22 things we learned visiting the set of Da Vinci’s Demons

Last September, Den Of Geek had a day out in South Wales to visit the impressive Da Vinci’s Demons set. Here’s what we learned…

Driving through Port Talbot’s rolling green countryside on a sunny September morning, the first hint of anything out of the ordinary was the sight of two fully garbed, bewigged Ottoman Janissaries leading their horses into a car park.

As we alighted the minibus, more fifteenth century Turks came into view, one reading the paper on a sunny verge, another texting in the shade of a double decker coach, a hatless, wigless queue forming at the catering van…

Led down a leafy sylvan path, the soil underfoot gradually turning into sand, we emerged blinking into the light of a steep golden dune. Dotted around the hillside were military banners, decorative earthenware pots, iron braziers, straw-stuffed training dummies, and a draped Ottoman tent, all topped by a bright strip of cloudless blue sky. This was Swansea doing its best impression of Renaissance-era Turkey. Ignore the Janissary wearing Ray-Bans and the crumpled Costa Coffee cup discarded in an ornate urn, and who’d know we weren’t on the outskirts of historic Constantinople.

After a nose around what we learn is Lucrezia Donati’s tent, in which the lighting team was planning a transition shot from the blinding daylight of a ship’s deck to the tenebrous tent interior, we were called over to speak to David S. Goyer, Da Vinci’s Demons creator, and a man with more comic book pies than fingers to stick in them.

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In addition to Justice LeagueMan Of Steel and The Dark Knight trilogy’s David Goyer, we spoke to director Peter Hoar, production designer extraordinaire Ed Thomas (who also designed for Doctor Who and Torchwood), location manager Gareth Skelding, cast members Tom Riley, Blake Ritson, Lara Pulver, Elliot Cowan and more.

Over the course of the day we visited Margam Castle, which stands in for the Medici Palace in the series, as well as the vast studios at Swansea Gate Business Park, where, inside enormous warehouses not only sit impressive chunks of Florence and the Vatican, but also a full-size ship, and – why not – a model of Peruvian temple Machu Picchu. Here’s what we learned…

1. Season two goes globetrotting

Obvious from our encounter with not-Italy, season two sets sail to far-flung locations. David Goyer elaborates:

“A big chunk of the second season doesn’t take place in Florence. We’re in Naples, and then Constantinople and then South America in the Incan Empire […] the first season, the bulk of the show was in Florence and I would say this season is kind of evenly split, a quarter Florence, a quarter Naples, a quarter Constantinople, a quarter Peru, of all places.”

2. They Googled Machu Picchu

Production Designer Ed Thomas, who also worked on Doctor Who and Torchwood, told us about recreating Incan temple Machu Picchu in a Swansea car park:

“We Googled Machu Picchu, rather than got on a plane and went there, and we created a 3D model, a scale replica, with artistic licence. The main structure is a bird with wings and a head carved in the stone work, and everything else has been built around that. This set has only appeared three times in the show in three night scenes with three hundred extras in fabulous costumes with lots of flambeaux, it really comes alive at night. We shoot into a green screen where we put the rest of Machu Picchu.”

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“We did laugh when David [Goyer] said Machu Picchu in South Wales. With season two we thought there’s absolutely no point in going to South America and having a look at what’s there, because we’re going to create it all anyway. You can waste so much money doing that, which doesn’t end up on the screen.”

3. There’s an Indiana Jones feel to the second season

Tom Riley, who plays Leonardo, told us, “This season is more Indiana Jones-y than last season. There’s a lot more action, adventure, stunts and things blowing up in foreign climes. In fact, our director Peter [Hoar] knocked together a little fake poster he made on his laptop that said ‘Leonardo Da Vinci And The Book of Leaves’ in the Indiana Jones font, which, incidentally, I think is called Fedora.”

4. Leonardo da Vinci designed the TARDIS

Seeing as so much artistic licence is taken with the sets, we asked Ed Thomas whether it was fairly similar to production design for Doctor Who’s locations, both being fantastic works of the imagination?

“Exactly, in sci-fi, no-one can hear you scream, so no-one really went to those places, but with this, there are people who can say ‘the Medici palace doors don’t look like that’ or whatever, but it’s absolutely that. The only thing Da Vinci hasn’t got is a TARDIS, and in fact, he has got a TARDIS on his desk in the workshop set, there is a drawing of the TARDIS that he designed! Leonardo definitely designed the TARDIS.”

