Interview: ‘Da Vinci’s Demons’ Creator David S. Goyer on His Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

By  · Published on April 10th, 2013

In the vein of recent television period pieces, Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons continues to approach its old time setting with a serious scope. There are highly detailed sets, big landscapes, a filmic quality, and an intricate story calling for viewers’ attention. The show’s creator, David S. Goyer, went through his fair share of challenges in bringing that scope to television and conveying Leonardo da Vinci’s larger than life personality and career.

This isn’t a stuffy low-rent take on Da Vinci’s time, but rather a show that is as grand as its ambitious hero. Crafting that vision isn’t the only challenge a show like Da Vinci’s Demons presents, says Goyer. While briefly discussing the series with us, the writer of this summer’s Man of Steel gave us insight into his approach for the show, the technical issues involved, and being a perfectionist.

The show seems to explore an artist whose downfall comes from their own ambition. Would you say that’s accurate?

Yeah, absolutely. I am an artist, and I understand the pros and cons of being an artist, and the pressures of being an artist, and how much being an artist can be torture to people around you; you know, you friends and your family and how material you can be, and how it’s hard to take criticism and all the things like that. Although, I sort of feel like Da Vinci was so much more than an artist as well.

When doing research or writing the show, was there anything in particular you could relate to on an artistic level?

Well, I would never presume to be even remotely on the level that he was. I think almost no one was. But, you know, I relate to the feeling that Da Vinci was often plagued by the idea that what he did wasn’t good enough, that he was his harshest critic. He’d sometimes destroy what he was working on. And that’s something that I can really relate to because there are times when I’ve been working on things when…I’m a perfectionist, and I turn something in and it may be my audience, or my family, or even the studio might think something’s good, but I see every tiny little fault.

Even though I think the show is great, I think there were a couple shots in the first episode that I’m like, “Oh! That drives me crazy! It’s not what I wanted!” I remember reading somewhere that David Fincher is only happy with like 20% of each film. I’m happier with a higher percentage of that. But I can relate to what he’s saying. I’m sure Da Vinci was like that as well.

Have you always kind of been that way?

Yes, I’ve always been like that. I am my harshest critic. I’m constantly striving to make it as good as possible. I’ve always been a perfectionist.

Since TV is a writer’s medium, is that a better place for a perfectionist than film?

[Laughs] Is it a good medium for perfectionists? I don’t know. I mean on one hand it is a writer’s medium. But, on the other hand, if you wanted, I guess, perfection, you might be better of just writing a novel, right? Because then it can be exactly as you described it. When you are screenwriting, whether it’s TV or film, it’s a blueprint, but then you have to make it real. And there’s all sort of compromises that you have to contend with. There’s the weather. There’s the financial compromises. All sorts of things.

I don’t know how many episodes you’ve seen…

I’ve seen four.

Episode 2 in particular…We had a lot of rain; the most rain in recorded history, apparently. There were a number of scenes we shot that were rained out a couple of times. But even when we did shoot them we had to sort of incorporate rain into…Like the first gun test it was not supposed to be raining. It was just obviously raining. We rewrote the scene on the set because there was no way we were going to get around it.

You probably ran into a lot of more problems considering the show is pretty notable in scope. From square one, did you see it as this big, intricate show?

Yes, I did. It was very ambitious. I think that even my producers admitted to me that it wasn’t until we finished filming the first couple of episodes that they realized how ambitious…even Starz admitted that. No one sort of realized how ambitious a show it was. I always thought it was going to be like that, but they had never viewed it that way. But I wanted it to have a lot of scope and I wanted it to be big and sprawling and embrace a lot of genres. It’s, by and large, the show that I had in my head when we started out, so half the depth.

Looking at your directorial work, like The Unborn or The Invisible, they’re very contained stories.


As a director, do you have a preference of working in a contained environment versus dealing with a scope like Da Vinci’s?

Well, it’s ironic that you say that because you would think TV would be more contained and then, you know, [Laughs] this show is like all over the place compared to those films. I don’t know. I mean those…it just so happened that those two films were kind of more contained. They both had young adults in them as well in their kind of character studies. I don’t really have one preferred style. I guess I like directing actors, and it just so happens that Da Vinci is such a…as a character he’s just such a sort of flurry of all these different things, kind of this whirlwind that the filming style needs to be that way as well. Does that make sense?

Yeah, make a larger than life portrait.

Yeah, which also means that it’s more of a pain in the ass to film, without question. I love Breaking Bad, although that show has also gotten increasingly more stylish. But it would be fun to go shoot The Wire almost all performance as opposed to visual effects and things like that. But, you know, this show is a big, crazy, wild show, so that’s what it takes.

Obviously weather can be a problem, but what are some of the smaller things that you don’t expect to be a problem that end up being problems while directing a show like this?

Like the birds not going where you want them to go? Just all sorts of stuff like that. Or cloud cover. Florence is a very bright environment and Swansea is a very cloudy environment. There were some times where we had to replace entire skies when we were shooting outside because there was just no way they were ever going to sell for Florence. If you are shooting a historical piece, also just painting out cars and airplanes and antennas and things like that in the background. We had to do a lot of that.

There are always things that happen that you couldn’t possibly have prepped for. I mean that’s just the nature of filmmaking. There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. We definitely learned…we’d learn as we’d go along. The later episodes, in some ways, went much more smoothly because we, you know, make sure we don’t do that again. But that’s also the nature of filmmaking.

I imagine that’s the key benefit of TV you don’t get in film, where you can come out okay trying to find your footing on what the show is while having more time to tinker.

Sure. Absolutely. I think, in some ways, the later episodes I like better, which is sort of what you would hope and expect as everybody kind of grows into it. Although it’s interesting that you say that, because we tried something unusual with this show, because we didn’t make a pilot. We shot all eight episodes. We actually shot Episode two first. The theory was we would work out some of the kinks and the actors would…We shot episode one second, and by the time we got around to episode one, everybody would sort of be more checked into their roles. To a certain extent, I think it kinda worked. It was just an experiment that we tried.

Is that a common practice in television?

No. It’s very uncommon. I can’t even think of anyone that’s done it before. It was just an idea I had and we tried it. Apparently, Starz had subsequently tried it on Black Sails, their new show, pirate show. I guess they thought it kinda worked. But I don’t know anyone that’s ever tried that before.

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Da Vinci’s Demons premieres this Friday on Starz.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.