Entertainment & Arts

Marco Polo brings Mongol empire to Netflix

Marco Polo Image copyright Phil.Bray
Image caption Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy stars as Marco Polo in the 10-part series

Following on from the success of its original dramas House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, Netflix is banking on its next series, Marco Polo, being a similar hit.

The adventures of famed explorer Marco Polo in 13th Century China are being told in a new series for Netflix.

Set in Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan's court and with a rumoured $90m (£57m) budget, its epic nature, battle scenes and sexual content has inevitably drawn comparisons to Game of Thrones - although creator John Fusco points out Polo's books came first.

Starring British actor Benedict Wong as Kublai and unknown Italian star Lorenzo Richelmy - who had to learn English while on the job - as the explorer, the drama was filmed on location in Kazakhstan and a purpose-built set in Malaysia.

Best known for penning the Young Guns films, Fusco spoke to BBC News about bringing Kublai Khan's court back to life and his next project - writing the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Image copyright Phil Bray
Image caption British actor Benedict Wong plays Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan

I hear you have a passion for Chinese culture and Marco Polo - this must have been the ideal project for you to work on.

Absolutely! For me it's a confluence of so many interests and passions I've had over the years, bringing together Chinese history and its philosophy, Mongolian culture, warrior horse culture, martial arts and particularly Marco - who I've always been fascinated with.

Where did the obsession come from?

When I was growing up I spent a lot of time reading about ancient China and was really fascinated. You can't dive into that material without encountering Marco and I liked to live vicariously through his accounts and travels.

Then in 2007 I did a horseback trip across part of central Mongolia with my 13-year-old son - we encountered Marco Polo at all these historical places where Mongolian nomads would reference his accounts and his relationship with Kublai Khan.

That's when everything crystallised for me and I thought it was time to explore Marco as a long arc TV series.

Image copyright Phil Bray
Image caption John Fusco (left) has written the script for the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel

This is the first drama series featuring mainly Chinese/Asian actors to be aimed at a Western audience - why do you think it has it taken so long?

It has taken too long really, but I think it's becoming more of a global family. What's interesting is Marco Polo was the earliest bridge between East and West, so I think it's wonderful this show is also bridging East and West in terms of casting.

One of the great things about doing this show with Netflix is they're bold - they allowed us the freedom to cast an unknown Italian in the role of Marco and a largely Asian cast with relatively unknown names. They supported that vision of not casting with names and casting with an authenticity to culture.

How has it been working with Netflix? Would you have had as much creative freedom if it had been made on network or cable TV?

I don't think so. We tried it with another network and the vision for the show wasn't coming to fruition, and so many of the other networks really do want names. There's this risk averse approach to everything out there, so it's a very different game with Netflix.

Image copyright Phil.Bray
Image caption The cast mainly features actors of south-east and central Asian descent

And you probably wouldn't have been able to include some of the graphic sex scenes...

On a lot of the premium US cable TV you can, but the sex in Marco Polo was never grafted onto the show just to follow any kind of trend. We didn't say 'let's throw in some sex now'.

When you read Marco accounts, he has almost an entire chapter about his sexual awakening during his travels and how Kublai Khan gave him a ringside seat to the pleasure dome.

Marco wrote about the tantric approach to sexuality and sexuality as an art form - which took him by surprise - and that's part of the information he brought back to the west.

With your martial arts background (Fusco is a black belt in Shaolin kung fu) was it important to have authentic choreographed fighting in the series?

It was always a part of the vision for the show. Myself and Harvey Weinstein (who executive produces the series) have a shared interest in Chinese cinema and the Wuxia literature that inspired Chinese martial arts films.

I thought we can explore that in a really organic way because Kublai Khan was so interested in bringing the treasures of China into his empire and absorbing it into his culture.

In his accounts Marco talked about being trained by Kublai's court in archery, horsemanship and warfare so it was never going to be a big stretch to incorporate authentic Chinese martial arts.

Image copyright Phil.Bray
Image caption The fight scenes in the series incorporate many elements of wushu kung fu
Image copyright Phil.Bray
Image caption Hundreds of actors were used in the show's battle scenes, filmed in part in Kazakhstan

Was it always the plan to have real people on the battlefields rather than CGI fighters?

It was and what a difference it was to have 300 Kazakh horseman - it's quite an image. You hear the hoof thunder of those horses and it just informs the performance for everybody who's acting in those scenes.

Tell me a bit about the sets you built to create Kublai's court.

[Production designer] Lily Killvert created it from scratch at a studio lot carved out of 55 acres of jungle in Malaysia. We had crew from 27 countries build 51 lavish sets for the court, which was synonymous with luxury and excess.

Lilly did a brilliant job - every morning when I would walk through those sets I would feel like I was in Kublai Khan's world.

Image copyright Phil Bray
Image caption A purpose-built studio recreating Kublai Khan's court was made in Malaysia

You've written the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - do you feel any pressure as people will inevitably compare it to the first film?

When Harvey Weinstein approached me about it I said creating a sequel out of whole cloth would never work and is something I would never want to pursue.

But being a student of Wuxia literature I was aware Crouching Tiger was book four in the Crane Iron Pentalogy. I said if we could take a hard look at book five and not try to be some sort of sensational Hollywood sequel, then I'm definitely interested. So that's what we did.

Book five - which is called Iron Knight, Silver Vase - introduces a new generation of sword heroes and star crossed lovers. I knew a little bit about it, but I had Chinese friends translate for me and then I created a treatment based on those elements.

But grounding it in the source material and with Michelle Yeoh coming back and have master [stunt choreographer] Woo-ping - who was one of the pioneers of the genre - direct it, I felt we were bringing back original elements.

Marco Polo is released on Netflix on 12 December.

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