'Marco Polo' brings the court of Kublai Khan to Netflix

Netflix hopes its big-spectacle production of 'Marco Polo' will help it expand into new worlds

At its peak more than 800 years ago, the realm of the Mongols stretched from central Europe to China, from Siberia to the Indian subcontinent, encompassing nearly one-fifth of the planet and attracting Silk Road explorers no less than Marco Polo himself. But no Mongol emperor ever got as far south as the tropics of Malaysia — until now.

Here on a new 50-acre studio built on recently cleared jungle, a crew of about 400 has spent months conjuring Kublai Khan's 13th-century capital. Carpenters and plasterers are piecing together the royal quarters, including a lavish golden throne room, a dungeon and a wood-paneled dojo. Painters are decorating a multi-bed pleasure chamber replete with a hot tub fed by elephant-head fountains.

Peacocks, swans, fish and turtles are due to arrive any day to add some fauna to a courtyard garden, and an insect wrangler is breeding thousands of praying mantises. In the faux slum village, the odor of genuine horse manure hangs thick in the humid air as roast ducks and animal hides bake in the sun. Costumers are working in double shifts to sew hundreds of silken gowns and robes, heavy furs and suits of armor.

All this work is setting the stage, literally, for "Marco Polo" — arguably Netflix's biggest bet yet on original-series programming. An epic action-adventure suffused with court and sexual intrigue, horseback battles and martial arts, the show also filmed on location along the canals of Venice and on the snow-swept steppe of Kazakhstan. The first season of 10 episodes is to debut in December.

"It's a giant adventure. The only thing on TV that matches it, production-scale wise, is 'Game of Thrones,'" said Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co. is producing the series. Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer, refused to discuss the cost but described the series as "work you'd only see on the very big screen. This is hard to do with the business model of conventional television."

Like HBO did with "Thrones," Netflix is putting its money on spectacle rather than big-name stars. Lorenzo Richelmy, the 24-year-old Italian in the title role, has never even had a major English-language part before. Benedict Wong, who's portraying Kublai Khan, is known mainly in Britain as a TV and stage actor. The most familiar face in the series may be Joan Chen ("The Last Emperor," "Twin Peaks"), who's playing Khan's favorite wife, Empress Chabi.

Netflix's reach is increasingly global — the service now has 50 million subscribers in 40 countries and is pushing aggressively into Europe — and so the timing may be right for such an East-West story. But Netflix cannot yet directly leverage the appeal of "Marco's" Asian story and cast into new subscribers in Asia because the service has yet to launch in the region. (Instead, its content is distributed to pay TV and Internet platforms.) Still, "Marco" may help build brand awareness for an Asian expansion.

"Before we even launch in a territory, these shows can be a calling card," Sarandos said. "A good example has been 'House of Cards,' which is on Canal+ in France, but people recognize it as a Netflix show before Netflix shows up in France."

How it began

In 2007, writer John Fusco was tracing the Silk Road on horseback with his 13-year-old son when somewhere between Mongolia and the Mingsha Dunes, the Singing Sands of China, inspiration struck.

"I got the feeling: It's time to do a Marco Polo story," recalled Fusco, an equestrian and Sinophile who penned "The Forbidden Kingdom" and the coming sequel to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," another Weinstein project. "I felt like everything was lining up right because long-form television series were becoming to me like the new great American novel."

Though Marco Polo is familiar around the world, many people know little about him other than that his name is attached to a call-and-response swimming pool game and that he brought spaghetti from China to Italy (a factoid that Fusco, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Italian explorer, dismisses as historical hogwash).

"They have no idea that Marco Polo was basically adopted as a son by Kublai Khan, the most powerful ruler on Earth, the grandson of Genghis Khan," Fusco said. "And that he was trained in the scholar-warrior tradition — in archery, Mongol warfare, Chinese martial arts, languages, letters. He went through this incredible education that was really this cultural awakening."

The Polo story has long interested writers and filmmakers — including a Samuel Goldwyn 1938 production starring Gary Cooper, an elaborate 1982 American-Italian TV miniseries and a 2007 TV film with Ian Somerhalder, BD Wong and Brian Dennehy.

With the backing of the Weinstein Co. and Ben Silverman's Electus, "Marco Polo" was originally developed as a series for Starz, with plans to film in China. After concerns about censorship and other issues scuttled those mainland plans, Silverman said, Netflix came aboard offering to do the show at a higher budget. At the time, Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios was about to open, and "Marco Polo" was able to take over the entire facility — and leverage a generous production incentive.

