‘Da Vinci’s Demons’ Creator David Goyer Discusses Plotting His Hero’s Journey
Through his many adaptations of comic book characters, from Batman to Ghost Rider to Superman, David S. Goyer has inherited reams of mythology, which he must distill into a powerful, even iconic conflict that connects longtime fans with uninitiated audiences. But on Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons, Goyer is reconfiguring historical people and events to suit the demands of weekly drama – a challenge that comes with both more pressure and freedom, especially as he delves further into the world of Leonardo Da Vinci.
Spinoff Online recently sat down with Goyer at the Los Angeles press day for Da Vinci’s Demons, which begins its second season on Saturday. In addition to talking about finding a comfortable rhythm for the characters and storytelling, Goyer explained how he’ll further expand the character’s universe while keeping a tight grasp on its complex, multilayered narrative. And after hinting at a few of the exciting events that he can’t wait for audiences to see, Goyer revealed how even his best laid plans may end up changing as the reaction from audiences, and his creative team’s ideas, send the show’s carefully constructed hero’s journey in new and unexpected directions.
Spinoff Online: Coming into the season, how confident did you feel that you guys had really hit your stride, as opposed to maybe still sort of discovering that momentum?
David S. Goyer: By the end of the first season I felt like we had found the show, found the voice of the show and found the rhythms. On one hand, it’s always harder doing a second season because you’re worried about topping yourself. On the other hand you’re writing characters that you have more familiarity with, and one of the great joys of working on a second or presumably a third season is that you’re not writing in a vacuum. When we wrote the first season no one had been cast yet. Second season, everyone in the cast – at least the returning characters — you can write to their strengths or you become aware of various capabilities, and it opens up different avenues for the character that you wouldn’t have thought of before.
Do you feel like you’re more or less beholden to a historical context having created that foundation?
No, no. I think that there was a tiny bit of grousing in the first season because we would dare to take some liberties with history. I’m not quite sure why we got hit with that. It’s funny – I mean, shows like The Tudors, which I love, took far more liberties with the historical record than we did, and I don’t recall any great uproar over that.
Maybe because it seems less identifiable to people?
Maybe, I don’t know. I think that I had always said from the beginning it’s a historical fantasy based on history. I mean, actually almost all the characters in the show actually existed and the basic relationships have been retained, but it’s an historical fantasy and I think going into a second season, once people watched the show and realized what it was and they weren’t matching against preconceived expectations, then they settled in and they liked what they saw. So we don’t really have to worry about that nearly as much in Season 2. So, yeah, I mean a lot of the stuff that happens in the episodes, I would say the big signposts in the second season, are all based on historical events. And then we have some fun in the gaps in between.
Tom Riley talked about how he was originally conceived to be very much a sort of an anachronistic character. How careful do you have to be to create a universe that is authentic to the time, but not spend a lot of time going, “these guys are really backward, but we’ve got it right now?”
It was challenging the first season, [because] there weren’t any real antecedents for Da Vinci’s Demons, so it was hard to point to things whether it be the crew or stars and say, “Well, it should be like this.” And so we had to kind of invent everything from whole cloth. We did stylized versions of the Medici family crest – the kind of post-modern Apple design of the Medici crest and we made our own coins and we came up with color palettes and things like that. And we had to do a lot of that work because we were creating something that was a synthesis and not just an exact reproduction of history. So with the costumes and a lot of things we would take historical silhouettes but use modern fabrics, or take historical fabrics and use modern silhouettes and things like that. So going into the second season, we didn’t have to do as much of that because you could point to the first season and say, in this vein. So that was a lot easier.
When you enter into like the second season of this, are there other shows in terms of their execution that you have taken lessons from, say Heroes or Lost, maybe, which became phenomena and at the same time people maybe thought they lost their way?
Sure. I mean, I’m a fan of Lost, and Lost was a very mythology-heavy show. And we are a mythology-heavy show, and so we talk a lot about moving the mythology ball forward and what’s the right sort of quotient between turning cards over and stalling, or not stalling, and how fast to move. So that’s something that we talk about. Game of Thrones, I think, is the gold standard. We don’t have the budget that they do but I think we do pretty good on the budget we have. One of the things that’s interesting and I think different about our show from a lot of cable shows [is that] I think there’s an assumption that a cable show will move slowly. But Da Vinci’s Demons actually moves quite quickly, and that’s something that initially there was some resistance to. But I said, not all cable shows are created the same.
Game of Thrones is a show where even if you watch all three seasons you still might not know who all of the characters are.
Yeah, it’s funny. I would use Game of Thrones because they said, “Oh, you’ve got an awful lot of characters.” I said, “What are you talking about? We’ve got a third of the characters of Game of Thrones.” So that was helpful to point to.
What is the essential thing that you need to retain, be it on an individual episode or a season basis, to make sure that the show is expanding and it is increasing in complexity without confusing people?
