When costume designer Annie Symons got wind of David S. Goyer's Da Vinci's Demons, she called up and asked him for a job on his series about a young Leonardo da Vinci -- the original Renaissance man --- set in 15th century Florence
After a Skype call, they clicked. Symons recalls: "We talked it through and we really got on. I think it was just meant to be."
She wasn't intrigued by the prospect of making period perfect gowns (a la The Borgias). There's none of that in Demons.
She was ensnared by Goyer's narrative that reimagines the painter/inventor/anatomist/physicist/ botanist/engineer/philosopher etc as a mix of James Bond, Indiana Jones and Bruce Wayne; a sexy, whip-smart, confident, wise-cracking anti-hero of a tale that makes history come exhilaratingly alive by spicing dusty facts with our more prurient modern fantasies.
"That's the way I like to work," admits the Emmy and BAFTA-nominated designer whose credits include John Maybury's Love Is the Devil about painter Francis Bacon and Julien Temple's Pandaemonium, about English poets Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads collaboration.
"I rarely do straight narrative period," she admits, "although I don’t eschew it because it has a discipline and can open up ways of thinking in itself. I always like to find the rules -- whatever they are -- and then bend them to fit the narrative. It’s a puzzle, an unholy synthesis. And the joy is when it works with the narrative and you have reinvented the past and arrived at a visual metaphor for the script."
Of course, Symons -- who is a trained artist -- looked at Renaissance paintings but mostly for the rich vibrant colors she used. To engage a young audience, Symons drew inspiration from modern designers; from couturier Charles Worth for Medici wife Clarice (Lara Pulver) to '60s provocateur Ossie Clark for da Vinci's nymph/hippie muse Vanessa (Hera Hilmar); from ostentatious Versace on young Medici stud Giuliano (Tom Bateman) to understated Armani for Count Riario (Blake Ritson).
And there's not a single pair of tights in the series. "Believe me, I didn't want to put any of those men in tights, so I didn’t," says the designer. "They all wear leather trousers that give them that kind of sexy, virile swagger."
As for Leonardo, think Bono, Sting, Bruce Springsteen. "Leo (Tom Riley) is a rock star and he wears a leather jacket and stomps about in his boots and leather trousers, like all good anti-heroes. I also painted on his leather jacket as though he had doodled on it, which feeds into the modern biker jacket, but with drawings and mysterious symbols."
And then there's the tousled hair, scruffy sexy beards and bare, pulse-racing open shirts revealing muscular chests, which give the effect of the cover of a women's romance novel. And there's also quite a bit of nudity, male and female. "Nude scenes were my day off," joke Symons about their harried location time in rainy Wales, shooting in castles and inside a refurbished auto factory turned studio.
There will be other historical figures who will interact with da Vinci throughout this season and into the next (Starz has already renewed the show for a second season). One chap of note is Vlad the Impaler, aka the man who inspired the legend of Dracula, happened to be alive in the 15th century and, well, Europe is a pretty small place.
But don't think predictable capes and fangs. "I looked at the history of Vlad and what he wore and why," Symons explains. "He grew up in Turkey because his father had given him and his brother to the Ottomans as collateral. He became very bitter and angry and because he went through hell as a child, his moral compass was jumbled. Instead of making his outfit a cartoon version, I made him a cape of red leather and created veins in the skin and embellished the garment with Turkish coins."
Symons says truth is always stranger than fiction. "For me, reading about people is so necessary. It can take you on a really interesting journey. It's not about fashion. The audience has to believe these characters and you to invest some history. A costume is really a shorthand for the character's personality. You can scan them and go, 'Oh, that’s what they are.' The license is broader and history is alive, so one takes the truth and subverts it and comes up with something very exciting, all led by David and his madness."
Lest we forget, Goyer has already proved that he knows a little something about re-creating classic superheroes and making them fresh and sexy, as evidenced by his projects The Dark Knight Trilogy and The Man of Steel, in theaters in June. To him, Leonardo da Vinci is just another superhero dying to be made current.