4/29 “The Prisoner”

2013 Posted by admin

“The Prisoner”

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With Episode 3 (also co-written by Scott Gimple) we wanted to start changing the formula a bit. We introduce our final series regular, the titular Prisoner and provide a few more wrinkles to Riario’s character.

Like most of the episode titles, the ‘Prisoner’ refers to a variety of people/circumstances.

The episode cuts back and forth between a game of Go and the various other storylines. Viewers might think that introducing the Asian game is a dramatic leap, but in fact, a variety of Chinese delegations were known to have visited the Papacy in and around that time – some staying for quite a few months. We also meet Zita, an Abyssinian slave girl. Abyssinia was the name used for Ethiopia at the time. We had a hell of a time getting that dialogue appropriately translated, so I would like to specifically thank Shimelis Bonsa Gulema, a graduate student in the UCLA History department, who provided us with the majority of the translations in Amharic (the language of Abyssinia).

We also had a Go advisor on the set to help ensure that the placement of the Go stones was correct. Hoping we didn’t screw up!

Thematically, this episode was all about turning the screws tighter on all of our characters. We begin to understand more of the pressures that Lucrezia has been placed under.

And while Leonardo is theorizing about continental drift and a possible path to the Book of Leaves, he is also pulled in another direction – the supposed outbreak of demonic possession at a nearby convent. Perhaps less obvious is Leonardo’s growing apprehension about building more weapons for Lorenzo and a desire to momentarily escape his new responsibilities as war engineer.

The idea for the possession story came from historical accounts of ergot poisoning (also called St. Anthony’s fire). Ergotism is caused by a fungus that infects rye and other cereal crops and there are some historians that believe one such outbreak was responsible for the insanity of the Salem witch trials, in addition to a variety of mysterious outbreaks of sickness and madness during the medieval era prior to Da Vinci’s lifetime.

We also wanted to pay a tiny homage to the Hammer House of Horror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

In any event, we thought it would be fun to pit Leonardo against Lupo Mercuri. The idea being that the Church might intentionally poison the Sisters of the convent in order to wage a kind of psychological warfare against the Medicis.

For this particular story, we decided to pair up Giuliano and Leonardo. Giuliano is jealous of Leonardo’s intellect and desperate to win his older brother’s approval.

Later on in the story, Leonardo finds himself infected and undergoes a kind of hallucinatory trip, which was a great deal of fun to shoot.

At the same time that this is taking place, we also turn the screws on Lucrezia. Gentile Becchi suggests that there may be a spy in the Medici Palace and inadvertently puts the pressure on Lucrezia. With no other recourse, she decides to frame Becchi himself.

In-between, Lucrezia and Clarice come face to face. One of the trickiest endeavors was convincing Lara Pulver that her character, Clarice, would turn out to be a meaningful role. We intentionally held her back for the first few episodes – but in this scene, Clarice starts to come to the forefront.

Then, near the end of the episode, we also reveal that Lucrezia was the one who dusted the feet of the Saint Anthony statue with ergot powder (the small bottle that Riario gave her in Episode 2).

For the record, there was a short little scene involving Giuliano and Leonardo riding home after the convent experience – where Giuliano grudgingly admits Leonardo’s effectiveness. I really, really liked the scene – and it helped develop their relationship – but we had to cut it for time. Hopefully, we can include it on the DVD set.

Finally, with Leonardo victorious and all our players back home, we return to our framing device – the game between Riario and the Prisoner.

The idea we’re trying to put forth is that it might actually be the people who are outside of the bars that are in prison, as opposed to the other way around.

Who is the Prisoner and why does he have a strange kind of hold over Riario? Stay tuned.

4/25 “The Serpent”

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“The Serpent”

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This episode was co-written by Scott Gimple, a friend and frequent collaborator of mine. We met on Flashforward and have worked together a few times since.

For our second episode, I wanted to get things moving quickly and drop the viewers in medias res. We shot the scene between Leonardo and the Jew in a moat outside a castle. I wanted it to feel creepy and have the audience question whether or not this scene was real or a dream. Ken Bones, who plays “the Jew”, did a wonderful job of appearing both sympathetic and eerie simultaneously.

