Genius, innovator, womanizer, man of mystery and action... this is David S. Goyer's Leonardo da Vinci. And if those character traits remind you of the gallivanting alter-ego of a certain iron-clad Avenger, you might very well enjoy the rollicking Renaissance fantasy of Goyer's DA VINCI'S DEMONS.
Debuting Friday evening at 10 PM on Starz, DA VINCI'S DEMONS is very much a superhero yarn for grown-ups. Though Goyer hasn't imbued the original Renaissance Man with actual superpowers, he does show how his prodigious powers of perception and invention give him a marked intellectual and, at times, physical advantage over everyone in his orbit. This is made explicit in a scene where da Vinci (Tom Riley) releases pigeons to observe them from takeoff to flight; while others see birds simply doing what birds do, time slows down for da Vinci, allowing him to make a rapid series of observations that will aid in the refinement of his flying machine.
This is the moment where we glimpse both da Vinci's potential and the show's. DA VINCI'S DEMONS may seem, on the surface, to be an amalgam of the gore-soaked GAME OF THRONES and the salacious THE BORGIAS, but it's got a notably lighter spirit of adventure that propels it forward. Goyer likens it to Richard Lester's THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and while it goes heavier on the bloodletting and fucking than that film, the show does have a sort of swashbuckling panache (the protagonist is, among many other things, an ambidextrous swordsman). And Goyer wastes no time getting into da Vinci's development of advanced weaponry, so if you like a little gadgetry to go along with your sex and throat-slashings, this is your ALL IN THE FAMILY.
Aside from the launch of his new television series, things are going remarkably well for Goyer. As you might've heard, he wrote the screenplay for a little film due out this summer called MAN OF STEEL; he also might be involved in the resuscitation of Warner Bros' JUSTICE LEAGUE. The below interview was conducted a week after the JUSTICE LEAGUE rumor leaked, so Goyer had no comment whatsoever on that topic. We did, however, talk briefly (and vaguely) about MAN OF STEEL, and I can tell you this much: his confidence is absolutely in keeping with the insanely positive buzz that's been emanating from this project for the last two months. So perhaps keep this in mind if you're inclined to cavil about major liberties being taken with the character without having seen the finished film.
Seeing as how the debut episode of DA VINCI'S DEMONS introduces our hero subjecting his assistant to a test flight in his winged contraption, I think I showed remarkable restraint by not bringing up HUDSON HAWK until the third question.
Mr. Beaks: I do like this idea of turning Da Vinci into something of a superhero.
David S. Goyer: A proto-Tony Stark?
Beaks: Right. And it's that scene where they release the birds that the potential of the show explodes. Had you thought about Da Vinci as the central character of a show like this before?
Goyer: When I was a kid, and I realized he was more than just a painter, that he invented the machine gun and the tank and the diving suit, I thought that was crazy. I never really contemplated doing a historical show before, but Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, two of my producers, specifically sought me out and asked if I would do something historical, which I hadn't done before. We started talking about subject matter, people that we could do a show based on, and his name was one of the first names that bubbled to the surface. And I said, "Wow. He's never been the lead in a movie or a TV show. That's kind of crazy given the life that he led." So I said, "I'm not going to do just a straight historical show." And they said, "That's okay. We don't want that." So I wrote what I jokingly call the Grant Morrison version of Da Vinci, and they dug it.
It's interesting. We were well into the show when one of my assistants brought me Jonathan Hickman's S.H.I.E.L.D., which I hadn't read. I don't even know if it had come out. That prompted me to call Hickman and say, "Hey, do you want to come and work on this if we do a second season of the show?" Obviously, other people had had the idea of taking Da Vinci as this kind of proto-Tony Stark and also doing things with him.
Beaks: In the opening moments of your show, I couldn't help but think - and this is just me being an imbecile - of the opening sequence in HUDSON HAWK. You've got him painting, and then there's the flying machine. Please tell me you paying homage.
