The latest Netflix original series, Marco Polo, premieres next week with all 10 season one episodes available at once on December 12. The show was created by John Fusco, who I met at the press conference for The Forbidden Kingdom. He was on a panel with the cast where I asked Jackie Chan about doing his famous drunken boxing again. After the press conference, Fusco thanked me for asking Chan about the drunken boxing, because it was an important element of the script to him.
I got to catch up with Fusco again by phone. He was in New York having a press day for the Marco Polo series. The show begins with Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) held in the court of Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), learning the skills that will make him the famous explorer of history. One of those skills is Kung Fu, and every episode I’ve seen features some sort of martial arts battle, including a naked one by Olivia Cheng. Get ready to binge on Marco Polo and check out Fusco’s thoughts in this exclusive interview. We’ll have more with the cast of Marco Polo next week.
Nuke the Fridge: Knowing what an interest you have in Asian cultures and history, have you been pitching and developing Marco Polo for a long time?
John Fusco: It’s really interesting because while we were shooting The Forbidden Kingdom in China, I left the set for a while and went with my 13-year-old son up to Mongolia. We did a father/son horseback trek across part of central Mongolia with Mongolian nomads. That came out of a deep interest my son had in Mongolian culture. While I was on that trip, I kept encountering the name Marco Polo. It rekindled a longtime fascination I’ve had with Marco Polo because I always felt an affinity with him. I’m of Italian descent and here was this young Italian penetrating deeper into the mysterious world of China at that time. I always had an interest in Marco. That trip really rekindled it and I left there determined to immerse myself in Marco Polo as a future project and to do it as a longform TV series.
Nuke: Is Marco Polo stealthily a Kung Fu show?
John Fusco: No, and here’s the thing. Harvey Weinstein, he and I have a shared passion for Chinese cinema, Zhang Yimou all the way back to Japanese cinema and Kurosawa. Harvey had always wanted to do Marco Polo as a TV series. When I got back from that trip, I quietly discussed it with a few producer friends and it never went anywhere. Fortunately for me, down the line Harvey approached me and asked me if I knew anything about Marco Polo because he wanted to do this East meets West TV show. I was obviously thrilled, not only told him that I had an interest in Marco Polo but I had a series outlined that I could pitch to him.
So that’s how it started but it wasn’t the tail wagging the dog. It was never, “Oh, let’s do Marco Polo martial arts.” The martial arts were an organic component to the Marco Polo story because we’re talking 13th century China. Marco in his accounts talks about his education under Kublai Khan, how he was trained in languages, letters, archery, horsemanship, Mongolian warfare. All of those things which I know as a martial artist were the traditional scholar warrior training program, Kublai who believed strongly in bringing in the best Chinese advisors and scholars and tutors even for his own sons, would have been very well aware of Chinese martial arts. So we felt it’s really a natural part of this story, but it’s one that we should really explore and explore that Wuxia aesthetic that we’re both interested in.
Nuke: Was it true that Marco had a sensei?
John Fusco: Well, Marco had many tutors, as they called them then. He had a calligraphy tutor, he had his archery tutor. Whoever his combat tutor was, whether he was in the Chinese tradition or not, we don’t know but it’s possible.
Nuke: And you couldn’t resist having a few training montages in Marco Polo, could you?
John Fusco: Oh yeah, yeah. Part of the story of Marco Polo was this fish out of water education. He writes about it himself and it’s just so fascinating I think about this 20-year-old Venetian kid who Kublai Khan is enamored of or intrigued by I should say. Takes him into his court and says, “I want him to be trained and educated like my sons by my full royal bloodline are trained.” There’s always going to be the education of Marco thread that runs through it, so a martial arts piece really felt right to me.
Nuke: I’m sure people are going to be talking about the naked martial arts fight when they see the whole season. Is there a historical basis for that?
John Fusco: No, the historical basis is Mei Lin, this character who was a sister of the Chancellor Jia Sidao. She’s a footnote in Chinese history but what is known is that she was able to use her tool, her standing in the court as an imperial concubine to allow her brother to climb the latter in Song dynasty politics. With that character and this martial arts fight, what I wanted to do was draw on her concubine skills, her ability to charm and seduce and trap men and segue into a lethal martial arts dance. As part of that seduction, she’s luring them in. It’s just like we were talking about drunken Kung Fu, it’s the art of deception. If she’s going to have an advantage against three armed Song dynasty soldiers, what’s it going to be? Her clothes come off, they’re all in and then she turns the tables on them.
Nuke: At the end of episode two, was there actually a Mongol battle that you distilled into a one on one sword fight, or is that how it really happened?
John Fusco: There were several battles between Kublai Khan and his brother Ariq. So that was a composite of some of the various skirmishes he had with Ariq. The one on one was my way of really getting to the truth of that brothers rivalry between Kublai and Ariq. Historically, when Ariq and Kublai had come to loggerheads and they were fighting over the position of Khan, Ariq was mysteriously poisoned. I wanted to put that idea on its feet and really play it out in an action beat, mano a mano, brothers to brothers, make the most of it. The Marco Polo historian John Man saw the scene and contacted me. He said that in his opinion, the best historical films will twist a historical fact to wring out the essence. If you know that facts and the essence, then you can manipulate the facts in a way that really gets to the truth and the heart of something like the relationship between Kublia and Ariq.
Nuke: You introduce bound feet in episode 4. Was that important to you and does that play a larger role?
John Fusco: It was part of the culture at that time. In building the character Jia Sidao, his need to control, it was a really interesting story point that emerged from our talented writers room. I was intrigued by it. It’s a really interesting component to this story.