We also have Leonardo drinking from a goblet to symbolize the “Fountain of Memory” – and the goblet mimics the same goblet that appears in the portrait of Cosimo de Medici (Lorenzo’s grandfather) seen later in the episode. Some people have pointed out that the Fountain also touches on other “memory myths” like the Nordic idea of Odin and “the rememberer” as well as the “Tree of Life” from the Kabbala.

We intercut with Zoroaster and the team digging up the Jew’s body then we pivot to a Renaissance-era autopsy. For this scene, Ken Bones had to undergo the grueling process of having a full body cast made. Paul Hyett, our prosthetics designer, built all the bits and pieces that Leonardo has to cut through in order to find the Key the Jew has swallowed.

After the autopsy, we pivot to Lorenzo and Lucrezia. In this scene they discuss Riario and we also touch upon the ring that Lucrezia is now wearing. Sharp-eyed viewers will (hopefully) realize that this was the ring on the severed finger Riario offered up to her at the end of Episode 101.

Leonardo then journeys to the Medici Palace in order to sketch Lucrezia. Our actual set for the palace has a roof – but I wanted that staircase to appear as if it was open to the elements – so special effects rigged a bunch of rain towers inside the stairwell. That was a very wet day.

Leonardo sketches Lucrezia and we set up the mystery elements for the episode. Then Lorenzo barges in and we have a brief, almost French farce-like scene straight out of Molière’s Tartuffe ou L’Imposteur.

In between, Nico visits Verrocchio in order to pick up some supplies for the ‘pipe organ musket’, but obviously gets waylaid.

In reality, Leonardo designed two different versions of the proto-machine gun and I was keen to use both of them in the episode. I wanted to have a failed test, and then a v.2 that later succeeded. For each gun, the art department built life-sized models based on Da Vinci’s actual designs.

We shot the failed test sequence on a hill outside Margam castle. On the day, it was pissing rain and we actually had flash floods. I had no choice but to write in new dialogue referencing the rain. Tom Riley and Elliot Cowan, in particular, did a great job improvising.

But when it came time to actually have the gun ignite, the place was so wet that we couldn’t get the real explosives to fire. So we had to leave the scene only partially finished.

As a side-note, when we shot Lorenzo, Giuliano, and Becchi climbing up through the ferns, it was incredibly muddy and slippery. We had a small crew down there, amongst all those ferns and Tom Bateman (who plays Giuliano), really was tripping and slipping about. So we just went with it. All of that cursing was Tom actually cursing as he stumbled about.

More than anything, this episode is about establishing Riario as the primary antagonist of the show.

After the gun test, we pivot to Riario and the ‘Widow’s Tear’ scene. The Widow’s Tear is a device of our own invention. I wanted this scene to illustrate just how ruthless Riario was. Originally, it was written to take place during the night – but we only had one ‘day’ to shoot at that location (Neath Abbey) and at that particular time of year, we didn’t have that many hours of darkness. So, we ended up having to shoot the torture scene during the day. The clouds were not cooperating. We would have clear, sunny skies – then drizzling rain. In the end, we replaced all of the skies digitally.

After the Widow’s Tear, we pivot to Riario and his men looting Leonardo’s workshop. Here, we bring back the exploding chest from Episode 1 and (hopefully) show that Nico is beginning his journey to become the Machiavelli that will one day go on to write The Prince.

From Da Vinci’s workshop, we journey back to Riario’s camp for the aftermath and the arrival of Lucrezia. Pay attention to the bottle of powder Riario gives Lucrezia. It will turn up later on.

Eventually, after some threats from Lorenzo, we return to our tavern, the Barking Dog. Here we’ve got a little bit of Da Vinci sleuthing. We’ve seen in Episode 101 that the statue in the Mitraeum had two keys – and from that, Leonardo intuits that he’s only got half of the actual key in his possession.

From the tavern, we journey to the bookshop. The scene outside the bookshop was shot on our interior street set. That was the 2nd day of shooting and the first time we’d shot on that set. We learned (quickly) that we didn’t have enough extras and bits of business going on.

