With contemporary series like "Vikings" and "Game of Thrones," "Black Sails" may often be overlooked when compared to other epic dramas of the 2010s, which makes it one of the most underrated shows of the decade. Not only is the scale of the pirate adventure immense with many scenes taking place upon impressive naval vessels, but the political intrigue and intimate interactions of the characters make it an entertaining watch for several different audiences.
The show as a whole does a brilliant job of mixing fiction with historical figures like the notorious pirate captains Blackbeard (Ray Stevenson) and Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) whose lives were so legendary that they verge on fantasy. But at its core, the story centers on the complicated friendship between its two main characters, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and his deviously clever quartermaster, Long John Silver, in the years before their sagas are continued in the later tale of "Treasure Island." For a series devoted to such larger-than-life individuals, the making of it also had its fair share of epic details and moments as well, which you can enjoy reading below.
The series is an unofficial prequel to Treasure Island
Although "Black Sails" is its own story for the most part, from the very beginning it was always meant to show the events building up to the classic work of fiction "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson. More than anything, the creators of the series wanted to tie up loose ends to the famous tale and give their explanation to who the characters were up to in the years before, as showrunner Jonathan Steinberg explained to Entertainment Weekly: "At the end of the book, it’s recounted by other people that Captain Flint died in Savannah alone, which begs a lot of questions."
Flint’s origin is certainly not the only one covered with both Long John Silver’s and Billy Bones’ backstories explained thoroughly as well. For Billy especially, his situation in the finale of the series gives all new meaning to what happens to him later in the novel. Steinberg added: "It is clear we are suggesting he is on ‘Treasure Island,’ which I think has a number of implications if you go back and read the book."
After four seasons, it is clear the showrunner was pleased with how the series handled the continuity, saying: "It felt like we had finished the argument a little bit, in terms of connecting it not just to ‘Treasure Island,’ but to our contemporary understanding of what piracy was, about what Caribbean piracy was."
The opening credits features the hurdy-gurdy
Several aspects of "Black Sails" make it stand out as a particularly fascinating TV series, with one of the top being its unique theme music in the opening credits. Not only is the memorable tune composed by the talented Bear McCreary who is well known for his work on "The Walking Dead" and "Battlestar Galactica," but it also features quite an unusual instrument known as a hurdy-gurdy, according to Entertainment Weekly.
Also known as a wheel fiddle, the hurdy-gurdy is a folk instrument that has existed for around 1,000 years and is played to this day all over Western Europe, from Italy to England. In a 2010 TED Talk, musician Caroline Phillips explained that the complex and bulky device originally required two people to operate it until the design was improved a few centuries later, so it could be used by a single performer. Although a fundamental part of the instrument is the strings, akin to a violin, the sound produced can also be compared to bagpipes.
The show was filmed in South Africa
While "Black Sails" takes place predominantly in the Caribbean, that was not the place chosen to film the epic pirate drama. Instead, the Starz network went with the fairly new Cape Town Studios for the production, and needless to say that the South African-based company was ecstatic over the decision. Ahead of filming Season 1, Film Afrika producer Vlokkie Gordon said: "We are delighted to have been awarded [‘Black Sails’] and it is further proof of South Africa’s international reputation for outstanding production skill and expertise" (via The Location Guide). Gordon continued: "A production of this scope provides not only employment for South Africans, but also skills transfer which is in line with Film Afrika’s policy of supporting growth and development of the South African film and television industry."
The swashbuckling series was then added to the growing list of productions shot out of Cape Town, including "Safe House," "Chronicle," and "Mad Max: Fury Road," as per the Cape Town Film Studios website. Plus, another Starz series benefited greatly from the elaborate ship sets built there, with "Outlander" using the Jamaican landscapes in its third season, according to Entertainment Weekly.
300 people worked on the pirate ship
The impressive sailing vessels featured in "Black Sails" are almost as important to the story as the characters themselves. Therefore, a ton of work was put into the construction of the sets in order to make the maritime setting feel real for the cast, and more importantly, the audience. In a behind-the-scenes clip shared by Starz, senior rigger Joel Yates explained: "The carpenters building the boat it took them, I think, four or five months. They want it to look as authentic as possible because what we’ve built is a very accurate replica of a sailing ship."
