Jonah Weiland welcome co-creator and writer Jonathan E. Steinberg and actor Toby Stephens from the upcoming Starz original series Black Sails to the CBR Tiki Room, high above the show floor at New York Comic Con 2013. The duo discuss the show’s origin and building a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal pirate classic, Treasure Island, including how Stephens crafted the character of Captain Flint. They also talk about the challenges of shooting a pirate series for television, getting fit enough to be a convincing pirate, balancing the tone and their personal histories with the original text.
On the creation of the show: “We realized that to tell a story like this you have to give the audience an entry point, and so Treasure Island just felt natural,” said Steinberg. “In a lot of ways it is the story that gave rise to all of the pirate stories after it. What we wanted to do was to dig back in the other direction and to try to figure out where that story came from. It’s a little bit precursor to Treasure Island, there’s a lot of historical material in it, historical characters. The environment that they are living in in Nassau, [Bahamas] in the seventeen-teens was a real place where the British Governor left; he couldn’t deal with the pirate problem anymore and so these people were left to their own devices.”
On how Stephens created Captain Flint, whose character is already dead when Treasure Island begins: “Captain Flint is in Treasure Island, but he’s dead by the beginning of Treasure Island. It’s his treasure on Treasure Island, the one that he amassed, he and his crew. We know that he was a terrifying pirate and we know that he went to bury the treasure with ten men and he came back alone. More than that we don’t know,” said Stephens. “For John and Robert [Levine, the show’s other co-creator] it was a blank canvas. I really took my starting point from the first script that I was given. I just didn’t want him to be cliche-ridden and I wanted him to be real. I wanted him to be a real human being, and I think that’s what John and Robert wanted and they’ve created this perfect backdrop for him to be a real person.”
On why pirates haven’t proliferated on the small screen: “It’s for a really good reason that we live with every day, which is you don’t want to shoot on the water — and you have to. In order to tell this story you have to show the ships they sailed in and the battles they got into,” said Steinberg. “It’s only really recently that I think the visual FX technology has gotten to the point where it is good enough, cheap enough and fast enough to create a world that doesn’t exist anymore. In a lot of ways, at the same time we’re trying to make this world feel real and historically accurate, it’s fully constructed. There’s no place to go on on location and shoot Nassau in the seventeen-teens. It doesn’t exist anymore. … Shooting on the water is a really good way to stop shooting your show a lot sooner than you’d want to. We avoid it like the plague.
On how physically demanding the role is: “We did a lot of training before we started filming, just to get physically in shape. They weren’t looking for some sort of body aesthetic; what they wanted was people who looked like they worked on ships and actors that were fit enough to do extremely long days doing battle sequences,” Stephens said. “Most of the drama is about the human politics that are going on, and people just trying to survive. There’s a lot of acting that’s required, but these things are punctuated by these very violent battle sequences that give the audience a sense of what it would have been like to be on one of these ships. There’s nothing romanticized about it or glorification of this. It was really scary, it was very claustrophobic, and it was extremely violent.”
‘Black Sails’ premieres January 25 at 9pm ET/PT on Starz.