5. David S. Goyer can’t keep secrets

Gregg Chillin, who plays Leo’s childhood friend Zoroaster, told us “[Goyer] is a bundle of amazing secrets and he’s quite good at spilling them. If you want a secret kept, do not tell him because they all come out. Tom [Riley] does a great job of holding onto spoilers forever, and we go up to him and ask, ‘So what happens in episode nine?’ and he jokes ‘You all die’ and it’s instantly dismissed, but David has this amazing way of just letting it all spill out one thing after another. You just sit and listen.”

Has Chillin ever tried to weasel Justice League news out of David Goyer? “All the time. I sent him an email when they revealed the Ben Affleck casting saying ‘Hey, where was my screen test? Bruce Walid Wayne! I could do it”

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6. You may have eaten part of the set

In one of the studio’s three enormous stages was a recreated section of cornfield. “We’ve planted a cornfield here because we’re doing pick-ups of a cornfield that we actually grew in Margum Park.” Ed Thomas tells us, “We grew 11 acres of corn, it’s the first time we’ve grown a set!”

What did they do with the corn when they’d finished? “I think it was harvested”, Thomas says. Who knows, that corn could have ended up as a bowl of Da Vinci’s Demons cornflakes…

7. Count Riario will be wearing his Renaissance sunglasses in season two

Blake Ritson assured us of this, “Absolutely. There may even be copycats, I may have started a trend. I love them, I wear them to set sometimes just for the devilry of it.”

8. The Da Vinci’s Demons version of the Renaissance is deliberately wrong

“Some of the Renaissance is really gaudy and ugly and our Renaissance, the world that we’ve created, is much more of a fortified nature.” Ed Thomas tells us, “We wanted a visual journey, we weren’t just designing for the first season, so as the Medici family and the Vatican grows, we want the visuals to grow and look more expensive so we arrive somewhere. We’re very much late Medieval/early Renaissance, even though that’s probably not quite our period, it doesn’t matter. You don’t get a writer like David Goyer and then contain him to what something should be, with someone like that, you just let them run wild.”

9. The production designer does get complaints about historical accuracy (but he doesn’t care)

“You’ll always get the odd ‘Dear points of view, why-oh-why-oh-why have they got red candles because they never had red candles?’, and you just think, ‘Fuck you, whatever’. You get an awful lot more from people who love steampunk and who love what you’ve done.”

10. The writers room for season 3 (which hasn’t been confirmed yet) started last November

David S. Goyer confirmed last September, “We’re writing the tenth episode of season two now, although we know largely what happens. The nature of the game, at least with pay cable schedules now, is because the production period is so much longer than network television – we shoot 12-13 days an episode which is compared to 8 on like a Walking Dead or something, that’s a lot – so if you want the next season to come a year later, you have to start the writers’ room before the next season’s been commissioned, so we’ll be starting the season three writers’ room on November 15th I believe. I think it’s the same day that we wrap.”

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11. The studio is 5 times the size of the Bond Pinewood Studio, and 4 and a half times the size of the 2005 Doctor Who studio

“Bond’s Pinewood studio is 54,000. I think the Doctor Who stage in total was about 60,000 square feet so we’re 265,000 square feet”, Ed Thomas tells us.

“We’ve got a lot more space than Doctor Who. We were a bit crammed in there. I think the Doctor Who stage in total was about 60,000 square feet so we’re a great deal bigger.”

12. Everything is recycled

All the sets in the Swansea Business Gate Park are standing, Thomas tells us, “That’s the benefit of having 265,000 square feet, is that you can leave things up and repurpose them. We basically reconfigure this set for all the Vatican sets, these columns move around, they’re all on wheels. We print the floor, we generate the floor on a computer and send it off to get printed. When you see season two, this here was the bath, so underneath there is a huge pit, the bath itself, in this season we’ve used it as a sewer, we’ve used it to sink the submarine, we use this quite a lot. We always recycle everything. Everything gets used at least three times or it’s not really worth building it.”

13. Leonardo’s workshop has a Bat symbol Easter Egg

“In the case of the roof structure in his workshop, we tried to make this feel as if this is where Da Vinci got his idea for his kite and parachute”, Thomas says, “In saying that, we also made it look like the Bat symbol, so when you stand from up there looking down it takes on the shape of the Bat symbol, and that was just a nod to David Goyer. It’s licence. We sort of dip our toe in historical accuracy but we’re not making a drama documentary, we’re making a piece of TV that hopefully that fans will love.”

Other tiny set details include miniature portraits of Lara Pulver in the stained glass windows adorning Clarisse Medici’s bedroom.

14. Da Vinci’s Demons could be to Margam Park what Downton Abbey is to Highclere House

As one of the major filming locations for the series, Margam Park, is open to the general public when Da Vinci’s Demons isn’t filming, location manager Gareth Skelding hopes it will draw tourists to Wales.

