Producers Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine Talk BLACK SAILS Season 2

     March 10, 2015


On Season 2 of the highly ambitious and highly entertaining Starz series Black Sails, loyalties are questioned and unexpected alliances must form for survival. As life gets more violent and dangerous, on land and at sea, tensions mount, blood is spilled, and everyone must decide whether they are men or monsters.

During this exclusive interview with Collider, co-creators/writers/executive producers Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine talked about how Black Sails is a 365-days-a-year process, their goal for the show from inception, why they wanted to tell the backstory for Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) through flashbacks, the fun of Flint and Silver (Luke Arnold) being forced to work together, Eleanor’s (Hannah New) journey this season, always thinking ahead to what comes next, why this show just keeps getting harder to make, what they’re most proud of with the show, and the end point that they’re working towards. Be aware that there are some spoilers. 

black-sailsCollider:  Before the first season started airing, you knew that you’d have a second season. And before the second season started airing, you knew that you’d have a third season. With a show like this, is that crucial, so you can get right back into it? 

JONATHAN STEINBERG:  We’re in an almost 365-days-a-year process. There isn’t that feeling, at the end of the season, where you can go and catch your breath. We’re making this movie as long as we can make it, and it’s a constant process. But there is some comfort from knowing that everybody at Starz feels like it’s the show they want it to be, they feel like it’s being produced the right way, and it’s the right product.

What did you set out to do with Season 2? 

STEINBERG:  The goal for the show, from inception, was an uncompromised look at this world. Coming out of Season 1, we felt like we were on a curve to try to continue to achieve that, which was making it bigger, expanding the world, both in terms of the noise we’re making with the action, and in terms of the scope and what you get to see, and also digging deeper into people that hopefully you cared about, at the end of the first season, and start to understand them better. We wanted to put them into really difficult situations and force them to answer really uncomfortable questions. Some of those questions are political, some of those questions are sexual, and some of those questions are emotional. Honestly, just the extra two hours of having a little bit more real estate to delve into these people was really helpful. We’re really happy with where we’re at.

ROBERT LEVINE:  Right away, two people were introduced that end up being extremely important. We brought in Ned Low, who’s based on a real guy that had a reputation as being one of the nastier pirates of that era. That was something that we felt the show could use, especially at the beginning, to challenge Eleanor and shake up her relationship with Vane. And we found a great actor, Tadhg Murphy, who owns it completely. It’s been great. It was a shot of adrenaline, right at the top. And the character of Thomas Hamilton has played a very important role in the Flint origin story that we play in the past. That’s allowed us to see London, which was extremely important, in terms of the larger fabric of the show. This is a story about people escaping and battling civilization, so you have to understand what they’re fighting against and why. Rupert [Penry-Jones] is really amazing, in that role.

black-sails-luke-arnoldHad you always wanted to get to flashbacks for Flint’s backstory? 

STEINBERG:  Absolutely! There were moments, in Season 1, where we attempted to reveal some of this backstory, as recounted to other people in a dialogue. One of the benefits of knowing that Season 2 was going to follow Season 1 was feeling that, rather than just trying to drop it in snippets, we could show it. One of the benefits of having the commitment and researches that we’ve been given is that we could show London in a way that you really start to get a sense for the character and the place, and the difference of what it feels like to be there, as opposed to being in the Bahamas.

Because this is a world where everyone has to be out for themselves to survive, it puts everyone on equal footing, as far as their gender goes, wouldn’t you say? 

LEVINE:  The contradiction is what’s fascinating to me. That is true, but at the exact same time, you can’t ever be somebody other than who you are. There are realities about what it is to be a woman in this world that are born from social convention. No matter how far away you are from civilization, you can’t fully get away from that. These people were born to a certain world, and they are affected by it. In some respect, we also want to tell a story about how everyone is in it for themselves, but at some point in the journey of being in it for yourself, you realize you need other people. Any good frontier story, in some respect, is about that. No matter how much you want to be self-sufficient and alone, there is a natural human impulse to need something more than that. Season 2 is hopefully leaning heavily into that.

How fun was it to play Flint and Silver off of each other, and forcing them to trust each other a bit?

STEINBERG:  From inception, the show is about Flint and Silver and their relationship. It’s about a lot of other things, but that’s the spine of it.

LEVINE:  Starting the story the way we did, it wasn’t natural. We liked Silver being someone who very much was pulled into this unwillingly and has no desire to be a part of this, and is, in some ways, above it. And Flint being very closed off and mysterious to his men, didn’t necessarily allow for them to connect right away. As writers, that’s sometimes frustrating because we’re trying to get there. But by the end of Season 1, we found a very organic way to force that to happen. In some ways, dramatically, that’s best because they don’t want to be there, but they have to be.

