When talking to David Jenkins, the creator and writer of HBO Max’s pirate-centric workplace comedy, Our Flag Means Death, his passion for his work can be heard in every word. While it may be easy to brush off a period piece pirate series with a cast of top notch comedic performers as a one-joke premise – the ever-fervent fans have proven it is anything but. This is not lost on Jenkins who was blown away by the fan reaction to the series – his respect for the series’ audience is evident. The endless social media postings, costumes, fan fiction and original artwork are a true metric for the power of the story.
Awards Radar spoke with Jenkins about the series. (I recommend you listen to the full interview – below.) Based on his insights into the making of the series, it is easy to see why it has connected so well with viewers.
How does one decide to tell the story of an obscure person from history like Stede Bonnet, The Gentleman Pirate? Jenkins explained that it had nothing to do with a love of pirates. “I didn’t know anything. Pirating is not my bag. My wife actually heard somebody talking about him and then told me about him, because she knows my tastes, Jenkins,”explained.
“I think she knows that I like men in existential free fall, and women and people just in existential free fall, having some kind of an identity crisis. She thought he sounded like. ‘this guy sounds interesting. You should check him out for a show. Maybe you can make a show around this guy.’ Then I just looked at his Wikipedia page, and pretty quickly was like, ‘oh yeah, this is great. This is a wealth of embarrassing and fascinating information.’ What a great character.”
When it comes to an identity crisis, look no further than Stede (played by Rhys Darby) an 18th century wealthy landowner who abandons his family, land and fortune, buys a ship and decides to live a life of a pirate – which ultimately leads to a relationship with the infamous pirate Blackbeard (Taika Waititi).
When it came to casting Stede, it quickly became clear that Rhys Darby was the right fit for the role. “He did us the favor of reading for the part. It’s a really big part. Rhys established enough where I felt a little weird asking him to do it. But then he sent back a tape quickly and it was great. It was hard work and I could tell how much work he put into it and how great he was in it,” said. Jenkins. “He’s got this incredible work ethic – he was in the Army in New Zealand. He’s just he’s got that kind of work ethic where I think he’s thrilled to have the part – he knows what an opportunity it is. Then from my side, I just know you rarely find that much of a fit in an actor and a part. We’re so lucky that we got him for this.”
As you can see in his performance, Darby disappears into the role Jenkins said in praise of the actor, “I felt like I didn’t really meet Rhys – I met him once, just before production started and the rest of the time I felt like I was working with Stede. He turned into Stede.”
Working with Waititi was also a great match for Jenkins. Not only is his work on screen flawless, but his approach as executive producer allowed Jenkins the opportunity to tell his story, knowing Taika had faith in his vision.
“I think Taika is smart about pairing with somebody who’s sensibility, he trusts. Then, he goes away.” said Jenkins. “We would talk occasionally, but in all we maybe talked for like three hours before we were in the room doing prep to shoot the pilot. And then he just comes in, like, if the creative is good, and he likes the choices he just rolled with everything. He liked the costume, he put that on, he loved it. From my perspective, it’s like, ‘I hope I chose right. I hope you like the stuff I picked.’ He continued, ‘I think he’s just looking for someone that for people, for collaborators that make really big choices, are confident and care about the world that they’re making. Then he’s able to come in and put himself fully behind it, which no one does that. It’s very rare.”
When telling Stede’s story, Jenkins wanted to make the series an escape for the audience – something that is much needed with the endless stress of today’s world. At the core of the pirates’ tale is a very sweet romance with Blackbeard, which provides some of that escape. “I think that’s why the fan response to this show is unique. It’s a show about characters who happen to be in a same sex relationship, but it’s not really a show about coming out. It’s show about falling in love more than it’s a show about people’s reaction to gayness in that era, which we’ve seen a lot of. Where it’s like a gay trauma show. We have a lot of those shows,” explained Jenkins. “
“Doing the show has made me realize how many people only see themselves represented on screen, when the trauma of X Y or Z is attached to that character as an anchor, and they can’t just be a character in the thing. And I didn’t realize that – I realized it when we were writing it – there’s a reason it is the way that it is the show. But, it wasn’t until seeing the fan response where it was like, ‘oh, man, yeah, this is kind of special, I guess.’ I guess most of the time, you see a lot of these things there’s, there’s this other historical trauma attached to it. It’s the line of like, not doing erasure and pretending that doesn’t exist, but also not making that the basis of every character.”
Listen to my full interview with David Jenkins (above). It is a fascinating conversation fans of the series, Rhys Darby, Taika Waititi, classic cinema, and good impersonations will enjoy. It is an insightful talk about a show so many love, Our Flag Means Death.
Our Flag Means Death, which was recently renewed for season two, is now streaming in its entirety exclusively on HBO Max.