“I grew up very conscious of the fact that I was Jewish,” said David S. Goyer, the screenwriter behind Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “The Dark Knight” trilogy and the author of the highly anticipated Superman reboot “The Man of Steel” as well as the creator of the new historical fantasy “Da Vinci’s Demons,” premiering on STARZ on April 12. “There weren’t many Jews in our neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Mich., and I heard slurs like, ‘You killed Christ.’ ”
And so, he said, one of his favorite superheroes was the Incredible Hulk, whose alter ego, Bruce Banner, was like the young Goyer, “small and picked on,” but then could burst out of his clothes as he transforms into a ferocious green giant. “And while there weren’t many monsters or ghosts in the Jewish religion, I latched on to the few that existed, like the dybbuk and the golem, who for me was like the Jewish Hulk,” Goyer said during a recent interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles.
He was drawn to fictionalize Leonardo da Vinci, because the great painter, inventor and futurist was also, in his own way, an oppressed outsider: “He was a bastard, born out of wedlock, which meant he wasn’t allowed to inherit wealth or land, and thus as a young man was excluded from many areas of society,” Goyer said.
The show is a fantasy set during the time when the artist was in his mid- to late 20s, before he painted his iconic “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” and became a seminal figure in the Italian Renaissance.
Like the real da Vinci, the character on the series — produced in collaboration with BBC Worldwide — is a genius with almost superhuman powers: He scribbles prototypes for the machine gun, the tank and diving suit in his prolific journals; he is tall, handsome, a swashbuckling swordsman (and ambidextrous to boot); and is said to be able to bend iron bars with his bare hands.
Da Vinci is also a vegetarian, a freethinker ensconced in secret societies and a wheeler-dealer who shamelessly promotes his military designs to the ruling Medici clan while romancing several Florentine beauties. “Some people said that da Vinci was homosexual, some that he was bisexual, and others that he fathered a number of illegitimate children,” Goyer said, adding that the term “Renaissance man” was coined for the polymath.
Goyer enjoys the character, in part, because the historical da Vinci was an unabashed rogue: “I like antiheroes, like Bruce Wayne of ‘Batman,’ and da Vinci was a bit of a jerk,” Goyer said. “He had a big mouth; he was very outspoken, and he was critical of anyone and everyone. He famously said that Botticelli’s backgrounds and perspectives were inadequate. He mouthed off about the pope, and he constantly got in trouble and was thrown in jail a number of times. He overcharged his clients, and was famous for not finishing his projects. He could be a flake, a dilettante who didn’t give a s--t. He drank a lot, and he may have smoked opium.”
Goyer’s da Vinci is also presented as a member of a reviled minority group: “A couple of years ago, researchers were doing fingerprint analysis on some of his paintings, and there are apparently whorls in his fingerprints that are found in 95 percent of people of Arabic or Turkish descent, and are rarely found in Caucasians,” he said. “That led to a theory that his mother may have been a Turkish slave, and so we go with that on the show.”
Executive producer David S. Goyer. Photo courtesy of Starz
On the series, da Vinci’s ragtag gang includes fellow rapscallions who are Jewish as well as Abyssinian and Turkish: “We deal with minorities, both ethnic and religious, quite a bit,” Goyer said. “There’s even an episode where da Vinci and company hope to break into the secret archives of the Vatican, and they hide out in the Jewish quarter because they know no one will look for them there — and because the Jews are no friends of the Vatican.”
Goyer, 47, is the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father who divorced when he was 8. He attended Hebrew school and was thrilled to discover that most of the top comic book authors of all time were Jewish (think Bob Kane of “Batman” and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster of “Superman”). “It was a kind of wish fulfillment for a hero to come and save the world from evil, especially for those who were creating characters in the 1940s before the Nazis were defeated,” he said.
While still studying at USC at the age of 22, Goyer sold his first action movie script, which became the Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller “Death Warrant.” In 1998, he wrote his breakout film, “Blade,” based on the Marvel comic book about a legendary vampire hunter, which became one of Hollywood’s most successful superhero franchises.
Goyer has reimagined da Vinci as a 15th century superhero of sorts, but he was initially reluctant to take on the project when the BBC approached him several years ago. “I didn’t want to do some dry historical drama,” he said.
He changed his mind when BBC executives assured him that they wanted “a “superhero-y, ‘Batman Begins’ kind of approach,” Goyer recalled, adding that a highlight of his research, which included reading translations of the artist’s 6,000 existing journal pages, was perusing some of da Vinci’s drawings at the British Museum.
“When you look at his journal pages, they’re filled with sketches and notes and even shopping lists; he spilled wine and food on them, and there are grease stains,” Goyer said. “You can literally smell him. And for me, that made history come alive.”
“Da Vinci’s Demons” premieres April 12 at 10 p.m. on STARZ.