In 2011, Fox gambled on Steven Spielberg’s TV series Terra Nova, a big-budget show about time travel, dinosaurs and an elaborate parallel universe that only lasted three months. Now, executives at Starz, home to the violent and semi-clothed casts of Spartacus and Magic City, are teaming up with another Hollywood titan — Transformers director Michael Bay — hoping to bring cinema magic to viewers’ homes.
Black Sails, Bay’s latest action extravaganza, begins with a bang. Talking to co-creator Jon Steinberg and Robert Levine, it’s clear they have their sites sets on something massive. “With Michael Bay and everyone involved, there was no way they were going to let us do this in anything but a big way,” says Steinberg, who also serves as showrunner. “To do this story justice – to do it right – takes resources, and Starz wants us to be able to make the best show possible.”
The most eye-popping visual extravagances are set to show up in later episodes, with early eps exploring characters and finding an audience. “There’s a very big set piece in the middle of the season that we wanted to make sure we told from the point of view of the pirates,” adds Steinberg. “‘What is it like to take a ship? To be afraid?’ That’s the gist.”
With its slow rollout and no big-name actors, you’d think Black Sails would be heavy on nudity and violence, which are common in Starz series. But the show hasn’t gone overboard in those departments. The first hint of flesh, for example, doesn’t appear for 25 minutes.
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“We haven’t felt a lot of pressure to push that,” Steinberg admits. “In a weird way, some of that pressure was self-imposed. It came from us feeling like we needed to service a brand. But we were very explicitly freed from that as we got into the second, third and fourth episode. We were encouraged to tell a story that feels honest.”
The show was conceived of as a prequel Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island but only loosely references the book aside from the characters of Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and John Silver (Luke Arnold). “We deliberately set the show at a place and time that was removed from the events of the book so that we could roll things out slowly,” explains Steinberg. “We didn’t want to be burying a treasure on an island at the end of the first season. It’s a much longer throw. By the time the Treasure Island stuff becomes significant, you’re invested in these people and the world they’re in. If we can do that successfully, then the Treasure Island stuff becomes the treat.”
Already renewed for a second season, Black Sails has time to deliver its treasures. “We’re never going to be afraid to have fun,” Steinberg says. “If you’re not trying to have fun with something like this, then you should just let somebody else do it. It has to continue to get bigger and faster. The more you’re invested in these people, the higher you want the highs and the lower you want the lows. Hopefully the second and third act of the first season pays off. Hopefully it makes you feel like you’ve been through a really big movie.”