The breakout hit of last year is back for its second voyage, with even more New Zealand stars on board. Stewart Sowman-Lund visits the Auckland set of Our Flag Means Death.
“I’m learning about how intense the fans are,” says Madeleine Sami. “I’ve seen some fanfiction, I keep getting warnings about what might happen.”
It’s December, 2022, on a dreary, drizzly day on the set of Our Flag Means Death season two. We’re sitting in a tent in the middle of lush greenery in Riverhead, north of Auckland. While much of the scenery is natural forest and distinctly New Zealand – it’s hard not to watch the show and recognise at times just how much it looks like Auckland – it’s been transformed today into the 18th century. Dozens of extras are walking about in era-specific garb and carrying weapons. At one point, American comedian Leslie Jones wanders past, decked out in a resplendent headpiece.
At the time of The Spinoff’s visit, Sami’s casting in the HBO Max show hasn’t been made public – and yet somehow the fans have already worked it out. “There are people who have gone through my Instagram and gone ‘reasons why Madeleine Sami is the lesbian pirate in season two’,” she says. “They are a thirsty bunch of fans.”
Our Flag Means Death was a surprise hit when it launched worldwide in early 2022. What started out as a quirky workplace comedy onboard a pirate ship, and starring two of our biggest comedy exports Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi, ended up breaking the internet with its subversive mash of history and modern sensibilities. While many of the characters may be loosely based on historical figures – Waititi plays Blackbeard and Darby stars as the real life “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet – the situations they find themselves in are purely fiction.
The show quickly picked up a devoted fan base due to its portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters and relationships, and managed to shake off concerns around “queer baiting”. As I wrote in March last year, the response to the first season’s finale was “immediate and intense”, with audiences hungry for a second season. Now, it’s finally here.
Waititi’s ongoing involvement behind the scenes prompted production on season two to shift from Los Angeles to New Zealand after Covid rules were loosened, meaning a host of faces familiar to local audiences – some of whom remain secret – will crop up across the eight episodes.
Sami joins the cast as Archie, a new addition to Blackbeard’s gang. “It’s been a really, really fun experience,” she says. “It’s kind of like a dream job – a pirate, and a gay pirate. Basically when you’re a kid… one of the first things you muck around with is pirates. And I’m an adult!”
Fans of the first season will be pleased that David Fane is back for a return voyage in his supporting role as Fang, another of Blackbeard’s crew. He says that despite the show being a big budget Hollywood production, it can’t help having a distinct “Kiwi” feel about it.
“You can’t help but be who you are and I think that’s the point of the show as well. We’re not trying to pretend we’re any other race but our own, or represent any other communities that aren’t our own. People are what they are and they bring what they bring, it’s celebrated,” he says. “Finally to get here and be filming it in New Zealand, I really love having all the overseas people involved and sharing with them this wonderful place of the world.”
Along with extensive use of New Zealand’s natural environment, Our Flag Means Death also employs world class technology to bring the show to life. In an immense soundstage, Taika Waititi films a scene onboard a near lifesize replica of Blackbeard’s ship, The Revenge. He’s in character, but he’s also directing the scene, switching in and out of his two roles effortlessly. Surrounding the ship is a photorealistic video backdrop composed of hundreds of LED displays showing a moving ocean and a dazzling sunset.
The tech is similar to that employed on the Stars Wars series The Mandalorian, and allows the actors to interact with a fully computer-generated setting rather than just stand in front of a green screen. As the extended crane camera moves, the backdrop’s perspective shifts with it.
Fane says while the technology was helpful, it wasn’t everything when it came to playing his role. “I think the thing that’s most important is the beautiful stories being told in these amazing settings,” he says. “The writing is just good quality, the lead writers are such a wonderful bunch of people. They listen and they adapt.”
As is to be expected when you assemble a cast that includes New Zealand comedy legends, part of that “adaptation” means improvisation. “The cast are all improvisers [so] there is a fair amount of that,” Sami says. “The thing is very live, everyday is like ‘try another thing here’. It’s a nice feeling, to feel like you’re contributing.”
Fane agrees: “They pretty much said ‘just be yourself’. This is your backstory, start from there and go where you want to go. As an actor, that’s great, having that freedom. It’s also about connecting with the other characters.”
That “be yourself” mantra appears to be part of the show’s ethos. The number of prominent New Zealand accents – along with actors from a variety of cultural backgrounds – reiterates how comfortable the show is playing with history. Fane hopes the show helps mainstream the idea that people should be able to get along no matter their identities.
“When I look back on season one, I think how easy it is that people get along, people can work together, people can put aside their differences and can express themselves freely and it don’t mean shit. That’s the best thing, the world should understand: Just let people be who they are and be happy for it.”
Our Flag Means Death season two is available to stream on Neon.