Black Sails: A New Frontier in the Telling of the Pirate Story

Before tonight’s series premiere of Black Sails on Starz, we have this awesome teaser piece from our coverage at the 2014 Winter TCA Press Tour earlier this month. Cast members Toby Stephens (Captain Flint), Hannah New (Eleanor Guthrie), Luke Arnold (John Silver), and Zach McGowan (Captain Vane) were joined by Executive Producer/Creator Jonathan Steinberg and Executive Producer Brad Fuller to discuss what is, in a way, a new frontier in the pirate story.

Steinberg addressed why they decided on this fusion of Treasure Island and actual pirates from history: “No one has dug into this world, deep into the bedrock of it, into the reality of what it was like to wake up in the morning and know that this was your life; that if you were going to survive. It’s a very different tone … than any other pirate story I’ve ever heard.” He went on to say, “This wants to be a world that you explore in the same way that you’ve explored a police station for the first time in The Wire, and that you’ve explored a mob family for the first time in The Sopranos.”

When it comes to pirates, it’s easy to go the route of over the top caricatures of pirates, but Black Sails is more about putting a human face on this world. Toby Stephens commented on this: It was very important to us not to kind of pose as these people. We wanted to make them seem like real people … they’re pirates, but one can identify with them as real people. If you’re going to go on a journey with these characters, you don’t want to have that separation of [being] from some distant time, and they’re from some mythological world. They’re real people in real situations that you can identify with.”

Luke Arnold also made some remarks on the authenticity of the series, especially in not embracing the swagger that can come with putting on pirate’s clothes: “Obviously it’s a playground for costume designers and everyone putting this show together at the beginning, but between all the producers and even the actors, it had to feel functional and practical. We didn’t want to be getting around in anything that could endanger you in a fight, that could get in the way of you doing the job you had to do. It would have been nice to have a lot more fun with it, but really that’s not this show. It was about making sure it was authentic.”

Zach McGowan is playing the brutal, cutthroat Captain Vane, and was asked about playing this type of character: “To play a pirate in general and to get to do a lot of things that have been written for these characters is just fun. But I that what’s great about what Robert and John and everyone has done is [that] while there is a level of brutality and cruelty and violence, I think you’ll find as you watch the show that in this world, it’s like the law – the rules of the jungle – in some ways. The cruelty and violence comes out of that survival and that need to actually survive the day.”

Hannah New was the only female member of the cast on hand, and has some interesting insights on the role women in the world of Black Sails: “I think it’s really interesting because it’s a world where sexuality and boundaries have been completely broken down. To play a young woman who doesn’t have those kind of social restrictions put on her, who is free to use her sexuality in whichever way is advantageous to her, is fabulous and a great opportunity as an actress.”

Steinberg added: “It was really important to us that, if we were going to explore this world, that gender had to be a part of that, well beyond just stock wenches and the occasional cross-dressing pirate. There were women in this world, and they had very specific challenges, and they had very specific expectations. We’ve always seen the show as a bit of a Western. It’s a frontier story. It’s a story about necessity, day-to-day survival, breaking down social convention. I think both through Eleanor and through Max, Jessica Parker Kennedy’s character, and through Anne Bonny that Clara Paget plays, we wanted to explore three very different women and how they dealt with the expectations that either they were living under or that they were in the process of shedding and figuring out a way to exist in a world that men ran but in which they had something to contribute.”

Of course the subjects of sex and violence on Starz series came up, and how that played into Black Sails. Steinberg responded: “I have never felt pressured to make the show sexier. I think what we agreed on early on with the creative team was the one thing the show needed to feel was real. It needed to feel like a world where the absence of government, the absence of any kind of authority had meaning. I think that means violence, and so when things get violent, I think we wanted to make it feel shocking. We wanted to make it feel sudden. We wanted to make it feel the way violence feels in real life. And I think when it comes to sex, we wanted to make sure that it feels real. People have sex, and they almost certainly have sex in a world in which none of them have any jobs and they are living in the Caribbean and they kind of do what they will. We’ve gotten into stories, especially in the second season, where whole stories are wrapped up in the very minute details of sexual relationships … and I think that’s what life is. The show is sexy. The show is violent. I don’t think it  ever gets gratuitous in either direction.”

Black Sails premieres tonight at 9pm ET/PT on Starz in the US. Canadian fans – it debuts on Super Channel February 14th at 9pm ET.

Photo Courtesy of Starz

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