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David S. Goyer on 'Da Vinci's Demons': It's 'History With a Wink and a Nod'

The screenwriter behind "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Man of Steel" brings his graphic novel approach to Starz in an exploration of Leonardo Da Vinci's formative years.

"Da Vinci’s Demons"
"Da Vinci's Demons"

Screenwriter David S. Goyer brings is superhero sensibilities to Starz with Da Vinci's Demons, an exploration of Leonardo Da Vinci's formative years.

The eight-part action-adventure drama stars Tom Riley as Da Vinci and tells the "untold" story of a 25-year-old Da Vinci during his turbulent youth in Renaissance Florence as the artist, inventor, swordsman, lover, dreamer and idealist struggles to live within the confines of his own reality and time. With the series, Goyer will explore not only Da Vinci's sexuality but also what kind of a man he really was.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Goyer, whose credits include writing The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel, ahead of the premiere to discuss the lengthy research he did to tell Da Vinci's story and how the historical figure compares to Batman and Superman.

VIDEO: Watch the Triailer for Starz's 'Da Vinci's Demons'

The Hollywood Reporter: How do you transition from Batman and Superman to a historical figure like Leonardo Da Vinci?
David S. Goyer:The thing about Batman Begins is that he's a character that people thought they knew a lot about and yet you're able to identify the spirit in his life where even in the comic books it's not explored that much. We did something similar with Superman and the same with Da Vinci. With Da Vinci, there's a lot of tall tales that have been written about him and he exists in this kind of mythic status and it wasn't that dissimilar. And because I'm not even attempting to do just a straight, historical drama, it is a graphic novel approach; sort of history with a twist. Or history with a wink and a nod.

THR: How much research did you do to tell Leonardo Da Vinci's story?
Goyer:I read every one of his 6,000 journal pages and sketches. I went to Florence, Rome, Milan, the British Museum and got to handle actual Da Vinci pages. I talked to a lot of experts, I read as much as I could and did about four months of pure research where I immersed myself in his life and in the world. I also did a lot of research on other polymaths like J. Robert Oppenheimer because as much as I was interested in the past, we're also interested in how the past can form the present.

THR: What was the most interesting thing that you found out about Da Vinci during all your research that you didn't already know?
Goyer: I didn't know he was a vegetarian, which seems like an odd thing to do for somebody who invented the machine gun. I didn't know that there are some people that think his mom might have been of Arabic extraction, so he might be half Arabic. I didn't know that he dissected corpses initially and that people considered that heresy and he could be put to death for that. He lived in a time where he was very outspoken and he was deeply ambivalent about religion, which is interesting in a time where that was quite dangerous. 

THR: How will you be addressing the uncertainty surrounding Da Vinci's sexuality?
Goyer: That will be addressed at the end of the fourth episode and in five. We're well aware of what happened and we're not going to be shying away from it. I think you will see that depicted in the first season.

STORY:  Starz Orders David Goyer's Da Vinci's Demons to Series

THR: With premium cable, you certainly have more freedom to explore sexuality.
Goyer: There are things we've done in the first season that we could never have done, and I'm not just talking about depictions but just themes and story lines that network would never have let us do relating to Da Vinci's sexuality.

THR: You've also hinted that there's a vampire story set for this season as well.
Goyer: He meets Vlad Dracula. I don't want to say whether it's supernatural or not but he definitely meets him in the show.

THR: How many of the key moments from his life are you planning to incorporate?
Goyer: The Mona Lisa and the Last Supper were painted after our show begins. We do delve into the past in the show and we are at a certain point going to be jumping into the future as well. But if the show goes long enough we'll be dealing with all of that.

THR: We know Da Vinci's life goes. What elements are you adding?
Goyer: When you're dealing with a historical figure, there are gaps in the historical record, which, for a creator, those are gifts because it allows you a lot of latitude. There's a lot of gap between age 28 and 32 where almost nobody knows where he was or what he was doing. There's a lot of speculation as to what he was doing. There's a lot on record about Lucrezia Donati (played by Laura Haddock) but there's no record of how she died; after 30, she just disappears from the history books. It's great to have characters like her and some of the others in the show that create a get out of jail free card for when you're dealing with historical figures so people can't just say, "Oh, I know what happens."

THR: You said at TCA that Da Vinci was like a superhero. Considering your expertise in the genre, how so?
Goyer: He's definitely regarded as a larger-than-life character; he's almost like a demigod and in that way, he is not dissimilar to Batman or Superman. That seems to be what I've fallen into: Taking iconic figures and trying to depict them as nuanced humans that are conflicted. One of the things that's great about cable television is that more than general movies is that you can depict conflicted and nuanced figures that are not necessarily black and white. Da Vinci was brilliant and funny, but he was also kind of an asshole, which is awesome. And cable television allows us to delve into that.

Da Vinci's Demons premieres Friday, April 12 at 10 p.m., moving to 9 p.m. the following week after the series finale of Spartacus.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit