BLACK SAILS: Jonathan Steinberg Talks Blackbeard, Idelle, Goals, And Adapting Treasure Island

With the release of BLACK SAILS season 4 on Blu-ray today, it felt like it was time for one final discussion with show creator Jonathan Steinberg. Was there ever a plan to adapt Treasure Island? Was Idelle always a principal character and how was Blackbeard created? These are the lingering questions that I had. Want answers? Read on…

SC – Let’s talk about Blackbeard. How hard was it to bring in that character because he is so powerful and it could have easily turned into the Blackbeard show?

Very. The challenge with developing all of these characters was that they are all, in some respect, cartoon characters as it relates to history. They’re all a little oversized and not quite three dimensional in a meaningful way. So to enhance them and try to realize them as human beings without all of that baggage they bring is hard. And I think he definitely had the most baggage of anyone we introduced besides John Silver. The difference was that we were able to start John Silver before he was the cartoon character. Before he was the villain so we had some time to get to know him. Whereas Blackbeard was fully formed. That’s the challenge I think but it’s just a bigger version of the same challenge. What would it be like to be that guy?  What’s the most interesting version of a guy who was a Rockstar in that way and has left the game? What’s it like to come back and why would he come back in a way that is emotionally resonant. It took a little while but I think it was a combination of inserting that angle into it and making a story that orbited Vane. Also Ray, finding someone who could bring so much of the prerequisites in terms of presence and being able to impose upon  people in the scene without having to write it. Cause when you don’t have those things you have to start writing it and I think that’s when you get into trouble. When you do have those things, you can kinda take your foot off the gas and can let the other characters in the scene react to what is obvious which is that we don’t want to mess with that guy.

SC – He never really plays the “badass” so to speak. He simply was and that’s what was great about watching his performance.

There was a deliberate decision made that there’s really no violence from him for quite some time from when you meet him. There was some concern about that and there was a deleted scene that happened early on, in the first episode and the concern was if you don’t see it do you understand how frightening he’s supposed to be and as soon as you see the other scenes with Ray you realize you don’t have to do a lot of explaining to make this clear and then it gets interesting. Cause it just becomes this anticipation of “I’m already afraid of this guy and he hasn’t done anything. What’s gonna happen when he actually gets angry?”

SC – With John Silver, such an amazing performance by Luke Arnold from what he was to what he became. When you created the character, was it a deliberate decision to have him turn his evil face on and off? Because it seems like “Long” John Silver emerges when John isn’t getting the results he wants.

The starting point from what I remember was actually “What’s the least expected introduction to this character?” Because there is so much that is expected and so much you assume is a given about Long John Silver, the exorcise was just to turn all those things off or slip them into a position on the opposite end of the dial.

So the starting point made a lot of sense in the beginning but again it’s that challenge of how do you get from here to there and how do you make it feel organic? How do you take a guy who is iconically alone and determined not to depend on anyone or have anyone depend on him, and get him to be the Captain of a crew. How do you make him someone who is terrifying enough that the biggest bad ass in our first episode ends the show weaker than him.

So setting that starting point where we did helped to build the show because the answers to all of those questions are all the turning points of the show. We got very very lucky with Luke (Arnold) that he was able to play every version of that character, especially the final one.


SC – Of all the historical characters, who was the hardest to cast?

I would say Blackbeard except we got lucky early on so we didn’t have to go through the process of what that would have been like without someone like Ray. I’d say Bonney was tough, of the initial cast. You’re trying to find someone who can be famine and who can be intimidating and rough around the edges without it ever feeling like they’re trying to hard. We saw a lot of people I think Clara was the only one that when you looked at her that character made sense all of a sudden.

Let’s talk about Idelle. When she was introduced, she seemed like the kind of character that existed only to be killed off. Like you know her enough to miss her but she wasn’t integral enough that it would alter the plot.

That is 100%. Any time we cast roles like that, they generally start of as a character in a scene because you need someone to say something and you only flesh it out as you need it for the scene. But at that level of casting, you’re looking for someone where their talent shows and someone who can be interesting. And when you find those people, you just want to keep writing for them and then the character grows as fast as you feed it. And you feed it as fast as you feel that actor can take it. We got very lucky with Lise, Laudo, who played Dooley. He’s another who started as a guy in one scene. I think he was called “Surely crewmember” but you watch the things he’s doing and you just want that guy to be in the show. So he starts to take on life. But Lise was amazing. She went through a bunch of iterations and she has such a charm, sense of humor and integrity that demanded that we write for her so we did.

SC – I know you got to do so much visually, which is a blessing in itself, but was there more that you couldn’t do? That either money or time was not gonna let that happen?

This sounds like that would be an obvious yes, but part of the reason we haven’t regretted letting the show go and bringing it to an end is that there really wasn’t. There was a big writers board in season one and we decided to start a separate board of stuff we wanted to see. It didn’t matter if it made any sense or how you’d get to it, just what things that would fit in a pirate movie that you haven’t seen before. And we checked everything off the list. So I promised myself that when we started doing things over and over again we had probably gone too far.

SC – With the Spanish, was there always a reason to wait so long to introduce him?

A number of reasons. In season three they felt like a cloud hanging over everyone and it would have felt besides the point rather than to actually become the threat when it was actually about Flint, Silver and their guys, and Rogers, Eleanor and their guys. Then, once we knew it was something that was going to need to appear in season 4, it felt right that rather than have them fall outta the sky unannounced, that it came out of the characters and came outta rage. Misdirected rage that had an awful cost in the middle of the season.  We tried to really wait until we had a compelling emotional reason for it to show up. Then you aren’t just throwing stuff at the wall. You’re actually telling a story.

SC – Something I always found interesting since the beginning of season 2, you gave us things and constantly took them away. As an example, the Urca crashing on the island. You assume that is gonna be the Treasure Island cause how do you move that much gold? Then we assumed that the maroon island was treasure island. Wrong again. Every time we thought we had a handle on it we were wrong. By design.

Weather you’ve read the book recently, or not in a long time, or not at all, you are aware of the things promised by it so there is a game of detective happening. Also you are trying to keep the ball bouncing. If you’re certain of what’s happening two episodes from now then I’m not doing my job. So it’s a game of trying to make the unexpected happen but having it make sense.

SC – Now I have to ask. If you were to do Treasure Island, how would it differ from the book?

You are actually the first person to ask that person. I think it might have been our idea, maybe Robert’s idea, to run this through till the end so we abandoned it for a lot of reasons, some of them are obvious. It’s one thing to tell a story that exist outside of it and control the tone of it. It’s another to attempt that narrative, which is written for children and it’s written to be a very specific thing, and control the tone of it. That’s an entirely different exercise. So we knew we would have to change two things. It doesn’t have Flint in it, which is a problem, and I don’t think any of us had any appetite to make the show without Toby in it. And the show is built around a protagonist that works for that book but after 40 hours of this show, I would have a little bit of “who cares?” about Jim Hawkins. So there were a lot of those things. Some of which we found structural ways around, where we were able to inhabit multiple timelines at the same time and ways of trying to graft our show into that book but that’s when you start to feel that you’re not telling this story you’re trying to shoehorn the story to fit into our show. The only way to win that game is not to play.

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