After the bookshop, Leonardo and company encounter the Swiss Mercenaries – who were commonly used by the Vatican as guards or soldiers. Then Leonardo leads said mercenaries on a little chase to the Duomo. This was a tricky sequence to design, storyboard, and shoot. It required a lot of bits and pieces, shot over many different weeks. But by and large, I think the sequence was successful.

From Leonardo’s escape, we pivot back to the Medici palace. Here we get to meet Clarice Orsini (played by Lara Pulver). She will figure prominently in later episodes. The next few scenes are really about Lorenzo and Riario jousting back and forth. Historically, one of the provocative moves that lead to Rome declaring war on Florence was this business about Rome choosing the Archbishop of Pisa. Obviously, we’ve gone further with this and also used Riario’s visit as a pretense to evaluate Da Vinci.

Eventually, most of our players convene at a party Lorenzo holds in “honor” of Riario. This sequence was fun to shoot. As it turns out, Elliot Cowan was a bit nervous about handling the python, but when it came time for the cameras to role, you’d never know it.

Outside the party, Riario and Da Vinci finally meet face to face. For me, this scene and the confrontation at the quarry are emblematic of the intellectual conflict that will be occurring in the show. Of all our characters, Riario is the one who, perhaps, most accurately assesses and appreciates Leonardo’s genius. Pity they are on opposite sides of the game board.

The next day, we move to the quarry sequence. I’d always intended this sequence to feel a bit like a Western. Some of the shots of Lorenzo and his group on the horses emulate old Westerns. We filmed the sequence over two days. The entire sequence was storyboarded and shot frame-by-frame exactly as boarded.

Tom and Blake did a wonderful job verbally jousting. Originally, the sequence was longer. There was a little bit where Leonardo discusses the invention of zero as a placeholder. Riario is trying to tempt Leonardo. But Leonardo chides him (and the Church) for not being quite as open to progress as Riario claims. He uses the Church’s initial rejection of ‘zero’ as an example.

This sequence was also tricky because we have the confrontation going on in the quarry and then Lorenzo and company atop the quarry, watching it unfold. For various reasons, Lorenzo and Giuliano think Da Vinci is betraying them. But as it turns out, he’s not and his manipulated Riario there in order to demonstrate both his loyalty and his new version of the ‘gun’.

After the gun test, we return to Lorenzo’s ‘cabin’. Impressed with the gun’s demonstration, Lorenzo is keen to have Leonardo start building more of them. And so we begin to develop the theme of arms escalation. At the end of the scene, Lucrezia stumbles in and we catch an awkward moment between the three of them. We see that, for all of his swagger, Leonardo isn’t immune to petty emotions like jealousy.

Two more scenes to go. Riario and Mercuri on the ridge overlooking Florence. I thought it would be fun to let the audience know that Riario has the matching key – but to withhold that information from Da Vinci.

Finally, we come to the climax of the episode – where Da Vinci figures out just why the Jew hid the book in the bookshop. The revelation is, of course, a map of South America – which obviously hadn’t been discovered yet. Da Vinci believes this is where the Vault of Heaven is located. And the Vault is rumored to contain the Book of Leaves.

There are some interesting, early maps like the Piri Reis map that purportedly depict the Americas before people like Columbus and Vespucci sailed there. Some historians claim that Chinese explorers discovered the Americas as early as 1421!

Anyway, as should be obvious by the end of this episode – we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Thoughts on “The Hanged Man”

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So, the title of the episode is based on one of the cards from the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck. In fact, all of the titles of Season 1 are more or less based on major arcana cards (with the exception of The Serpent and The Prisoner). Generally, the episode titles have two or even three meanings.

There are, of course, a couple of ‘hanged men’ in Episode 1. The Jew, then Leonardo himself (metaphorically). And there’s (sort of) a third one hidden in there as well.