There is not a perfect recipe for that. I mean, it’s something that probably every show debates going into a second and third season. I mean we killed off some characters but we introduced more than we killed off. And sometimes it’s a lot of balls to juggle. I think that I was very cognizant that the first season is kind of like the first act in a film. I was cognizant of the fact that we needed to turn over some cards regarding his mother in the Book of Leaves, and then kind of tie off some storylines. I was aware of the fact that I wanted to explain how it was that Lucrezia got into this fix with Riario and the church in the first place. But there are also things like, people like the inventions, and what we call Da Vinci Vision, so there was an expectation that we would do a certain amount of those things. And that’s when you start to talk about well what is it that makes an episode of our show. One of the things that was fun about the first season was we won a couple of Emmys and we won an Emmy for the title sequence, which is something that I worked very closely with the creators on and people. It might be a foregone conclusion that we’ll just keep the title sequence, but [I said] let’s completely redo it. It was the same guys but we did a totally new title sequence — and so in the title sequence even in the first episode are a bunch of Easter eggs for the whole season to come. And people want to like freeze frame and look at some – even from Episode 10. So that’s kind of fun to do. And I think the main lesson is just you can’t rest on your laurels. You can’t coast. You just need to keep evolving and growing and doing your things.
In the press materials for the show, the phrase “the chosen one” jumped out at me in a description of Da Vinci.
I feel like that’s a little overused, “the chosen one.”
I would agree in general, but I was wondering how much you feel like there is pure hero’s myth underlying this series.
Oh, yes, yes. I mean, if you go in our writer’s room, we’ve got like stages of the Joseph Campbell hero’s myth on the wall. I mean it’s completely Joseph Campbell. How far into the hero myth are we? There are different versions. I think ours has like 17 stages. I mean, we didn’t come up with it, but I would say season two is kind of up to Stage 4 in the hero myth. I mean, I’m paraphrasing, but the first stage kind of the hero myth is sort of the call to action, and that is what Season 1 is. But episodes 1 and 2 of the second season are really episodes 9 and 10 of the first season, meaning the new chapter really starts with Episode 3. Episode 1 and 2 are kind of the wrap-up. And so I would say that if you take the first season plus the first two episodes of the second season, that is the first step in Joseph Campbell’s hero myth. And by the end of that he’s decided, OK, I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna start. And then I think the descent into the cave or something like that is early on. That’s kind of what Season 2 is.
Before Season 3 of Game of Thrones started, the creators were like, “As long as we can get through the Red Wedding, even if we don’t get to do anything else, we will be satisfied at least that we were able to that.” Do you have those kinds of thresholds?
Yeah. I mean, one of them for me was getting to the New World. I wanted to get to the Vault of Heaven. Without revealing too much, I wanted to get to the end of Episode 10, where something big happens. I’ll be sad if we don’t go beyond it but that was definitely the first benchmark, the end of Episode 10 of Season 2. And then another one would be if we get to the end of Season 3.
Obviously you seem to have a lot of it sort of planned out. How much can you or do you sort of anticipate the possibility of changing course?
We change course. I mean, I would say the second season, 75 to 80 percent was what we originally intended, and then you come up with some other things that present themselves. I will say that something that happens at the end of the 10th episode is something that I had originally planned on having happen at the end of a third season if we got there. And I decided to move it up. And it will be interesting to see. We haven’t written ourselves into a corner but it will be interesting to see what we do if we go beyond it.
Well how soon then do you start thinking about what will be beyond it?
Well, we’re already thinking about it. I mean the truth is most of the shows on HBO or Starz are at least generating scripts for a hypothetical next season, because if we waited until six weeks from now and then started writing it’d be a year and a half until the next season. They take a year to film and post produce and then they take another six months to write. So … and most people don’t want to wait a year and a half until the next season comes. So there are already conversations happening.
Ultimately, what are you most excited for audiences to get to experience in Season 2?
I think it’s really cool what we did with the Inca in Peru. I think that’s really fun. I haven’t seen that on TV before. You know, Season 1 was very ambitious. Season 2 is crazy-ambitious and we pulled it off. I mean, we got nominated for an Emmy for visual effects for Season 1, but I want to win the Emmy in Season 2. I think the visual effects are even better. I’d love to see Tom and some of the other actors get recognized as well. I think Tom’s doing phenomenal work.
Given the elongated schedule of this and how much anticipation it takes, what does that force you to do in terms of juggling that and the comparative urgency of the film projects that you work on? Does it make it easier or more difficult to balance?
In some ways, it makes it easier because you can kind of plan well in advance. I’m not saying that the planes don’t get stacked up on the runway occasionally, but it’s certainly easier to do than if we were doing 22 episodes on a network show. Because we’re only doing ten and the pace is a bit more leisurely – but not by much.
Da Vinci’s Demons returns Saturday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.