The end product, called The Walrus in the show, was massive as well, as Yates revealed that the full ship is approximately 140 feet long. And to pull off such an incredible feat, it took a gigantic crew with various skill sets, as construction coordinator Clive Pollack shared: "There are 300 people working on the boat. There are carpenters, sculptors, painters, riggers, sailmakers."
There were no bathrooms for cast and crew on the ship
For as grand as the prominent pirate ship is in "Black Sails," it does have its faults as it also serves as the set of a modern TV production. In a 2016 interview with Den of Geek, actor Zach McGowan revealed the biggest problem for the cast and crew on set: "The hardest thing about the ships, most people don’t realize, is just when you’re on the ship at the top of the deck somewhere, it’s very far to the nearest bathroom. There’s no bathroom on the ships."
Even with that minor complaint, McGowan went on to stress that being on the deck of the ship at sea was such a great experience that the actor wished he had more of those scenes. It’s also his opinion that most of the cast felt the same way, except possibly the ones who spent the most time on board, such as Toby Stephens.
The actors went through pirate boot camp
Like most epic dramas featured on premium channels, "Black Sails" is filled with massive battle sequences, in this case often between rival pirate clans, or against the relentless forces of the British and Spanish empires. While the nature of naval warfare means that a good amount of these conflicts are long distance, yet devastating, as cannonballs attempt to rip enemy vessels apart, much of the brutal combat is at close quarters.
All of the fight scenes in the series are quite impressive, so it makes sense that many cast members received special training. In a Q&A with a few of the main actors, shared by Starz in 2015, Luke Arnold revealed: "We all went through a three-week pirate boot camp. Well, the pirates of the crew did at the beginning of shooting." And it was a good thing that they did because when asked if they could survive the rough conditions of the time period, the general consensus was an adamant no. Toby Stephens then elaborated with a laugh: "The real trouble, I’d be ok on Nasau, it was as soon as I’d get on a boat and I had to sail anywhere."
Clara Paget came up with Anne Bonny’s distinctive look
From Charles Vane, Edward Teach, and Jack Rackham to Captain Flint, Long John Silver, and Billy Bones, "Black Sails" has all sorts of characters based on either historic people or from the famous fictional tale, "Treasure Island." Therefore, both the writers of the show and the actors who portrayed these popular figures had to work with what was already known about them. But at the same time, there was a lot of creative freedom as well.
A somewhat minor, though fascinating aspect of another one of these real characters in the series, Anne Bonny, was thought up by actress Clara Paget. In a 2016 interview with Den of Geek, when asked what she contributed to the role, the actress replied: "I suppose the hat. That came completely organically. I tried on this hat and then I was pulling it down in an almost jokey way, like an old-school Western. Then it became who she is, hiding behind this hat. It really works for the character because, as I said, it shows this vulnerable side at the same time as being a badass through one side or the other. Like schizophrenic, bipolar."
Zack McGowan broke a stuntman’s jaw by accident
A major reason that the fight scenes in "Black Sails" are so good is because of the enthusiasm of the cast and crew when filming, yet there was one time that may have gone a little too far. When a stuntman on set named Daryl was to be hit with the butt of a rifle by Zach McGowan, the dedicated performer showed no fear and encouraged the actor to strike him square in the face. The veteran stuntman figured it was no big deal since the thing was only made of rubber. Since Daryl seemed more than fine with the idea, McGowan went along with the idea.
In a 2017 interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Toby Stephens recalled the disastrous, though somewhat funny result: "Zach, who’s brilliant at this kind of thing, whacked him straight in the jaw, as the guy asked, and totally broke his jaw. It looks fantastic, it actually made the cut, and it looked absolutely brilliant. At the end of it, I just remember Daryl going, ‘No, it’s fine. It’s okay, don’t worry about it.’" Fortunately, the stuntman was not seriously harmed, so they were able to joke about it a bit.
