Interview with Black Sails Creator Jonathan E. Steinberg
Q: Is it safe to say that Treasure Island was one of your favorite books growing up?
Jonathan Steinberg: It was, yeah, who wasn’t? I mean, it’s one of the first adventure stories that you get exposed to, but I think what was fun for us was starting to understand that world. The Treasure Island world and the tone of it, while it’s become the basis for everything pirate that went after, it is not by any stretch a historical document. I mean, it’s a campfire story, and the reality that happened before it is really fascinating and something that’s far more grown-up and far more complicated and far more engaging I think. And so once we were able to dig into that, I think that’s, that’s when we knew there was something here.
Q: That’s why I love the potential for the Long John character because from what I’ve seen, you know, thus far, it’s like a young, brash, quite different from the image we’ve all grown up with on screen and on the print page.
Jonathan Steinberg: I read the book as a kid, but when we started doing research for the show and we started to feel like that might be the basis for the mythology of the show, we re-read the book and it’s shockingly modern in terms of its tone but what I didn’t remember, what was one of the most surprising thing to me is that character is written in a way where it feels intentional, that if you can’t seriously believe a word that comes out of his mouth, that everything is in service of an agenda, which is great. I mean, that’s a fun character to peel apart and figure out how somebody becomes that. You don’t get born that way, so yeah, I feel like I’m between that latitude narratively and an actor in Luke who is pretty great and I think people are going to be very excited to get to know him. It should be a lot of fun.
(Something about different versions, films, spin-off books.) How did you stand out? How did you reinvent it?
Jonathan Steinberg: I think the thing about this, that at least for me I’ve never seen before, is that it is hopefully rooted with both feet planted in the reality of the world that these people live in, in a very human experience that happened. I mean, these people lived in a historical context that I knew a lot about around it but didn’t know where they fit into it, and once you start to understand it, it becomes, it becomes something that makes a lot more sense. You know, these are people who lived in the same world that the people in Boston 60 years later lived in, that it was a system that just didn’t have a place for them, that they were too far out on the frontier to be held back by the social norms and the economic framework that was working at the time and that was fun for me. It’s an interesting world and so I think, and you know it’s also a world that I had never seen fully explored in terms of the violence of it. These were people who through violence take things, and they get hurt and they die, and you know, you don’t see Errol Flynn’s buddies not come back. You know, they all go over and they all come back and they all seem to be smiling at the end of the day. I can’t imagine that’s how it was in reality, so hopefully that’s the tone we captured. Yeah, it’s a rough world out there, yeah.
Q: Is this the first real time you’ve seen Captain Flint explored in any great detail?
Jonathan Steinberg: It’s the first time I have. You know, when you read that book, especially when we re-read it, it kind of reads like an epilogue. I mean, the biggest character in the book, I mean obvious Silver is the presence that drives the story, but Flint’s all over it. It’s his decisions, it’s his behavior that’s setting it all up, and you don’t know a thing about him and everything you know about him, you kind of know a little bit from Silver and you can’t trust anything he said. So it felt like a canvas that was perfect for premium cable to be able to build a character that could live up to that.
Q: So is there going to be a lot of interaction between Long John and Flint? Is Long John serving as quarter master at this point?
Jonathan Steinberg: No, in the book, it is made clear that at one point he was the quarter master before he became captain. It is strongly suggested that Flint was deposed and that he had some hand in it, although he never actually takes any responsibility for it. I think that’s the spine of the show that will hopefully go on for a very long time, but yeah, it’s about these two guys. It’s about, in Captain Flint, a guy who is driven by some very emotional elemental forces and this other guy who is just constantly getting in his way and who is somehow a bit of a cosmic joke that gets played on him that no matter what he does, there’s this guy standing in front of him who undermines him.
(Inaudible question, something fantasy elements in the world)
Jonathan Steinberg: There is no fantasy to it. I mean, I think we’re trying to be as faithful as we possibly can to a period in time that really doesn’t have a reliable historical record. I think there is historical record to these people, but you have to start to wonder how accurate it is in a world where they had an agenda in the way they depicted themselves, so their accounts are skewed and the English had an agenda in terms of how they portrayed them as criminals and as this sort of, as monsters really. You gotta weave through that to figure out what was it actually like for them, you know, in their daily lives, so that’s what we’re trying to be true to. Yeah, no monsters, no ghosts, at least not yet.
Q: What were you looking for when you cast the actors?
Jonathan Steinberg: It was different for each one. I mean, I think some of them, we didn’t know what we were looking for until we found it. You know, with some of the characters, you watch an audition and it just clicks and there is it, and with some of them, we knew exactly what we were looking for and got very lucky. When we saw Toby, that character absolutely fell into place. I mean, we got lucky with all of them. There’s not a weak link in this cast. They’re all amazingly talented, and I have to say that but I’ll say it anyway, it’s true. They are all really great. I think they all inhabiting these characters in a way that makes them specific and makes them fun and makes them relateable. We cast all over the place. At one point, we were casting in London, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Sydney, Barcelona, Paris, I’m not sure, there may have been a couple more. We looked everywhere and it worked fortunately.
(Something about extras)
Jonathan Steinberg: We brought about 9 actors I think from outside of Cape Town and everybody else is either Cape Town or Johannesburg local, and really found some stunningly talented actors there too that I had never seen. I mean, part of the fun of this for us, for people seeing it, is you’ve just never seen those faces before. They’re not people who have been in US TV, and so it’s fun to be able to put an unfamiliar face into a show like that and introduce people to them.
Q: How did the idea for a prequel for Treasure Island come about?
Jonathan Steinberg: I think we were looking for something that people could relate to in this world and trying to set people’s expectations about what the show was going to be, you do want there to be some familiarity, and it was really, as you read this book you realize you don’t know anything about Flint. You don’t know what would drive a guy to what he did and in a way, that character is pervasive through the genre. It’s mentioned in Peter Pan, it’s just this guy who kind of looms over it all but without much detail and that became a very exciting opportunity, to be able to give that some shape and to understand what drove him. And then at the same time, just he felt like, he felt like the cable character, you know, he felt like a guy that you understood in a Tony Soprano kind of a world that was both driven to do something awful but driven by motives that you could understand. Some of this stuff, you know, took on a life of its own. Once you were pointed in the right direction, it just wants to be a story.
Q: What were some of the challenges in production?
Jonathan Steinberg: A lot. This world doesn’t exist anywhere. I mean, even if you could shoot in the Bahamas, it’s not there anymore. The Nassau that was then, and you don’t ever, ever, ever, ever want to shoot in the water. Just not a good idea, so we built it all. We built Nassau, we built the ships, and we built water tanks. We built the beach. It’s the only way to control it all and then we hired a very talented vis-effects team and vis-effects producer and Eric Henry who did John Adams and had done some really big stuff before, to build a world out of, so hopefully it feels immersive, it feels real, it feels like at any point in this story, you can turn 360 degrees and feel like you’re in that place. It’s a challenge, but hopefully it’s working.
Q: What about Eleanor and Mags, how do they fit into all this?
Jonathan Steinberg: It was really important to Robert and I in the beginning that we figured out a way to have the female characters in this not be, in the same way we were trying to upset expectations about what the pirates were, that gender roles are addressed and are really engaged. It’s not just that the women are either prostitutes or pirates or whatever. And so we wanted to tell stories about what it was like to be a woman in that world and what it was like to be a woman specifically in this world where there are no rules and things become a meritocracy very quickly when survival is the stakes that you’re facing every day. And so the two of them are, they are driven. They are very much committed to I guess challenging the expectations that the world has placed upon them.