David Goyer Interview: On Going Even Bigger for ‘Da Vinci’s Demons’ Season 2 and NBC’s ‘Constantine’
David Goyer is a busy man. He’s currently one of the masterminds behind all of Warner Brothers’s DC-centric movies like ‘Man of Steel,' ‘Batman vs. Superman,’ ‘Sandman,' and even the television version of ‘Constantine,' but one of his passion projects is the Starz series ‘Da Vinci’s Demons.’ As the show is about to kick off season 2 on Saturday, March 22, we sat down with Goyer to dive into the next cycle, which is that much bigger than the first season, as it (at least eventually) takes Da Vinci to Mayan ruins, which may lead to his downfall.
Of course, getting Goyer to talk about his upcoming superhero movies was not going to happen (it's how he hangs on to these jobs), so we mostly focused on the show.
So, you’ve got this, ‘Constantine,’ ‘Sandman,’ ‘Batman vs. Superman’ ...
David Goyer: Whatever it’s called.
... ‘Justice League.’ My question to you is this: How much sleep do you get, and would you like a pillow?
I get about six or seven hours a sleep a night. I’ve got two young kids and a third on the way. I’m just very regimented about my time. I’m a good self-starter and I’ve gotten good about my time. And I’m good at multi-tasking.
And caffeine helps, I’m sure.
Yeah, but I don’t have any caffeine after 4.
With this second season, how hands on were you?
I was pretty hands on. I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t there as much as I was on the first season -- first season I was in Wales [where they shoot] most of the time. But then when you go into a second season, you’re not starting everything from scratch. Certain aspects can run on their own more easily.
There’s a sense of momentum.
So then what would you say is your greatest contribution to the second season?
I think my greatest contribution was coming up with the plan for the season. [Laughs] I wrote a document that was, like, 15 pages long and with the writers I broke the season. I wrote two of the episodes, as well, though I only directed a little bit of second unit.
For a season, do you have a blueprint like it’s one big movie?
You have to. You change things as you go, but if you don’t have that blueprint, you’re sunk. We’re treating it with a novelistic approach. So, yeah, it’s like one big movie.
Do you shoot it that way, as well?
A little bit. What we’ve settled into is that we shoot them in couplets. We shoot two episodes at a time, we call it "cross-porting," to maximize our locations. We’ll shoot them together, and then at the end of the season, we’ll do about two weeks of pick-ups and things like that for the whole season.
There had to be an uncertainty when you started that you’d get a second season, but now that you’ve shot it, do you have a game plan for season 3 or for even more?
I have a rough idea of season 3 and season 4. You have to have some idea of where you’re going, hopefully. And, knock on wood, we’ll get there.
One of the things that comes up in virtually every episode is that Da Vinci comes up with some sort of invention, a mad plan, which seems to be a chicken and the egg situation. Do you think, “Oh, we should do a submarine,” or is it, “How do we get out of this one?”
It’s a little of both. For season 2, I sat down and said, "There were some inventions I would like to target to do, and let’s see if we can work them in.” And in some cases we could, and in some cases we couldn’t. And in some cases the story took us in a different direction, and we had to figure out something else. But I knew I wanted to do a submarine in season 2.
What was your favorite invention in season 1?
The diving suit. I love the diving suit, and that was almost an exact replica of his diving suit.
The nice thing about a show like this is that the first Da Vinci I think of being on screen before this is in ‘Hudson Hawk.'
Which I haven’t seen.
You have tabula rasa when it comes to the character, maybe he’s a little bit MacGyver, a little bit Sherlock.
It is amazing that no one’s ever done a show about Da Vinci before.
Well, he didn’t chop off his ear.
I think a lot of shows have been built around less auspicious historical figures than Da Vinci and have been successful.
Besides the inventions, was there anything you felt like you had to honor?
I was adamant that we dealt with the sodomy charges in the first season, because it happened during the time the show took place, and we would do a disservice to Leonardo if we didn’t deal with that. One of things that is clear, if you read his notebooks, is that he did have a big chip on his shoulder that he wasn’t given enough credit for the work he’d done and he was a little bit bitter about that, and I think you see that in the character that Tom [Riley] plays.
You start season 2 with a revolution. Are you scraping the walls of budget with every episode?
Pretty much. We pulled off a lot in season 1, so I think people thought we could rest on our laurels a little going into season 2, and I said, “No, we have to go even bigger." I’m constantly suggesting things that the production team, or Starz are saying, “There’s no way we can pull that off,” but we pulled off about 90% of it.
I think there’s a scale there.
Wait until you see the second half of the season! The scale is nothing compared to the last three.
I’m thinking of Orson Welles shooting different angles to steal things. I’m sure there’s a bit of prestidigitation to pull this off.
