David S. Goyer interview: Da Vinci’s Demons season 2, Indiana Jones & more…

We chatted to Da Vinci’s Demons creator and geek polymath David S. Goyer about Leonardo’s season 2 travels, and history being a lie…

Warning: contains plot details for Da Vinci’s Demons season two.

Read our Da Vinci’s Demons set visit report, here.

To Da Vinci’s Demons creator David S. Goyer, everything is equal when it comes to storytelling. In conversation, he seagues effortlessly between Alan Moore, Transformers, fifteenth century Sultans and Incan warriors in the same easy, laidback tone. Dates of battles and invasions trip off his tongue punctuated by a series of “like”, “awesome”, “stuff” and “crazy shit”. In the fifteen minutes we stood on set huddled around him like pupils on a field trip, Goyer recaps swathes of Renaissance history, flicking through centuries as if they were pages in a comic book. Everyone is “this guy who” invaded somewhere, or massacred “a bunch of these guys”.

If “History is a lie” is Da Vinci’s Demons’ self-proclaimed thesis, then “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” appears to be Goyer’s approach to its storytelling. Goyer happily adopts whatever Revisionist theories on the life of Leonardo tell the best story. It’s an approach likely to infuriate pedants and sticklers, but it allows his show any number of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” moments, including Leonardo’s discovery of Incan airplanes in fifteenth century Peru…

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Here’s what Goyer told us about what to expect from Da Vinci’s Demons season two and beyond…

Can you tell us about the set we’re currently on (a Welsh sand dune dressed as a fifteenth century Ottoman encampment)?

Through the magic of visual effects, this will be part of the Ottoman empire on the outskirts of Constantinople, this is a camp of Bayezid who’s the son of an Ottoman Sultan, like a Janissary camp. If you know your history, the Ottoman Empire was expanding and actually attacked Otranto, a Neapolitan city in 1481 or 82 or something like that, which is – spoiler – something that will ultimately happen on the show.  

We’ve been hinting in the first and second season that there’s a greater existential threat, there are all these warring factions in Italy, Rome has been warring with Florence, and Milan was part of that, so Italy’s basically a series of city states and then in the background the Ottoman Empire was expanding and expanding and eventually they attacked Italy, Otranto, which was one of the things that motivated Florence and Naples and the Papal states to kind of  say ‘Can’t we all just agree to get along?’ so that’s sort of the historical background of crap that’s happening in season two.

And Leonardo is caught in the middle of all that?

Da Vinci’s in the middle of all of that. Part of the fun of season two is that we’re positing… there’ve been all of these books written recently that have said a variety of people were in the Americas well before Columbus, including some other Portuguese and Italians. The Chinese were supposedly in America in the tenth and twelfth century. Part of the whole thesis of the show is history is a lie, so what we’ve done rather cheekily is have one of our new characters in the second season be Amerigo Vespucci, who is of course who America was named after, and if you do a little reading up of Amerigo, he’s characterised as being really self-promoting in real life. There’s some dispute about whether or not he was a great explorer or like a really great PR guy, and that’s kind of what he’s like in the show. He actually ends up helping Da Vinci and some other people get to the new lands in advance of Columbus. Then there’s this whole thing where he’s like ‘I’m going to talk to my friend Cristofaro and show him these maps…’ So, without giving too much away that’s part of the fun.

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We want to fulfil the promise of Leonardo trying to go there in the quest for the Book of Leaves, and we just thought it’d be mad to involve the Inca. Bizarrely in history, there’s a particular Incan leader, this guy named Topa Inca, that they encounter before the other Europeans arrived a little later at the Incan Empire. They found evidence of some other sort of Western European stuff there, including Da Vinci’s drawings, which presupposes that some people were there in advance.

It’s all fun. The truth is with some of these things we don’t really know, it seems like there might have been either Chinese or other Europeans that were in the Incan empire, even up to 100 years before, so again, that’s part of the thesis of the second season, that kind of revisionist history.

You won’t go quite as far as Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, though?

Well, we’re a little bit in that territory! [laughter] That’s part of the fun, for me. Now Starz is down with it, now they see what we’re doing. At the beginning, I showed them these Incan artefacts that looked like airplanes that were found in the treasure vault of this Incan leader, and they look like modern airplanes, they really look like flying machines and they’re called Incan airplanes, and I just said ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Leonardo went there and saw these things and then…’ and there’s also all the stuff with the Nazca lines. It’s a little bit Chariots Of The Gods and it’s a little bit Crystal Skull, I guess.

Because of all the travel and new locations in season two, does that mean that this season takes place over a longer period of time?

Yeah, I would say the first series took place over the course of a year and roughly series two takes place over the course of about a year and a half, maybe a little more. The show’s always going to be tied into these big historical milestones, like the Pazzi conspiracy which happened at the end of season one, the Siege of Otranto, when the Ottomans attacked the city of Otranto… there are these big historical milestones and in our show, they’ll happen at the beginning and ends of different seasons. Da Vinci’s exploits happen in between these big historical milestones.

