Winter 2015

A Really Big Show

With the 13th-century adventures of Marco Polo, a skilled group of directors gets a chance to make the kind of grand-scale epic rarely seen today. But not for theaters—it’s for Netflix.


DGA Quarterly Marco Polo Maybury
DGA Quarterly Marco Polo Roenning
DGA Quarterly Marco Polo Sandberg
DGA Quarterly Marco Polo Petrarca
DGA Quarterly Marco Polo Minahan
INTO THE WILD: (top to bottom) Directors John Maybury, Joachim Roenning (right) and Espen Sandberg, David Petrarca, Alik Sakharov, and director-producer Daniel Minahan on set and on location for Marco Polo. The 10-part series was shot in Italy, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia. (Photos: Phil Bray for Netflix)

Directors who yearn to practice their craft on the scale of the classic epic cinema of yesteryear have reason for new hope, and it comes from an unlikely direction. Episodic television is developing an appetite for global spectacle, often produced for networks that didn’t exist in the heyday of filmmakers like David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) and Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments).

The latest example comes from streaming channel Netflix, making a bold play with its original series Marco Polo, about the 13th-century explorer who helped connect Europe to the exotic East and the kingdom of Kublai Khan by way of the Silk Road. The 10-episode first season was filmed on locations in Italy, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia and cost a reported $90 million—approximately $30 million more than HBO’s outlay for the initial season of fantasy epic Game of Thrones, the global audience for which has apparently paved the way for this gamble. Other pay cable networks have also done well mixing panorama and period pageantry with modern-day doses of nudity and violence. Starz, currently making season two of pirate adventure Black Sails in South Africa, is building on the success it enjoyed with three seasons of Spartacus, while Showtime ventured to Hungary to re-create Renaissance Rome for the three-season run of The Borgias.

What kind of skills does it require to pull off storytelling vivid enough to attract viewers while also creating cinema-sized spectacle at a television pace, leading international casts and crews, and navigating mind-boggling logistics in far-flung locales? To find out, we tracked down the six directors—all DGA members—responsible for making Marco Polo. Reflecting the international nature of the project, they were based everywhere from Norway to London to New York and Venice Beach.

Daniel Minahan (Game of Thrones, Deadwood) hired the other directors in his capacity as executive producer-director, along with series creator John Fusco and others. He also directed two episodes. The Norwegian co-directing team of Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg were brought on to helm the pilot and the second episode based on the epic scope and classic feel of their oceangoing adventure film Kon-Tiki (2012). Alik Sakharov (Black Sails, Game of Thrones), David Petrarca (Game of Thrones, True Blood), and John Maybury (The Borgias, Rome) each directed two episodes. This is what they had to say about their adventures on the Silk Road.

Q: What did you look for in choosing directors to hire?

Daniel Minahan: People with a great visual sense, who had worked on something of this scale before. This is a big thing to entrust someone with, and a first-season show is very tricky. Alik Sakharov was a cinematographer on The Sopranos for almost the entire run, and then he became a director. We met several years ago on Game of Thrones, where he directed a number of episodes. He has a beautiful way of setting shots with a very strong intention; there’s not a wasted shot, everything moves the story forward. John Maybury is a British director who’d done beautiful work on Rome and also on film. David Petrarca comes from a theater background—one of his episodes [the ninth] is what we call ‘a bottle show.’ It’s all interiors; it takes place in a palace. I knew he would make that sing. He has a great facility for finding scope and scale in even the smallest scenes.

Q: How did you go about setting a template for the other directors, given that all the episodes, including the pilot, were done on an overlapping schedule?

Joachim Roenning: We told them exactly what to do. [Laughs]  No. It was very fortunate for us, being the new kids in the TV world, to get to work with these amazing directors. So we didn’t feel we should waltz in and say how they should do something, but we did write and distribute a style bible—a piece on how we’re envisioning the show.

Espen Sandberg: It covered the visual style, the fighting style, the acting style, everything. We tried to make a road map so it would feel consistent throughout.

Roenning: Then there was a collaboration, a dialogue with everybody.

Q: What kind of dialogue?

Alik Sakharov: We were getting these very inspiring talks and encouragement from the creators and producers: ‘Guys, go out there and make cinema. Forget about TV. Be like Kubrick. We like unconventional. Do the cinematic. Be filmmakers.’

David Petrarca: They said, ‘Let us see a strong point of view.’  I loved that. I did a number of scenes in one shot. In the premium cable world, you don’t have the same restrictions you have in other television—you’re making a movie.

