Interview with Da Vinci’s Demons Creator David S. Goyer and Stars Tom Riley and Laura Haddock
Q: You had mentioned this show, and I was excited from the get-go, and I loved the details, I love the historical, you know, the details. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent on the research.
David S. Goyer: A lot! I mean, we have a full-time researcher from the show, which is great and I spend a lot of time, just read a ton of shit. Excuse my French. Went to a lot of museums, you know, that kind of stuff.
Q: And I was talking to Risario before, but you obviously take the basis of who this character is, Leonardo, and how amazingly adventurous and what a forerunner he was, and they were going particularly it seems way off into speculation. Why did you decide to do that?
Tom Riley: Well, there are four missing years of his life. Between about 27 and 32, no one knows where he was or what he was doing. There’s a huge section of his notebooks that are missing, so where is a lot of the stuff that occurs in Italy and occurs in the first season has historical lynch pins to hold people’s hands, to walk through. In the second season, where Riario and Da Vinci and other characters are in South America, there is no, there’s nothing written.
David S. Goyer: That was always the pitch is that we were, there was this beautiful chunk of missing years, and even within this time period, famously, I mean we have two letters that Leonardo wrote claiming that he was in Syria working for the Ottoman Empire. We’re not making this up. There are two letters that exist saying that’s what he was doing, and some people say, historians say that it was a joke but then other people claim that’s what he was really doing. But also I’ve been reading a lot recently, there’s a number of books come out positing that China had sent two missions to the Americas in the 10th century and the 12th century and that they had explorers there and they had a number a Europeans that were there well before others, so I had always joked that this show is the secret history of the man who invented the future and by extension the secret history of the world, so I had always intended this show to travel all over the world, and these are his hidden adventures.
Q: Okay, that’s logical. Four years missing, he could be anywhere.
Q: So you really expanded the world in this series out of England.
David S. Goyer: Oh yeah. We’re not just in Florence. We’re in Rome, we’re in Genoa, we’re in Naples, and then we’re in South America. Technically, I guess we’re in Peru and Panama, I guess for some of the show. And then we’re in another country that we’re not allowed to talk about yet that we’ll be showing later on this season.
Tom Riley: Season 3, another planet. Yeah, there’s no limit to the scope of the show.
Q: You could go to Australia in season 3.
David S. Goyer: Well, the nice thing is, having pulled off, Starz had some apprehension about how we were going to pull off the Incan Empire, but some apprehension…but they were really happy. We’re almost done filming the second season, and they were really happy with what we pulled off. I can genuinely say that the effects and the sets and the visuals are even more spectacular in this season than last season. Having pulled that off, they said okay, we’ll give you license. You can take this show anywhere in the world you want now. That’s cool. You can pull it off.
Q: As long as you stay in Wales?
David S. Goyer: No, I mean we didn’t completely shoot in Wales. We shot plenty of photography in Mexico and we were in Cornwall, which is outside of Wales and, knock on wood, but we’re talking about a third season and I actually hope to physically bring the cast and crew to another country for two or three weeks to do some filming, but I don’t want to say what that country is because it will give away some of where we are going to be this season.
Q: What’s your writing process like? More specifically, how do you go from the initial idea to fleshing it out to a TV show or movie?
David S. Goyer: I always start with the research period, which is I just blue sky and read everything and anything that I can and even if that’s Batman or Superman, I read stuff. Anything I think might-I’m fortunate in that I also have, I mean, we have a researcher who works full-time on Da Vinci, but I also have a researcher that I employ that works full-time for me, which is awesome, and I’ll just say, “Give me stuff on whatever, nanotechnology and this and that. He’s got a fun job. So I start with that for a month or two and then I start outlining and then I write an outline, and it’s for myself. I don’t show it to the studios, and then I do a first draft, and just kind of go from there.
Q: I studied Da Vinci in college, but I didn’t know most of the things that I’ve learned from the show. What’s the most surprising thing about him that you’ve learned from doing this?
Tom Riley: Probably his anatomy dissection, of course, and when I saw an exhibition of his that showed how deep into anatomy he went. At the very end, there was a piece saying that it was lost to history but if it had come out, he’d have been the greatest anatomist that ever lived. You think, how is that just a hobby? How do you have that as a hobby and be the greatest that anyone had ever known? But also, and it’s the strangest, the double-edged sword of the part, but people have such expectations of who he was and yet you want to do justice to the stuff that you found out about him in his twenties that no one really knows.
David S. Goyer: There’s a lot of misinformation about him-
Tom Riley: Yeah, there is.
David S. Goyer: I mean, a lot say they know him-
Tom Riley: He’s held in such high regard. People assume they have an idea in their head of who he is and you want to do, particularly an artist who’s slightly crazy actually a bit, the version that has foundations in reality as best as possible, and that reality isn’t necessarily what’s in people’s head.
David S. Goyer: And we found out, we were in Florence when we premiered the show last year, and we found out some things, and I mean, this is true, but if we did it, people would say it’s bullshit, which is that at one point, Leonardo and Botticelli had a restaurant on the Ponte Vecchio together.
