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CANNES – As premium cable increasingly takes on the big screen with tentpole programming, even director Michael Bay is getting on board with the splashy pirate adventure Black Sails as one of the two shows he’s executive producing for the small screen.
“Michael saw what everybody else is seeing: There’s a lot you can do in TV that you can’t do in features anymore, even if you’re Michael Bay,” Sails showrunner Jon Steinberg told The Hollywood Reporter, careful to avoid any comparisons to a certain Disney franchise. “Pirates of the Caribbean is totally different. This is more real, dangerous, violent and complicated both morally and politically. I don’t think there’s any place you can do that besides premium cable right now. We didn’t have to make this for 14-year-olds.”
PHOTOS: Inside ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’
“These pirates are uncompromising people that are doing what they want to do, and I think everyone has these questions for themselves: ‘Does society have a place for me? Do I want to buy into the system or just go out and be on my own? It addresses issues,’ says actor Zach McGowan. “Pirates are very appealing for a lot of people in the ideal, but in this show we see the reality of living without government, without rules.”
“Premium cable allows itself to be made for grownups when you can’t afford to do that in film and make a $250 million feature anymore. The model won’t support it. On cable, the latitude you have to tell a story is getting wider and the technology bigger to the point that you can make a show that looks like a $250 million feature for far less,” added Steinberg.
The production created an entire city from scratch, replicating Nassau on an immense soundstage in suburban Capetown, South Africa, as well as beaches, and two full-sized pirate ships. It’s a big show with a big budget and, most importantly, a second season commitment from network Starz before the first episode even hits the airwaves in January 2014. Bay had a hand in designing the aesthetic of the show and making sure that it looked as good — and has as many explosions — as any of his big-budget films do.
For the cast, including Brits Toby Stephens and Clara Paget, Aussie Luke Arnold and American McGowan, this meant relocating to South Africa and living together in the same building for the first season’s five-month shoot, starting with a “pirate bootcamp” that included learning sailing and sword fighting. One intense scene required star Stephens, who plays the dread pirate Captain Flint, to be weighted down underwater with a member of the stunt crew offering up oxygen as needed. “It was one of the most horrible feelings, knowing that you can’t propel yourself back up to the surface and you’re relying on some guy to come in with air. But when you see the shot, you know it was worth it, but it was tough.”
STORY: MIPCOM: Starz’ ‘Black Sails’ Sells for Germany, France, Latin America
Arnold’s first job in film was as the assistant to the swordmaster on 2003’s Peter Pan, but for the rest of the cast, entering the world of fight club was a new experience. “I’ve been waiting my whole life as an actor to do some awesome fight stuff,” said McGowan, who starred as sex addict Jody Silverman on Shameless before setting sail for the pirate drama.
Stephens relishes playing the charming but violent Flint, calling it a welcome departure from “sitting in a drawing room” back in England, where he has appeared in period dramas such as the Jane Eyre miniseries.
Paget had no previous stunt experience and was the only girl in the pirate program. “It was fascinating to see my body change from a slim girl to having muscles, and liberating to become so strong,” she says. She built enough sinewy muscle that she compares her new self to Iggy Pop and learned how to pack a punch so strong that she broke a stuntman’s nose, earning her the nickname “Knuckles” from the rest of the cast.
“The battle sequences were very long days, of not just doing the physical stunts but rehearsing it over and over again until they were happy to blow the shit out of the ship,” says Stephens. “It cost a lot of money, and it had to go right.”
“There’s a lot of explosions,” says Steinberg. “It’s Michael Bay, it’s obligatory.”
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