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Creator David Jenkins Leans Into the Queerness of Pirate Life in 'Our Flag Means Death'

Meet 'Our Flag Means Death's' David Jenkins, the pirate show creator who doesn't care about traditional pirate stories.
by Whitney Friedlander — 
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From left to right: Rhys Darby and Samson Kayo in 'Our Flag Means Death'

HBO Max

Pirate stories seem to fall into two camps: They're either hardcore and meticulously researched like History and Netflix's Vikingsseries and Starz's Black Sails. Or they are grandiose and Disney-fied like Peter Panor Pirates of the Caribbean, the last a franchise that is dark and a little scary but was still kid-friendly enough where people died without shedding blood. And sure, there was that one episode of Galavantwhere land-loving pirates sang. 

But a whole comedy about the life of pirates that's at least somewhat historically accurate? That's what creator and executive producer David Jenkins and director-star Taika Waititi have manifested in the HBO Max series, Our Flag Means Death.

Unfortunately for fans of Johnny Depp in heavy eyeliner, the pirate life isn't really for Jenkins.

"If you look at the show and you're looking for traces of Pirates of the Caribbean, you're gonna hate it because I don't care about pirates," Jenkins tells Metacritic. "Taika doesn't care about pirates. And you've [already] seen all that sh--."

Instead, Jenkins wanted to tell the story of Stede Bonnet (portrayed here by Rhys Darby), an actual British aristocrat who, in the early 1700s, chucked it all and tried to make a go of it at sea and brand himself as a more gentlemanly pirate. (He paid his crew, for example — unheard of at the time.) During his journey, he meets the legendary Blackbeard (portrayed here by Waititi).

"To me, the thing that's more important is this should feel like a Tuesday on a pirate ship," Jenkins says. "It's a workplace. And then they get into some things. Finding the little Larry David-like things of it; that, to me, is more important." 

Metacritic talked to Jenkins about his show, which he describes "a character study of this guy, Stede Bonnet, and Blackbeard," and their working relationship.

How much of this story is true?

The general beats of Stede's situation are true. He had a mid-life crisis and he decided that he would be a pirate and he said that he was uncomfortable in a "married state" and his wife was nagging him. And then he abandoned his family. And then he built this ship and he built a library in it. And he paid his crew a wage, when normally crews would steal to make their money. He got stabbed attacking a Spanish galleon. And then he met Blackbeard. 

When he was stabbed, Blackbeard, for whatever reason, took him up and they became a team. So those beats all happen. And then the way we're telling it is ridiculous.

There seems to be a Princess Brideelement to it, too. Blackbeard suggests they switch places and Stede tell people he's him. It's like the Dread Pirate Roberts taking the young Westley (Cary Elwes) under his wing and then giving the job to him.

I love that movie. That movie and that actual tone is wonderful. I don't think there's any deliberate crossover, but that movie is always in my head.

How did you go about casting this? New Zealanders Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi star as Stede Bonnet and the pirate Blackbeard, who were British. 

The big roles are Stede and Blackbeard, and Rhys came to mind after a lot of it had been written, which seems crazy because no one else could play that part. And Taika signed on after he'd read the fourth episode. And then with the rest of the cast, we had a really phenomenal casting directors. The idea for me was, "Don't worry about where people are from. People can use their [own] accent." So, it's fun to have Leslie Jones [who plays a powerful pirate bar owner] in there with a Bronx accent and Fred Armisen's [who plays her husband] got a Long Island thing going. 

You said Rhys is perfect for this. Why?

I saw one round of auditions for Stede and they were just phenomenal British actors. But seeing them [do some dialogue from the first episode], it was like, "I hate this character. I hate him. He left his family. He did all this shit. He's having a mid-life crisis." Rhys has got a childlike quality to him; I guess a non-creepy childlike quality to him. And it's infectious. And he's very funny when he bosses people around.

This is a morbid question, but "mid-life" means something different to us than it did to people in the 1700s.

No, [the ages are] totally wrong. So, I think this guy was like, maybe he was in his 30s. You just died sooner then.

How anachronistic can you be with this story?

There's all these things where it's like what can I collapse? What will people go with? And it turns out, people will go with an awful lot as long as you're not anachronistic to the point where you're just like, "OK, I'm turning this off; they don't have a VCR."

You previously created the TBS comedy People of Earth, which was executive produced by Greg Daniels from the American version of The Office. This isn't a mockumentary because they didn't have camera crews in 1700s. But it does have a mockumentary tone to it. Nathan Foad plays Lucius, a transcriber documenting every event. So how did you develop the tone of the show?

When I was talking to Taika about it, I was actually thinking about the movie 24 Hour Party People. I like 24 Hour Party People because it starts with Alan Partridge, and they don't play it fast and loose. I don't mind that there's not some kind of crazy lens zoom or docu-style filming. For me, the thing that's important about mockumentary, as a concept, is more that it's just naturalism.

You also have non-binary actor Vico Ortiz as one of the pirates. But it's unclear what pronouns to use for their character.

The great thing about importing that term to this genre is they don't have a term for that. So, in writing it in camera directions, they're they/them and they're referred to as "they" a few times [on the show]. On the ship, they would have been seen as she. They're non-binary with no language for it, but at a time where that actually really did exist. And people were dealing with those same issues.

Sexuality is also explored in a very relaxed and open way.

Queerness is a big part of the show. And that was a big reason that I was interested to write the show. The pirate genre and everything, it's fun and it's fun to kick around, but it's not really anything that Taika and I were overly excited to do. But to look at this from an angle of like, "What are these relationships?" The fact that pirate life is, in a sense, queer life. Either metaphorically or literally, if you write into that, I think you get a lot of beats that are maybe closer to what it actually was. We're not doing what it actually was, because we are doing our own version of it. But I do see stuff where it's a bunch of white guys who are straight, and this isn't what it was. I mean, they had a term for marriage between crew members called matelotage.

Do you think Stede was closeted?

That's the interesting thing. And the reason for me to write the show was we don't know why he left his family. We don't know what Blackbeard and Stede wanted from each other. In reality, Blackbeard ended up screwing Stede over and stealing his ships. But they were together for a long time. So, what was going on there?

Our Flag Means Death premieres with its first 

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Get to Know David Jenkins:
Jenkins' previous show was People of Earth (Metascore: 72), but his inspirations are far and wide, including The Is Spinal Tap (92), The Last Detail (89), 24 Hour Party People (85), The Princess Bride (77), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (69).