The Fourth Wall: Black Sails and Creating a Storm on the High Seas

In our look behind the production process of Black Sails, creator Jonathan E. Steinberg takes us into the storm that is season three.

Editor’s note: The Fourth Wall is knocking down barriers between entertainment industry talent and the audience. This recurring feature is a platform for creators, actors, and industry insiders to bring readers behind the scenes of the production process.

By Jonathan E. Steinberg (creator of Starz’ Black Sails) as told to Alec Bojalad 

At the end of Black Sails season two, we were all very proud. But the one thing the network said was: “Do you think you can make it bigger?” That’s an experience you don’t often have in TV, where the people paying for it are really telling you to go for it… so we had to go for it. 

During the first pass of the writing process, you’re always trying to write the most exciting story. Then you go through a phase of compromise, where you look at things you need to jettison in order to make a TV budget work. In this particular case, Starz was adamant that we didn’t do that. They read the first four scripts of season three, and each individually were bigger than any episode we’ve ever done. And we kind of wrote them just to see what would happen if we pulled all the stops out and made the show as big as it could possibly get. And they liked it. We had a number of conversations where the result was “Don’t cut any of this. Let’s see how big we can make this.” Then you have a moment of terror. You now need to figure out how to do this story that you wrote in a vacuum.

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Episode two is actually the last episode we finished due to all the post-production work. There’s this massive storm that we throw our guys into. The hurricane takes up about 15-20 minutes of screen time. At the outset we resolved to make the whole thing as difficult for ourselves as possible. We knew we wanted to experience it both on the deck and up in the rigging – 70 feet above the deck. From day one the goal for the ships on the show was to stand on the deck of this thing floating out in the open water and to have the audience get this sense that they’re out of control. The world is not stable anymore. We always wanted to be able to display that. This is that taken to the extreme. You’re on a roller coaster ride. There are guys who are 50 feet above it while it’s going on and all the physical forces that are being applied to you up there are massively magnified. When that ship rolls, you’re rolling significantly faster.

We wanted the scene to be dark, which is difficult in the sense that we’re shooting it in broad daylight and you can’t shoot inside. It just wouldn’t look right. It would have been easier to have just shot in a little bit of daylight and accept that this was a storm just happened quickly in the sunlight (which we did some research and apparently that does happen) but we didn’t want to compromise. So we had to make the sun go away. There were a number of days where we had every construction crane that was for sale in Cape Town with massive sunshades – trying to make a parking lot in broad daylight into a hurricane.

It was stunning when I walked out to the back lot and saw all the equipment. This was a whole other beast. The water – there was a ton of water on the set and only some of it was augmented. We got a couple of V8 engine propellers to push the water and push the air to create believable hurricane conditions. It was helping, but it wasn’t enough. You wanted to feel like the deck is violent and oppressive. They didn’t have jet engines that were available in Cape Town so we got those from the U.K. We got those not just for the sails, but mostly for the deck. We had to pull out all the stops for this one. You wanted to feel like you’re in a hurricane. 

Granted, I wasn’t the one who had to stand on a deck while wind and water blew 100 mph in my face. We knew from season two that we had a handful of scenes with Toby Stephens where we threw him into the water tank. And it’s not his favorite thing in the world. Then not intentionally we wrote an episode where he was just drenched for months. Toby and the other actors suffered through long takes in a really violent environment. Their anger onscreen is directed at the director as much as their portrayal of the situation. But it worked. Toby was a good sport about it. There are a few shots that are in the cut where he’s getting hammered wind and rain and he looks super not pleased. It helps though: you feel like he’s a guy in a hurricane.

For season three, and this scene in particular, we brought in Captain Andrew Reay-Ellers, who was the sailing consultant on Master and Commander. He knew how massive the sailing work was going to be. In terms of making it feel real, there’s a moment where a huge piece of one of the masts breaks off and flies away and it was similar to an event Ellers had experienced. He was able to recount what it feels like when you’re on a deck and something that violent happens to the ship you’re standing on. It’s the only thing that’s keeping you from a very nasty ocean. They also end up in a situation where one of the sails won’t come down, which is extremely dangerous when the wind is that heavy. This is something we were learning about as we go along.

Shooting that sequence took many days that consisted of a lot of noise and water. Fortunately, I got to stand on the side of it dry. We had to make sure we had pieces to tell the story we cared about. You don’t just want it to be big and noisy and overwhelming. We wanted the human element to come across. Mostly though, my memory of it is really just of a giant pile of water. And miserable actors. 

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Updated: 1/31/16 – Check out a behind the scenes look at a storm on the high seas, courtesy of Starz!

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