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‘Our Flag Means Death’: Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby on Their Pirate Love Story’s Sincere Finale — Q&A

David Jenkins and his cast explain how Ed & Stede became this spring's hottest couple: "I've got many bromances, but this is romantic. This is a romance."

Our Flag Means Death Taika Waititi Rhys Darby HBO Max

Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby in “Our Flag Means Death”

Aaron Epstein / HBO Max

[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Our Flag Means Death” Season 1, Episodes 9 and 10, “Act of Grace” and “Wherever You Go, There You Are” — the first season’s finale.]

After weeks of curiosity, hope, and intense fan ‘shipping, “Our Flag Means Death” delivered the kiss many dared not believe was coming in its Season 1 finale. Having escaped death by execution and facing a life in the King’s Royal Navy, Stede “The Gentleman Pirate” Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and Ed “Blackbeard” Teach (Taika Waititi) recognize their burgeoning relationship is more than a platonic friendship, and share their own intimate act of grace.

For Ed and Stede (couple portmanteau: Sted), their acknowledged attraction arrives after weeks of classic romantic-comedy set-ups: the meet cute (when Blackbeard saves Stede’s life), the introductory period (where Stede and Ed go out together, under the safe veil of friendship), the jealous ex (when Calico Jack, played by Will Arnett, upends the harmonious couple), and more. But the early episodes frame Blackbeard as a threat to Stede rather than a love interest; he initially promises his second-in-command, Izzy (Con O’Neill), that he’s only spending time with the rich captain in order to steal his identity.

Of course, there are also reasons outside the narrative to be skeptical. Plenty of mainstream TV shows and movies introduce crackling same-sex relationships that never lead to anything openly romantic. Queer coding has long been a part of the viewing experience for LGBTQ audiences and continues to drive substantial conversations around popular media. Unless a movie or series is explicitly said to be a queer love story, the assumption is it won’t become one — at least, not on screen.

But per creator David Jenkins, “Our Flag Means Death” was always written as a love story. It’s part of what excited Waititi and Darby about signing on to begin with; the New Zealand actors have an innate chemistry after a decade-plus working together (from “Flight of the Conchords” to “What We Do in the Shadows”), and they wanted to put that rapport to good use in a series that could support it. As discussed below, their time together reinvigorated Waititi’s love for acting, and they hope to keep making the show as long as Stede and Ed’s romance can sustain it. Season 2 has not yet been ordered by HBO Max, but Jenkins, Darby, and Waititi all sound raring to go. Given the finale ends with a jilted Blackbeard resuming his malicious ways and Stede saving his crew in the hopes of reuniting with Ed, it’s only fair we see where the tide can take them.

The following Q&A consists of two conversations that have been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

IndieWire: The way finale ends, as well as the last half of the first season, really frames the series as a love story. Is that a fair description of how you always saw the show?

David Jenkins: Yeah! When [Taika and I] were talking about it early on, the reason to do the show is figuring out how these two people fell in love. It’s essentially a rom-com. It’s a pirate romance between these two characters.

Taika Waititi: [But] it really is a slow burn. I’ve been looking online and there’s all these people replying on Twitter with those memes: “Just kiss already!” They can see it, and they want it.

Jenkins: And then people being very afraid that we’re not going to do it, which is fair. I didn’t realize how deep that ran until, honestly, this week. After you watch the fifth episode, it’s very clear they’re almost going to kiss, and people either don’t believe we’re playing it or don’t engage with it when they’re writing about the show, that… I didn’t expect that. I thought it was quite explicit that they had feelings for each other. People are picking up on it, but they don’t actually believe that we’re going there.

Waititi: You’ve just got to just smash people over the head with it, I guess.

But there’s also been so many films and TV shows where a queer love story is subtext that never becomes text, whether that’s the filmmaker’s intent or cowardice from the powers that be.

Waititi: Yes, absolutely. Also, I think people probably don’t expect it to ever happen because they’re used to the Mulder and Scully relationships, where it’s just, “We’re never going to let you see this, even though it’s all very obvious what we want to do.”

Jenkins: We’re steeped in bromances, too — where bromance is the language of two guys together [on screen]. Take Butch Cassidy and Sundance. If you add one extra reaction shot into that movie, it’s a love story because it’s all already there. So I think we’re just [used to], “Yeah, it’s going to be bromance. Cool. These bros are really ‘bro-ing’ out and it’s ‘bro-tastic.'” And that can happen. But they can also actually be in love. We can do that.

Waititi: Because the bromance thing, like, I’ve got many bromances, but this is romantic. This is a romance.

Our Flag Means Death Taika Waititi Rhys Darby HBO Max

Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby in “Our Flag Means Death”

Aaron Epstein / HBO Max

Taika, in an earlier interview, you said this was the most fun you had acting in a really long time. Then in the show, Blackbeard said something similar about his time with Stede. What about the collaboration made this so special?

