Pirates blow into Cape of Storms

10 May 2015 - 02:00

Move over, Sean Penn and Charlize Theron. It's swashbuckling 18th-century pirates who are putting Cape Town on the international movie map.

American TV series Black Sails has been filming in the city for the past three years - and its first season will appear on DStv's History Channel in August.

The cast includes British actor Toby Stephens, son of Dame Maggie Smith. He plays James Flint, feared pirate captain plundering ships off the West Indies.

Or, more accurately, over the road from the Western Cape's biggest township.

Few viewers realise that this Caribbean romp is filmed at the R430-million Cape Town Film Studios near Khayelitsha, although the two massive sailing ships seemingly becalmed in the Cape Flats scrub have intrigued motorists on the N2 for some time now.

Executive producer Chris Symes said the ships had been made on set by a local sailor with the help of 300 workers prior to shooting in 2013.

"The larger is the Walrus and operates on gimbals, or wheels which allow the ship to move in a specific direction.

"The other is the Spanish man o' war, which lies in a 10-million litre water tank - our version of the sea. We have shot at sea before, but that can be so unpredictable and we also had to accommodate a seasick cast, " he said.

Created by Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine, the adventure series is set two decades before the events portrayed in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.


Several real-life pirates are fictionalised in the show, including Charles Vane (played by Zach McGowan), Anne Bonny (Clara Paget) and Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz).

The production employs more than 800 extras and crew. Only 30 of these are not South African. Other principal cast members include Briton Hannah New, Australian Luke Arnold, Canadian Jessica Parker Kennedy, Nigerian actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim and South African Sean Cameron Michael.

Cape Town-born Michael has appeared in two other Emmy-nominated series, 24: Redemption and The Triangle.

"As South Africans we're fortunate that many productions come to Cape Town, which means more exposure for future roles, especially when you're working with international directors," he said.

A 1720s version of the Bahamian capital, Nassau, has also been built, on 600 truckloads of beach sand, by German production designer Wolf Kroeger. The town features such pirate essentials as a brothel, a tavern and a few places to sleep off the fun.

"We shoot for six months per season, which means the set lies dormant for six months," said Symes.


The current season is about to wrap up production and props and costumes - designed by Tim Aslam, who did the costumes for the film version of Les Misérables and Sherlock Holmes:A Game of Shadows - will soon be packed away until, "hopefully", another season.

Stephens said Cape Town "was a delight despite being sunburnt because of the summer sun".

"I dragged my family out this year to be with me, but I never got to do anything because of filming. But there are lots of things which I need to come back and do."