Roenning: The producers wanted The Lord of the Rings—that kind of scale—and that’s a tall order. We were all under time pressure. We had 35 days to shoot our two hours. That’s a lot in TV, but this was big; we had Mongolian armies fighting it out, hundreds of effects shots. When we started shooting, we were alternating days and nights on the same sets [with the other episodes], so Espen and I didn’t even break for lunch at the same time [as the other directors]. Sometimes during lunch we got to see rushes from the other units.

Q: You also had to schedule major location changes. How did the shooting progress in that regard?

Minahan: We did it backward compared to a typical series, because we were still building sets in Malaysia while we were out shooting in Italy and Kazakhstan. When the sets were ready, we moved to the soundstage, and directors would overlap in a given week while they shot parts of each episode.

Sakharov: We cross-boarded everything and shot the big, scopey portions in Kazakhstan, using that expansive, cinematic location as fully as possible, because we knew we’d get confined to the studio in Malaysia, where we’d do our chamber setups. The way the schedules were built was similar to Game of Thrones, where on a given day you have two or three directors shooting what they need.

Roenning: We started in Venice, Italy, which was great. For Espen and me it was very important that we not end up on a green-screen stage—that would have been a deal breaker for us. We wanted that authenticity, to have Marco in the canals, on the streets and rooftops of Venice. A lot of those shots are VFX-heavy, but they still have that realism and sense of history. Another discussion was about where we were going to shoot the Mongolian steppes, the grasslands. The production was hoping for a long time that we could do everything in Malaysia. There came a day where we were scouting a golf course there, and I said, ‘This is just not going to work.’ [Laughs]

DGA Quarterly Marco Polo
DGA Quarterly Marco Polo
AIMING HIGH: (top) Although he directed battle scenes that are “as huge as can be,” Maybury kept his sights on individual performances; (bottom) Norwegian directing team Roenning (left) and Sandberg say it’s the contrast between big and small scenes that makes an epic work. (Photos: Phil Bray for Netflix)

Q: The consensus seems to be that shooting in Kazakhstan was an incredible experience. Very little had been shot there before.

Sakharov: It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. We were four hours from any major city, and about 45 miles from the Chinese border. A vast, vast land that was absolutely untouched, as far as you could see in any direction. It’s inspiring, and very conducive to telling the story, because through the lens, in that landscape, the images stand out. There’s a beauty and poeticism to the landscape that really lends itself to storytelling.

Roenning: But it was tough. The location was two hours’ drive each way from our hotel, on a daily basis. On roads so horrific that you couldn’t read or sleep because it was so bumpy. And when you travel 20 minutes outside any city there, you go back a thousand years in time. Things like phone reception and electricity to run the production, or Internet to approve of stuff that was being built in Malaysia at the same time—those things were really tough to get. What you can get through customs is unreliable, and we had to transport weapons—1,000 swords. We might as well have shot on the moon; it would have been easier. But the location—oh, my god! It was so worth it. I think it really shows on the screen that we were somewhere extraordinary.

Q: It’s thrilling to see the shots of people racing over the grasslands on horses.

Roenning: You need those shots for a production like this. The Mongols are great horsemen. You can’t shoot that on a golf course.

Sakharov: We had wonderful horse wranglers; these Kazakhs had been on horses since they were three years of age. I had a scene with a stunt double where he jumped on a horse from a standing position and took off at a gallop. It was so fluid. The animals and the people manning them move together with no sense of struggle. If you want something like this, you have to go to the corner of the world where people can do it.

Q: How much of a challenge was it to communicate with the crew, given that so many languages were spoken?

Sakharov: I grew up in Russia so I didn’t need a translator with the Kazakhs, because the Russian language is still very big there. My DGA AD, Barrie McCulloch, is Scottish and lives in Spain presently, and his second was from Australia. For the work in Malaysia, they brought in some AD personnel from Singapore who could speak the language.

Minahan: I think we counted 32 different countries that comprised our crew. I don’t speak Kazakh or Chinese or Malay, so we had to count on our ADs and their people to do that. On my episodes we had a local AD who was Kazakh. She became the interpreter for all the Kazakh background actors, and other times we’d bring in someone who spoke Chinese or Malay. But everyone was super-attentive, and they all understood the word ‘Action!’ There was a lot of shouting, and then we’d shoot. [Laughs]

Q: Marco Polo was [the] first production shooting in the new Pinewood Studios Malaysia. What was that like?

Roenning: It was a great sensation to step onto brand-new wooden studio floors without so much as a speck of paint dropped anywhere. But the challenge is that there’s no infrastructure yet. We had to fly in all the equipment, all the crew, all the talent. That takes a lot of planning and a lot of airfare. But once we had it all together it was fantastic. We had the whole facility, four or five soundstages, to ourselves, with 1,000 people working for us and two units going at the same time.

