Back in 2007, screenwriter John Fusco (Young Guns, The Forbidden Kingdom) and his then 13-year-old son went on a horseback trek along the Silk Road. It’s the kind of typical father-son bonding expedition you would expect from Fusco, a mustachioed, cowboy-type who has traveled the South as a blues musician, wrangled wild ponies, and studied the art of Praying Mantis kung fu.
Another passion of Fusco’s is ancient Chinese history, and while he and his son were roughing it with nomads in Central Asia (“I specifically hired a Mongolian guide who specialized in taking journalists off the beaten paths to see the real Mongolia”), Fusco found himself thinking a lot about Marco Polo. The Venetian merchant, after all, spent several years in the area, an account he detailed in his book, The Description of the World. Fusco had lapped the book up when he was younger, feeling a kinship with Polo in part because of their shared heritage: Fusco’s father is Italian.
“So that trip rekindled an old interest and I came away from it wanting to create this series,” says Fusco, referring to the 10-episode period drama he created and wrote, Marco Polo, debuting on Netflix December 12. It’s a strategic play for Netflix, which is in the midst of international expansion and is focusing on projects that cross cultural boundaries. The show begins with the arrival of Polo (played by Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy) at the 13th century court of Kublai Khan, the larger-than-life (literally–as played by Benedict Wong) grandson of Ghengis Khan, who is intrigued by the young Venetian’s powers of observation and description, and so decides to keep him around as a kind of slave-apprentice-curiosity. Lots of sex (which Fusco says is not gratuitous–Polo’s book apparently goes into great detail about Khan’s “Pleasure Dome”), naked kung-fu, and familial back-stabbing ensue.
Harvey Weinstein, who produced the series, has happily compared Marco Polo to the acclaimed HBO period epic Game of Thrones, saying that Marco Polo is the first show on TV to match that series’ production scale. (Marco Polo was executive produced by Ben Silverman and Chris Grant of Electus.) But while the show often feels like Game of Thrones–what with its sweeping cinematography, ornate costumes, and huge cast–it was made for a fraction of the budget. Netflix has not disclosed numbers, but Fusco plainly says, “We did not cost what Game of Thrones cost.”
Fusco went on to elaborate for Co.Create how he was able to achieve the epic scope of Marco Polo with limited resources; how working in TV has taught him to slow down the storytelling process; and how he put up a Polo-ian mantra on the wall of the writers’ room.
In order to get his vision on the screen while staying within the parameters of his budget, Fusco says he had to think creatively and, in some cases, forgo luxury. While shooting in Kazakhstan, whose wide open steppes and big skies served as stand-in for Mongolia, the crew lodged four hours from the set. “We had to travel every day. We hit snow storms and sand storms. It was commitment and just being as resourceful as we could.”
For one of the most dramatic battle scenes between Kublai Khan and his brother Ariq, Fusco had written a complicated and extensive scene involving hundreds of horsemen going at it. But in the end, he didn’t have the budget for it. So he came up with an alternative.
“As scripted, it was like something out of John Woo’s Red Cliff. It was going to be one of the most massive brawls and bloody battles, with intricate fights within the battle. But we looked at it and felt, that’s just not realistic. We have to be resourceful here. We’re not going to be able to pull that off.
“I remember, when they first told me that, the first AD didn’t even show up at the meeting because he didn’t want to see my reaction. When they told me, he was off waiting in the next room, waiting for the news to break before he came out.
“But actually, I just sat down and thought about it and what we all decided was that we were going to just streamline it and make it all about the brothers. Make it mano a mano, with all the men watching. (As filmed, the two brothers have a dramatic swordfight while their Armies look on from the sidelines.) And, actually, now if I could go back and they told me we had the money to do the battle, I wouldn’t change a thing. Because it actually made the scene stronger.
It was a case of finding a creative opportunity in a practical dilemma, he says. “Afterwards, the Marco Polo historian John Man, who’s considered to be the world’s leading scholar on the Mongols, he contacts me after he saw the first two hours and saw that scene, and he said–it’s an email that I save because it meant a lot to me–he said, ‘Wow, it really took me by surprise. Kublai fighting Ariq and the outcome and how it happened. And it just made me feel that the best historical films will often twist the facts to wring out the essence. What you did in that fight scene got down to the heart of the brothers’ rivalry more than would have been captured if you did it some other way.’”
Fusco’s main source for the show was The Description of the World, which the ancient Italians derogatorily referred to as Il Milione or The Million, as in the million lies–they thought Polo had fabricated his wild tales. But keeping with this spirit of invention, the director allowed the writers to expand and augment the stories in the book in order to, as Man told him, “wring out the essence” of Polo’s story.
“I was really inspired by Polo’s accounts and read several different translations of them and then cross-referenced them–the works of Persian and Chinese historians, it’s really been a passion of mine. I back-tracked his stories and the history. But to describe our approach to the source material in the show, I would cite Marco Polo’s last day on Earth, which was January 8, 1324. He was on his death bed in Venice, he was surrounded by his family, relatives, and priests. And they said, ‘You know, all this Il Milione stuff. It’s haunted you your whole life. You have nothing to lose now. You’re leaving this world. This is your chance to recant these fabulous tales or at least set the record straight on what parts you did make up.’ And Marco was reputed to have sat up angrily and said, ‘I haven’t told even half of what I saw!’
“So that became the mantra that I put up on the wall of the writers’ room. And I said, ‘Not only are we going to dramatize the accounts that Marco did write about, but we’re going to explore the things he might have seen.’ So it was this wonderful opportunity. We had this creative license and latitude, always keeping in the spirit of Marco’s voice and the types of interests he did have, and using historical sign posts to hang the story on, but making it an incredibly exhilarating, creative journey.”
Working on a TV series was a new experience for Fusco, who’s written films for nearly three decades. He had to adjust to the fast pace of the production schedule, while slowing down the pace of the storytelling.
“When you’re shooting a TV series–and, for me, I’ve had a 29-year movie career, this is my first real series–you’re running and gunning. You’re on a stopwatch. You have to make your days and you can not luxuriate on takes. I’ve done films where the actors are like, ‘I want another one.’ ‘Okay, we’ll do another one.’ And this was like: Moving on. Those two words describe what it was like. I was usually shooting two units at once, and so I would bounce back and forth between the units. Lorenzo had to work so hard because he’s in almost everything. But as hard as it was, it was exhilarating and kind of addictive. Sunday would roll around and I’d be exhausted but I just couldn’t wait to get back to it Monday.
“Writing-wise, it’s just a different process. In TV it’s more novelistic. You can take your time with story, and I had to learn that you don’t need to burn so much story so quickly. For 29 years, it’s always been about, Okay, how can we convey that by page 12? And by page 105, we need to hit all the character arcs, resolve everything, be done with this. And now it’s like, we’ve got 10 episodes that are like a novel, you can actually go off on certain tangents and you can get into different colors and explore different tributaries. So while the production is driven by the stop watch, the storytelling is more of a slow burn. So that’s been incredibly satisfying and exciting to be able to take that kind of time with story.”