Goyer: Obviously, we were aware of it. Sure. Why not? You can't do Da Vinci and not do the flying machine. They're synonymous with one another. And he did test that damn flying machine! His friend Zoroaster [played by Gregg Chillin] really did exist, and famously broke his leg attempting to fly the ornithopter. There's humor in the show, and some cheekiness - a bit of a wink-and-a-nudge to the audience.
Beaks: How far are you willing to push that? If you go too far in one direction, you'll have THE WILD WILD WEST, but you go in the other direction, it's the blood-and-guts of GAME OF THRONES. What kind of a balance are you trying to strike?
Goyer: It's a tricky balance, and now that the first season is done, Starz is happy. But I kept saying, "It's not SPARTACUS, it's not THE BORGIAS and it's not GAME OF THRONES. It's its own kind of thing." It's hard when you're doing something that hasn't been done before because people can only reference what they've seen. In the early days, before we started shooting or before it was cut together, I could only use preexisting shows as points of reference. Hopefully, when people see the show, it'll be successful and people will say, "It's kind of like DA VINCI'S DEMONS!"
Beaks: While watching it, I kept thinking how much I would've loved it as a kid. Problem is, I would've had to sneak downstairs at night and watch it with the volume way down.
Goyer: One of the things that I think has been somewhat missing from TV are fun adventure shows. Don't get me wrong: I love GAME OF THRONES, but it is relentlessly grim. There aren't a lot of fun shows. Even though this is a dark show, there is an element of Richard Lester's THE THREE MUSKETEERS, which I really loved as a kid. And the Indiana Jones films... there just isn't anything like that on television right now. I was trying to mine that a little bit. I agree. It's the kind of show I would've loved as a kid, but, then again, it's R-rated.
Beaks: Tom Riley has been on the cusp for a while. He's been turning up in movies here and there, and I heard he was wonderful in the recent production of ARCADIA. Did you get a chance to see that?
Goyer: I didn't, but I know he's a favorite of Tom Stoppard's.
Beaks: Landing him for this show feels something of a coup. How did this come about?
Goyer: We saw hundreds of people. I wasn't familiar with him prior to him coming in for the audition. I was actually getting distraught, because it's no small feat for someone to play the greatest genius of all time. I just felt that we hadn't found him, and I was worried that we were going to have to push production. Then he came in and nailed it. At his first audition, I wrote down "We found him" and slid the note over to one of my producers.
Tom is an incredible actor. He's of Irish descent, so... I believe you find the right actor, but we did have to send him to a tanning booth. One of the things you can't fake as an actor is intelligence. Tom is incredibly witty in real life. I was hoping that someone would come in and be smart, be funny, be a little bit dangerous, be a little bit annoying, and Tom was able to encapsulate all of these things. I'm a big fan of the British SHERLOCK and what Benedict Cumberbatch is doing; that's a guy who's a genius but not always likable. I think in American TV, HOUSE is similar to that. Leonardo is kind of a dick sometimes, and I like that.
Beaks: They have that arrogance because they're constantly one step ahead of--
Goyer: Not just one step ahead. One of the things that we hope to mine in the show, hopefully it'll go even further, is that he's this bright flame that burns, and he attracts moths. People get burned up in his pursuits, not just by getting hurt because they test his glider. He stirs shit up, and there's a lot of collateral damage. If the show goes on long enough, that's one of the things he's going to have to come to grips with: that in pursuit of his goals, a lot of people are going to die.
Beaks: Despite his genius, he's still not settled in his philosophy. Have you thought that far ahead as to how you'll develop this?
Goyer: Yeah. Doing a historical show, I needed to find some modern points of reference. I was reading a lot about Teller, Oppenheimer, Einstein and even Steve Jobs. But in the case of Teller, Oppenheimer and Einstein, they were geniuses, but they also invented these tremendous weapons of destruction. They made this Faustian deal with the devil where, yes, the government gave them all this money so they could pursue this research, but they were also creating something that could potentially kill tons and tons of people. I think that's something Da Vinci had to wrestle with. He was a humanist and a vegetarian, but you look at his notebooks and most of his inventions are things to kill people. I think he wrestled with that a lot. In the show, he comes up with ways to kill a lot of people, and they're implemented and then the question is, "Was that a success or a failure?" Episode 4 really deals with that. You see a little bit of that in Episode 2 when he tests his machine gun for the first time, and Episode 4 is really about escalation. He's starting to mine the ghosts of Oppenheimer and Feynman. "Where is this all leading?" That's one of the themes of the show.
