When news first broke of Netflix’s latest series, a 10-part historical drama about Italian explorer Marco Polo’s time in the 13th-century court of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan, it was hard not to be sceptical.
It was reported that the show, produced by Harvey Weinstein, was shooting in three locations – Venice, Kazakhstan and Malaysia – and that its attempt to recreate the opulent splendour of the Mongol court involved peacock-filled pleasure gardens, a golden throne room and an on-set insect wrangler to train the praying mantises which play a crucial part in the plot. The budget was rumoured to be an astonishing $90m (£58m), the shoot was happening without the use of CGI and would take seven months, and the leading man was a largely unknown Italian actor named Lorenzo Richelmy, who had brooding good looks and plenty of charm but a less than certain command of the English language.
To the cynics among us it seemed certain to be television’s answer to Heaven’s Gate: a sprawling, extravagant folly, set to derail Netflix’s ongoing quest for domination of the small screen.
Well, the cynics – including this one – were wrong. Marco Polo, which follows the young explorer as he gets to grips with a complicated world of secret alliances and deception, is big, bold and, at times, bombastic television. Lavishly over-the-top, its dialogue is, for the most part, clever, and it’s filled with beautiful, balletic scenes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style Wushu combat. Despite its flaws, including a slightly clunky opening episode, it is also entirely compelling.
In part that’s down to the sheer epic scale of the production that, with its huge crowd scenes of actual humans rather than computer-generated hordes, has something of the pomp of the Cecil B DeMille era. Not even Game of Thrones, which has pulled off an epic hour or two in its time, can match its grandeur: from the sweeping vistas of Kazakhstan to Kublai’s gilded palace you can see where every penny went.
Yet a big budget alone can’t make Marco Polo a hit, and the real reason this series works is the passion of its creator, John Fusco. As a screenwriter, Fusco is an old hand, probably best known for writing the teen western Young Guns films. He has also been commissioned to write the long-anticipated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel, due out next year. It’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at his description of his show as being set “in the exotic, erotic, mysterious East”, but there’s no doubting his knowledge of his subject. Fusco has a life-long obsession with both China and Polo, he says, and in 2007, while filming in Mongolia, Fusco travelled the Silk Road with his 13-year-old son.
“I’d been thinking a lot about the long-artform of television because lots of writers and directors were beginning to see television as the more creative venue,” he explains. “And as I travelled along the Silk Road I kept running into Marco Polo at every opportunity. I was always amazed that everything I’d read in his accounts had so little to do with what we were taught. If people think of Marco Polo, it’s of the swimming game or the myth that he brought noodles to Italy. Are you kidding me? The true story is so much more.”
Fusco knew that the story he devised – a tale of adventure and the problematic ties between fathers and sons filled with complex and varied female roles – could work, but he was unable to convince any producers to bite. Cue a fortuitous phone call from close friend Weinstein, keen to move into television and looking for a show that would announce his arrival with a bang. “Harvey said, ‘I’m going to mention a name and I told these people you’ll know a lot about this subject so don’t let me down, don’t make me look stupid,’” Fusco says laughing. “I said ‘What’s the name?’ and he said, ‘Marco Polo’. I said, ‘Harvey are you kidding – I’ve just travelled the Silk Road with my son and I’ve got an idea.’ We had it set up as a TV series the next day. So Harvey was pivotal in getting it made.”
Pivotal too, you would presume, in convincing Netflix that the only way this show could work was if they committed fully. Fusco was determined that they should film not on a Hollywood set but in the remote republic of Kazakhstan, which was incorporated into the Mongolian empire by Kublai’s grandfather Genghis Khan. He was equally insistent that Marco should be played by an Italian. “I felt that kind of authenticity would inform the show but we just couldn’t find the right guy,” he says. “But then my wife, who is an acting coach, refused to accept that we didn’t find a Marco Polo in Italy so she went back through all the tapes, called me and said, ‘Look at Lorenzo Richelmy’. I did and knew this was the guy.”
There was just one problem: the matter of 24-year-old Richelmy’s next-to-no English. “After the call-back they said, ‘OK you could be Marco Polo but your English is not good enough’,” Richelmy admits. “I’d travelled a lot as a child and could order a meal and communicate base things in English but to try to act in another language….”
What followed was the sort of schedule that wouldn’t look out of place in an 18th-century gentleman’s diary. “I would wake up at seven, have a quick breakfast then train at martial arts until I died, grab 25 minutes for lunch, then English lessons before going on to archery lessons and horse riding. We shot chronologically so the first two episodes I don’t speak so much because my English was not so good but by the end of the series I’m much more comfortable.”
It’s true that Richelmy’s lack of familiarity with English is obvious in the opening hours of the show, but this turns out to be less of a hindrance than it might have been. The young Marco, abandoned by his father, is an outsider in Kublai’s court, lost, adrift and scared. Richelmy ably suggests this, letting his eyes talk more than his occasionally stilted words.
Meanwhile the plum role of Kublai is taken by Salford’s finest, Benedict Wong, an actor best known for his acclaimed stage turn as the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in Howard Brenton’s The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, who laughingly describes his television career as “going from playing thug number three to gangster king number one”. He adds: “Kublai is someone so high up in power he’s constantly surrounded by people saying ‘yes’ and never gets an honest answer. When he meets Marco, something jolts in him and he thinks ‘wow you’re telling me the truth’,” he says. “Marco can describe Kublai’s kingdom to him, it’s almost like he’s the internet of the middle ages and slowly, bit by bit, he becomes a therapist to him or an alternative son.”
For Wong, the show’s appeal lies in “the opulence of it all and that untapped world”, and it’s true that one of the most refreshing things is the way it presents us with a historical milieu we haven’t seen in such detail before. We are used to our historical dramas being Western-focused, and so travelling to 13th-century Mongolia feels like something new, even in a post-Game of Thrones era when everyone is aiming for the next big historical hit.
“I wrote this show a year before Game of Thrones came out,” sighs Fusco, when I mention the inevitable comparisons to come. “Sometimes I sit down and think ‘Wait ... [people] really think I thought how can I do a Chinese Game of Thrones?’” His bosses at Netflix may be hoping such a tagline sticks.
The whole of series one of ‘Marco Polo’ goes live on Netflix on 12 Dec
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