Zack McGowan climbed the balconies of a building to get rum
"Black Sails" is filled with many incredible exploits of pirate warriors as they battle on the high seas, but a behind-the-scenes achievement by one of the actors was almost as impressive as what was shown on screen. During a break in filming, the cast was having a good time together but needed some rum, so Zach McGowan went to rather extreme lengths to remedy the situation.
In order to gain access to the prized liquor in a room several floors up, the actor literally scaled the side of the building all on his own. When talking with Rotten Tomatoes, cast member Hannah New described the amazing sight, saying: "He did this like Spider-Man kind of thing where he climbed up these balconies … it’s incredible, he does like, God knows how many chin-ups every day. So, he can just chin up these balconies."
After McGowan successfully got the rum and then made the way back down with it in his front pocket, the cast waiting down below were too awestruck to do anything but tensely watch. Fellow actress Jessica Parker Kennedy added: "And none of us videotaped it. I think we were all in such shock, it was so scary, I thought he was going to fall and break his neck and we would have to explain it to our producers the next day."
It took all season to film Luke Arnold’s underwater scene
In the fourth season of "Black Sails," Long John Silver nearly perishes in the sea as he struggles to escape his sinking ship. Actor Luke Arnold must have been pleased that his character ultimately survived the harrowing experience, but filming the scenes was definitely not easy for the actor. Even though he was confident in the comprehensive training he received beforehand, Arnold still had to overcome a major fear of performing in those conditions.
When asked specifically about those tense underwater moments, he told Collider in a 2017 interview: "That was the beginning of hell that kept getting crazier as it went along. That took all season to shoot. We were in the water tank, from the beginning of the season, stuck underwater, all day." To his dismay, Arnold was right when he assumed it would take longer to finish than the filmmakers first thought, yet it was all worth it, as he added: "Right until the last couple of weeks, I was doing bits of the underwater stuff to make that whole sequence as spectacular as it is."
Luke Arnold received a special gift from a producer
Luke Arnold was one of several major cast members of "Black Sails" who was in the show from the very beginning all the way through to the climactic finale. The actor very much enjoyed his time filming the series, so when he found a cherished memento from the early days, it was a big deal. In the same interview with Collider, he revealed: "We were shooting a scene in Season 4 that was back in Eleanor’s office, and I found the piece of paper that I was writing the directions to find the Urca de Lima on, which was the very first scene we shot in Episode 103. Nina Jack, who was one of our producers on Season 4, got it framed and gave it to me as a gift, so I’ve gone away with that. That was amazing!"
On the other hand, there were parts of the series that Arnold did not remember so fondly, mostly from the difficulties that arose in pretending to have lost a leg. In this endeavor, he was able to use a crutch on screen, but the prop caused him so much discomfort that he grew to despise it.
Luke Arnold had a legless stunt double
Once Long John Silver tragically loses his leg in "Black Sails," Luke Arnold had some difficulty filming scenes as the character, so he was grateful to have help from a stuntman named Ben de Jager who is also missing the limb. The actor told Collider: "It was great to have somebody who’s gone through the experience of losing a leg. He did step in for a lot of stuff, mainly because it was so much easier to have him there. If you’re shooting from behind or you’re focusing on the foot, it’s easier to have someone in who’s missing the leg than to do it with me and spend a fortune on visual effects to change things."
Though Arnold certainly got along with de Jager, there also seemed to have been a little jealousy in sharing screen time for the role. The actor admitted that a downside for him was his absence in some major Long John Silver moments of the show.
The writers gradually decided to bring back Flint’s lover, Thomas
For as dark as "Black Sails" can be throughout the series, it ended on a fairly happy note as the main character, Captain Flint, is finally reunited with the love of his life, Thomas Hamilton (Rupert Penry-Jones). Both men are sentenced to imprisonment on a plantation, yet all that matters to the pair is that they are together again. Viewers may have been somewhat surprised that Thomas had returned to the show given the fact that he was thought to be dead, but over time the writers decided that was not going to be his fate.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2017, Jonathan Steinberg explained: "We had a sense in Season 2 when he died off-screen, that any character who dies off-screen, you’re taking the word of the messenger as to whether or not it actually happened. We knew we weren’t finished with him. And then at some point in Season 3, we realized it would be reasonably late in the series when he came back, so in Season 4 it felt right."