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“With Doctor Who, that’s happened, you’ve got so many people flying to Wales to see where Doctor Who is filmed, and Torchwood. There’s a whole shrine in Cardiff Bay where people fly from all around the world. The Torchwood thing is massive and people leave roses there because there was a character killed off in the story so they fly from all around the world to leave messages and notes. It’s really quite weird [laughing] if I’m honest. Hopefully we can do the same with this, a Da Vinci park.”

15. Each location has its own colour palette

With all these different locations, how is the production team planning to help viewers get their bearings? Director Paul Hoar says it won’t be a problem, “You certainly won’t confuse them. Certainly with Peru, it’s such an adventure, everything is so different. There’s a tonal shift with the colours, it gets a lot hotter with lots of yellows in there, with Naples we tend to go for blues and blacks and darks. Everything has its own palette.”

16. The Da Vinci’s Demons studio uses more power now than when it was a car factory

“The studio itself was basically a leaky building, there was no electricity here, there was no water, we literally came into leaky roofs, and we put everything in here, even down to the power. We’ve got four sub-stations and we run six KV of power,” production designer Ed Thomas explains, “which is more than when they were producing cars here. It’s a massive undertaking.” He’s not wrong.

17. Filming locations in Wales have much more to offer than quarries

Location manager Gareth Skelding tells us, “There’s so much because of the history and the industry that was here, those buildings are still there. There’s the old council chambers beautifully carved in marble, you’ve got Caerphilly Castle, Castle Cork, really opulent castles… there’s lots here you’ve got your eye on and you’re hoping that the next time you go back, there’s not a Tesco’s there.

In my head I know what’s there and I’m always waiting to read that script and say ‘yes I’ve got it! I know exactly where that is’. There’s lots around Swansea that you don’t want to go in and do half a day’s shoot there and waste it, you want to be there for a week and really open it up and light it and blow it up – literally sometimes. I’ve done a few Starz shows – we’ve blown things up!”

With Doctor Who, you read ‘hmm, planet Mars’ and think ‘how are we going to twist this one?’ This is a lot simpler. When I read ‘Florence’, ‘Naples’, ‘Peru’, I don’t really feel that we haven’t got it. Within an hour’s drive, we can do most things. And we’re not just filming in quarries, no! We did one little quarry at the start of this year, but we’ve stayed away from them so far.”

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18. It cost $400,000 to make the Rome and Florence digital backdrops

According to David S. Goyer, “One of the benefits of going into a second season is, we had to digitally build Florence and Rome and we spent a good chunk of money, like $400 grand doing that in the first season, but now we own all that for the second season so we don’t have to re-spend that money again, so we can put even more money into even cooler visual effects shots.”

19. Da Vinci’s Demons wasn’t always going to be made in Wales

“Starz weren’t coming to Wales necessarily” Ed Thomas tells us, “They were going to go to Eastern Europe, they were looking at all sorts of different locations, and I just think it was luck that we brought them here on the way back from one recce that they’d been on and they stopped off and walked in here and we sold them this. The scale of this production is something that none of us expected, having worked on some of the bigger British shows, nothing can prepare you for the scale of this show, both in terms of the labour it swallows up to do it, the turnaround times, this is the sort of TV we need to be making in Britain, and a lot more of it, and hopefully we will be.”

20. Not all of season two was filmed in Wales

Justifiably proud Welsh location manager Gareth Skelding begrudgingly admits that a unit had to go to England for a bit of season two. Cornwall stood in for a wee bit of Peru, and some filming took place in the Forest of Dean’s Puzzlewood.

21. None of it would have been possible without Doctor Who

Thomas enthuses about the legacy of the investment Starz has made in South Wales for Da Vinci’s Demons. As well as keeping its creative talent local, the production team runs a successful educational programme, bringing in local students and graduates to develop their creative skills. None of this, however, would have been possible without Jane Tranter and Russell T Davies’ revival of Doctor Who:

“The days before Doctor Who in South Wales, there was nothing, I think the last show the BBC had on network TV was The District Nurse, which was 150 years ago, and so we started the talent pool regeneration with Doctor Who, then Torchwood came along and we were able to build on that, and then when this show came along, which is for all intents and purposes ten times bigger than Doctor Who, we were able to facilitate it, whereas if they’d come five, six, ten years ago, there was no chance.”

22. And finally, the most important thing we were told…

“Don’t trip over the dead llama.” A motto to live by.

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Da Vinci’s Demons season 2 starts on Fox in the UK on Friday the 4th of April. Come back later this week for interviews with David Goyer and Tom Riley.

Catch up with Da Vinci’s Demons Series 1 on DVD and Blu-ray now

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