The latest journey of Marco Polo has brought the 13th century Italian merchant into the world of 21st century digital entertainment with a dose of '70s kung fu and just a hint of premium cable fantasy.
“Marco Polo,” which premiered on Friday (December 12) on Netflix, has been described as the streaming service's answer to “Game of Thrones,” an expensive epic of warring armies, courtly intrigue and not-insignificant quantities of nudity.
Of course, I'm not making that comparison and neither is “Marco Polo” EP Daniel Minahan.
“The similarity is that there's court intrigue but I think that's about it,” Minahan tells me. “I mean we're set in Mongolia and China; it's the story of a warlord rather than six different kingdoms vying for their throne. There's really big differences in the way 'Marco Polo,' the tone of it and the structure of it. I think the only thing that might be similar would be the scale of it, you know, the idea that we were creating this big spectacle. But that's just what it takes to re-create the Empire of the Kublai Khan.”
But Minahan's presence as producer and director on “Marco Polo” pushes the comparison, since his directing credits including five “Game of Thrones” episodes, as well as installments of some of HBO's other acclaimed shows including “Six Feet Under” and “Deadwood.”
“Marco Polo” represents Minahan's first time as an executive producer, as he's had the opportunity to help shape series creator John Fusco's vision on locations in Malaysia and Kazakhstan bringing, as he says, the Empire of Kublai Khan to life.
I chatted with Minahan this week about achieving the scope and realism of “Marco Polo,” but also about the series' crazier moments, including a naked kung fu set piece that caps the second episode. We discussed the long process that led to the casting of Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy as Polo, plus the shaping of the 10-episode drama for Netflix's binge-friendly audience.
Check out the full Q&A below…
HitFix: What do you think that audiences come into this series knowing or thinking about Marco Polo? The guy, not the series.
Daniel Minahan: I have to be honest, when I came to this I knew absolutely nothing except that he was a historical figure who traveled as a merchant and brought back technologies and things. But I don't expect the average audience person to be any more educated than I was when I started this. I think part of what's really fun is just kind of being lured into this world, this really exotic world that they haven't seen before through his eyes. We kind of described him as an embedded journalist in the court of Kublai Khan.
HitFix: Along those lines, one of the things in the early episodes that defines who Marco Polo is and why he's special is that he's a great observer. And while that's very interesting it's not necessarily a sexy trait, dramatically speaking, so how do you sort of the dramatize that and make it exciting the fact that this guy can watch things very well?
Daniel Minahan: I know exactly what you're referring to that sequence where he's going to all the grain stores and you don't know what it is that he is on about at that point, but I think part of the fun of it is watching him absorb this and then watching how it pays off later. Like for example, he's compelled to tell the truth through his observations, and that has a big impact on him and the court. He kind it stirs up this whole court of Kublai Khan with his observations and Kublai Khan is kind of fascinated by him and entrusts him with certain things. So it's this really ultimate fish-out-of-water kind of story where this guy comes in and shakes up this whole scene.
HitFix: Now what is the balance in terms of treating Marco as on one hand a real person about whom there are actual historical documentations but also the idea that he's also at least a semi-mythological character figure to some degree?
Daniel Minahan: Yeah, I think John Fusco's idea is that we're sort of basing this loosely on “The Travels of Marco Polo,” which are his journals, which are notoriously embellished to the point where he was known in Italy as Il Milione, The Million Lies. So working in this area of story where some of it's fact and some of it's embellishment and was he there or wasn't he there is really kind of fun and exciting for filmmakers because you can be as colorful as Marco Polo.
HitFix: This is a show that obviously aspires to a certain degree of seriousness but then at the end of the second episode there's a bananas naked kung fu scene, what is sort of the balance you wanted to set between semi-realism and kinda bat-s*** crazy, I guess?
Daniel Minahan: Well, I think like ultimately my goal for this show is to make the most entertaining show that I can. And the framework that we've set out is this very real world of the 13th century court of Kublai Khan, the most powerful warlord with the largest empire in the world at that point, seen through the eyes of Marco Polo. So we've got this great framework and then this kind of behind-the-scenes look at a family business with all the intrigue and jockeying for position between the sons. It just so happens that the family business is that they're warlords running a huge empire. So it's sort of a fun mix of history and fiction. I think happens whenever you try to tell a historical story.
HitFix: But then there's just the straight up craziness though that is also there. I mean… Was there historical evidence of the naked kung fu incident that's at the end of the second episode?
Daniel Minahan: No, but John Fusco had this great idea that this is China so there is some sort of early forms of martial arts and kung fu; it's a real tradition in China, so these people would have been fighting. I think the idea – the thought process is, “Okay here is this concubine; she is the favored concubine of the emperor of the Song Dynasty and she happens to be a kung fu master. I think in the original scripts there were fluttering robes and something very poetic about it and then we realized like, “Well, it's really going to be hard to fight in a robe; wouldn't it be great if this courtesan just dispatched these guys naked?” And that's kind of how it came about.
