Interview with Black Sails Co-Creator Jon Steinberg

We sit down with Jon Steinberg at New York Comic Con to discuss what makes Black Sails different from other pirate movies and what inspires him to reveal to us a world never before seen in other pirate media.

Jon Steinbeg already had his geek cred when he came to New York Comic Con this year. The man behind developing Human Target at Fox, as well as the showrunner for the first season of Chuck, Steinberg has known his way around great genre material. However, he has never so blatantly tackled a trope with as much pop culture pastiche and attached strings as that of pirates. Aye. And with Black Sails, he aims to cut through that image with a cutlass.

 Based loosely on the mythology of Treasure Island, Black Sails has had fans buzzing ever since its first episode was teased at San Diego Comic Con. Indeed, if the new trailer or our discussions with stars Toby Stephens and Hannah New are anything to go by, it is going to be off the charts. Thus, it was a great pleasure to talk with Steinberg about his newest creation that he is spearheading at Starz with a second season already confirmed before the January premiere. How long has this project been brewing in your head, and how long did it take to form? Jon Steinberg: A really long time. It was a story I really couldn’t quite crack. The place you always want to be is the place nobody else is, and I felt this is a story that hasn’t been told in [a television series]. There’s the obvious. There’s the Disney version [of Treasure Island], but it’s the Disney version. It’s an adventure, a bit of a cartoon in a good way, but the reality of this world had never really been explored. So, Robert [Levine, co-creator and executive producer] and I read everything we could get our hands on about them, about the world they lived in. We read a lot of social histories that really had nothing to do with them just to understand where they came from, which then really made it clear that we had no idea what this was about. And I don’t think anybody has any real idea what this is about if what you’re basing it on the movies you’ve seen. We sold this show almost three years ago. So, it’s been a very long throw. It’s exciting now to finally show it to people. You start forget that we’re not actually making this for ourselves, that there are people out there who are going to watch it. You mentioned at the panel that there were guidelines about no peg legs or eye patches. Are there other clichés you’re staying away from like walking the plank and swabbing decks? All of them. Religiously. Some of it—clichés are clichés because there’s some truth in it. But we really wanted to root the audience in the feeling that this is reality. It’s a story about people who wake up in the morning and have to go fight a whole bunch of people to make the money they need to live, and it’s work. That’s a version of this I’ve never seen before. And to do that, you have to strip it all away. You have to strip away all of the clues that the audience starts to be keyed to that you’re in the world you expected to be. You’re in the Pirates of the Caribbean, Errol Flynn, Johnny Depp world. Some of it comes back in, but I think we’re really trying to strip it all down, and hopefully the audience will feel [they’re] seeing something new because of it. You say you’re taking away elements that are a little bit more cartoonish of pirates. But also in your research, did you find something really unique that hadn’t been explored yet before in film or television that could really make this stand out more? Yeah, the process of doing the research was really eye opening for us. The story I’ve always been told is that these guys are bloodthirsty, that the violence is the attraction to it. And when you really start to think about it, the violence is actually exactly what they don’t want. If they want the stuff then what they want is to make you afraid of the violence, so that you will give up your stuff without having to fight or damage it. That’s cool. Now, we’re talking about branding, and we’re talking about how these guys were able to create a narrative that was self-serving. Let’s put it this way, the narrative they created looks a lot more like the movies you’ve seen than the reality they were living in. And that was just a component of it. There was so much about it, politically, that in every direction, it felt like a show. It felt the shows that are the reasons why I want to make TV. You know, Deadwood, The Sopranos and The Wire. It just felt like a place where the office politics of it were fascinating enough to carry a story. Can you give us a little context for the series as a whole? It is very loosely structured as a prequel to Treasure Island. So, there is a Treasure Island mythology that runs through it in Captain Flint, in John Silver, in Billy Bones, in other characters coming down the road. At the same time, it is taking place in a historically true place in Nassau where England left, where there was no flag; there was no law, and these people had to figure out how to make it work on their own. So, there are historical characters who are a part of it in Charles Vane, and in Anne Bonny, in Jack Rackham and Benjamin Hornigold, so that is a component of this place. And the glue, or the third piece that is keeping it all together, are characters that we’ve put together out of composites of other people in Eleanor Gutherie, in Max, in Gates, that are hopefully keeping those two worlds working together. Given that you’re working in a fictional world, how did you decide which historical characters to bring in? The fun ones! The ones that fit with the story we wanted to tell. There’s some freedom in the moment you realize that the historic record is severely compromised in terms of what these peoples’ lives were like. They had a motive to lie, and so did the people in London. So no matter wherever it’s coming from, you have to expose it to some doubt before you commit to it, which is good. It gives us the room to try to tell a story that will hopefully feel real. It probably won’t necessarily match up to the textbook to what happened, but I think we would probably argue that the textbook is already a narrative that somebody with an agenda put together a long, long time ago. At the end of the day, as long as it feels real, as long as people feel like it’s human beings experiencing this, I think we’re in a safe place.  Did you have to create a sort of hierarchy within this show, so that there are certain captains that have a specific purpose, but they’re vying against each other for various reasons? Kind of. But what was really so surprising to us was that the captains were really at the mercy of their men. They were guys trying to corral a mob. They weren’t kings on these ships; they were servants of these people. So, they’re projections of the crew more than they are the leaders of them, but I think you want the personalities, and you want to understand how all these people co-existed in a place, because they did. We got the question early on, “Why don’t they all kill each other?” And I’m not sure, but they didn’t. Somehow, these people figured out early on that they needed each other or they needed some part of each other. But how does a Flint vary from a Vane for example? They all want something different. I think the key to a story like this is that there’s never a “they.” There’s never a “they want money” or “they want violence.” It’s that everyone is there for different reasons. Some of them have political commitments and ideals, some of them want the money, and some of them are psychopaths. It attracted that. Each one of these characters has to be another piece of the puzzle to convey what this world was like. Pirates are very traditionally a very male-dominated world. But from what Hannah was telling us, Eleanor is a really fleshed out, very strong, powerful character. Could you tell us about how you put females in there to get some balance? I think we wanted to in understanding what this world must have been like—I can’t believe there weren’t women who didn’t have a role to play in it. Especially in this place where there were no rules. The deeper you get into the frontier, the less people care what you look like. When your survival is at stake, things become a matriarchy very quickly. That character was the portrayal of that. She is driven, she is smart and she is exploiting an opportunity, which she wouldn’t have anywhere in the world at that point in time, to have power. Both because of her birth and her connection to her father, and because of who she is, her willingness to go toe-to-toe with these guys, and to be willing to use her economic clout and her political clout as a trump to the violence that they do. In some ways, violence is scary, but not eating tomorrow is scarier, and the fact that she controls it is something that gives her a tremendous amount of influence. How long do you see this going on in an ideal world? These things feel healthiest to me when you know where you’re going, but you don’t know how you’re going to get there. It has to be organic that way. When these become too rigid, you start forcing things that the story doesn’t want. We know where we’re going. I think we have a pretty good sense of where we’re going. As we’re now deep into writing Season 2, we have hopefully a very good sense of what that is. So, hopefully the show will be around for a very long time. There’s so much about this world that’s just so exciting for us that you hope you get half of it across. Thanks for doing this. Thank you very much. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!