Beaks: How much historical license are you going to take going forward?
Goyer: Some. Most of the characters are real. We have deviated from history in some regards less so than THE BORGIAS or THE TUDORS; where events in those shows have been compressed twenty years together, we might've brought things forward by a year or so in some instances. But most of the gadgets and characters in the show are real. The Sons of Mithras actually existed. I don't know if da Vinci was a member of them, but he certainly would've been aware of them. And those Mithrams did dot the landscape of Europe and Italy. Even the Book of Leaves is based on something called the Voynich Manuscript, which was a document that was discovered about a hundred years ago that is written in a language no one can decipher.
Beaks: Whenever I talk to people of your ilk, who are simultaneously developing TV shows and writing movies and comics and whatever... it's actually akin to da Vinci and his multitasking. How do you keep it straight?
Goyer: It's just something I've developed as a skill. When I started writing, I only wrote one thing. I could only write one thing. Now I'm a multi-tasker; I'm usually on four or five things, and I just kind of like it that way. I find that one thing feeds into another, and certain thematic elements develop. I'll be working on MAN OF STEEL and come up with an idea for DA VINCI'S DEMONS or vice-versa. I could not have done this twenty years ago.
Beaks: Do you have different strengths now as a writer?
Goyer: You hope. One of the things that I find is when I go back and read something I wrote five or six years ago, I cringe. I hope that keeps happening. That's a good thing. It means I'm improving as a writer. If fifty years from now, I think, "That's perfect!" I'll be sad, because I will have ossified and not evolved.
Beaks: When you're dealing with a character like Superman, who is so insanely iconic and has had multiple live-action incarnations... how long did it take for you to wrap your head around "I'm writing a Superman movie" and then figure out how to do something different with it? Were you hesitant? Was there a lot of second guessing?
Goyer: You know I can't say much about that, but I will say that I definitely spent more time on that script than any script I've ever written. It took a long time to wrap my head around it. The weight of the lore, and the history of that character... he exists in a place that's even more mythic than Batman. I spent a long time thinking about it and talking about it with Chris [Nolan] and Zack [Snyder].
Beaks: Watching how the fans have reacted to each trailer and image [for MAN OF STEEL], do you ever find yourself second guessing any of your decisions?
Goyer: (Big smile breaks out across his face) I'm pretty happy with the movie!
Beaks: So I've heard. That's kind of the worst kept secret in Hollywood right now. Everyone knows you guys are very happy with how it turned out.
Goyer: I'm feeling pretty good about it. We'll see.
Beaks: What about fan reaction in general? Even back when you were doing BLADE, how closely were you watching the online dialogue?
Goyer: We're all human beings, and I think, given what you do, you probably run into people who purport to be fanboys, but aren't really. They're just saying it because it's fashionable. And then there are people who really are fanboys. I didn't just start reading comic books three years ago; I've been reading them since I was five years old. I've got letters printed in Marvel Comics and DC Comics' letter pages. I was a member of FOOM. So I'd like to think I know of what I speak, and that I'm genuinely a member of that community. That is important to me. I feel like I have a certain responsibility.
Beaks: We've gone so far with this run of superhero movies...
Goyer: It is crazy. I never thought I'd see these kinds of movies being made. I never thought I'd see a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie.
Beaks: I remember talking to you nine years ago, and we joked about "When will we know it's gone too far?" And it was like, "When they make a JONAH HEX movie." Well, they made a JONAH HEX movie, it bombed, and the ball's still rolling! How do you think this plays out from here?