The opening scene with the Turk is nonlinear. In it, the Turk speaks of time being like a river – which is an oblique reference to some of the writings from Jorges Luis Borges. Aslan al-Rahim is also, obliquely, referencing the work of another favorite author of mine, Gene Wolfe (The Book of the New Sun). Those of you who are familiar with their work will be able to intuit where some of this show might ultimately be going.

In any event, the Turk also mentions how Leonardo’s own history will ultimately be manipulated. What I’m trying to do here is weave a story not just about Leonardo, but about the myths surrounding Leonardo and the celebrated place that he seems to exist in the public imagination.

At the end of the opening scene, we see a few brief flashes from events that will occur in the future.

Then we pivot to Milan and the assassination of Duke Sforza. This was based, more or less, on a real event and broadly happened as depicted (although the weapon used to kill him was a creative invention). The Duke was rumored to be a real rat-bastard, famous for having his way with just about anyone and everyone.

True story: on the set, I mentioned to Tom Riley how I wanted to start the show off with a bang and kill an actor famous for doing a “proper” historical show. I said “We need someone like Hugh Bonneville”. As it happened, Tom Riley was friends with Hugh and contacted him on my behalf.

After the Duke’s demise, we pivot to Leonardo testing his glider.

Side note: We know his name was Leonardo, but we had to take some artistic license. If you say “Da Vinci” around the world, most people immediately know who you are talking about. If you say Leonardo – well, sometimes you get the right guy and sometimes, you get DiCaprio.

The glider is fairly accurate in design — although Leonardo didn’t actually test it until a few years later and the unlikely “test pilot” was actually Zoroaster.

Vanessa is one of the few characters in the show that didn’t have a specific historical antecedent. We needed her for reasons that will become more obvious later on.

“Nico” is a young Niccolo Machiavelli. Niccolo was a fellow Florentine and later on in life, a close friend of Leonardo’s.

The falcon memory is based on Leonardo’s own writings. Some historians say it was a hawk, others a bird called a kite, still others a vulture. We chose this particular kind of falcon because it also has links to the Ottoman Empire. (More on that later.)

Once back on firm ground, we pivot to our half-scale Ponte Vecchio set. Leonardo sets eyes on Lucrezia Donati. We don’t know if Leonardo was ever involved with Lucrezia – but it’s quite likely that they knew of each other.

From the Ponte Vecchio, we meet the Medici brothers. Our Medici Palace sets were built into the shell of an existing castle – Margam Castle. It has an amazing staircase that doesn’t ape the actual Medici courtyard, so we had to take some liberties.

Then we pivot to Rome and introduce Pope Sixtus IV and his nephew, Count Riario. We introduce him in a controversial way, but the truth is, there were widely spread rumors about Sixtus’ “activities”. He was a controversial figure who also, famously, helped ignite the Spanish Inquisition. His desire to rule Florence and oust the Medici was very real. He also was involved in creating the Vatican Secret Archives. Lupo Mercuri, the Curator, is one of the other fabricated characters. The scene also briefly introduces Francesco Pazzi, a member of a competing Florentine family that had a long-standing feud with the Medici.

Back in Florence, we are introduced to Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo’s tutor and father-figure. Their relationship was, initially, largely as depicted. The Columbina was a big deal back in the day – and although Leonardo probably never built one as such – he did build a walking lion automaton as well as a moving, humanoid automaton.

After Leonardo gets his Columbina commission, he slaves over the designs and flashes back on his repressed memory of “the cave” – also based on a real event in Leonardo’s life. We don’t know what happened in the cave, but it clearly made an impression on him – he sketched it a few times. The “cave” is our Freudian, reverse “Rosebud”-like moment (if I can combine Freud and a reference to Citizen Kane)!

When Leonardo wakes from his nightmare and is berated by Verrocchio, sharp-eyed viewers may notice the helmet for the diving suit he designed (in the back-ground).

Back on the Ponte Vecchio, Leonardo let’s loose a cage of starlings – something that he apparently did quite often. We used this scene to illustrate how he sees the world and also, to hopefully imbue the show with a celebratory moment. Afterwards, Leonardo encounters Lorenzo and company, along with his own father, Piero, who really did work for Lorenzo.