Absolutely. A lot of digital effects, we average over 100 per episode.
I saw you had some involvement with ‘Blade.’ Is this your first big television show that’s gone on?
I was somewhat involved with ‘Blade.’ I had a show on CBS called ‘Threshold,’ which I directed the pilot for. I created ‘Flash Forward’ and was involved with that over the season, but this is the first show I’ve had that’s run over a season.
And has that changed the way you approach a second season?
It’s different. It’s really fun going into a second season, having laid the ground work and getting to expand the story, but I was really happy with what we did in the first season. So it’s really daunting, as well. You have to up your game, you have to do it again.
It feels like with network shows you have to re-lay the groundwork with the start of a season and re-establish the characters, where here you pick up right where you left off. Did you feel the need to set things up again?
Not at all. Television habits are changing. First of all, with a cable show it doesn’t air once a week, it may air 10 times a week, and you might watch it online or on demand, and with DVRs now in –- I don’t know -- 60% of households, it’s changed people’s viewing habits, and you’re seeing a lot more serialized television, and people are binge watching.
And television’s gotten better.
Oh, it’s gotten much better. I think we’re in an incredible age of television. You tend to see more re-laying the groundwork on network shows, where on cable I think they give their audiences a little more credit.
How would it compare doing a second season to writing a sequel?
They’re not dissimilar. You’re mindful of the fact that you want to top yourself, you don’t want to repeat yourself. I would say, in a weird way, the writing of a second season is a little easier than a sequel to a film. We ended the first season on a cliffhanger, so clearly the story wasn’t done. That doesn't typically happen in a movie, outside of ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’
It seems that the good thing and the bad thing about a sequel is that the origin stuff is done, because the origin stuff – especially in movies – is a good thing for filmmakers to lie back on, in some ways.
It’s fun, and in some ways it can be easier because the origin ... you look at the first season, and it’s like a first act, it’s all set up, and set up's really fun to do because you don’t have to labor yourself with wrapping up storylines or coming up with consequences. It’s just a set up. I take it back what I said, when you’re dealing with a serialized show, the further into the show you go the harder it becomes because you can’t just tread water. In the first couple seasons of 'LOST,' you don’t have to show who’s in the hatch, you don’t have to show the others, [though] eventually you do, and it becomes harder. Eventually we’re going to have to explain the 'Book of Leaves' and what’s going on with Leonardo’s mom.
I think with a lot of shows, if the pilot is a great episode or is the best episode, it might not be a great show.
I’m not the biggest fan of this season of ‘Justified.’
I’m catching up on that one. But if you look at season 2, it’s unquestionably better than season 1.
Unquestionably. And I thought season 4 was really strong, as well.
I did, too.
What I love about ‘Breaking Bad’ is that show would have been ruined if there hadn’t been a strike. If they hadn’t had a short season …
You’re absolutely right. They were going to kill Jesse.
And they probably would have taken Walt too far into the drug dealing. I think the second season is the strongest because the metaphor for collateral damage is at its strongest when you have the plane crash.
I really like the fourth season. The one thing that’s interesting about television ... well, there’s lot of interesting things about television, but when you do more than one season, the one thing you can do in television that you can’t do in movies is course correct. You can change your mind. You can revisit a storyline. A character like Jesse, who was intended to die, surprises everyone and you can turn him into a bigger character.
Well then, what did you discover for your second season [of 'Da Vinci's Demons']?
We discovered we could pull off going to another land, so sky’s the limit after that. Certain actors surprise you. We were cognizant going into season 2 [of] which characters people liked and which mysteries. We weren’t slavishly sensitive to it, but it was part of the conversation as we were breaking the stories.
I'm assuming you can’t say anything about ‘Batman vs. Superman’ or ‘Justice League.’
Can you tell me anything about ‘Constantine'?
Starts shooting next week. Has a cool cast.
Do you feel like you learned from ‘Da Vinci’s Demons’ how to approach something like ‘Constantine'?
A little bit. They’re very different shows. I don’t think ‘Da Vinci’s Demons’ could ever have been done on network television, conversely I think ‘Constantine’ is a property I could have seen on cable, but could envision on network television.
Do you think of ‘The Rockford Files’ when you think of ‘Constantine'?
A little bit. It’s got elements of that.
Did you have a reference point for ‘Da Vinci’ when you started the show?
Yeah, a really bizarre one: Richard Lester’s ‘The Three Musketeers,' the romp and the attitude. When I mentioned that to Starz, they thought I was insane, but if you’re a cinephile, maybe you get it.
And for ‘Constantine'?
Alan Moore’s original run. You can’t outdo Alan Moore.
Though he’ll probably talk sh— about you anyway.
I wouldn’t be the first.
‘Da Vinci’s Demons’ season 2 premieres March 22.