Waititi: It was just very free and there was a very open approach to the way we were [shooting]. The scripts were so great, but Rhys and I still had room to maneuver around the scripts and kind of do our little improvising dance that we are good at when we’re together.

Also, I directed the pilot and that was it — I wasn’t even in the pilot, which was great. That was that part of the job, and then I could just be an actor, which is something I hadn’t done for a really long time was just act. And I could actually concentrate on that and it was a big realization for me: When you write, direct, and act, one of them has to take the front seat and one of them has to take the back and it’s always, for me, the acting. I’m always leaving it to the last second; to learn the lines because I’m concentrating on everyone else. And then I’m annoyed at myself because I haven’t learned the lines that I wrote. Then the writer part of me is pissed off. And then the director part of me is pissed off because I’m taking too many takes. And then the producer part of me is, “Just fire him!” Then the actor part of me is, “Give me another take!”

But on this one, I could just focus on the acting — and also dressing up and having the beard, the makeup and everything, it just felt like a really good transformation for me. It was just fun. It reminded me of why I got into acting.

It did seem like Blackbeard was wearing a lot of leather, which struck me as an odd choice for a life at sea.

Jenkins: It makes no sense. It would just be sweat.

Waititi: An old biker on the seas.

Jenkins: Just to embarrass Taika for a second, he’s such a good actor. Taika and Rhys are used to coming into a scene and killing it, then leaving. To just have the space to actually watch them do their thing in a longer form and play a proper character and a romance together — as a fan of both of them, that was amazing.

Waititi: It’s like me and David have got a bromance going on. Or a pro-mance, because we’re both pro-fessionals.

Rhys, how did you and Taika work together to build Stede and Ed’s unique connection?

Rhys Darby: There wasn’t really any need to work on anything. I think we already had the building blocks in place: being old friends who knew each other very well, getting through difficult times together, and having each other’s back. So it was just really fun to explore that in more intimate detail. It’s that kind of thing where you’re at a party with your best friend, and you know that you can escape together. If the other guy’s missing, you’ll go and find them, and you’ll hold their hair back when they vomit into the toilet. But really, it goes deeper than that. It’s more that we know each other, and it was fun to be able to take things further on screen because we knew the story was heading that way, and we knew people would want it to go that way. So when it happens, our job was to make it feel real.

Our Flag Means Death Finale Taika Waititi Rhys Darby

Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby in “Our Flag Means Death”

Aaron Epstein / HBO Max

Waititi: With a lot of the other stuff I’ve done, it’s just been a cameo or something [short]. You just walk in [and out] of one scene. It’s almost a waste of time doing those things because you just get annoyed; you put on a stupid wig and stuff and you don’t know what the project is, and then you’re done in like an hour-and-a-half. Eking this out over the six episodes that I’m in, it was great to have the time to [set up the relationship.] We were building and building and building to that moment on the beach and yeah, it was really fun.

Darby: In those moments, you’ve just got to hone in on what makes it work the first time around, when we were young and just doing stuff on stage in front of our friends. It’s the chemistry. It’s as simple as that. You’ve just got to keep the chemistry. It’s already there, and you’ve got to just hold onto it and make it shine when the need arises.

What can you tell me about Season 2 plans and Stede’s journey going forward?

Darby: Well, it’s funny because I think when he initially took off and did this, he really couldn’t see where it was going to go. He just brought his home fantasies with him to give him some sort of security, and the amazing thing about the initial journey was that things did come together. There was a lot of bad stuff. He nearly died several times, but that was really what he was after: literally to feel something, because he came from a background where there was no need to feel anything. Everything was given to him.

So he started to feel, obviously, physically — by being very severely wounded — and then emotionally, by finding someone that he felt love from and love toward. So I think he’s heading back out to sea just because he’d never felt so alive in his life when he was practically dead. So I think he’s obviously going to look for Ed, but really the other thing he’s going to look for is getting the gang back together, getting the ship, and feeling love in whatever capacity that means to him. There’s that scene where he waves out at the end and he can see some of the crew, and that is really what he’s after. Anything beyond that, I still think he’s got no idea.

Jenkins: To me, the thing what’s important in the show is just the romance of it. How long do we want to invest in this relationship between these two people? And that goes… as long as that’s going, there’s a show, and when that feels like it’s reached its end, that’s the end.

Waititi: I think that we should just decide where we want to shoot in the world, David — where we want to go and live. If we want to go to Hawaii, we can just go, “They ended up in Hawaii.” Do you want to hang out in Tokyo? “Well, they got caught in a storm. They’re in Tokyo.”

Jenkins: We’re going to be shooting in Burbank. But yeah, we’ll make it look like Tokyo.

It does seem like they can go just about anywhere — and fast. Steed got out to that little island pretty quickly.

Jenkins: That’s “Game of Thrones logic” — it’s “Game of Thrones” geography. You have to break that out occasionally.

“Our Flag Means Death” Season 1 is available to stream in full via HBO Max. Season 2 has not yet been picked up.

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