Q: What were the key emotional scenes in directing the pilot?

Sandberg: The most obvious is the one where Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) is given away to the Khan (Benedict Wong) by his father. It’s the heart of the story, in a way, and it’s very important for the audience to make an emotional connection to Marco. Joachim and I build up to it, and when we get there, we need the audience to be right there with him. He’s been looking for his father all his life, and now he’s being given away. But he does get sort of a new father figure in the Khan. So we needed to make the Khan stand out as interesting in that scene, even though he doesn’t speak much. We’re establishing lots of other characters at the same time, and there are about 200 people in that room, but it’s key to remember that in that scene, it’s all about Marco and the Khan. Another key scene is when Marco first encounters and surprises the Blue Princess (Zhu Zhu). It’s the beginning of the love story, and we need to feel how they affect each other.

Q: What was your visual approach for the pilot?

Roenning: It’s like a roller coaster—we spend all our money on the big, epic shots, and almost none on the interior, dialogue-driven scenes. It’s a dynamic way of spreading out the money. Also, we wanted it to feel contemporary. Yes, it’s epic and classic, but we wanted to do a rawer, more handheld version of the Marco Polo story. We shot everything on three Sony digital cameras, and I operated one. The handheld really gave energy to the scenes. We didn’t have to change film, so we could have 20-minute takes, just keep rolling. We storyboard everything, to a certain extent, but on this show, the pace was so hectic that it was more like diagrams. On a day-to-day basis, when we had the floor plan of the camera angles, Espen and I would sit down and discuss what we wanted to do before we began shooting.

Q: How did you prepare the fight scenes?

Minahan: It’s a big deal, preparing people to fight like that and know what they’re doing. We tried to set some rules for the fight scenes in the series; we wanted them to be earthy and authentic, rather than too balletic. I love a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but the idea [in Marco Polo] was to be less fantastic, more real. One of the episodes I directed [the sixth], culminates in a very big martial arts fight. I’d done a lot of fight sequences before, but never kung fu. We tried to honor the traditions of Hong Kong fighting but give it some of our own rules.

Sandberg: All of the actors trained so hard for the fight scenes. It was hours and hours a day, on top of an exhausting shooting schedule of 12-hour days. And the training camp was in Malaysia, where it was so hot. They lost a lot of weight. If they were asked to perform nude, they didn’t mind. [Laughs]

Q: You made an interesting choice at the end of episode two, where the armies of Kublai Khan and his brother Ariq assemble and prepare to fight each other. But rather than charging, the two leaders engage in hand-to-hand combat.

Roenning: I love that, because it goes against what the audience expects. But it was for budgetary reasons, to be honest. We had only a certain number of days that we could afford to shoot in Kazakhstan. A full battle sequence like that would take a week, at least. I imagine that in The Lord of the Rings they have three weeks to shoot them. So the writer, John Fusco, sat down and said, ‘Let’s make this fight more personal.’ I think there are a lot of examples in movie history where good things come out of restrictions.

DGA Quarterly Marco Polo
DGA Quarterly Marco Polo Petrarca
WARRIORS: (top) Sakharov, who started his career as a cinematographer, says he is most comfortable working on a large scale; (bottom) Petrarca knew how to move crowds around and find the emotion of a scene from having directed Shakespeare history plays. (Photos: Phil Bray for Netflix)

Q: Was it difficult to deal with the budget limitations and still achieve your goals?

Sandberg: We’re from Norway, so we’re used to it. [Laughs] We’ve done a couple of movies in Norway that look epic, even on a small budget. Again, it’s the contrast between big and small scenes that makes it work.

Roenning: Scandinavian features are kind of in the same budget range as American cable TV. For the first two hours of Marco Polo, we had the same budget that we had to shoot Kon-Tiki, which is also two hours. Whereas Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, which we’re working on now, is $300 million. Even then, you’re always in a squeeze somehow. There’s never enough for what you want to do.

Q: Alik, which scene in your episodes was most challenging?

Sakharov: Episode four is more of a chamber episode, more conversation-based, but it builds to a climax at the end, where a Chinese opera is presented to Kublai Khan, and it’s part of a montage with three other layers: one where prisoners are released to go back to mainland China; another where Jia Sidao (Chin Han) does something very unnerving that involves a child; and another where Jia Sidao’s sister Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng) is summoned by Kublai’s wife (Joan Chen) and they engage in a sort of sexual game. The evolution of those layers and how they lead to the ending was not daunting, but it was challenging. I think we did quite well with it.

