History textbooks tell us that Marco Polo was a 13th century Venetian explorer, trader and mapmaker who traveled to the Far East and wrote about his exploits in the court of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan — but that's about it. Think of the name today and the first thing that may come to mind is a tag game played in the pool. But with the debut of "Marco Polo" on Netflix on Dec. 12, our knowledge is about to expand. The ambitious 10-hour miniseries chronicles Polo's adventures in rich historical detail.
The desire to fill in the blanks about Polo inspired writer John Fusco to create the show. "At a young age when I was fascinated with China, I read 'The Travels of Marco Polo' and learned about this exciting, dramatic world he captured and reported on. He's so little known, but yet this mythology has survived that's so misrepresentative of his story. Why do we know so little about him? I think part of it is when Marco came back to Venice after 17 years and wrote his book, it was not believed for quite a long time. There was a perception that he hadn't even gone to China," says Fusco.
"Although most historians today recognize Marco's work as really relevant and a valuable resource, they also acknowledge that it's an interesting mix of fact and legend. Some historians feel he inserted himself into these things. There are historical signposts along the way that were big, important moments in world history that he writes about very accurately," Fusco continues. "He was there at one of the most turbulent and pivotal times in Chinese history — the fall of the Song Dynasty and the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty and all of the politics and internal conflicts going on."
However, he adds, other aspects of Polo's writing "qualify as fantasy. You have to remember that at this point in time, the world map of Europe detailed sea monsters, the Garden of Eden, a geographical portal to hell and a flat earth you could sail off the end of. Marco says he saw dragons. But if you look at his descriptions of seeing alligators for the first time — horrible, terrifying creatures with open jaws — he did."
When Marco Polo, on his deathbed, was asked to recant the more outrageous aspects of his tales, "he got angry and said, 'I haven't told half of what I saw'," notes Fusco. “That got me wondering: what was the half he didn't talk about? I posted that story on the writers' room wall and said, 'Marco left a lot of gaps here. We're going to have our historical signposts along the way, but we're also going to explore the half he might have seen.'" Historical accuracy was "very important, without being chained to history."
"We are making a dramatic series so you take certain license," adds executive producer Dan Minahan. "In any kind of historical drama there are characters that are combined, moved from one time period to another. It's just the nature of the beast. You want to mold the story into something you can dramatize and that’s entertaining — that would be my first priority. Marco Polo’s writings are thought to be kind of fantastical, so working in that area between historical accuracy and fiction is fun; It's the idea of seeing the world through this guy's eyes."
The power struggle between the Chinese and the Mongolians, led by Kublai Khan, is at the heart of the drama, but is only one aspect of the story. "I think that any good political drama is told through the personal story," Minahan says. "I like to describe this as a domestic drama, a look at a family business, but the family is in the business of being warlords."
Most of the characters "are real and can be backtracked through history," says Fusco, among them Polo (Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy), Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), and Empress Chabi (Joan Chen). Others are composites or fictional, such as Byamba, "who exemplifies the Mongol ethos in the spirit of Genghis Khan and would be a likely candidate for the throne but can never ascend because he's the son of a concubine. Hundred Eyes was a minister of warfare in Kublai Khan’s court. I gave the name to Marco Polo's Chinese tutor. But everyone in the Mongol family tree is based in history."
The production relied on several experts in various disciplines to ensure accuracy. "We had historical consultants who came and worked with us," says Minahan. "We had a cultural consultant from Mongolia on Mongolian practices. We had a Chinese scholar who specialized in the court protocols of the Song Dynasty who came to the set and explained how people entered a room, who would be present, where they would sit, etc. This helped to give it verisimilitude and flavor."
Daulet Abdigaparov (left) and Benedict Wong just before a scene begins shooting for Netflix's "Marco Polo."
Getting the battles and martial arts sequences right was important to Fusco, a martial artist himself. "I drew on my Northern Shaolin praying mantis background and worked that in. We brought in Mongolian wrestlers and a dream team of martial artists from China and Japan to give us this rich array of exotic styles that would have existed at the time," he says. Lorenzo Richelmy spent four hours a day in the gym, followed by intensive martial arts and horseback riding lessons to prepare for his role, and many of the other actors were required to do the same.
"With the Mongolian horse warfare, I did a lot of research into the Mongol art of war," continues Fusco, who had trekked through Mongolia on horseback in 2007 while working on "The Forbidden Kingdom" and kept a journal. "Being on the ground in Mongolia and traveling with the horse culture and sleeping in yurts, I was able to pick up a lot of detail. But I brought in advisors to work with our horse master to make sure the fighting strategies both on the Chinese and Mongolian sides were very accurate."
The costumes by Tim Yip — who won on Oscar for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" — and production design by Lilly Klivert were equally well researched. "We didn't have any virtual sets," says Minahan, but computer graphics were necessary in several scenes. "For example, the exterior of the palace, we only had the doorway and the area around it, 40 feet on either side. That was one place where we extended the set. When you see the crowd of warriors at the end of the first hour, we had around 250 riders in armor and made it look like we had 1,000."
The enormous scale of the production, which was shot in Venice, Kazakhstan, and at Pinewood Studios in Malaysia, from March to August this year, posed numerous challenges, and "required everybody to be really resourceful and economical but to think big at the same time," notes Minahan. "I counted 250 speaking roles by the time we went into shooting and we had to find and cast all those people. Once we got the leads there were still many people to find. We were working in remote areas, and each provided its own challenges.
"Venice was maybe the easiest, although moving equipment around Venice is really tricky, because you're on water and there's narrow walkways and you have to hand-carry things and bring things in on skiffs." Fusco describes shooting in Kazakhstan as "an adventure. It was long days of traveling on bumpy roads in these Russian utility vehicles with no shocks and getting out onto these amazing locations. It just permeated the whole spirit of the show and gave us this amazing look for the Mongolian world."
Lorenzo Richelmy (left) in a scene from Netflix's "Marco Polo."
Not surprisingly, the battles were the most difficult scenes to shoot. "They involved numerous horse riders, crowd replication and getting all those people into wigs and costumes," Minahan points out. "That’s a big technical thing, and then keeping them all on point was tricky. The fight sequences were challenging but rewarding. It takes time to do them correctly."
Although Minahan acknowledges that "an artistic and commercial endeavor like this can be risky, everyone was so enthusiastic and enthralled by the material. We just wanted to put our heads down and make the best show we could." He believes that the historical drama will resonate with a modern audience.
"I think what's interesting about it is it speaks to globalization. We're telling the story of a warlord who is trying to unite southern China. There's a big overarching storyline there, but the thing that makes it accessible is family. We get to see it unfold through the eyes of Marco Polo. People think of him as someone who brought noodles [to Europe] so it's a big surprise."
"It all goes back to 'Wow, I never knew this about Marco Polo.'" echoes Fusco. "This is an incredible story and an incredible character, and such a rich world of Mongolian and Chinese culture. I want the audience to take away a feeling that they saw something that’s unlike anything else on television."
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