×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More TV

  • Walt Disney Archives Founder Dave Smith

    Walt Disney Archives Founder Dave Smith Dies at 78

    Walt Disney Archives founder Dave Smith, the historian who spent 40 years cataloging and preserving the company’s legacy of entertainment and innovation, died Friday in Burbank, Calif. He was 78. Smith served as Disney’s chief archivist from 1970 to 2010. He was named a Disney Legend in 2007 and served as a consultant to the [...]

  • TV Writer Christopher Knopf, Former WGA

    TV Writer Christopher Knopf, Former WGA West President, Dies at 91

    Prolific Emmy-nominated television writer Christopher Edwin Knopf, former president of the Writers Guild of America West, died in his sleep of congestive heart failure on Feb. 13. He was 91. Knopf was born in New York and attended UCLA, leaving during his senior year to join the Air Force during World War II. He finished [...]

  • Jussie Smollett The Black AIDS Insitute

    Jussie Smollett Case: Two Suspects Released Without Charges as New Evidence Emerges

    After two days of questioning, the Chicago Police Department announced Friday evening that it has released two suspects in the Jussie Smollett case without filing charges. Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said that detectives had developed new information in the case. Police no longer consider the men to be suspects. “Due to new evidence as a [...]

  • GOTHAM: L-R: Guest star Cameron Monaghan

    TV News Roundup: Fox Drops 'Gotham' Final Season Trailer (Watch)

    In today’s TV news roundup, Fox released a new trailer for an upcoming episode of “Gotham” and Disney has announced the cast for its upcoming “High School Musical” series.  FIRST LOOKS Showtime released a new trailer and the official poster for the upcoming fourth season of “Billions,” premiering March 17 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. In [...]

  • Chris Rock

    Chris Rock to Direct Kenan Thompson Comedy Pilot at NBC

    Chris Rock has come onboard to direct the NBC single-cam comedy pilot “Saving Kenan,” Variety has learned. Rock will also executive produce the pilot, which stars “SNL” mainstay Kenan Thompson. Thompson will play a newly widowed dad determined to be everything for his kids while begrudgingly letting his persistent father-in-law become more involved in their lives [...]

  • Peak TV Saturation TV Placeholder

    Apollo Global Management Buys Majority Stake in Cox TV Stations

    Private equity giant Apollo Global Management has cut a deal with Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises to buy a majority stake in Cox’s 13 TV stations as well as three newspapers and a handful of radio stations in Ohio. Apollo has been in the hunt for broadcast TV stations for some time. Cox’s station group, which includes [...]

  • Ken Jeong TV Take Podcast

    Listen: Ken Jeong on His Return to Stand-Up and New Netflix Special

    Welcome to “TV Take,” Variety’s television podcast. In this week’s episode, Variety’s executive editor of TV, Daniel Holloway, talks with Ken Jeong about his Netflix comedy special, “Ken Jeong: You Complete Me, Ho,” and being a judge on Fox’s “The Masked Singer.“ Jeong started working on his new standup act after ABC canceled his show “Dr. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content