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On The Set of Marco Polo

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Tom Ellen discovers irate insects and flying fists on the set of Netflix’s new gamble

The praying mantis looks angry. But then, praying mantises sort of always look angry, don’t they? If your natural posture had been co-opted by martial artists to represent the stance that immediately precedes an arse-kicking, you’d always look angry, too. But this one, it’s fair to say, looks especially angry.

It stalks the large wooden desk in the middle of a ludicrously plush red and gold bedchamber, sporadically rising to its hind legs and flailing its pincers wildly. There’s still an hour to go before shooting starts here in Malaysia, and the crew of Netflix’s Marco Polo are beginning to worry. The mantis represents a key part of this afternoon’s scene involving a character called Jia Sidao – a real-life 13th-century lunatic nicknamed ‘The Cricket Chancellor’ (for his obsession with fighting insects, rather than Test Match Special). However, it seems that your average mantis isn’t hugely content to hang about patiently, waiting for lights to be adjusted and camera angles tweaked.

“Working with a mantis is like working with a highly caffeinated child,” notes Chin Han, the actor who plays Sidao, and, as such, works with mantises fairly regularly. This, the crew murmurs, is starting to look like a job for John Fusco – Marco Polo’s creator, head writer and, bizarrely, chief mantis wrangler. “For my black-belt dissertation I replicated Shaolin monk research into praying mantises,” Fusco tells me later. “So, I was raising a few of them in my office. Every now and then, the director calls me on set to say, ‘John, the mantises are squaring off. What can we do to calm them down?’” 

Surly invertebrates, kung fu-fighting writers and a budget reportedly nudging the $90m mark: it’s little wonder that Marco Polo is being touted as a giant roll of the dice for Netflix.

Marco Polo

Director Joachim Rønning on set with Lorenzo Richelmy

Epic scale

You’ve no doubt read countless ‘think-pieces’ over the past year or so trumpeting the idea that Netflix has “changed the way we watch television”. And, fair enough, it has. Now, though, with its seemingly endless flow of exclusive programming, it’s also changing what we watch on television. Not content with reviving the mighty Arrested Development last year, the channel also launched two brand new commercial and critical triumphs in the shape of House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black. This year has already seen the arrival of Will Arnett-powered animated comedy BoJack Horseman, and there’s still gun-toting family drama Bloodline to come in early 2015.

Marco Polo, though, is the company’s most ambitious move to date, by a long way. Based on the writings of the eponymous 13th-century explorer – who left Italy to travel through China via the court of Mongol Emperor Kublai ‘grandson of Genghis’ Khan – the series depicts huge battles, Bacchanalian palaces, sprawling peasant villages and Venice in the 1200s. Everything about it screams ‘big’ – from its location (it christens Malaysia’s new 50-acre Pinewood Studios complex) to its backer: cigar-chomping Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

“Harvey’s very knowledgeable about Chinese cinema and literature,” says John Fusco. “He learned a lot from Quentin [Tarantino]. A while back, he cold calls me with his development people on the line, and says, ‘John, I’ve told everyone here that you know everything about this subject, so don’t make me look bad.’ I said, ‘OK, what is it?’ and he says ‘Marco Polo’. I was thrilled because Marco Polo’s books are a long-time passion of mine, and I’d recently ridden the Silk Road [the trade route Polo travelled, linking China to the Mediterranean] with my son.”

Fusco worked up a treatment, and he and Weinstein brought it to Netflix. “It made so much sense [to do this with Netflix],” says Fusco. “Marco Polo was one of the earliest pioneers of globalisation, the first global traveller. So, to have this show launching in 50 territories at once makes beautiful sense. Plus, to me, long-form TV is like the new great American novel, which is why filmmakers like myself are being drawn to it. Netflix really gets behind your vision”.

Marco Polo

Claudia Kim and Uli Latukefu on set

Pretender to the Thrones?

On set in Johor, Malaysia, the scale of that “vision” becomes clear. Dodging stage-hands carrying armfuls of glinting scimitars, I’m led through what must be some of the most outlandish sets in small-screen history. Most impressive is Kublai Khan’s notorious ‘Hall Of Five Desires’ – replete with an octagonal-shaped marble bed and man-made lily-strewn lake – where Khan indulged in proto-X Factor shenanigans by ‘auditioning’ hordes of young women for potential entry into his harem.

Outside, vast medieval slums have been meticulously recreated, and even have miniature zoos to house cows and chickens. “As you can smell, the animals have just left,” says one producer, cheerfully.

I witness a scene between Marco (Italian newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy) and Kublai (British actor Benedict Wong, who fans of underrated comedy will recognise from Sean Lock’s 15 Storeys High) in which the latter eats watermelon chunks while nonchalantly sending a subject to a grisly demise (“Stuff his mouth with the sh*t of pigs”). Then, it’s off to see a kung fu fight choreographed; an impressive spectacle, despite the fact it basically involves watching one bloke getting repeatedly hurled into various configurations of cardboard boxes.

“Kung fu was a big part of this world, as well as swordplay and court intrigue,” notes Fusco – who, in his spare time as a mantis-rearing Shaolin warrior, spars with Jet Li. “Kublai conscripted the best martial artists, Chinese scholars and Persian engineers into his kingdom. He basically created the first multicultural think-tank.”

With its blend of Machiavellian politics, extreme violence and high-concept sexual intercourse, it’s hardly surprising Marco Polo is already drawing comparisons with Game Of Thrones. Fusco admits it’s a great compliment, but tells me, “I started writing Marco Polo before Game Of Thrones even came out. Harvey and I never said, ‘Hey, let’s do another Game Of Thrones.’ These elements [which are similar to GOT] came out of Marco’s accounts. I’ve read things saying, ‘Oh, this show looks like Game Of Thrones, I bet there’ll even be an orgy,’ and it’s like: ‘I guess someone hasn’t read their Marco Polo!’ Sexual awakening in the mysterious East was a huge part of Marco’s travels, so we push the proverbial envelope in that area.” That octagonal-headed bed suddenly makes more sense.

Ultimately, whether viewers will take to Khan’s empire in the same way they’ve taken to Westeros remains to be seen. What is certain, though, is that the sheer scale and ambition of Marco Polo puts Netflix firmly on a level, not just with HBO and its long-form TV ilk, but even with major Hollywood studios. Its towering sets, epic battle scenes and seemingly bottomless budget represent a very clear siren call to directors that no matter how big their vision, it can now fit the small screen.

As Fusco says, “It’s reported that Marco’s last words, on his death bed in 1324, were, ‘I have not told even half of what I saw.’ That became our motto – I put it on the wall in the writers’ room. We were dramatising not only the rich accounts from his books, but also the things he might have seen.”

Not that there weren’t some limits to this creative scope. As I leave Kublai’s palace, through a huge door adorned with intricate dragon sculptures, a producer tells me, “Marco’s books mention that Kublai had a giant pavilion built on the backs of four elephants. We joked with John, ‘Maybe that’s something for Season 2…’”

Marco Polo launches on Netflix on 12 December

Marco Polo

A fight scene between Marco Polo's Amarsaikhan Baljinnyam and Benedict Wong

(Images: Netflix)

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