Afterwards, Leo takes comfort in the Barking Dog and we meet Zoroaster (based on a real figure — every genius needs a bad influence to tether him to the earth, right?) In the bar, we briefly meet Jacopo Saltarelli, a male prostitute and artist’s model who will return later on in the season to bedevil Leo.

Leo gets a little ambidextrous sword fighting in, and then meets the Turk for the first time. (Sharp-eyed viewers will have noticed the Turk on the boat outside the Ponte Vecchio near the beginning of the show. He’s in the background, disembarking and watching Leo.) The coin the Turk gives Leo his a hypnotic trigger – as is the invocation he utters. The symbols on each side of the coin are both symbols from the Sons of Mithras mystery cult. The lion-headed figure is the leontocephaline – the God of Knowledge and possibly the God of Time.

The scene in the Bargello/dungeon is another moment of artistic license, but the words Leonardo says to his father are loosely based on a much harsher letter he wrote on the occasion of the birth of his step-brother. The original words were so harsh, in fact, that my producers asked me to tone it down. I do think Leonardo being illegitimate was a big chip on his shoulders.

Leo sketches Lucrezia’s, the witnesses the Jew being hung. Hanging were essentially public sport in those days – and sadly, many minorities were routinely put upon. Again, the Jew utters the Mithras invocation, which triggers the Turk’s hypnotic suggestion.

From the hanging, Leo goes to the Inn at the Black Swan, a reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s high-profile, hard-to-predict rare events – and also, to my last show, FlashForward.

After the Inn, Leonardo travels to the roman ruins and the Mithraeum. Mithraeums were early, pre-Christian places of worship – lots of them still dot the European landscape and many churches were built atop Mithraic sites.

Now we’ve come full circle and caught up to were we began. Time is a river. The Turk explains why he has contacted Leonardo and gives him his classic, Joseph Campbell call to adventure. We’re essentially in Star Wars territory now. The Turk is to Obi Wan as Leonardo is to Luke.

The Turk sets up the central mythic quest for Leonardo and provides us with the show’s quest object: The Book of Leaves (which was loosely based on a real tome called the Voynich Manuscript).

If our show is lucky enough to last multiple seasons and end as we planned, then the secrets to our ending are already embedded in this scene.

After Leonardo wakes up, it’s off to the Medici Palace where our hero gets his painting commission and a stipend to experiment with his war machines. Leonardo did attempt to promote himself as a war engineer to Lorenzo and he did work for Lorenzo.

As Leonardo once famously said: “The Medicis created and destroyed me.”

Back at the workshop, Leo gives Zoroaster a task – dig up the Jew’s body. (Leonardo did cut open cadavers later in life and supposedly tasked Zoroaster to dig them up.)

From Verrocchio’s studio, we pivot to the Duomo and the Columbina. Here we see the Scarlet Woman, who is wearing a phoenix dress – bird imagery, fire imagery. Hopefully, this also subtly links to the early glider/Icarus-like imagery.

After the Columbina, Leonardo sleeps with Lucrezia and we preview some other designs (like the parachute).

From Leonardo’s studio we pivot to the Secret Archives. We meet Riario’s “agent”, Lucrezia, who is playing a double or triple game. Riario also gives Lucrezia payment – a severed finger with a ring on it. We’ll learn more about whose finger that is in later episodes.

And that’s Episode One. There are countless other Easter eggs and such embedded in the episode – hopefully, we’ll have time to decipher them in future exchanges.


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In school, I always thought of these famous artists as abstract and remote figures. But in truth, they were human beings, with all sorts of quirks and foibles.

One of the relationships that fascinates me is that of Leonardo and Michelangelo. If we’re to believe Leonardo’s biographer, Vasari, the two men absolutely hated each other. There’s also a story about Michelangelo publicly mocking Leonardo as a “horse-modeller,” calling him out as an artist that often failed to finish his works (which was true). Michelangelo also called Leonardo “the lyre-player from Milan” (a reference to a famous instrument Leonardo designed and was known to have played).

