On the heels of Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos’ announcement that Netflix will aim to premiere new original content every two and a half weeks, comes the streaming platform’s most expensive series yet: Marco Polo.
This $90 million investment follows the famed Venetian explorer as he arrives in Kublai Khan’s court. Shot in Venice, Kazakhstan and the new Pinewood Studios in Malaysia, the sumptuous large-scale series launches 10 episodes on Friday, December 12, 2014.
Executive Producer and co-show runner Daniel Minahan, who formerly directed episodes of True Blood, Game of Thrones, and Six Feet Under for HBO, talked to MovieMaker about negotiating imagination with historical reality, the casting process, and the freedoms of the “binge” model web series.
Natalie Chudnovsky, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): 10 episodes of Marco Polo will be released on Friday, with the expectation is that people will “binge-watch” them. Did the new model of TV consumption change the way you approached the show?
Daniel Minahan (DM): The idea of people watching multiple episodes in one viewing changes the way you tell a story. We tried to encouraged the writers to remove reiterating exposition. We asked the composers not to repeat themes as you might do in a film, but to do more variation, change instrumentation and key, so that when people watch all the episodes, they have a flow to them and don’t feel repetitive. It also frees you, because you’re not really doing self-contained episodes. It’s more like a literary form—like a book. You can read as many chapters as you want. In a way, it’s really liberating to work in this type of long-form open style.
MM: Do you think this “binge” model would work for an indie filmmaker doing a series, say on Vimeo or some other web platform?
DM: I’d say, why not? It all depends. Every series has its own form and some of them do need to be self-contained, or half an hour long. Marco Polo’s story is based, in part, on his memoir, The Travels of Marco Polo, which is part reality and part fiction. It’s famous for the way Polo embellished his experiences in Mongolia and China. He lived in the court of Kublai Khan for 17 years, so there’s a lot of story to tell.
MM: It’s been said that TV is the new film in terms of production, scale and talent.
DM: I wouldn’t say that TV is the new film, because I wouldn’t even consider this [model] TV. This long-form model may have had a life on TV once, but now it’s on the Internet. I don’t know that long-form series will replace film. I think the two coexist and have different purposes. I love the experience of going into a cinema and sitting there. But what’s unique about web series right now is that people are mounting very large scale pieces, with big production values, like a summer movie. And it’s much easier to reach a larger audience with this form than you might in cinema.
MM: What has changed about the landscape of TV since you’ve started?
DM: I started working in television around 2001, with Six Feet Under at HBO. That was a pretty unique show. It was a very interesting moment in HBO, because they were working with people like Alan Ball, and David Milch on Deadwood, which is closer in form to Marco Polo. Web series is probably the largest development–an evolution in long-form storytelling.
MM: Marco Polo was a global production. How much of that was a business decision?
DM: We were meeting the demands of the story. When I came onto this project, the idea was to shoot in Malaysia in Pinewood studios. But we needed to shoot in Kazakhstan. And Marco Polo’s story begins in Venice, so we went there out of a necessity to tell the story. The empire of Kublai Khan was vast and his court was multinational. People from Persia, China, Southeast Asia–all over. There were engineers, artisans and nobles from all over the world who served in his court. So this necessitated finding actors from all over the world. I’d say the story drove the global aspect of it more than any desire to fit into a marketing niche.
MM: But is the show geared towards an international audience?
DM: I certainly hope it appeals to an international audience. I think that’ll stand on its own merit. And Netflix is in a lot of countries, so it’ll certainly be available to a very wide audience.
MM: This was your first time working with Harvey Weinstein. How did his involvement affect the series?
DM: Harvey is very good at shaping things and pushing you to go to the next level. He was involved early on and when we got to the point of locking picture on an episode, he was very helpful in shooting things off and pushing us towards creative solutions.
MM: What about working with Netflix?
DM: Netflix was great. They gave us a lot of creative freedom. They were there when we needed them. They visited us in Malaysia. They were really there with us every step of the way. They have a great corporate culture–very unique, accessible and encouraging.
MM: There’s a lot of violence and nudity on the show. Was there pressure to produce this content to cater to certain audience demographics?