HitFix: When you get down to sort of influences on stuff like that are you looking at the wu xia kind of thing or are you looking almost sort of back to Shaw Brothers to some degree?
Daniel Minahan: We tried to avoid Shaw Brothers movies as a reference, but certainly there we do have a blind monk who's a kung fu master but we tried to keep him as far away from that kind of like drunken monk stereotype as possible. And I think there's a lot of fun with him. He's also kind of badass. So we're playing in all the genres. One of the films that we studied a lot was “Dragon” and “Grandmaster” and we realized that we had this opportunity to do these kung fu sequences and the directors were are all gung ho to do it, but we also had the very real – for example in “Grandmaster,” Master Ping would shoot those scenes for like a week, those type sequences and we had maybe three days. So the challenge was to do sort of like Hong Kong style fight sequences but with our own mark. In some instances you'll see as the season goes on there's definitely homage to other films and you'll feel the influence. We really wanted to work in the genre and reference Chinese cinema whenever possible.
HitFix: Now you come at this from a sort of interesting perspective wherein you have been a writer and a director and now a producer so you've worn all the sorts of hats, whereas John hasn't really done TV so much. How much is your role to sort of make sure that he knows what the limitations are? And what are the limitations at this point?
Daniel Minahan: Well, I try not to think of them as limitations. I feel like John comes at it with this incredible exuberance. He's been thinking about this project for a long time and Marco Polo and martial arts are two really big passions of his. So I just try to take his dream and make it real within the confines that we have, which can sometimes be time, sometimes be budget, other times it's just the practicality of what's possible. John comes from a feature background and it's a different kind of storytelling but he's fallen in. He's also a novelist so John right away clicked into this idea, like, “This is long form; it's a slow burn and it's not unlike the work that I've done as a novelist because I don't have to go back and re-explain every time in every hour, I don't have to re-explain everything with exposition in every hour, that it has a kind of a flow to it.” And the way people watch it is actually like literature. It's like read one chapter, watch five chapters. The way Netflix distributes it is very freeing that way.
HitFix: With Netflix you can't talk about the model without talking about binge viewing. So how did you guys approach the balance of episode-to-episode storytelling versus a full season and the possibility that someone could watch this in a full block?
Daniel Minahan: Yeah. Our executives really made it really clear to us that the way they encouraged people to watch it is you could watch as little or as much as you want to at a time. So with that in mind we had to think of it as sort of like a 10-hour film. So you don't want to double back on yourself; you don't want to have to reiterate story lines; you are assuming that the audience is watching it in sequence, in order and you don't want to repeat, for example, musical themes. Like suppose The Blue Princess has a theme, you want to make sure that it's not repetitive. In a 90-minute film you could get away with doing that to great effect, but after 10 hours if people are watching three hours at a time, it can begin to feel repetitive and boring or cheap. So I think you really encourage the composers to change the instrumentation, transpose it in a different way so it feels the same but it feels fresh. There's a lot of considerations for things like that.
HitFix: You could have approached Marco Polo's story as sort of a globe-trotting family adventure and you guys didn't go down that road. You cut off sort of the younger portion of the audience, why did you decide that this was an adult story per se?
Daniel Minahan: When I came onto this project John had the majority of the scripts written with his team of writers. The idea was always to get as quickly to the court of Kublai Khan as possible. I think it's the most surprising part of the story. It's the most interesting part of the story. I think there's probably been a member of films and television movies about the journey of the Polo family across the Silk Road and the hardships they encountered. That just wasn't as interesting to us. It was really clear, especially when we started cutting it together, that Kublai Khan was going to be one of the major darlings of the story and it was really compelling and our idea was to focus it as much as possible in that world.
HitFix: Much has been made of sort of the difficulties of finding your Marco Polo. What was hard, what was the edict in casting and what made Lorenzo the right person?
Daniel Minahan: We had had a couple of near misses with other actors, one was a British, one was Australian, very fine actors, but when we got them in a room and started working with them and with the actresses that we were considering for the Blue Princess, there just wasn't this energy. And somehow like a British dialect always sounded strange to us. Then after like a month or two we realized that we need to go deeper and we asked our Nina Gold, our casting person, to get us the casting person in Rome and start putting people on tape for us. We said, “It's got to be someone Italian to give it some flavor.” It's a very international world that we're depicting. Suddenly it becomes kind of theatrical if everyone has a British accent or doing a British dialect. We looked at a lot of people. No one really came forward right away and it's like one of those Lana Turner in Schwab stories. We thought we'd seeing everyone and then someone went through all the tapes again and we had overlooked this one guy and that was Lorenzo. And the next morning everybody looked at it and we were blown away. And he came down to meet with us in Malaysia like two days later and it was just one of those moments where it was so clear with him he was so witty, he was charming. He wasn't playing it like a guileless kind of ingénue, he was like this ambitious young man and we like that about him.
