The title of HBO Max’s half-hour action-comedy “Our Flag Means Death” alludes to a universally acknowledged truth: pirates are scary. They look scary. Their ships, whether decked out in black sails or crewed by barnacle encrusted zombies, are designed to provoke fear and dread. But the protagonist of “Our Flag Means Death,” rich landowner Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), could barely hold his own in a Jane Austen drawing room before he decided his mid-life crisis would involve decking out a privateer and taking to the high seas. This gives the show an interesting challenge. How do you both create the giant pirate ships and dens iniquity that so thrilled Stede, without letting the period of it all – your spars and ropes and mizzenmasts, and your candelabras bolted to the walls every five feet – distract the audience from the performers doing comedy? How do you make sure that Stede looks just enough like a pirate while also looking like the sad, kind, slightly ridiculous fop that he is?
Production designer Ra Vincent spoke to IndieWire about building Stede’s ship, The Revenge, as a simplified, stage-ified vessel. Instead of using lots and lots of detailing in the set design and set dressing to make an image that looked so real viewers get sucked into the historical fiction, Vincent’s task was to create something that looked just real enough, but edit down any superfluous details. The Revenge convincingly evokes the show’s setting but also renders it a bit cartoonish and, crucially, harmless. When we step aboard, the Revenge doesn’t look fearsome. It doesn’t look like Stede and his crew could cause anybody but themselves much trouble.
“We [took] the department down to San Diego to look at the ‘Master and Commander’ ship,” Vincent said of his preparation for the set build. “What does a film set look like when it’s on a ship, and you know, how do we change the scale of things? How [do we] fit a camera or shoot in the bowels of a ship?” Vincent took logistical lessons from the trip, but left in large part knowing how not to make his set feel. Peter Weir’s film constantly stresses set detail as a way to create a sense of immersion in the seafaring epic. The deck of that ship, The Surprise, is hemmed in by sails and netting and feels almost lattice-like, some wooden spar always poking into the frame, and it’s hard not to let all the stuff do some dramatic lifting. The Surprise feels incredibly tangible, sometimes frighteningly fragile, and therefore the adventures of its captain and crew have real weight.
Aaron Epstein/HBO Max
But that kind of immersion is exactly what “Our Flag Means Death” does not want us to worry about, even a little. Vincent learned the ins and outs of a Spanish galleon, he said, and then, “[We had to forget] what the actual Spanish galleon really functioned and looked like, because really we were looking more for a theatrical backdrop for these comedic performances.” And indeed the deck of The Revenge is wide open, with very little to distract from the look on the actors’ faces as they grapple with the comedic challenges of a competitive flag-sowing competition or a crew-wide emotional check in. It’s a pirate ship, simplified.
Vincent did had the help of a specialist sailmaker from Hawaii, Courtney Anderson, whose team help create just enough working ropes and sails to evoke the sense of a functioning vessel. But is Stede’s crew don’t look like they’re doing anything useful, it’s because they aren’t. Most of the ropes aren’t really connected to anything. Nothing on The Revenge works, and by not quite disguising that fact, Vincent’s set gets to visually convey something important about Stede: he doesn’t quite work as a pirate, either.
Just because The Revenge looks lightweight, however, doesn’t mean that Vincent didn’t build a sense of immersion in for the actors and crew. The deck of The Revenge was a massive project that took up one of the largest stages at Warner Brothers, so the camera could freely move from one section to the other. It also featured a massive LED screen capable of projecting 2D and two-and-half dimension images, which allowed the show to utilize virtual backdrops in place of more traditional green screens.”
Aaron Epstein/HBO Max
Rather than leaving it up to post-production to work out how to match the lighting and backing into stuff that they’re not quite sure what to do, we had everything up front so that the cast knew they were: They were standing next to an island or out in the middle of the ocean, or [that there was] a British Naval warship next door to them. And also the crew knew what they were looking at,” Vincent said.
The below-decks regions, too, were built so that they could be fairly interconnected and were the places that Vincent got to play both with the grittiness of pirate life at sea and the extreme ostentation of Bonnet’s own stateroom.”There’s something kind of wonderful and extreme about Bonnet’s officers’ quarters, which you would never find on an actual Spanish galleon,” Vincent said. Stede’s quarters match him in every respect: the colors are a softer but complimentary reflection of the lush fabrics he chooses to wear, the level of detailing in the woodwork almost a perfect mirror to the frills on his shirts and the slight curl to his hair.
Aaron Epstein/HBO Max
By holding back elsewhere on the level of detail and set dressing, Bonnet’s quarters look hopelessly too much compared to the rest of the world of the show, and Vincent said that the design really set the tone for everybody else. The Revenge is built to be Bonnet both outside and in. Abovedecks, it’s very underwhelming and a bit scattershot; belowdecks, full of impractical notions (like hundreds of books) that will never hold up in a storm.
But Vincent also said that there are bits of that level of ostentation lurking everywhere else, from Spanish Jackie’s (Leslie Jones) bar to Blackbeard’s (Taika Waititi) ship. “Whenever Stede would [arrive somewhere], dressed in amazing colorful robes, there would be little hints that actually, you know, he’s not totally alien,” Vincent said. “[We were] constantly looking for small, subtle high notes in the set design and the set decoration.” Stede Bonnet may be the worst pirate ever, but he’s still fits into the piratical world of “Our Flag Means Death” — and that might just be his only victory.