DM: Well, it is the story of Kublai Khan, who’s the largest warlord in the world at that time. So there’s bound to be violence because he’s conquering entire cultures and there’s lots of intrigue within his kingdom. He’s like a 13th century Scarface. Violence comes with the territory. As far as nudity, we delved into the world of Song dynasty courtesans with one of the main characters, Mei Lin. She’s a famous courtesan favored by the emperor and also a political figure who empowered her older brother. The Hall of Five Desires in Kublai Khan’s court was an actual pavilion devoted to the practice of sex. So we explore that world as well, which was a famous part of Kublai Khan’s pleasure dome. The Mongolian attitude towards sex and sexuality and that point was very unique. Kublai Khan had four wives and a large harem of concubines, so all this stuff is part of the material. There was no formula or request for more sex or violence.
MM: Did you ever feel it was gratuitous?
DM: One of the things I talked about with John Fusco, the creator of the show, was the tone. He wanted to make the sex be unique. What’s interesting the way the Mongolian court practiced sex, it was sort of like kung fu, like a discipline. So we tried to depict it in that way rather than a dark transgressive way.
MM: What were the major differences between shooting on location in Venice and Kazakhstan, versus filming in the new Pinewood Studios in Malaysia?
DM: Shooting on location is like a do-it-yourself epic. Everybody is out there scrapping it together and making it happen. Shooting in Malaysia had its own challenges because of the heat. We had interior sets that were cooled for the most part but we also had a back lot with a village in it. We had a lot more equipment and it was localized, so it was more comfortable.
MM: What about the production process and the pace of shooting each episode?
DM: In a series like this, you have multiple directors. We had five directors for the 10 hours and each of them directed two hours. The way we did it, the first director preps and when they start shooting, the second director starts prepping and so on. It’s a bit more complicated than that because of remote location shoots in Kazakhstan and Venice where we had to share sets, although we tried to avoid it. Part of the prep involves meeting with department heads, talking about specials stunts, sets and effects like blood, explosions, anything you can imagine. All that’s planned out in production meetings. The assistant directors keep it all in order and you hope everything’s in order by the time you get onto set. Each episode was budgeted for about 13 days of shooting. While that’s all happening the editors and assistants assemble all the footage as it comes in. By the time we’re done shooting, there should be a rough assembly of every episode. Then the director comes in and does the director’s cut. After that, the producers take a look at it, make adjustments and then we show it to the studio and the network.
MM: What was the casting process for the leads?
DM: Finding Marco Polo was a really long and arduous process. It started around this time last year and we viewed hours and hours of tape from different casting directors in Los Angeles, New York, London, Australia, Beijing. And we came close a couple of times with an Australian and a British guy, but it never quite gelled right. We decided it really needed to be an Italian actor. We had casting directors put together some auditions in Rome and we started watching tapes from Italy, and we weren’t finding the right person. But John Fusco’s wife pointed out Lorenzo Richelmy – and it was Marco Polo. A lot of the other actors were plying Marco as an ingénue, but Lorenzo played him as a young guy who was ambitious and serious but not afraid to fail. He had this great charming quality about him that fit the mold.
Finding Kublai Khan was remarkably easy. We had tapes of a few people and Nina Gold in London, our casting director, told us that we had to meet this guy. He flew to meet us in Kuala Lumpur. We had lunch with him and he was fantastic. John Fusco pointed out that he looked just like portraits of Kublai Khan. Benedict Wong added 30 pounds of weight once he had the role too. The first day he met us in the lounge of this hotel. John talked him through his thoughts on Kublai Khan. I asked him, “What animal do you think Kublai Khan is?” And he said, “Oh, he’s a bear.” Benedict started prowling around the lounge like a bear, completely getting into this physicality and I think you can see it on screen.
Alik Sakharov, one of our directors, describes Benedict as a young James Gandolfini. Benedict is very humble but his character has a loveable, accessible quality that’s also terrifying, like Tony Soprano.
MM: You were involved in the set design. What was the research process like?
DM: Lilly Kilvert, out production designer did a lot of research. She went to Beijing which is the site of the former Mongolian capital. There really aren’t any depictions of what it looked like, so it’s all based on what we know about Kublai Khan’s tastes and the architects and artisans he employed. Lilly did an amazing job of imagining what that would look like, party based on Chinese architecture and Arabic architecture, as well as Tibetan influence. It’s easier to know what the gers and traditional yurts looked like. Lilly is a world-class production designer so I didn’t have to work that hard. She’ll give you renderings of the set with depictions through different camera lenses. From a wide lens, or a long lens… all the possibilities of the set. We also tried to make continuous sets so you could walk out of the throne room and into the imperial city, and then into the village. It was really exciting to be a part of the team that created that world. MM
Marco Polo is available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, December 12, 2014. All images by Phil Bray for Netflix.