By the time Leonardo returned to Florence from Milan in 1499, Michelangelo had usurped him as the fashionable artist of the day. While Leonardo was 23 years older, irreverent and liked to dress extravagantly (pink tights, bizarrely coiffed hair), Michelangelo was much more reserved and devout. Ill-tempered.

Vasari describes Leonardo as “capricious and unstable.” Apparently, he had quite a reputation for leaving his works unfinished (which we will be exploring in the series). Books and plays have been written about Leonardo’s artistic rivalry with Michelangelo, including The Lost Battles, by Jonathan Jones as well as Renaissance Rivals, by Rona Goffen.

Michelangelo sculpted the colossal statue of David which, apparently, Leonardo publicly criticized. Supposedly, the two artists actually got into a fight as to who would get to work with the actual block of marble David was carved from!

At one point Leonardo and Michelangelo were asked to paint competing murals on the opposing walls of the Palazzo Vecchio, both to commemorate famous battles. The sketches for the two murals were completely different in design and spirit. But it seems as if Michelangelo’s was the more popular.


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In our show, Leonardo’s closest friend is Zoroaster (played by Gregg Chillin). An actual, historical scoundrel known as Zoroaster from Peretrola, Zoroaster was too good a character to make up. His real name was Tomasso Masini. He claimed to have been the illegitimate son of a nobleman (although he was probably the son of a gardener). He was known, variously, as a goldsmith, mechanic, magician and occultist!

Apparently he was good enough friends with Leonardo that he traveled with him to Milan in 1482, then back again to Florence in 1502, where he helped Leonardo work on the Battle of Anghiari fresco.

During the same period, Zoroaster volunteered to test Leonardo’s flying machine, but wound up crashing it an breaking his leg!

I’m fascinated that a genius and polymath like Leonardo, who consorted with popes and kings, would count an obvious reprobate like Zoroaster as one of his best friends. And yet, clearly, they were good friends. Seems to me there’s a story there somewhere. We may never know the real reason for their friendship, but we’re certainly going to take a stab at coming up with one on our show.

Interestingly enough, the town Zoroaster was from was also the birthplace of Amerigo Vespucci — the guy America is named after. Without question, Zoroaster and Amerigo probably knew each other. And we have plans, should we be lucky enough to unveil them, in our hoped for second season…

Zoroaster (played by Gregg Chillin)

1/28 TCA and ADR (a week of acronyms)

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TCA and ADR (a week of acronyms)

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A few weeks ago, Tom Riley and other cast members flew out for the annual Television Critics Association conference.  Twice a year, critics from around the world converge on Pasadena and all the networks trot out their new shows.

We held a Q&A panel for the critics, premiered our trailer, and generally stumped for Da Vinci’s Demons as best we could.  To a certain extent, this was our coming out party.  Before we started, we were ushered to a green room and “groomed” for presentation (see photos).  Generally, this involves getting some make-up and a bit of quick-fire media training.  It’s a little nerve-wracking.

After the panel, we did about 5 hours of round-robin interviews, one every 15 minutes or so.  After so many interviews, your brain turns to mush.  But in this modern age, when so many shows are being launched simultaneously, you have to do everything you can to distinguish your show from the pack.  It helps if you have a show you are genuinely enthusiastic about.  It also helps if you like your cast.

Since Tom and the others were in town, we also took the opportunity to record some ADR for episodes 3 and 4.  ADR stands for Automatic Dialogue Replacement.  When you watch a TV show, anywhere from ten to twenty-five per cent of the dialogue has actually been re-recorded in a sound studio months after the initial shooting period took place.  There are multiple reasons for this.  Sometimes, the shooting conditions were just too noisy.   When we were on location, for instance, there might have been a lot of traffic noise.  Or cows mooing.  Or whatever.

But in other situations, the filmmakers want to alter the dialogue from what was originally written.  Sometimes, this is for clarification purposes.  In other instances, with a bit of skillful editing, you can actually change story points after the fact.  If an actor is facing away from camera, you can change what they originally said, since you can’t see their lips moving.  It simply requires fitting the new dialogue into the existing edit.

