Creators Frank Spotnitz and Stephen Thompson on Blending History with Murder Mystery in New TELUS Presents Series ‘Leonardo’

A still from 'Leonardo'. Da Vinci (Aidan Turner) is shown through two wooden bars, he is examining a portrait with a furrowed brow.
TELUS Presents

On the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, American writer Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files, The Man in the High Castle) and British playwright/screenwriter Stephen Thompson (Doctor Who, Sherlock) began collaborating with Italian producers in creating Leonardo. A collaborative effort equally in international influence and ambition, the series steers away from linear storytelling of a conventional biopic in favour of creative license in portraying da Vinci.

Including elements of the fantasy and mystery genres, Leonardo follows the life of Leonardo da Vinci (played by Aidan Turner) through his art and an accusation of murdering Caterina da Cremona, his muse and love interest. The series’ co-creators talked to Bethany Gemmell about their discoveries about da Vinci and the attraction of portraying his life through a crime drama.

Bethany Gemmell: What was it that interested you in Leonardo da Vinci?

Steve Thompson: I love projects where I know so little about it, and I can immerse myself in a completely new world. The Italian producers were keen to do the show, it’s been 500 years since Leonardo died, so they were very keen to do the show they came towards. And the more I read, the more I realised, I didn’t know very much about this guy at all.

Not only was he a great artist, but he was also a great scientist and so many other things. The quantity of material, the constant of things achieved in one lifetime is extraordinary, so I was completely hooked in by the character and the journey of his life.

Frank Spotnitz: I was daunted by the idea of doing a series about Leonardo da Vinci, because he just seems unbelievable. You just can’t believe that anybody ever lived who was so good at so many things. To make a story about him that attempted to explain him, seemed impossible. The fear is that you will end up sort of reducing him to something, you know — put him in a little box. And you can’t do that with a genius, especially not one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived.

When I found out Steve was doing this, I said, “Okay, I’ll do this with Stephen and trust me, we’ll find our way through this”. And I think we ultimately did come down to a conclusion about this person that wasn’t reductive, that was not trying to explain his genius, but put his genius in a context, and, and make them a real person you could care about and be moved by.

TELUS Presents

What was it about including an element of the murder mystery genre that appealed to you when writing the series?

ST: Well, if you read any of the biographies of Leonardo, they are all incomplete, and they’re all slightly speculative, because there are holes in history on things about him. We just don’t know — none of us were physically able to find out certain facts. All of the biographies, and we read several recommended, all of them sort of run out of steam occasionally and say, “we don’t really know what happened here, but we think it might be this”.

Now, that’s an incredibly attractive proposition for dramatist, because you’re given some information, but you really have to create a fiction, to stitch these things together, there are certain moments where you have to dip into fiction, just to create a whole picture. The mystery is real. Caterina da Cremona was a real person, that we know very little about — we don’t know why she vanished, and we don’t know why the most famous painting of her vanished too. To dip into a real mystery and to try and solve it 500 years later, was incredibly exciting.

FS: It also literally gave us a way to interrogate Leonardo’s character. Freddie Highmore’s character literally has to get to the bottom of who Leonardo is and what makes him tick. He goes on a journey in those frames of each episode, he goes on a journey from sort of being hostile to Leonardo, to being moved by him and his art to wanting to save him. It’s kind of the journey of the audience that goes on as well, so he was very helpful in sort of getting into human truth of Leonardo not just recounting the story of his life.

Did anything in your research of da Vinci surprise you?

ST: He was a very snappy dresser [laughs]. I didn’t know that.

FS: There’s very little of this actually in the TV series, that so much of what he accomplished — he didn’t tell anybody. It was just in his journals. When people found out over the course of the ensuing century, he discovered this, he invented that, you know, he was way ahead of anybody else. His genius is just so towering. Obviously, it was coming from a place of just pure love of knowledge because he felt no need to advertise or share all of this incredible stuff he discovered. So that was surprising and a bit infuriating to me as well.

A still from 'Leonardo'. Da Vinci (Aiden Turner) is shown in a wide shot against the backdrop of an emerging sketch of famous paint 'The Last Supper'. He has his arms folded and is looking down,.
TELUS Presents

Why did you cast Aidan Turner for the role of Leonardo da Vinci?

ST: Well, it was dream casting. Really. There was a moment, you know, early on in the process where the casting director says to you, “okay, if you can have anybody in the world, who would you want?”. Frank and I both, almost in unison, yelled out “Aidan Turner”. A year later, we were grinning like Cheshire cats because we’ve managed to get to him and he said yes, so it was perfect for us. He is a very charismatic, very good-looking actor, and historically, the references say that Leonardo was a very good-looking guy. But, you know, Aidan has this extraordinary emotional range, he is bringing a genius to life and for an actor it is a difficult task, but Aidan brought lots of skills to that.

How do you think the series will challenge audience’s preconceptions of who Leonardo Da Vinci was?

FS: [laughs] Oh, my gosh. Well, we’ve already seen you know, foolishly — I don’t know if Steve does this, but I go online and I read the comments. And you know, it’s funny that the things people get upset about, like the stuff that that is completely not to dispute.

You know, we live in such a fraught, tense, cultural moment. Some people get upset about things about sexuality, which in our reading, there’s no question about sexuality. We’re not trying to jam home any ideological point; we’re just trying to show a human being and be truthful about it. But I think that’s probably the number one thing that people have been following, which I just think is silly.

But you never know what’s going to land and what’s going to provoke the audience, you just try and love the story you’re telling. I think Steve and I both really loved the story, and really were moved by the characters, and fortunately, it seems like a number of people who’ve seen the show loved it too.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length*

Leonardo is now available on Amazon Prime Video

by Bethany Gemmell

Bethany graduated from The University of Edinburgh.  She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time.

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