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Frank Spotnitz and Steve Thompson on the Challenges Posed by Enigmatic ‘Leonardo’

U.S. showrunner Frank Spotnitz and British writer Steve Thompson were recruited by Italy’s Lux Vide to write English-language TV series “Leonardo,” which will portray the Renaissance genius in new ways, including as a gay outsider. That aspect that has already created a stir on social media in Italy even before the show hits the airwaves.

Plans are for the ambitious eight-episode skein to screen next year to mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. “Leonardo,” which Lux is lead-producing, will also be the first product generated by The Alliance, the co-production group formed by continental Europe’s top pubcasters – RAI, France Televisions, and Germany’s ZDF – in an effort to counter streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon.

Spotnitz (“The Man in the High Castle”) and Thompson (“Sherlock”) spoke to Variety about the challenges of vividly depicting the enigmatic Tuscan artist and inventor for contemporary audiences.

Variety: How are you guys tackling this beast?

Spotnitz: With Leonardo, the advantage you have is that there is so much built-in fascination with him. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me excited that we are doing this show to tell me how interested they are in Leonardo, although not that many people really know that much about his life….What we are doing in writing the story is not taking that interest for granted, and kind of pretending like he isn’t this world-famous artist and inventor and scientist, and just making it a compelling human drama even if he was somebody you had never heard of.

Variety: Some of the aspects that are going to stand out are those that are lesser-known, such as that he was an outsider, an illegitimate child, gay, vegetarian, left-handed.

Thompson: There is a huge amount of information about Leonardo, but there are still some enigmas. Whenever you read his biography, there are still places where the biography starts to speculate. And from the point of view of Frank and I, that’s just wonderful, because it means there are moments which are factual, but there are [also] moments where we can be dramatic and venture off a little bit and try and solve these enigmas….

He was an outsider in many ways. But when we started to read about him, we were amazed and thrilled to find out there were actually some key relationships in his life….There were people he painted, people in the portraits whom he forged really interesting relationships with. And eventually, for a man who was basically an outsider and who was rejected by his family when he was young, he started to form his own family around him. He had people who were very close to him – friends, colleagues who became very close to him. Some of those relationships are really interesting to unpack and to explore, which I think is quite surprising, because he tends to think of himself as an outsider and very isolated. Actually, he wasn’t.

Variety: I don’t want to overemphasize the aspect of Leonardo being gay, which lends itself to being misconstrued as one of the central elements of the narrative. However, if I’m not mistaken this will probably be the first time that this aspect of Leonardo is represented on screen. Does this pose any challenges for you?

Thompson: It’s certainly a feature, but it’s not the main pillar on which we are hanging it. Some of his relationships were with men; those were significant relationships. But perhaps the most significant relationship in his life was with a friend who was a woman, with whom he was very close, and we unpack that. So we are not steering clear of it….It’s just part of the mix.

Variety: As I understand it, each episode will in some way revolve around one of Leonardo’s masterworks.

Thompson: Yes, that’s true because, importantly, each of his masterworks has a really juicy drama attached to it. The actual creation of some of these pieces of art involved incredible toil and incredible battle….Sometimes they are not necessarily going to be the works you expected them to be. Certainly some of the works we describe were never even realized. One of them in particular was never even painted. It was just planned. But the story of its creation, and ultimately its destruction, is a really interesting one.

Spotnitz: The other thing that Steve and I want to do is not just say that Leonardo was a genius, but really show why he was a genius and have the audience understand what it was that made him so brilliant and radical and centuries ahead of this time. To do that, you need to get really close to his work.

Variety: Does that mean there isn’t going to be an episode centered around the Mona Lisa?

Thompson: The Mona Lisa is something that he was painting for years. He started painting it and then he went back to it. Actually, getting it out of his clutches and releasing it took a long time…So the Mona Lisa isn’t an episode. It’s part of a much longer period of narrative.

Spotnitz: But will you be disappointed if you are a Mona Lisa fan? The answer is no. You will learn everything you want to know – hopefully not too much, but everything you want to know about the true story behind the Mona Lisa and why it’s such an important painting.

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