Marco Polo's Real Kung-Fu Hustle

Netflix's fight coordinator, Brett Chan, on making might look right.
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Netflix's fight coordinator, Brett Chan, on making might look right.
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With over 35 years of martial arts experience and enough black belts to make Vladimir Putin look like a dojo noob, Brett Chan has spent the last two decades teaching Hollywood actors how to pretend to do what he can do for real: Put people in the hospital. The veteran fight choreographer, stunt coordinator, and stuntman is part consultant, part punching bag. If you have ever indulged in a TNT movie watching marathon, you’ve probably seen the 43-year-old Vancouver-native take a roundhouse kick to the face or get thrown through a window in I, Robot, X-Men 2, or Max Payne. That's how you make your name in the fake fight business, but Chan’s latest gig, as fight choreographer and stunt coordinator for Marco Polo, is a bit more plush. The $90 million epic drama series, which premiered on Netflix this week, follows the (fictionalized) adventures of the famed Italian explorer in Kublai Khan's court. If that sounds like a really expensive excuse for show runner John Fusco – a lifelong martial arts enthusiast – to film a bunch of beautifully executed fight scenes, that’s because it is. Maxim talked to Chan about the tricks of the trade, swordplay, and working in the shadow of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

How did you get started in this business?

I have a seventh degree in Shotokan karate, which is a Japanese style, I have a first degree in Shito-Ryu and Goju-Ryu and I have a first degree in Tai Kwan Do. It’s all hard style, but I’m also trained in other styles like Kali and some Muy Tai, as well as Krabi-kabong and KravMaga, which is an Israeli military martial art. And when I was younger I did a lot of Kung Fu, which are the animal styles. Everyone gets into this business through different routes, and mine was through martial arts. Once you’re in the industry you start meeting people who are getting into it as well and you kind of trade skills. So this guy might teach me some car stuff and high falls and I’ll teach him some martial arts. You start learning all the different tricks of the trade that you need to be able to survive in this business.

How much research went into developing the fight sequences we see in Marco Polo?

We began by doing a lot of research into the styles that evolved during the 12th and 13th centuries. But some of the styles you see in the show were evolved in different centuries, so it’s a mix, especially with the character Hundred Eyes, a blind monk who kicks a lot of ass. John Fusco wanted that character to be mysterious, which means his fighting style had to be unpredictable. So, with him, we combined some Shaolin with modern stuff here and there. You really wouldn’t be able to notice unless you’ve studied the martial arts in depth and are familiar with the specific techniques incorporated into his style.  

On a show like Marco Polo, what is the fight coordinator’s role on set?

After a character has been developed, it’s my job as the fight coordinator to individually stylize him or her with a particular style and set of moves. So when two people are fighting it actually looks like two different people fighting. If you have two people using the same style and set of moves, no matter how cool they are, that won’t be the case. As coordinator, I recruit all of the guys I need to have around me. For example, with this show, I had a Mantis specialist for one character, a long sword specialist for another, and so on. I’ll create the skeleton of the fight based on the script notes, and then I bring in the specialists who incorporate the movements that are specific to the each character’s individual style.

Where do you recruit these guys?

My stunt team came from 16 different countries. The main guys that were fighting were Chinese and Japanese. Both move a certain way. So we designed 15 different fights for our extras. There are five background, five foreground, and five others. Each person had to learn both sides of each fight. But if I had two Chinese guys do fight number one and two Japanese guys do fight number one, it’s the exact same fight but it looks completely different. The way they execute their movements look very different. And if I put one Chinese guy and one Japanese guy in a fight, it looks completely different again.

Do you simply teach the actors the choreography or are you actually training them how to fight?

You can show someone some choreography but if they don’t know how to do it properly, will it be believable onscreen? Probably not. It would look awkward. We basically start them from the beginning with the basics, showing them first how to move their feet. When you’re learning something new and something is very foreign, you think a lot about what your feet are doing. So once we’ve taught them the basic footwork, they can stop thinking about that and start thinking about their hands. The actors are training every day, in addition to weight training and weapons training, so that a) they don’t hurt themselves, b) they don’t hurt the person they’re fighting, and c) it looks real.

Are the weapons we see in the show historically accurate?

John [Fusco] wanted them to be as historic as possible. The swords might not be the exact types that were used then, but the shapes and the ways they are wielded are pretty historically accurate. Each weapon has individual movements, especially with Chinese martial arts. The Mongols basically had two types of swords. One was longer, but they were both curved, so when they were on horseback and they sliced down, the blade made contact for the whole arc of the movement.

In terms of martial arts, what are we seeing in Marco Polo that we haven’t seen in other films and TV shows?

The authenticity of the movements. What we didn’t want to do is make it look like another Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, because then we’d be competing with guys like Liu Ping. So we had to make something different, something more realistic. There are a few fancy moves here and there, but it’s all believable.

Photos by Phil Bray / Netflix