Though the young Venetian spent 17 years in China, the first season of "Marco Polo" will tell only the beginning of his coming of age among the Mongols — his three-year journey from Venice to Khanbulik (modern-day Beijing) and his first year in the court.

Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, the Norwegian directors of the Oscar-nominated Thor Heyerdahl adventure "Kon-Tiki," are helming the first two hours of "Marco Polo." (Next, they will direct yet another adventure story, the fifth installment of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.)

Marco Polo arrived in the East with his father and uncle at a crucial turning point in history: The 300-year-old Song Dynasty was on the verge of collapse and Kublai was about to become the first non-Chinese emperor of China. But even as the khan was trying to take China, his own people were turning on him in a civil war, upset over what they saw as his increasing softness and excessive Sinification.

Marco Polo eventually recorded his grand recollections of his Oriental sojourn in a jailhouse autobiography, "A Description of the World." His account was so fantastic he was dubbed Il Milone, the teller of a million lies. But legend holds that on his deathbed in 1323, urged to acknowledge his volume as tall tales, he instead declared: "I haven't told half of what I saw."

"I put that up in the writer's room: Our mantra was, 'We are not only telling the half that Marco did write about in his accounts, we are telling the half that he might have seen,'" said Fusco, the show's creator and an executive producer. "It's historical fiction, but the historical signposts along the way keep it rooted in history."

A late casting

Given the series' name, one might assume the show's creative team had found its Marco long before cameras actually started to roll last spring. But Patrick MacManus, co-executive producer of the show, said it actually came down to the wire, with Fusco's wife sifting through recorded auditions last winter and picking out Lorenzo Richelmy's submission for a second look.

"John Fusco called me," said Richelmy, puffing on a cigarette on the set. "He said, 'Can you just go tomorrow to Malaysia?' I was like, 'What? OK, let's go.'"

Despite Richelmy's lack of proficiency in English and martial arts, there was a certain je ne sais quoi about the actor — who resembles a cross between Armie Hammer and Shia LeBoeuf and exudes a certain rapscallion charm — that convinced producers he was right for the part.

"We saw actors from all over the world, great, beautiful actors, but there was a soul that was just a little off," MacManus said. "With Lorenzo, the second we saw him, we saw the soul of his character."

Added Weinstein: "They just rated him on the hot scale, and he flew off the chart. … I have to give credit to John Fusco, and Espen and Joaquim good credit for whipping Lorenzo into shape."

Though Netflix has been keeping plot details under tight wraps, it's clear that the father-son dynamic that develops between Kublai and Marco — and the jealousies their connection arouses —- is a fulcrum in the series.

Marco's father essentially gifts him to the khan, said Wong. "He's a novelty for Kublai — Marco is like this 13th century version of the Internet, the way he can speak and visualize things," said Wong. Gradually, Marco's utility to the khan will go far beyond regaling the emperor with fanciful descriptions of his vast realm.

The khan's interest in Marco engenders a rivalry with Kublai's eldest son, Jingim, played by Remy Hii, who's been told he will one day inherit the kingdom and all that entails. "This is a grand family story," said Hii, noting that just as Marco was abandoned by his father, who set off on another trading mission, "my character Jingim feels the same — an abandonment with his father."

Jingim's mother, Empress Chabi, does not like that this European gets close to the khan, said Chen. "I am a helicopter mom, and I don't want Marco to be any more important than [my son]. But as we go, slowly, I see that Marco loves the khan."

Part of Marco's immersion into the ways of the Mongol realm called for studying martial arts under the tutelage of a blind Daoist monk named Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) — a fictional character. Marco later falls for a princess, Kokachin, who was a historical figure, played by Chinese actress Zhu Zhu.

The couple's love scenes, Zhu said, are "really sexy" but "poetic." Richelmy's Italian heritage and her Chinese upbringing lend authenticity and chemistry to their pairing, she said — though boozing at a Mexican cantina in Malaysia also helped break the ice. "I remember [Richelmy] was very sweet, giving me lots of tequila shots and at the same time taking care of me," she said.

Sarandos said he expects the writing and the relationship drama to hold an audience for the long term. The creators say they have plans for five or six seasons if the show does well.

"The scope of it is enormous. It travels far and wide and is set a long ago time," Sarandos said. "But what's beautiful about it is, it's really rooted in things that people can really relate to — the human storytelling that's happening on the show."

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