Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, conceived of the helicopter and developed a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics (among many other things), making him one of the most famous figures in history. And yet we know surprisingly little about the Renaissance Man–all of which makes him ideal fodder for historical fiction.
Da Vinci is just the kind of superhuman figure that David S. Goyer relishes. The screenwriter who crafted the Dark Knight movies (he cowrote that trilogy with director Christopher Nolan) and Man of Steel (the upcoming reboot of the Superman mythology, directed by Zack Snyder and produced by Nolan) has created Da Vinci’s Demons, a new series debuting this week on Starz.
Goyer is no slouch himself. The last TV show he created was the one-season ABC series FlashForward; he has directed movies, including Blade: Trinity and Zig Zag; he’s written two novels and he developed the story for the wildly successful videogames Call of Duty: Black Ops I and II.
In a tightly scheduled 15 minutes, Co.Create asked the master multitasker how he manages it all and how he balances the expectations of die-hard fans with his own creative vision. Naturally, we couldn’t help squeezing in a question or two about the much-awaited Man of Steel.
“My wife is used to talking to me over the breakfast table and suddenly finding me staring off out the window. ‘You’re on Krypton right now, aren’t you?’ she’ll say to me. ‘You’re somewhere else.’ My mind is a very cluttered place. So I’m constantly writing down little bibs and bobs or texting things to myself.
“When I started out, I would work on only one thing [at a time] but as the years have progressed—I’ve been working professionally for 26 years—I’ve developed an ability to multitask, and I like it. I like moving from one thing to another on any given day. I can work on four different projects. I [block out the time]; I’m very rigorous that way. I find that a lot of the more successful, creative people I admire are rigorous about the work; they treat it as a job. So I say, ‘From 9 to 11 I’m going to work on Man of Steel. From 11 to 1, I’m going to work on Da Vinci, then I’m going take an hour for lunch and get back to it. And I pretty much stick to it.”
So what if a text comes in from Zack Snyder? “I’ll tell my office I’m not taking any calls, but, depending on what’s going on, there are a few people who get through. If Zack calls and says I need an ADR line for Man of Steel and I’m working on Da Vinci, I’ll jump to Man of Steel. Or, obviously, if Chris Nolan calls.
“Of course, there’s a limit. I was saying to my wife the other day, ‘I think I need to slow down a little.’ Three seems like the happy number.” Like one project starting up, one holding steady, and the third wrapping up? “Exactly.”
With the projects he’s working on, Goyer has to be able to adjust to new environments–like Chicago (Man of Steel and The Dark Knight) and Wales (Da Vinci’s Demons)–and still remain productive. “I’ve gotten pretty adaptable,” he says. “I have various writing totems I set out a certain way. I need it to be quiet, so I can’t be around any other people. I’m a big tea fan. I ship a certain green tea I like–it’s Genmaicha, a green tea with toasted rice. It’s just my thing. I also meditate every morning for 22 minutes. OK, sometimes it’s only 10. But I’ve been doing it for six or seven years.”
“One of the things I picked up from Chris Nolan is he hates sequel bait: Planting something assuming that [it’s going to be picked up in a sequel]. I have to agree, to a certain extent. You have to be careful not to be too slick. The audience can sense it, that inauthenticity. He also always says, ‘If you have a good idea, use it. Worry about the sequel when we worry about the sequel.’ I’ve also applied that with Da Vinci. There were some stories we presented that made everyone say, ‘You’re moving too fast, save that for the next season.’ But we don’t know if we’re going to get another season. You need to go put your best foot forward and if you’ve got a good idea. It’s champagne problems: If we use up all our good ideas in the first season.
“I can’t speak of it [specifically], but we were talking about an episode just yesterday and we’ve long talked about not having this particular character emerge until much, much later in the show but I said, Screw it, let’s do it.”
“In television, the top dog is the showrunner; the director is subordinate to the showrunner. In film, the writer is subordinate to the director. It does [shift it]. The fact that I also direct helps me sometimes so I have a context when I work with Chris or with Zack. I know that you can’t just write, ‘He steps into a room and he looks awesome.’ Or, ‘They have a big fight.’ That’s not very helpful to a director. Early on, I was working on the script for the first Blade film and I described the bad guy as, ‘He looked like a living nightmare.’ The director said, ‘What does that actually mean?! I’m going to have to talk to the art department and come up with something–that doesn’t mean anything.’ Now that I’ve directed myself, I’m much more conscious of that. A script is not a novel. You could write that sort of description in a novel if you wanted to and it wouldn’t necessarily matter, but a script is a blueprint for something that must be staged and will later be filmed.”
When Goyer was researching da Vinci’s life for the series, he traveled to Florence, where he reviewed the painter’s journals. Goyer discovered that there’s a period of da Vinci’s life about which almost nothing is known–from the time he was 28 to about 32. The series is set in that time. “That’s gold!” Goyer says of the revelation, which gave him the liberty to interpret da Vinci’s life unburdened by historical fact. “I’m calling the show a historical fantasy. One of the loglines of the show is ‘History is a lie.’ That paradox is where this show lives. History is written by the winners. All the time, there are things in history that turn out to not be true, to be fabricated. He is one of the most famous people who ever existed, and yet to this day no one knows who da Vinci’s mother was or what his sexuality was. I find that fascinating.”
Similarly, he searched for those pockets of freedom when shaping stories about Batman and Superman, also characters weighed down by their own history. “Even in the comic books, Frank Miller’s year one, [Batman] leaves Gotham and when you pick him up again he’s flying back to Gotham; there’s been seven years in which nothing is known. A big chunk of Batman Begins takes place during those seven years. Superman’s early childhood has fewer gaps, but I think we managed to find some.”
Whether it’s da Vinci or Superman, Goyer is battling expectations. “We’re very aware. In the case of Superman, many people have possessory feelings about him but then there have been a lot of different iterations. It’s no small thing to say you’re going to do Superman; but which Superman? Which era are you going to adhere to? Which elements are you going to adhere to? Da Vinci is a little bit different; it’s historical but there’s a lot of debate about his life. No doubt some people will take issue. And that may be the case with Man of Steel. We’ll see.” [Man of Steel opens June 14.] One of the ways they tried to upend expectations on Da Vinci’s Demons was to open with a bang [spoiler alert]: Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham naked! “Hugh [Bonneville] was a godsend,” Goyer says. “My dream was to cast someone well known who was in a more proper historical piece and then show him in a way that would show that this is not your father’s historical drama.” Indeed.
“We’re in the same place we were at with Batman Begins,” he says of Man of Steel. “If you think about Batman Begins, there had been these previous iterations of Batman, the TV show, the Burton films. We were trying to do something that’s different. We were going against the tide. The public perception of Superman comes largely from the Donner films. Superman’s been preserved in amber since something like 37 years ago, and for the general public, he hasn’t really shifted since. Anytime you do something different, shake up the orthodoxy, you risk offending people. Superman has been reinterpreted many times over the decades, and if he is going to remain a vibrant myth, he needs to continue to be reinterpreted. Hopefully, that’s what we’ve done and people will embrace it.”