Goyer: I think it's a genuine new filmic genre in the same way that we have westerns or musicals or thrillers or whatever. It will be cyclical. Westerns come and go, and I think, assuming the world doesn't blow up, there will be comic book movies 100 years from now. You wonder how long this current wave can go on, because it's gone on longer than I thought it would. I don't know, but even when it ebbs there will be another wave. I think it's here to stay. When you've had so many movies make so much money, clearly it's gone wider than the early adopters. THE AVENGERS makes $1.6 billion? That's the whole world. Same with THE DARK KNIGHT.
Beaks: It's wild. My dad watches this stuff on cable.
Goyer: My mom saw THE AVENGERS, and I didn't even work on it.
Beaks: You didn't work on THE AVENGERS, but perhaps the DC complement to it?
Goyer: (Smiling again) We'll see.
Beaks: Okay, let's try it this way: there was a sense, as they were developing JUSTICE LEAGUE, of "Why don't they just get the guys who got Batman right?" Were you ever sitting there thinking, "C'mon. Let me have a crack at this. Put me in the game."
Goyer: I can't speak to that.
Beaks: As far as DC's development of television series, is there a character in that universe you'd like to tackle for that format?
Goyer: Well, I've been developing 100 BULLETS, which is a group of characters. That's a little bit left-of-center from the DC canon, but, yeah, there are a couple of DC characters that I think would be fun to try. They attempted to do The Spectre. I wouldn't mind taking a shot at The Spectre.
Beaks: What is it about The Spectre that makes him a good series character?
Goyer: It's got a procedural element, but he's dead. That's cool and kind of unique. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for The Spectre. That would be one character I'd be interested in. I had an idea for a Wonder Woman TV show, but Allan Heinberg is writing one now.
Beaks: They've had such difficulty launching that character. Why is that?
Goyer: I thought I had a killer take, but I'm a fan of Allan's, so we'll see. Hopefully that will be successful. But if it's not, I might say, "I've got an approach." But I don't know why it's been so hard to crack, particularly in TV, where they've had more success with female leads than they've had in films.
Beaks: You're a fan of SHERLOCK, so of course you cast Laura Pulver in your show.
Goyer: You probably won't believe this, but at the time I cast her I had not seen SHERLOCK or that episode. I cast her, and then I watched the DVDs while we were prepping. First of all, I became an incredible fan of that show. I think it's one of the best shows on. The writing is phenomenal. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are amazing. Then I got to that episode, which I think is the best episode out of all of them, and I just said, "Holy shit!" And we'd already cast her.
Beaks: "I'm a genius!"
Goyer: Yeah. I knew it was infamous, but I just... you get so busy. I didn't watch BATTLESTAR GALACTICA until after it was off the air.
Beaks: That's the nice thing about series television now. You can watch anytime and at your own pace.
Goyer: I came to JUSTIFIED late, but I'm a fan of that show.
Beaks: In terms of developing a show, do you think about these different viewing experiences?
Goyer: Absolutely. My wife and I watch a lot of cable TV. Sad to say we don't watch network TV anymore. LOST was the last one. Well, I guess FLASH FORWARD was the last one. I enjoy the TV viewing experience, and I approach it as if I was watching TV, and how episodes end and spoilers and all of that.
Beaks: Is there any chance you'll revisit FLASH FORWARD?
Goyer: I get asked that all the time. Never say never. That's one of the big heartbreaks of my career, is what happened to that show. But this show benefited from the heartbreak of FLASH FORWARD. I was gun-shy and really got raked over the coals creatively on that. But [Starz CEO] Chris Albrecht said, "We back our creators a lot more than they do in network television." And he was true to his word. That's not to say we didn't have arguments. We had lots of arguments. But on some issues, he was like, "Okay, if that's what you want to do, I'll back you."
Beaks: Any other comic book writers you'd like to get working on television?
Goyer: I'd love to get Brubaker doing something. Matt Fraction, Matt Kindt, and, of course, Brian Azzarello.
I'm sure I'll talk with Mr. Goyer again in, oh, about a month or so. While you're waiting for the son of Jor-El, you can check out DA VINCI'S DEMONS every Friday night on Starz at 10 PM.