Starz series aims to travel far from the Errol Flynn/’Treasure Island’ world that movie and TV watchers are accustomed to, David Hinckley reports for The New York Daily News.
Much as we all loved Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the real-life golden age of seagoing piracy wasn’t all swash, buckle and clever repartee.
That’s why Jonathan E. Steinberg says he and Michael Bay created the series “Black Sails,” an ambitious, movie-size pirate epic that premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. on Starz.
Steinberg and members of the cast, like kids all around the world, grew up reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” seeing Errol Flynn soar across the silver screen with his sword in his teeth, laughing over the misadventures of Captain Hook and more recently rediscovering the sheer fun of pirate tales with Jack Sparrow.
Yet through it all, says Steinberg, there was always a big hole in the story.
Set in the Caribbean in 1715, “Black Sails” immediately sets a tone of menace, creating a world that has the trappings of civilization with few of its rules.
In the broadest sense it’s a prequel to “Treasure Island,” though it doesn’t feel bound to feed into the specifics of the book. Steinberg says it acknowledges repeatedly that Long John Silver, the nominal narrator, “is completely unreliable. Everything that comes out of his mouth is self-serving.”
Still, the general direction is familiar. Factions of pirates and other New World entrepreneurs spar for position and wealth, making it a tricky place even for the handful of folks who just want to live in relative peace and have food on the table.
Flint isn’t afraid to mix it up, but that’s not how he got to the top of this world.
“He was in the British Navy,” says Stephens. “So he has an advantage over the others. He knows strategy, he knows what the Navy is doing.”
What the Navy is doing, at the moment, is trying to stop all this piracy. Seems it’s interfering with, among other things, British plans to colonize the still-New World.
“Until shortly before this story starts, these privateers had almost worked with the British Navy,” he says. “They had been tolerated, if not actively encouraged,” because they primarily preyed on and disrupted trade for Britain’s major rival, the Spanish.
“Now suddenly [the pirates] are being treated as criminals,” says Stephens. “That’s what’s happened as our story starts.”
Starz isn’t thinking small on this story. The set, built in Cape Town, incorporates a town, an ocean and several ancillary bodies of water, not to mention a couple of full-size pirate ships.
“It’s a very different tone, I think,” says Steinberg, “than any other pirate story I’ve ever heard.”
One immediately clear distinction is that the female characters here are more than prizes to be fought over and won. “Black Sails” has at least three female characters who are as driven as the male pirates, and thereby help shape the story.
Hannah New plays Eleanor Guthrie, a woman of considerable power who swears like, well, a sailor, and seems just as casual about her sex life.
“It’s a frontier story,” says Steinberg. “It’s a story about necessity, day-to-day survival, breaking down social conventions.
“Through Eleanor, Max [Jessica Parker Kennedy] and Anne Bonny [Clara Paget], we wanted to explore three very different women and how they deal with that, with the expectations they were either living under or were in the process of shedding.”
This depth of character exploration, says Stephens, is an across-the-board key to setting “Black Sails” apart from all pirate tales that came before.
“Cable TV can show complex character stories,” Stephens says. “You don’t have to rely on the shorthand of movies. You’re not so limited in the time you have to develop the character. You don’t have to be so black and white.”
Take his character.
“Flint is so enigmatic that you want to know his motivating force,” says Stephens. “We can show his strengths and his flaws. And then, after that, we can also leave it to the audience.
“Part of the fun of any show, at least for me when I’m watching, is figuring it out yourself. I spent an enormous amount of time in this role not showing too much, not giving him away. With Flint for me, less was more.
“You want the audience to do some of the work itself. This show allows them to do that.”
Without ever being more than a few minutes from the next swash and buckle.