When you see the premiere of Starz’s pirate show Black Sails on Saturday, January 24, it will pick up right where season one left and take off from there. Flint (Toby Stephens) and Silver (Luke Arnold) are stranded on an island and take back a ship in an epic naval battle. Meanwhile, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) faces a new visitor to Nassau, the deadly and anarchic Ned Low (Tadhg Murphy).
We get to interview Black Sails creators Jon Steinberg and Robert Levine when they were at the Television Critics Association for a panel. Over lunch in the Langham hotel restaurant The Royce, we discussed season two, Treasure Island, and hints of what season three could be. Starz has already renewed Black Sails for a third season.
Nuke the Fridge: You finished the first season knowing you had a second. Did you know you had a third before you finished the second?
Jon Steinberg: Yes. We kind of have to. You can only shoot in Cape Town certain months of the year and it takes a certain amount of time to get this train up and running. So we’re in this weird production cycle where it just never stops. The end of one has to overlap the beginning of the other or you’ll never keep up.
Robert Levine: It’s good for us.
Jon Steinberg: So season three is well underway.
Nuke: Does that influence the storytelling?
Jon Steinberg: Definitely. You know what it does? The story is a constant process. So by the time you get to the end of season two, we already have a pretty good sense of where season three is running and we can then build that into the finale. I think in season three as we’re now getting into breaking the new season, it’s the same feeling of knowing that we’re going to do more of this. You’re trying to make sure you don’t set yourself up in a bad way.
Nuke: Season two begins with some pretty extravagant action, a naval battle and lots of fighting. Does it ramp up from there?
Jon Steinberg: Yeah, I think there are a number of set pieces in season two that are significantly bigger than anything we did in season one and different. I think the goal for us, we don’t ever want to be doing the same set piece twice. So it’s always about how do you make this world more interesting? How do you make big action but do it in a way that feels new, feels revelatory in a new way? So we do a lot more action on land this year. We do action that is both together.
Robert Levine: Land and sea.
Jon Steinberg: And a couple of massive ugly naval battles, so it’s pretty big.
Nuke: Is Ned Low a real problem for Eleanor?
Jon Steinberg: He is a real problem for her, and for Vane. The intent was to, at a moment at its most vulnerable, this relationship between Eleanor and Vane, to throw a hand grenade at it and see how it responds. And I think the launch of the season is really about watching Eleanor and Vane grapple with what their relationship is and what the limits of it are, and what they’ll do for each other and what they won’t.
Nuke: She’s had control over Nassau for a while. Is Ned Low more than she can handle?
Robert Levine: That was the idea, to continue to test her and make sure that it’s not as simple as just declaring yourself the rightful successor to your father. You’re not him and there has to be consequences. And we wanted to feel like one of them was that the island starts to become slightly less of an orderly place and put her right in the crosshairs.
Nuke: How far are we from catching up to Treasure Island?
Jon Steinberg: Still a pretty good ways. I think the moment we’re passing through I think in season two, and in season three, is actually we’re catching up to history and trying to dovetail the story we’re telling which is drawn from the historical record but incorporates Treasure Island and incorporates this whole other mythology that we’ve imparted into the story of Nassau. The story of Nassau has a big thing that happens where England comes back and decides to take it and so I think season two is a little bit living in the awareness of this impending English return in some respect and our characters trying to preempt it, to grapple with it, to understand what it means, to prepare themselves for it.
Robert Levine: In some ways, the main thing we’re trying to do in terms of setting up Treasure Island is draw the ring tighter between Flint and Silver since it’s really their relationship that is in some ways central to Treasure Island, central to our wanting to tell this story. So there’s a lot of work done this season to bring that orbit tighter and start to understand who they are to each other.
Jon Steinberg: In a meaningful way, I think that’s our attempt to catch up to the book. Not to the events of it, but to start really building in their relationships and the ongoing mythology that will yield that story.
Nuke: Are Flint and Silver pretty inseparable from now on?
Jon Steinberg: I think they’re not quite there yet. When we meet them in season two, they are allies by necessity and I think throughout the course of season two, they are circling each other and trying to, I think, wrestle with the fact that they know they can’t do without the other, but they don’t trust each other yet. So it’s the first chapter I think of a relationship that I think in our minds has a number of evolutions and complications.
Nuke: When you cast Toby Stephens as this swashbuckling character, did the sword fight in Die Another Day have any bearing on it?
Jon Steinberg: I can honestly say it had none. We were sort of aware of it. Toby was one of the ones where you watch the audition and the character made sense. Which I think on some level, I hope, is a very nice thing to say to an actor. He brought something to it that just made everything click.
Nuke: You’re on season three now, so how second nature has producing Black Sails become?
Jon Steinberg: I’ve been doing this for a long time. I think we are determined for it never to become a routine, and so I think season two is a massive escalation in a number of different directions for season one, and then the challenge for us after we sat back and watched season two and felt really good about it was to do it bigger and to figure out ways for us to outdo what was already us outdoing ourselves. So yeah, we never want the show to feel like you’ve seen the same episode twice.
Robert Levine: And we’ve been lucky with our partners at Starz and Platinum Dunes that they have the exact same ambition going forward. It’s always about how do we take this show and just continue to pus the envelope.
Nuke: What sort of feedback does Michael Bay still give in the third season?
Jon Steinberg: Just before you sat down, we were having a conversation. He’s really helpful. We are shooting a massive set piece for season three in about three weeks. It’s bigger than anything we’ve done, bigger than anything a lot of people have done on TV and he’s in it with us and helping us figure out how to execute it and how to make it something that he’s comfortable putting his name on. He’s been really helpful. It’s fun because everybody loves to play in this playpen with pirates, and Michael’s no different. When he’s with us and has his head in the story, he gets excited. It’s fun to be able to play with him.
Nuke: A number of Starz original series only got two seasons. Was making it through the second season the key to establishing the show?
Jon Steinberg: I think we’ve had a really good experience with Starz. I think we feel like we have a really good relationship with them and as importantly I think the show has a good relationship with them. I think they get it, they like it, they’re fans of it. And I think once you find that, I think they as much as we just want to keep making the show for as long as we can possibly justify it.
Robert Levine: It’s going to be interesting though because I do feel like season two in some ways is, not a different show, but an evolved show and I think for the audience there’s going to be a continuing adjustment to our ambitions, what we’re trying to do. In some ways that’s why it’s great to have season three because we feel like it really accomplished what we wanted the show to be in some ways that season one didn’t.
Jon Steinberg: And I think they feel that way too in some respect. The challenge of television is that you make your mistakes publicly and this is a big show to learn how to make. I think we’re all exceptionally proud of the first season. I think the second season really started to feel like this is the show that when we were dreaming about it at the beginning it was supposed to be. Hopefully we can keep pushing it forward.
Nuke: Have you cast the representatives of England to come in season three?
Jon Steinberg: Season three is a whole new cast of people showing up at our doorstep. I think that’s part of it for us too. Part of the constant evolution of the show is meeting the people that lived in this world. You’ve heard of a lot of them and it’s fun for us to be able to put our spin on it and involve them with their characters.
Nuke: Whole new cast in addition to the current cast?
Jon Steinberg: Yes, yeah, yeah, yeah. But new faces and new faces representing new things.