STEINBERG:  Hopefully, once they were engaged with each other, the show got out of the gate, in the sense that they’ll never escape each other’s orbit. This is always going to be a story about how that relationship develops, and the highs and the lows of it, and the places it goes that you don’t expect. Ultimately, it will go into the book, with Silver becoming captain of the ship.

black-sails-hannah-newHow do you see Eleanor’s arc, this season? 

LEVINE:  We wanted to engage the triangle between Eleanor and Flint and Vane, with Flint and Vane being the sun and moon of her universe, in a much more direct way. That really forces her to a point of having to, in some ways, choose.

STEINBERG:  Arc wise for her, for the season, there is an element of wish fulfillment to the character. There’s the idea of this women who gets to do things that women didn’t get to do, in that time period, and it is a function of her being brave and smart. At the same time, we never want this to be a show in which you get everything you want. This season is about her grappling with impossible choices and relationships that become mutually exclusive with each other, and having to choose one or the other, and then deal with the fall-out. We never want it to be easy for her, or anyone on the show. Her arc is a big one, this season.

LEVINE:  By the end, there’s very much no going back. I think people will be very surprised.

Were you already thinking about Season 3, during Season 2, and are you already thinking beyond that now? 

STEINBERG:  You have to. We’re working from these characters that are understood, in some respect, from Treasure Island, and we’re working, in some respect, from history, but it’s the story breaking that’s, at times, the most complicated. We’re trying to be true to a certain history, but at the same time, we have these players in this story that weren’t in that history, so you have to find a place for them. All of that means you’re always looking over the hill and trying to make sure you’re setting things up, as far back as possible. Even in Season 3, there are pay-offs from Season 1, some of which are by design and some of which are by good fortune. We were asking the right questions, early on, that are now unfolding.

zach-mcgowan-black-sailsDoes the next season get easier than the last, or is it always harder, as the show grows? 

STEINBERG:  It’s always harder. Season 2 was a lot harder than Season 1. And Season 3 is proving to be a lot harder than Season 2. Our commitment to each other and to Starz is never to allow it to be easy, in any direction. We’re always trying to make it better, bigger and different. If you really commit to doing that, you always have to make it harder. It’s about finding the right situations, and finding pieces of this world that want to be seen. London, for us, was exciting. There are shows that would be very happy to hear what’s happening there and make it an off-screen character. Part of making the show uncompromised was forcing ourselves to think bigger than that, and not just see it, but see it in a way in which you are about the people we’re seeing and talking about. It’s relevant for the story, going forward. It isn’t just a moment to see how somebody learned how to be a pirate. It’s a moment to push the story forward.

LEVINE:  And it expands it in your mind. When we talked about doing flashbacks, we expected it, but the first time you see Toby [Stephens] as Flint, in that world, immediately there’s a sense of scope and history to that character. It exponentially flowers in your mind. Now, even with Season 3, we’re trying to figure out a way to do that again, in a slightly different way. We’re trying to continually make the show bigger, both character wise and scope wise.

Because this show is such a huge undertaking, what are you most proud of? 

STEINBERG:  There are moments where it’s the big stuff that makes you the most proud. There’s an action set piece at the end of this season that I think is as big as anybody is doing on TV. But there’s also a moment, towards the end of the season, that’s an Anne Bonny story about where she came from, that’s quiet and small and in a room, and it is a fantastic performance of a story that came together. Sometimes that’s just as hard to pull off as the big stuff, and just as rewarding. When I think about the seasons, a lot of times, I think about that stuff. Fortunately, we have the actors to make those moments work. With our production team and directors, we found great people, and then gave them the room to do their best work, in the big stuff and in the little stuff.

You guys have clearly thought about the story you’re telling. Ideally, how many seasons would it take for you to tell the story that you want to tell? 

STEINBERG:  It’s hard to say. There is a natural healthy life cycle. I don’t imagine we’re going to be doing Black Sails: Las Vegas Season 25. We have a sense of where we want everybody to land, and we have a sense for how we want the relationships to feel, as we make what would be our final statement, that would suggest the beginning of Treasure Island.

LEVINE:  We have our ending, in some ways.

STEINBERG:  Time wise, I don’t think they’ll link up. But when you watch the end of this show, you will see how everybody gets where they got to, and you will understand it in a different way.

LEVINE:  And if you picked up the book and turned to page one, it would make sense.

STEINBERG:  It would be a different book. That’s always been the goal. Even if you read the book the day before the show started, if you read the book the day after the show ends, it’s a different book.

Black Sails airs on Saturday nights on Starz.