Tom Riley: And it’s the sitcom version.
David S. Goyer: Yeah, and this is true. It ran about a year, but it failed because they were much more concerned about like the presentation of the food than they were about getting the food out on time.
Tom Riley: These stories they were telling us, that was when you realize that no matter what you do, you can’t, the show is what the show is. We aren’t going to please everyone. I watched two historians argue so hard, one saying, “Leonardo was a very thin man, he was a very, very thin man, and he only ate vegetables,” and the other one, “What are you talking about? He was fat! He loved cake!” And they just, these two Italians arguing.
David S. Goyer: And these are Italian historians getting in a fight over it, over cake and vegetables. We can’t, there’s no winning, you know. Everyone has their own conceptions of him, so we’re just going to do our version.
Q: Which is nice because then you can take your own liberties and say, “Well, this is my version.”
Tom Riley: Yeah, and this season, certainly people know what they’re going to get.
David S. Goyer: Yeah, I mean, I think first season people are like, “Well, his hair is longer,” or this or that, but I just love the fact that Visceri, which is a fairly contemporary biographer, said that he bent steel bars with his hands and wrestled with bears. Like, I don’t think that really happened, but that was-
Tom Riley: There you go. I’m wrestling a bear.
Q: Which are more unforgiving, Da Vinci scholars or comic book fans?
David S. Goyer: Oh, comic book fans. I mean, I find Da Vinci scholars to be more forgiving than comic book fans, but I get angry at the comic book fans because I know this stuff just as well as they do, so I’m like, you know what? Shut up.
Q: Were you outraged about Ben Affleck?
David S. Goyer: No! He’s going to be amazing. Trust me. (A question, something about Matt Fraction writing for the show.)
David S. Goyer: Yes, yes, that’s, one of the, you know, I continue to be a comic book fan. I was a fan of Hickman and Fraction’s work. I did not know them, and one of the perks of this job is occasionally you can call up people like that and say to Starz, “I want to bring these comic book guys in.” And they’re like, “Really?Have you ever written a script before?” “Nope!” But I want to give them a try, and I cold-called both of them and said, “Okay, I’ve got this crazy proposition. Do you want to come in and join the writer’s room for two or three weeks and do an episode each with us? And you know, you’ll get an entry into scriptwriting.” And I’ve since become friends with both of them.
Tom Riley: And they really grabbed the chance with both hands. I mean, the episodes they wrote were fantastic. Yeah, I said yesterday that the Matt Fraction episode is the most Da Vinci’s Demons-y episode of Da Vinci’s Demons.
David S. Goyer: I cherry-picked it because I wrote that episode with Matt, and I was like, “Okay, I’m doing that one.”
(Some other question about the writing and Da Vinci in something Hickman wrote.)
David S. Goyer: He had written that. I had already written the pilot for Da Vinci’s Demons before that thing by Hickman had come out, and then when he came to LA to visit for the show, we showed him the pilot and yeah, we were both writing these crazy alternate histories with Leonardo Da Vinci, so who knows? Maybe third season, we’ll bring in someone else.
Q: I love how you depict the inventions, how Leonardo comes up with these inventions. Are those all actually accurate?
Tom Riley: I mean, he didn’t necessarily build them, but they are certainly his designs.
David S. Goyer: He designed, I mean, some of them he designed and built, some of them he just designed and we don’t know whether or not he actually built them, but part of the promise of the show, the sort of candy of the show, is that he is going to build and employ a lot of those things. And it’s a push-pull because there, some of them we actually build and they’re very expensive. We’re augmenting visual effects, and so we can kind of afford to do one every two episodes. So we’ve got 10 now, episodes this season, so we’ll have about 5.
Q: He was a busy boy, I’ll tell you. A lot of sex too.
Tom Riley: He did.
David S. Goyer: Polyamorous sex.
Tom Riley: Had more time than I did. I, yes. Polyamorous sex.
Q: Was the sexuality something you had researched as truth?
David S. Goyer: Well, I mean people-One camp would say he was homosexual. There’s another camp that maintain he was heterosexual. There’s another camp that maintains he was bisexual-
Tom Riley: Asexual…
David S. Goyer: I’m sort of in the camp that he was bisexual, that meant that particularly an artist and people in and amongst Florence at the time during the Renaissance, that was, that didn’t, that was relatively common and it didn’t have the, people were not as uptight about sexuality back then, oddly enough, as they are now. It wasn’t like a big deal.
Tom Riley: But I think that the route that we took was most interest, that if his notebooks he had written down, “This is my sexuality, this is whom I’m in love with” at any point, they would have been sacrilegious to deviate from that, but he never wrote anything down. So the fact that there is nothing from there and he chose to not define himself finite. It was very interesting, why did he choose that? Maybe that’s the route we should take. He certainly didn’t avoid sexuality questions to please an audience one way or another. It was just what would make a man self-define.
Q: People seem more accepting of violence than they are of sexuality.
David S. Goyer: You know, people in America are more accepting of violence, and people in Europe are more accepting of sexuality. I mean, it’s just the puritanical thing.