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I was always intrigued by the fact that Leonardo wrote these two letters in which he claims he was designing war machines for the Ottoman Empire and he was in Syria and Egypt. By his own hand, he claims that was what he was doing for two years. Some historians say that was a joke, but the truth is that during that period we actually don’t have any evidence of what he was doing. I’ve seen one of these letters, one I think is in the British Museum or Library, and if Da Vinci says that’s what he was doing, then that’s fair game for us.

Part of the fun for me is to use Leonardo as this way to enter all these other worlds. If the show goes on long enough and we’re lucky enough to go into a third series, a good chunk of that would probably happen in the Ottoman Empire, Da Vinci would be there most of the time.

How much of season two will be set in Florence?

A lot. The bulk of the first season 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. We have a splinter unit in central America right now shooting with an ultra-light doing background plates and stuff for the Andean sections, it’s actually really cool, the guy they’ve got piloting the ultra-light is just insane, it’s plunging over 300 foot cliffs and going straight down and then skimming the ground, so we have a mini unit of about three people in Central America now shooting a bunch of crazy stuff.

One of the benefits of going into a second season is that in season one, we had to digitally build Florence and Rome and we spent a good chunk of money, like $400 grand, doing that. 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.

In the first season, one of the things you wanted to do is sprinkle in interesting characters from that period. You’ve already mentioned Vespucci, are there going to be others?

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Bayezid, who was the son of the Sultan and ultimately became Sultan and was running the Ottoman army. King Ferrante, who was the King of Naples at the time, famously had what he called the Black Museum; he would kill his enemies and then embalm them and he had them on display as dummies in his dungeon. He’s around. The leader of the Incan Empire, Topa Inca. There’s Alfonso, who is the King of Naples’ son. What’s awesome that Alfonso’s wife was Lorenzo Medici’s ex-girlfriend, and what historically happened is Lorenzo Medici went to Naples because Naples made an alliance with Rome and they had a big army, and he tried to talk his way out of the alliance and they took him prisoner and the guy who was running the Neapolitan army, Alfonso, his wife used to fuck Lorenzo. They don’t get along well. Lorenzo got taken prisoner for three or four months in Naples and almost got killed. Then there’s a couple of other historical figures that will be showing up that I can’t mention because it’s a fun surprise. For me, it was always part of the fun to see this Alan Moore League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen take on some of these extraordinary people.

Will Michelangelo be making an appearance?

He will, if we’re lucky enough, he will show up but he didn’t really encounter Leonardo yet. They had a crazy relationship, they hated each other, but it didn’t happen until a little later in Leonardo’s life because he went to supposedly he went to the Ottoman and then to Milan for a while and then he came back to Florence. If we’re fortunate enough to go five or six seasons, we’ll eventually come back to Florence and we’ll deal with that relationship and also with Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities and all of that stuff.

Does this series follow the model of the first by starting slowly and ramping up?

I would not say that the season begins quietly. Oddly enough things slow down a little in episode three and then we recalibrate. We have four or five series regulars that come in in episode three. Episode one begins – there’s a prologue – then we literally pick up a second after episode eight ended with the door blowing up.

We jokingly say that episodes one and two are episodes nine and ten of the first season because episodes one and two are the wrap-up of all the main balls we threw into the air in season one. Episode two is like the end of series one, and episode three is really the start of the next chapter.

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Season one ended on a real cliff-hanger between Leonardo and Lorenzo, presumably that’s resolved early on?

Yes. There’s this really cool, it was based on this one line – we don’t even know if it existed in history – Cosimo Medici who is Lorenzo’s grandfather and who shows up in flashback in episode eight, supposedly had this sword that was two swords that you could Transformer-like combine into one sword, and in episode two, they find it. It was meant for Lorenzo and Giuliano, but Guiliano dies so Lorenzo takes the two swords apart and he gives one to Da Vinci and he keeps the other. It’s like, ‘You’re my brother’. The idea is ‘Okay, we’re going to try to combine and save this place’. The promise is that these two swords get broken apart and then at the end of the season, they’ll come back together and perform one final act of defiance against the aggressor.

You started the writers room for season two before it was formally commissioned. Do you know exactly how things are going to go in the season finale?

Season two, yeah, we’re writing the tenth episode 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 twelve -thirteen days an episode which is compared to eight 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. We’ll be starting the writers’ room on season three on November 15th I believe. I think it’s the same day that we wrap.

How do you coordinate different directors keeping the same tone and look?

You have to say to the other guy – we haven’t had a gal yet, but it could be a gal – this is what I need and the trick then if you’re directing someone else’s stuff is not being a dick and trying to go off in your own direction. Be in service of what the other person and the whole story needs.

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Peter Hoar is main unit director today, then we’ve got green screen unit where VFX are shooting extras against green screen so they can populate the crowd with extras, then we’ve got another unit that’s shooting some pick-ups from a fight with Riario in the rain, and that’s very surgical, it’s like, blood hit stuff, like ‘We need a close-up of the blood bladder and the sword going into that guy’s gut’. That kind of stuff you shoot the main unit, then you go in the edit room and say ‘I need this shot and this shot and this shot’. That’s going on today.

David S. Goyer, thank you very much!

Da Vinci’s Demons premieres on Friday the 4thof April, 10pm on FOX.

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

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