The Starz drama series Black Sails is a bold and raw high seas tale that takes places 20 years prior to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic “Treasure Island” and follows the most feared pirate of the day, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens). With Season 3 premiering on January 23rd and Season 4 going into production, things are bound to get even more epic with the world living in fear of Flint, as his campaign of terror crosses over into madness. At the same time, iconic pirate Blackbeard (Ray Stevenson) will arrive in Nassau and alliances will be both strengthened and questioned in ways they never have before.
Collider was recently invited to a panel discussion with executive producers Jonathan Steinberg, Robert Levine, Brad Fuller and Dan Shotz, as well as visual effects supervisor Erik Henry, in which they talked about the challenges of making a TV show on such a grand scale, how things will be getting even bigger for Season 3, the addition of Blackbeard, and putting all of the characters in the worst possible positions.
With the tagline “War Against the World,” the glimpses we got into Season 3 (from Episode 2 and Episode 4) showed a scale more grand than anything that’s been done yet on the already impressive show. From the crew of a ship trying to survive extreme weather in an intense storm to an enormous fire fight between ships, things are so authentically terrifying to watch because it seems so impossible to survive something of that level.
Here are the highlights from the panel discussion:
The evolution in the creative process from Season 1 to Season 2, and now into Season 3:
JON STEINBERG: The evolution for us, as we got to know the characters better, especially in Season 2, was to really start having them bounce off each other in unexpected ways and in unpleasant ways. By the time we get to Season 3, we had an understanding of them, to the point where we’re really putting them in the worst possible position for them. We’re really trying to push them past the limits of treasure hunting and piracy and into really struggling with what it is to live on a frontier and be on the outside of civilization and trying to make it work.
ROBERT LEVINE: We have always thought about this as being a bit of a western and a frontier story. A lot of the story with characters in a story like that is how they ended up on the fringes of society, and a lot of times that’s about them either having been rejected where they came from, or wanting, in some manner or another, to shape the world around things they believe in or things they want to will into being. By the end of Season 2, you understand that to be Flint’s story, in a major way. His struggle continues to be trying to make the world conform to what he thinks it should be while civilization puts up something of a fight.
Biggest visual effects challenges with this show:
ERIK HENRY: Jon [Steinberg] came to me and said, “We want to do a real storm, and we want to have people who actually die in the storm and see them falling to their death.” In big features, that’s commonplace. But to do it on the schedule that we have, it’s much more difficult. And to do the water like you’ve seen in big features like The Perfect Storm is an undertaking where, if you don’t start early enough, you’re not going to have things work out and it’s not going to look real. Authenticity is the challenge.
STEINBERG: It doesn’t rain in Cape Town when we’re shooting, so it’s a bit of an ordeal [to shoot a big storm]. Everyone committed to doing it the whole way. We’ve seen hurricanes that are in broad daylight, and you see pieces of them. We just wanted to show the whole thing.
DAN SHOTZ: Just the storm alone, we shot for so many days. It just took that much time, with all of that detail work. We put the actors through quite a lot of hell, obviously. I remember getting called up to set with, “Toby Stephens needs to talk to you.” I got up there and he was soaked and drenched. He came up to me and said, “Hey, Dan, do you love me?” I said, “Of course, man, I love you!” He said, “How many more days of this? This is killing me!” As I looked at the back of his ears, we had jet engines to get the velocity of the wind, and the back of his ears were completely red and burning.
HENRY: One of the big challenges was having a deck that tilts 40 degrees. If you don’t have a deck that tilts, there’s only so much that you can do with the camera. The tilt deck was probably 1/8 of the overall length of the ship, but that’s where so much of the action plays. We also couldn’t built the entire mast because it’s 90 feet from the top to the bottom, so we built just the very tip top where the guys are struggling and being pulled over. Components like that, put together with a computer generated ship, which was beautifully built, and trying to put in sails that actually look real, is very tough.