HitFix: And people have talked about this as a Netflix's attempt to do a “Game of Thrones” as it were. You obviously come from a perspective where you know what works and doesn't work on “Game of Thrones.” How would you say this is similar and what sort of clear distinctions would you make other than one has dragons and one does not?
Daniel Minahan: I think there's a really different kind of story we're telling here, whereas “Game of Thrones” is a huge ensemble cast with many different worlds. We're pretty much in one world and experiencing it through the eyes of a single protagonist. And especially the first season is sort of about his coming of age in that court. The similarity is that there's court intrigue but I think that's about it. I mean we're set in Mongolia and China; it's the story of a warlord rather than six different kingdoms vying for their throne. There's really big differences in the way “Marco Polo,” the tone of it and the structure of it. I think the only thing that might be similar would be the scale of it, you know, the idea that we were creating this big spectacle. But that's just what it takes to re-create the Empire of the Kublai Khan.
HitFix: This goes back to sort your role in knowing what you can and can't do. What have you sort of hit as the limitations like in terms of the number of extras you can have or in terms of the scale of the set? What can you not functionally depict at this point?
Daniel Minahan: We're pretty ambitious in this season and we even staged a battle, that was maybe the most challenging thing that we did and we staged in Southeast Asia. And that was a big challenge. There weren't a lot of horses; we were trying to use authentic horses that they would of had in Mongolia. So in Kazakhstan we had a huge number of background people and horses as you saw in the second episode where Kublai Khan challenges his brother Ariq and they go and they have their fight. I think it's hard to imagine. We managed to do a ship. We managed to create a sandstorm. I'm sure there were things – I'd say naval battle would be one place where I would draw the line. It's something that I would rather not do a naval battle anytime soon, that may be just beyond the scope of our possibility right now.
HitFix: How does Netflix impose itself I guess in the process differently from how an HBO or whatever might?
Daniel Minahan: You know what, they are very encouraging. They give you a lot of creative freedom. This is my first time working as an executive producer on a show so I can't really compare how they relate to other, you know, how HBO maybe treats executive producers. I only worked as a director there. So I just think Netflix was great. They were there with us shoulder-to-shoulder like on location. They were in Malaysia with us, they were in Venice with us and they were very helpful when we needed it. They're really good filmmakers, they're smart.
HitFix: Had you been looking for the right project to get into on the executive producing side as you say?
Daniel Minahan: I'd been offered a number of times to work as an EP or producing director on different series, premium cable and network stuff and I resisted it until now because it wasn't the right thing for me and this one came forward and I just thought it was remarkable. I knew it was really ambitious and I knew it would be really hard but I was so blown away by the world it was depicting that I had to do it.
HitFix: Where does the first season take us historically and what is the multi-season plan if you guys had your sort of druthers?
Daniel Minahan: Wow. I'd rather not say what happens at the end of the first season. Kublai Khan, it's very clear in the beginning of the first episode he has his sights on unifying China, and in particular the final piece in the puzzle for him is Xiangyang and the Song Dynasty and this wall that his grandfather Genghis to wasn't able to defeat 30 years earlier. So it's clear we're leading in that direction at this season. What happens in other seasons, if we're lucky enough to get a second and a third season there are any number of stories and directions it can go. We have Kublai Khan who's on a mission to create this huge empire but we also have Marco Polo who lives in the court of the Kublai Khan for 17 years so there's a lot of story to tell.
HitFix: Did he invent spaghetti?
Daniel Minahan: [He laughs.] I would say no he did not, whether or not – the interesting thing about Marco Polo is that because he traveled that route of the Silk Road it was a very important route because it brought back artisans, technology, goods of course, but it linked all these different worlds. And these merchants kind of were like moving ideas back and forth so he would have been really influential and the people that traveled the Silk Road would have been very influential because they would of have access to the best architects in Damascus, the best whatever in China. It was a very rich resource and brought back important things and ideas to Europe, like paper money was something that came back from Mongolia and China to Europe.
HitFix: I just wasn't sure if Season 7 was going to be entirely dedicated to linguine and the swimming pool game?
Daniel Minahan: Exactly. You know, I still don't understand or know the genesis of that swimming pool game so that would be a really interesting thing to learn.
HitFix: Well, if you don't teach us who is going to teach us?
Daniel Minahan: Exactly.
“Marco Polo” is now available on Netflix.