Netflix’s latest original series, Marco Polo, sets sail on Friday 12th December. We sat down with Executive Producer Dan Minahan to talk the challenges of casting, the shift in television drama in the VOD age and what makes Netflix’s mindset different.
It’s evident even from the trailer that Marco Polo is big, from the size of the show to the sets, visual style, and the absurdly huge cast. As Dan’s previous work involved HBO’s Game Of Thrones and, much earlier, Six Feet Under, the first topic broached is the changing landscape of storytelling.
“I made a feature and then I started working for HBO and I really liked it, I learnt so much,” Minahan says.
“I got to work with interesting writers, and I was really turned on by the different style of storytelling, the slow-burn of stories. We’re working on a 10-hour… well, it’s a series, but we’re working on a 10-hour film, in this case, because of the production value and the story that we’re telling. Each episode is not self-contained, they’re not thematic episodes, they don’t have a beginning, middle and end. It’s not resolved, it’s more of a novelistic approach. It unwinds, and that’s really exciting for filmmakers.”
“He came in in a Hawaiian shirt and became Kublai Khan!”
More recently, there has also been a shift from procedural, tune in-tune out stories to the arching plots of new series, which revel in the habit of binge-watching. How does Marco relate to that?
“I wouldn’t call it binge-watching, but it’s like a novel. If someone told you you could read one chapter, what if you’re really digging it? I want to read two chapters, three chapters. I have done that, I’ve watched excessively. I think I watched that series Rome when it came to box-set. I had all the box-sets for some reason so I watched it all and couldn’t stop over a day and a half!”
Rome has more influence than you might expect on Marco Polo, from the scope to the kind of aesthetically grand work you now find on the small screen.
“This is on a par with that in scope,” agrees Dan. “I loved Rome. In fact, the reason I hired John Maybury, who directed our finale on this show [was] because of his work on Rome. He did one of the Cleopatra episodes, where they’re traveling – you don’t know they’re traveling, but they’re in this room and everything seems to be swaying like wind – and then Marc Anthony and Cleopatra start making love and they cut outside, there’s all these slaves carrying the room in the desert. And also the one, I forgot the character’s name, Polly Walker was the dark-haired one, anyway, this woman puts a curse on them. He did what I consider some of the best hours of premium cable. I’m a big fan of his.”
Think big. That’s the advice Dan gave to the production team, including Maybury.
“People worked their asses off! When the directors came I had to sit each one of them down and say “This is a Do-It-Yourself epic, here’s all the tools, don’t go too crazy, there’s certain rules, but think big.”
“It’s a spectacle… the scope of it is really impressive.”
The show’s production has been equally vast, taking in a range of locations.
“We only had so many sets,” explains Dan. “We actually started filming in Kazakhstan first, so we did all of our exteriors first, which was backwards. Most shows, Game Of Thrones, we would start in studios, everyone would shoot in studios and then we’d all move to Morocco, we’d all move to Dubrovnik, to Iceland… In this case, we got a late start and we had to build a serious amount of sets, so they were built while we were traveling.
“They started them while we were there, prepping, and they were built while we were on the road, in Venice, then in Kazakhstan. When we came back the sets were ready, miraculously. It’s crazy that they were ready. And then we shot everything on the stages. It was good because, for the actors seeing Kazakhstan, which we doubled for the Mongolian Steppe, [it] just gave you a sense of ‘oh, that’s what’s outside these doors’. They didn’t have to make believe. That was cool.”
The cast is very international too. The first focus for us is discussing Benedict Wong’s involvement, a great character actor who looks to have an impressively meaty part. After enthusiastically listing off all his works between the two of us, Dan discusses the casting process in detail.
“There are literally 250 speaking roles!”
“We cast in Los Angeles, New York, London, Sydney and in New Zealand, and in Malaysia. We did pick up cast in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur. The first time we met Benedict was Kuala Lumpur, he was visiting his family in Hong Kong and flew in to see us. He was amazing, we knew it was him immediately. We were in a lounge in a hotel and he started embodying… The way he works, I personally love it, because I don’t want to talk it to death. I’m a ‘show me’ kind of guy, and he just showed it. He came in in a Hawaiian shirt and became Kublai Khan!
But Benedict was only one role in a sea of them. How big exactly is Marco’s ensemble?
“I think we had 12 featured regulars, which is big. There were literally 250 speaking roles! I know because I cast them all. That was hard. Finding them in South-East Asia, where it’s not the biggest pool of actors. It was very challenging, but it was fun. I love actors. We had major casting directors, Christine King in Australia, she casts everything in Australia – she discovered Heath Ledger. We had PoPing [AuYeung] who is the largest casting director in Asia – she casts Wong Kar Wai movies and The Last Emperor, she’s been doing it forever. She was great, and I spent a lot of time with her in Singapore casting the other speaking roles.”
How long was casting?
“At least four months! There is a lot of sleepless nights, and morning spent just watching auditions and auditions and auditions.”
For Dan, it seems like the journey never stopped.
“Since I came back from Malaysia, when I shot my episodes, I had to go back to New York because our editing facility was there, and I’ve been editing up until two weeks ago, so we finished in August and we edited all the way through.”
“Netflix have a different vibe from other networks… they don’t have the pressure of ratings numbers.”
Now it’s finished, how does he hope it will play to audiences?
“I took it very simply. I just wanted to make the most entertaining, stimulating show that I could, and hope that audiences see it that way. I hope that people are astounded by it. It’s a spectacle, the scope of it is really impressive, but I think it’s really well drawn and the performances are really good. At the heart, it’s a domestic drama, a behind-the-scenes story of an empire. It’s like The Sopranos with Mongolian people.”
It’s a good pitch. So what was it that Netflix saw in the show that other outlets didn’t?
“They just have great taste and are iconoclastic,” says Dan.
He reveals that some of Netflix’s executives used to be at HBO – “they hired all the young people… they’re really clever” – and praises the company for having “a different vibe” from other networks he’s worked with.
“[They’re] hands-off but give good notes when you need them,” he explains. “They’re just really encouraging. It’s interesting.”
He described Netflix’x team as “very artist-friendly”, unlike other networks, which tend to be “more intense and fearful”.
“I think for one thing they don’t have the pressure of selling advertising, they don’t have the pressure of having to have ratings numbers. I’m sure they’re very much aware of how many people are viewing when it’s released, but Orange Is The New Black relied on word-of-mouth for it to become popular. That’s a very modern way to do it, for stuff that’s streaming and the way people watch things now. I think in that case, it takes a lot of the pressure off. I’m sure they do not want to make a bad show, but they’ve given us a lot of support and assured us that we’re doing the right thing.”
“It’s like a novel. If someone told you you could read one chapter, what if you’re really digging it?”
Does Dan stream anything himself? “I stream films on Netflix, I’ve not delved into Amazon at all, I stream series on Netflix, I watch HBO Go, which is their own version of all their shows on a system. Youtube, Hulu… I loved Portlandia, that was great, but that became a network show afterwards. The Scandanavian show about the female prime-minister, Borgen, I liked Borgen. I couldn’t watch The Killing, it was too disturbing for me.”
“As a director, it’s hard for me to go home and watch stuff,” he admits. “I really like to read and I like to go to the movies… although now, I’m finding it hard to sit through movies. All of a sudden movies are three hours long and I’m like ‘why?’ I feel like a teenager, I need to text. It’s funny. Because I sit in front of monitors all day, I think I’m not the most common – well, we all sit in front of monitors these days, so what do I know?”
Marco Polo arrives on Netflix on Friday 12th December. Click here to watch the trailer.