Doing ADR is definitely a form of acting – but it’s a different skill-set than simple performance.  At times, it requires replicating the voice-quality of something you did half a year before.  In the attached photos, we’ve got Laura Haddock watching a scene from episode 4.  Here, we’re actually changing what she was saying on the day.  She also needed to hum a specific tune – a kind of lullaby.  But because we hadn’t yet hired our composer when this scene was shot, she had to make something up on the day.  Since then, I’ve brought Bear McCreary  on as the show’s composer and he’s subsequently wrote the lullaby.  Bear came to the recording session depicted here and helped coach Laura to fit the new lullaby into the space/seconds we had carved out for it on film.  Also depicted here is a page of the ADR cue sheets Laura was working off of.

12/18 Scoring Da Vinci

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Scoring Da Vinci

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I recently attended one of our scoring sessions at the Bridge Studio in Glendale.  Bear McCreary, who is our composer, was conducting.  About 30 strings this session.

Lots of shows are attempting to just use samples and synths, but Bear and I are committed to using live musicians.  There’s just no other way to achieve that epic feel.  And we’re going for epic.  Fortunately, [the network] Starz and [producing partner] BBC Worldwide have backed us.  In an age of outsourcing, we’re actually using local, union musicians.

I’ve wanted to work with Bear since hearing his music on Battlestar Galactica.  He hasn’t disappointed.

Today is one of several string sessions.  We’ve also done sessions with the Calder Quartet, ethnic woodwinds, concert woodwinds, percussion sessions with Tibetan prayer bowls for the Sons of Mithras elements — as well as some specialty instruments like the viola da gamba and theTurkish yialli tanbur.  Bear’s also been personally playing the hurdy gurdy.  And it’s these more unusual instruments that really set the score apart from your usual cues.

Of the things that’s really impressed me about Bear is his attention to detail. For instance, Da Vinci was known to use mirror writing.  Writing that can be read backwards and forwards. So for Da Vinci’s main theme, Bear approached me with the idea of writing a musical palindrome — a cue that would work both forwards and backwards.  When it’s forwards, it’s more celebratory.  When the cue is backwards, we tend to use it for more mournful moments — like when Da Vinci is dealing with painful moments in his childhood.  Cool stuff.

Inspirations for Da Vinci’s Demons…

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These were wide-reaching.  I did a ton of research, going back to Vasari’s Lives of Artists, which was written nearly 500 years go.  Then I read all of Da Vinci’s actual notebooks, studied his paintings, his drawings and sketches.  I spent time in Florence — a miracle of a city.

Serge Bramly’s Leonardo: The Artist and the Man was a great resource, as was Fritjof Capra’s The Science of Leonardo.  Freud’s book on Da Vinci’s psychosexual nature was interesting as well (although I contend his analysis was somewhat flawed).

Lauro Martines book April Blood, which details the events surrounding the Pazzi Conspiracy is fascinating reading, as was Magnifico, by Miles Unger.  (Both of these books concern themselves more specifically with Lorenzo and his clan.)

But my influences for the series also drifted further afield.  Because this isn’t a straight historical bio-piece, but rather a piece of historical fiction interwoven with lots of facts, I brought in a lot of mythological elements.  Like many filmmakers dealing with heroic figures, I drew from Joseph Campbell’s classics The Power of Myth and The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

I owe a great debt to the works of Argentine magic realist writer Jorge Luis Borges, an incredible author whose short works are surreal and haunting.  He often dealt with themes involving doppelgangers, dreams, labyrinths, and the circular nature of time.  Ditto for Neil Gaiman’s comic book classic Sandman.

Borges lead me to the Sons of Mithras, a mystery cult who effectively became my Jedi Knights.  (There are also heavy doses of Star Wars sprinkled throughout Da Vinci’s Demons – you will see a connection with one of the characters in the show.)

On the science and philosophical front, Hofstadter’s classic work Gödel, Escher, Bach…



So why is a show about Renaissance Florence shooting in Swansea, Wales?!?

