curious: he doesn’t mention his mother at all.”
Not a single mention?
David Goyer: “No, other than he mentions, I believe, at a time when he couldn’t possibly have remembered that incident with the bird. That might be the only time he mentions his mother, or it might not even mention his mother at all. And I just find it really curious.”
I know that the first couple of episodes you’ve already addressed his sexuality and we see him talk about a cute guy who was a model, but then he’s also in bed with a woman. Are you going to delve more into the controversy over his sexuality?
David Goyer: “Yes. Without being too specific, yes, we will in the first season.”
How many seasons do you expect to it run? If you had your wish, how long would it last?
David Goyer: “I’d love to go about six seasons, if I had my wish. But that would be up to the viewing public.”
Has Starz been real collaborative and are they just letting you pretty much have free rein as to what you are doing?
David Goyer: “Starz has been very collaborative. I can’t say I have complete free rein. [Laughing] There are debates and arguments. There’s one going on right now. There’s a very spirited email chain going back and forth today. But by and large I can say that, to a certain extent, I think that healthy debate is still good. But I’ve certainly been afforded more creative rein than on my last show.”
With Spartacus Starz showed graphic sex and violence, and the network is not afraid to offer that to viewers – and they know an audience is out there for it. Is this more freeing for you than a feature film or any network television would possibly be?
David Goyer: “In many ways, yes. Look, they never said to me you must have X amount of nudity or beheadings in your show, but it’s nice to know that if we wanted to do it we can do it. That having been said, sometimes I like having nudity in scenes that don’t involve sex. I love when the Pope just gets out of the bath in the first episode. He kind of stands there and has a conversation, and I think that’s great.”
It’s natural.
David Goyer: “Yes, and there’s a later episode where that happens a couple of times as well and I really like that. One of my favorite fight sequences of all time was in Eastern Promises where Viggo Mortensen is nude in the steam room. I just think that’s amazing.”
Doing a series such as this, you had to make sure you had the right guy on board as Leonardo Da Vinci. How did you know Tom Riley was the right actor for the role?
David Goyer: “We’ve been looking for a long time and we’d seen hundreds and hundreds of people. He walked into the room and I was not familiar with his work prior to his audition. We needed somebody that could embody all of these characteristics, they could be funny and smart and a bit of a genius and a bit mad and a bit all over the place. Tom just came in and he absolutely nailed his audition. There was just no just doubt in my mind and my producers’ minds. When he came in we just looked at each other and I remember writing on a piece of paper, ‘We’ve found him,’ and sliding it over. Everybody nodded and that was it. There was just no question when he walked in that he was going to be the guy.”
And you’ve got him surrounded by a great cast.
David Goyer: “I’m thrilled with the cast. I think Tom is a stand-out, he’s going to be a major star, but I just think we got really lucky with this cast. They’re all excellent.”
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