Black Sails Season 3: Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine Chart a Course

We go deep with Black Sails creators Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine about Black Sails season 3.

Starz presented a panel on Black Sails season 3 to the Television Critics Association this month. Taking a break from production on season four were creators Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine, with cast Toby Stephens, Clara Paget, Zach McGowan and Ray Stevenson, and Den of Geek got them all one on one after.

Black Sails season 3 picks up with Flint (Stephens) and Vane (McGowan) having escaped Flint’s hanging, now raiding Jamaica and getting their boat and crew back. It also introduces Blackbeard (Stephenson) in a powerful, mysterious opening scene. Steinberg and Levine took us through the new season with a look ahead to season four as a bonus. 

What a dramatic introduction for Blackbeard in the shadows. Did you plan that and write that, or was it the episode director?

Jonathan Seinberg: It’s funny. We wrote a version of the opening of the show and we shot it. We got a few episodes in and we then realized it wasn’t right. You sort of start to meet these characters. The collision between the actor and the character and how the actor inhabits it starts to inform itself. We went back and built that opening for Ray’s Blackbeard, not the theoretical one that we started with, but for that guy. I hope it’s just everything you want when you’re meeting this character. Mystery and not knowing where he’s coming from and just knowing at some point that there is violence behind it and that his capacity is limitless.

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Robert Levine: You want to make an asset of his voice I think, just that musical quality of Ray’s voice that I think allows you to register both the gravity and the humor and the slight wisened nature of it. It all comes out before you even set eyes on him.

JS: There’s something civilized about it.

What was the original opening you scrapped?

JS: It wasn’t as good as what we have. There’s always this process. You don’t really ever know what the character is, I think, until the actor has put his stamp on it. I think that’s part of what was great about Ray is he was such a perfect fit for it that it made it real for us in a way that I think your initial instinct is to not believe a character can be that large, both literally and figuratively. He cuts such a figure and I think Ray coming in makes that real and makes you believe it, makes you feel like that’s a guy who, when he walks into a room, everyone turns. They want to know where he is. There aren’t a lot of actors, I don’t think, that can pull off both that and be able to make you care and to be vulnerable within that frame. And he did, so we were very fortunate to bring him aboard.

Was it nice to get Flint off dry land after the end of season two?

JS: The conceit for season three, the moment we realized he was at war abroad with civilization, with England, with the colonial governors, it lent itself to wanting to tell his odyssey, his delayed and detoured journey home. So that immediately felt like we were going to be doing a lot of ship work and it’s a challenge because at a certain point you don’t want it to just be open water. You have to find things out there and find the challenges that keep him from getting home. That leant itself to a first four-episode journey. Each episode is different from the last and they’re all big in their own way. They were a production challenge, they were a story challenge but I think at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve been on a journey in those first four hours.

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Is this season the most you’ve spent on the water?

RL: Yeah, it turned out to be, I think.

JS: I don’t think there’s an episode in which we don’t spend a fair amount of time on the water this season.

RL: We had the benefit, like any show, at a certain point the crew becomes better and sharper. They know what they’re doing and you achieve liftoff. Suddenly you’re able to just do things with better speed and efficiency. Suddenly it makes more sense and then right away you start looking for ways to push it even more. I think what you’ll see in season three is us really, really trying to take advantage of weather and then almost immediately no weather, because there’s different ways to experience the isolation of being on a boat in the middle of an ocean.

JS: Part of the challenge is knowing how to handle it as a production issue and I think part of it for us is about making sure that we’re never doing the same thing twice. We don’t want to do the same set piece and just do it a little bit bigger. We want to do them differently. To be on the water, you have to find another reason to be on the water and another experience that’s going to make it feel new.

I think as the crew gets better, I think we’ve settled into what the show does and doesn’t do and what it can do well. It’s just a constant process of asking the question, “What haven’t you seen yet? How do you put these people in a situation that will make this feel like an adventure and the exploration of a world you’ve never seen before?”

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Does Flint have to win his crew back sort of?

JS: Yeah, I think there is a collision that happens in that first episode. Civilization makes its first pitch to them, which is: if you come back, we might not hold you accountable for the things you’ve done. It offers them security and comfort. I think it’s scary if you’re Flint to see a crew full of your men feeling like, “Maybe that’s something I would be willing to entertain. It coincides with a moment in which Flint is at his angriest and his darkest and is able to consume the crew within that anger and create a mood and a demeanor I guess on this ship in which the idea of ever surrendering to England again or being a part of it is just unthinkable. That war against civilization is to leave.

RL: He has the instinct to know in that moment that there’s a rationale that’s being presented to his men that is very powerful. There is no rational argument that could compete with that so he has to reach into the irrational and the unconscious and the emotion. That’s what he does in order to get them to do what he wants. As a result, he plunges them into something that is hopeless and angry and ugly and scary.

JS: Spiteful.

RL: Which becomes a reflection of his inner state.

Is this a big season for the women too?

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RL: In particular for Eleanor. I think she in a way experienced a death of sorts at the end of season two. She was stripped of kind of everything she had built her life around. All the meaning of her life around. So she’s experienced a death as far as she’s condemned to die and then she’s given a chance to return in the service of civilization at a moment I think when she is in a strange way susceptible to feeling like that’s how you need to survive in this world, that you need to be ready to compromise or ready to adapt.

At the same time, she’s condemned in a sense by Vane with the sense of “You’ll betray anyone” and she’s sort of desperate to not have that be true. He relationship with Woodes Rogers is informed by that. Even though he, weeks before, would represent everything she was fighting against, he’s now something that she wants to, in a sense, deliver for and be true to.

And Bonny?

JS: I think she made some pretty big choices at the end of season two in terms of ending her sexual relationship with Rackham but maintaining the rest of her relationship. I think we wanted to own that and tell a story about how she is dealing with the fallout of it and how far her relationship with Rackham will bend and what it will accommodate.

I think between the two of them, it’s a story about how they think it feels at the end of season three between Rackham and Bonny and Max. That having achieved this wealth that that’s the end of their story, that they found happiness. I think in everyone’s story in this show, the moment they reach that gold, it’s never what they think it’s going to be. It never has the meaning they think it’s going to have. So we start with the three of them rich and miserable and having to figure out how to find meaning past it.

And you’re starting season four already, which is usually how it is, you’re in production again by the time you come here.

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JS: Our development, production and post cycle is so long, it’ll take us about a year and a half from the time we start breaking story for a season to when we finish post on it. So until there are 18 month calendar years, these seasons are always overlapping. There’s just a tremendous amount to prep for and conceive and figure out ways to put a hurricane in a parking lot in Cape Town.

A few years ago, NBC tried to do a sea show, Crossbones. Did you get any gratification that they couldn’t pull it off and you’re still going?

JS: No, there’s always a weird feeling when there’s another project out there that’s living in your neighborhood. I think the last four years have been so intense trying to figure out how to make this show, there was a part of us that felt like if they can figure out how to do this and make it easier on us, that would be great. It’s all consuming, from story through the finishing of visFX. We try really hard for it to be uncompromised and uncompromising and it makes it hard to really care what anybody else is doing when you’re that deep in this