He's the (locally produced) wind behind 'Black Sails'

Melrose Park native son Jonathan Steinberg
Melrose Park native son Jonathan Steinberg
Posted: January 24, 2014

* BLACK SAILS. 9 p.m. Saturday, Starz.

PASADENA, CALIF. - Cheltenham High. Harvard. Penn Law. Jonathan E. Steinberg's background doesn't scream "pirate."

But the Melrose Park-raised co-creator of Starz's new pirate drama, "Black Sails," has never been afraid to go big: His first show, "Jericho," started off with a bang - and a mushroom cloud over Denver.

Now Steinberg is working with Michael Bay ("Transformers") and others to recreate an early 18th-century world populated by a mix of historical and fictional characters (including a few from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island) for a show about pirates.

It's "by far" the largest budget of any show he's worked on, Steinberg said in a recent interview during the Television Critics Association's winter meetings.

Though maybe not Michael Bay-movie big.

"It's funny. It looks like it costs an absolute fortune. It just costs a regular fortune," said Steinberg, quoting one Starz executive as saying that "Black Sails" "punches above its weight."

Still, said Steinberg, "it's expensive. You can't make this show for cheap, it's not possible."

Producers also decided it wasn't possible to make it anywhere but South Africa, where Cape Town gave them access to beaches and water tanks (people who'd filmed movies on the water advised against trying) as well as to Britain, where many of the actors came from.

"We hired a production designer who is amazing," Steinberg said. "He did 'Last of the Mohicans.' . . . He built this world and it's everything we wanted it to be. And then we hired a visual-effects person who, in a way, is the other half of that pair, because there's so much of that that can only exist virtually."

And, yes, Steinberg's also talked to Philly's No. 1 pirate fan.

"I actually spoke to Pat Croce, a while ago, when we were looking for pirate consultants," he said. "It's fun. You find people in the strangest places," who are enthusiastic about pirate history. "It strikes a chord with people. You'd be surprised, the people you start talking to, and they . . . know all about the world."

Steinberg, a history buff, said he was surprised by what he hadn't known.

"These guys [the pirates] are very much both a symptom and a very specific artifact of the frontier, the English frontier, of this time period. You know, I spent four years learning about everything that happened 60 years later in college, in Boston, and in Philadelphia. And you start reading about these people and you realize they're having the same conversations" that American colonists did.

But, said Steinberg, "they're not Boston merchants. They are sailors and laborers who didn't have a way to organize in the same way, didn't have the same economic tools to support them during it. But they're having the same problems. They feel disconnected. They feel disenfranchised."

The oppressed people in "Black Sails" fight a lot. They also have a fair amount of Starz-level sex, something Steinberg had been asked about at a news conference earlier in the day. "I think the show is sexy," he said. "The show is violent. I don't think it ever gets gratuitous in either direction."

A much-talked-about scene involving two women, played by Hannah New and Jessica Parker Kennedy, does reflect a relationship and isn't just a salacious distraction. I asked Steinberg if he thought that was easier to show than it might have been earlier.

"Maybe the novelty of what you can get away with on cable is starting to wear off," he said, "and you can be more telling the story with freedom rather than feeling the need to explore the limits of that freedom. I think for Robert [Levine, his co-creator] and I, it was just [that] there are so many ways you can feel disconnected from this world. They are people who, if you heard them speak in the actual way they spoke English, you probably wouldn't understand anything. How do you make them feel relatable? How do you make them feel like people? And I think the goal is to just treat them like people at every moment."

Steinberg, who was back in the Philadelphia area for Thanksgiving, said that his father still lives there and "my wife's family is also in Dresher."

"And my brother-in-law's actually Josh Shapiro, who is Montgomery County commissioner [chairman]. And so he and his family were out visiting last month, which was nice."

His family, Steinberg said, has seen "Black Sails."

"They liked it," he said, sounding almost surprised. "And they wouldn't lie. They've told me before when they don't like stuff."


Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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