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Well, that’s a bit of a long and circuitous story.  Our dream was to shoot the show in Italy, but sadly, the current economics and infrastructure there made it difficult.  So we considered lots of places: Prague, Budapest, Toronto.  Eastern Europe offered a lot of texture — old buildings, forests, and the like.  Canada offered various tax rebates and a deep bench of film technicians and talent, but not much in the way of locations.  Because of my associates at BBC Worldwide, we also had a lot of contacts in the UK.  Ultimately, we settled on the UK because it has the widest and deepest pool of acting talent. 

We also knew that a significant amount of our ‘look’ would be done through CGI. We have a hefty vfx budget on this show.  We did go to Florence, Rome, and Milan to shoot 2nd unit and vfx plates.  We spent over two weeks there, in total, capturing thousands and thousands of hi-res images that will be comped into our shots and mapped onto our 3-D models.

The next question was where in the UK?  In the last decade or so, a lot of production has been happening in Wales — mostly in Cardiff, thanks to Dr. Who, Torchwood, and Sherlock.  Initially we looked at Cardiff.  We knew we needed a big set of sound stages — at least 50,000 square feet.  We found one place, but they would only give us a year option and we were hoping for at least 5 years (with the dream that the show would continue to thrive and build).  Our production designer found an old Ford plant in Swansea — 250,000 square feet of space and most of it sitting empty!  The plan was a little mad — turn the old auto plant into a film studio.  But we did.  And despite some growing pains, it turned out to be a blessing — particularly because we’ve already out-grown our anticipated 50,000 feet in the first season.  (I think our sets now extend up to around 75,000 square feet.) 

Better yet, Wales has more castles and historical sites than any other place in Europe and the local government has been incredibly gracious about letting us film in many of them — Castell Coch, Caerphilly, Tretower, Neath Abbey, Abergavenny, Ogmore — we’ve filmed in all of these places and more.  But the jewel in the crown is Margam Castle, where we’ve actually built our Medici palace sets into the castle’s interior.

So, that’s how we ended up in Swansea, Wales.

During shooting for Episode 3; One of the many Welsch castles we shoot in

10/23 Da Vinci’s Drawings

Category Creative Genius
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Da Vinci’s Drawings

Posted by admin

On October 4th, while in London, I had the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes at the British Museum (a place I hadn’t visited since I was a teenager).  It’s hard not to be humbled as you walk through the museum’s hallowed halls.  We went upstairs, through a series of security doors, then signed ourselves in to the Prints and Drawings room — IDs, check your bags, wash your hands, then you are whisked through another set of doors into the document room itself.  Allison, one of the curators, handed me a pair of white, Mickey Mouse-like gloves.  A few moments later, she appeared with two large, blue folio boxes.  Inside the boxes were about two dozen pages from da Vinci’s sketchbooks.  I was able to pick each page up, handle it — no glass or other security barriers between the pages and myself.  I could actually smell the paper; inspect the areas where da Vinci erased certain pencil strokes.  I could see fingerprints, wine stains, his signature.  Among the drawings were sketches for da Vinci’s tank, the scythed chariot, various studies of women and children with animals.

(These are some of the pages I was able to examine.  Some of them were remarkably simple, while others were intricately detailed.)

Da Vinci's drawing

I found the whole experience surprisingly emotional.  I’ve been working on the show for nearly two years now — and at times, you can get lost in the slog.  Fighting the elements in Wales, burying yourself in edits and sound spotting sessions.  Arguing with people over how long Tom Riley’s beard stubble should be.  It was incredible to be reminded of the fact that, unlike Batman or Superman, this man actually existed — I was holding drawings he did over 500 years ago.  Even from that kind of remove, the pages radiated with his brilliance.  A single, tiny page, might have a half a dozen different studies on it — everything from sketches of various cogs and wheels, to an old man, to a dog, to something like the jousting horsemen up above.

Many thanks to the British Museum for connecting me, once again, to the man who inspired this show from the get-go.

British Museum

The crystal ceiling of the British Museum

British Museum - signing in

Signing in to the document museum

British Museum

I'm handling a binder containing da Vinci notebook pages

British Museum - Document Room

British Museum document room