Q: David, in episode nine there’s a big scene where Marco is brought before the Khan to beg for his life. It goes on for five pages, all set in the Court of Kublai Khan. Can you describe how your theater background helped you stage that?

Petrarca: Having staged a lot of the Shakespeare history plays that involve court scenes with a big scale and scope as I did, you learn how to move a lot of people around, how to bring out the emotionality of the scene while at same time creating a sense of how the court functions, where the power structure is. To do a five-page scene with that many people is a big assignment. I started from the interior life of Marco, what he would feel in that moment. From there you find the structure, where the looks between people go, where the moments land, where the camera shots are. I always start from an interior, psychological place, and from there I adjust the staging for the camera.

Q: By contrast, episode seven, which you also directed, involves some really epic-scale scenes, such as when Marco travels to the Song dynasty to witness the coronation of a boy emperor.

Petrarca: But again, you’re seeing that world through Marco’s eyes—the sense of wonder he has when he first arrives at the wall and enters the city. So many elements are at play in an episode like that, and as a director you have to establish the point of view, and decide things like how much will be visual effects and how much will be real. For me as a director, these two episodes were wonderfully complementary in that I got to use all of my skills in different ways.

Q: John, you directed the eighth episode and also the season finale, which includes the battle that all the action has been building toward. How did you handle that?

John Maybury: It’s a massive battle sequence in which the Mongol horde is attacking the Song dynasty. It’s about as epic and huge as it can be, but what’s just as important is that it involves some kind of payoff for all of the male lead characters, so there’s still performance at the center of it all. I asked the producers to bring on an action unit so I could delegate portions of it. I got a fantastic second unit and I gave them [a] template to work from, and it left me free to get the performances that I was all about. When you’re facing something like this, it’s also important to realize that you’re part of a massive team and they’re all working toward the same goal. So it’s really a matter of orchestrating it, so that everyone is on the same page.

Q: Do you take your inspiration from film, or television, while doing this kind of work?

Sakharov: Always from filmmakers. When I was growing up, the biggest influence for me was Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the poets of Russian cinema, the way he could tell a story without dialogue, but with beautiful imagery. I love Kubrick, and Antonioni. And Kurosawa, who is such a beautiful panorama builder. I found myself gravitating toward Kurosawa’s style of composition in Marco Polo, but also in Game of Thrones, and some of the setups in Black Sails. I try to keep the compositions on the open side, and hopefully people watching on the bigger screens now will benefit from it.

Maybury: The reference point for me was Kurosawa, the movies he did in the ’50s and ’60s, where the epic aspects were really just framing devices for brilliant performances by the actors. To me, there was nowhere else to look.

Q: What was different about making this series for Netflix, compared with HBO or other networks?

Minahan: You’re aware that they release the episodes all at once, and people watch it differently, so we treated it as one 10-hour film. On a series, you reiterate and repeat, to set things up over again, but Netflix discourages you from doing that. You don’t have to go back, or overexplain. It’s liberating. They don’t have rigid time constraints—episodes can be the length they need to be. But I still tried to keep each episode under the 60-minute mark, so that people could watch them in one sitting.

Q: When you began directing television, did you imagine you’d ever get the opportunity to work on this kind of scale?

Petrarca: It didn’t really exist. Back in 1996 when I came in, the networks were still the big thing. That television could be done on this scale came as a surprise to me and a lot of people, but it’s a great surprise. I’d imagined television being a gateway to film, but now I find that what’s getting made in the film world can’t compete with what you can do on premium cable.

Maybury: What’s exciting for me is that HBO and Netflix are operating like massive studios doing massive productions. It’s like working in the old Hollywood system of the ’30s and ’40s, which is a period of cinema I’m obsessed with. It’s like a fantasy for me. I come from the arty, independent side of the film world. When I worked on Rome for HBO, the set they built at Cinecittà was the biggest ever constructed for a television production at that time. I had a scene with 300 extras, and I was asked how many camels and elephants I’d need—for a 20-second shot. If you saw some of my early, very modest filmmaking efforts, you’d find that hilarious.

Sakharov: My first episode as a director was on Rome, for HBO, so I did not start small. That episode was enormous. But it just so happens that the bigger the show, the more comfortable I feel. Scope is not something that’s foreign to me. I like to orchestrate complex settings. Maybe it’s my background as a cinematographer. If I’m given an opportunity to stage something with scope, and orient it to highlight a bit of drama, or a bit of character, I think, ‘Yes, I can do this.’ The only thing that makes me uncomfortable is working with small children.

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