David S. Goyer has made a living inventing outsized mythologies for some of pop culture’s most beloved figures — Batman, Superman, he’s even working on a new Godzilla movie due out in 2014.
Now, he’s giving Leonardo da Vinci the superhero treatment. Starz’s “Da Vinci’s Demons” presents the gifted Renaissance artist as a born-out-of-wedlock tortured genius with a penchant for opium who is branded as a heretic by the all-powerful church.
All of which, Goyer points out, is true.
The eight-episode series, which is set to premiere April 12, concentrates on Da Vinci (played by English actor Tom Riley) as a young man beginning at 25 and imagines his development as a free thinker in a rigid, often-secretive society. There is surprisingly little known about the Italian artist, often regarded as one of the greatest geniuses of Western civilization, during this period in his life.
“I hate saying it’s got a graphic novel approach, but it does — it’s photographically very different than any other historical show,” said Goyer.
“Downton Abbey” this is not, but then, coming from Goyer, maybe that’s not a surprise. The Michigan native with the sleeve tattoos is a fixture in the worlds of comic book movies and video game culture, arguably best known for his work on Christopher Nolan’s brooding, majestic Batman films and as the screenwriter for the upcoming Superman movie, “Man of Steel,” which Nolan produced.
Goyer also wrote the massively popular game “Call of Duty: Black Ops II,” but he’s yet to find the same kind of grand success in television. His most recent series, “FlashForward,” lasted just one season on ABC.
Inside a darkened editing suite at a Soho post-production facility where he’d been putting the finishing touches on the first few episodes of “Da Vinci’s Demons,” Goyer displayed a cautious optimism about his latest endeavor.
“It’s premium cable so there’s no censorship at all, so there’s nothing we can’t do or show or any theme we can’t explore,” Goyer said.
He came up with the idea for “Da Vinci’s Demons” after meeting with BBC Worldwide executives Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, who, Goyer said, invited him to craft the “‘Batman Begins’ version of historical drama” for their new label, Adjacent Prods. (Tranter and Gardner are executive producers on the series.)
Da Vinci turned out to be the figure from the past that most intrigued the self-professed history nerd. The storytelling possibilities around the tormented artist, who isn’t always the most likable protagonist, seemed almost limitless.
“He was this incredibly complex character,” Goyer said. “He was a polymath, he was probably manic depressive, he had a really conflicted, interesting life. He had a real chip on his shoulder. Because he was a bastard, he wasn’t allowed into all these aspects of society, and yet his dad lived in the Medici palace. That was deeply humiliating for him.”
Although the first season largely takes place in Florence, Italy, the production was shot on location in Wales; an artist in residence was hired to reproduce many of Da Vinci’s most famous sketches.
Goyer has already turned his attention to a second season, mapping out a clear direction for a serialized story line that is anchored by real historical events, even as it explores wild flights of fantasy too.
“It’s sort of one-third Indiana Jones, one-third ‘Sherlock,’ one-third [‘Iron Man’s’] Tony Stark,” Goyer said. “There’s a lot of ‘Lost’ in there, it’s got a heavy mythology. It’s got time-bending in there, it’s all the [....] I love and grew up on crammed into one show, but I think it’s working.”
– Gina McIntyre, reporting from London
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