STEINBERG: There was a lot of water, a lot of wind and a lot of shade, having to shoot in broad daylight. With every shot, you’re fighting the sun and the elements to make it look that miserable. It’s really labor intensive.
The show’s overall philosophy:
LEVINE: From the beginning, we wanted it to feel less like the sort of pirate show you’re accustomed to. We want you to actually be there, in the boat with them, and you want the elements of it that aren’t actually there to be seamless. You don’t want them to call attention to themselves, and part of that is camera work while a lot of that is [visual effects].
BRAD FULLER: It’s important for everyone to know that where we shoot this show is actually the equivalent of that circular hotel on Sunset and the 405, where the 405 is right behind you. Every time you look out, you’re looking at a highway. There’s no water there, besides the little bit in the tank. That’s a testament to what Erik [Henry] and his team do because you believe you’re out in the ocean.
STEINBERG: The show inhabits a strange historical universe where part of its story comes from Treasure Island, which didn’t happen, and part of it is drawn from the history of Nassau in the Bahamas, in the Golden Age.
Making a cinematic show on a TV budget:
STEINBERG: At a certain point, you have to understand that you’re making a show and there are times when that muscle kicks in. And then, there are times that you have to forget that for a minute. You can do a lot with time and money, and Starz has been kind enough to give us time and money. At that point, it’s just about finding the right people and making sure that you’re conceiving it properly, so that you’re running in a direction that they can succeed, and then you have to get out of their way and let them do it. It’s not like any TV I’ve done before. It’s this weird hybrid where you’re shooting on something resembling a TV schedule, but not really, and you’re trying to periodically really hit feature scope.
The importance of incorporating live-action with CGI:
HENRY: One of the things we said we were going to do, right from the start, is to incorporate live-action elements. Once the audience sees something they know is real, they give us the rest of it. We will also shoot miniatures. All of those things are combined with the CG, which is fabulous. We can claim that we can do that all in post, but we’re very lucky that the special effects guys give us good stuff to work with.
Why Season 3 is bigger than ever:
SHOTZ: When we were starting to think about Season 3 and launch it, we decided to write it big. The term we always used was “Pirates on steroids,” especially with Flint in a pretty dark place, as Season 2 ended. He goes on a bit of an odyssey this season, and we wanted to go big, so we wrote these very big, ambitious scripts. Especially the first four were huge. So, we went to Starz and were like, “We’re going to pare it down. We’re going to figure out how to make it work.” And they immediately said, “Let’s do it all.” In that moment, we were like, “I don’t know if we can actually achieve doing it all.” But, the team in Cape Town really was able to just buckle down and figure it out. It took a long time, but the right people and the right team involved, and they’re all incredible professionals. We found a way, and it was such a group effort.
LEVINE: There’s a sequence in Episode 8 that’s the kind of thing you see done in movies a lot, and we found a way to do it. It’s really cool and unique, and it required a huge amount of effort from the director, the visual effects team and the stunt team. When you watch it, you’re not going to know any of that. It’s going to play seamless and real, and you won’t even know.
Whether we’ll learn more about the past of other characters:
STEINBERG: Kind of, sort of. Definitely maybe. That was a really specific thing we wanted to do with Flint to give his story context and to give the place context, in regard to what these people are running from. For a number of characters, their histories are important. We don’t have plans to do flashbacks that are that pronounced, but by the time you get to the end of Season 3, you’ll have a pretty good sense of where everybody came from, in a specific way.
SHOTZ: And we finally introduce Blackbeard into the series. We’ve been waiting for the right time to introduce him. He’s connected to Charles Vane, and there’s a lot of backstory with those two characters.
LEVINE: We like the idea of him being a gangster from the old neighborhood. Our Blackbeard used to be in Nassau, and he played a big role in starting it. And then, for reasons that you learn, he had to leave, and now he’s returned. His history with the island and the characters you already know is very specific and very involved, and it becomes a huge part of the story once he’s back.
Black Sails returns for Season 3 on Starz on January 23, 2016.