Sunk

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Sunk

How a Chinese billionaire’s dream of making an underwater fantasy blockbuster turned into a legendary movie fiasco.

By Mitch Moxley

The Atavist Magazine, No. 58


Mitch Moxley has written for publications including GQThe Atlantic, and Playboy, and he is an editor at the online magazine Roads & Kingdoms. He’s the author of Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China, about the six years he lived in Beijing.

Editor:Katia Bachko
Designers: Thomas Rhiel and Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Animation: Nadia Popovich

Published in May 2016. Design updated in 2021.

FADE IN:

EXT. A ROCKY STRETCH OF BEACH, QINYU, FUJIAN PROVINCE, CHINA – DAY

Under a foreboding gray sky, a RAGTAG GROUP OF MOVIE EXTRAS dressed in ill-fitting rubber costumes sprint across the sand. They play an army of bipedal GIANT FISH TROOPS armed with swords and spears running for their lives from an invading battalion of DEMON SOLDIERS.

JONATHAN LAWRENCE, the director, mid-forties, wearing a leather jacket and fedora, like Indiana Jones, surveys the scene. He doesn’t like what he sees…

One

The script called for an epic battle. In the movie’s third act, the forces of the Eight Faery Kingdoms defend their aquatic empires from annihilation by the evil Demon Mage and his spectral legions. Five hundred extras would play the opposing armies.

But in January 2010, when Jonathan Lawrence, the director of Empires of the Deep, showed up for the shoot, in Qinyu, a resort town in coastal China, he saw only about 20 extras, mostly ornery Russians complaining that they hadn’t been paid in weeks. How would he turn 20 people into 500? On top of that, their costumes—swamp green rubber suits decorated with scales, octopus suckers, and shells—looked like poorly made Halloween getups. Some of them had fins glued to their heads.

Lawrence was in most ways a strange choice to be running a massive film set in China. A 40-something director from Los Angeles with just one feature-film credit, he made his living directing shorts, commercials, and music videos. But then again, ever since he saw Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as a teenager in 1981, he had waited for this chance.

The offer to direct a fantastical adventure movie was a dream come true. Empires of the Deep would be China’s Avatar—a reportedly $100 million production featuring mermaid sirens, Greek warriors, pirates, and sea monsters, complete with cutting-edge special effects and an international cast. The film’s producers hoped that it would break through the cultural barrier that had frustrated producers on both sides of the Pacific for years: a Hollywood-style blockbuster made in China that would captivate audiences around the world.

But the offer came with strings attached. Massive strings. The film’s producer was Jon Jiang, a billionaire real estate mogul and film fanatic who had written Empires and put up much of the funding himself. On set he gave actors preposterous and contradictory directions. But mostly he deployed his assistants to watch Lawrence’s every move and report back to him.

The beach location, which would stand in for Mermaid Island, home of an ancient race of mer-folk, had much of what Lawrence required—a long stretch of coast, endless ocean beyond it—but a few weeks earlier, when he inspected the location, he couldn’t help but notice the row of luxury resort buildings at the edge of the sand. A bit modern for Mermaid Island, he thought.

Lawrence joked to the assistant director that they’d have to build a wall to hide the resort from view.

CUT TO:

CLOSE UP: LAWRENCE’s face, wearing an expression of utter disbelief as he looks up and sees a GIANT WALL. It is 15 feet high and stretches the entire football-field length of the beach.

LAWRENCE sighs. 

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A resort interfered with a beach shot, so the crew built a wall to hide it from view. (Photo: Courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

Lawrence had already seen a lot of bizarre things on set. But the crew building a 15-foot wall based on an offhand joke was perhaps the strangest. The whole point of filming at the beach was to make the fight look realistic; now they’d have to supply the background with special effects. It would have been easier and cheaper to dump a bunch of sand in a studio parking lot and surround it with green screens.

It was Lawrence’s third month in China, and nothing about shooting Empires had been easy. But Jiang called the shots, and his message to Lawrence was simple: Make it work.


In 2007, as China’s economy was on the ascent, I moved to Beijing to cover the new era. When I first read about Empires of the Deep, it seemed like a project that captured China perfectly—the money and ambition, the chaos and audacity—with its Chinese billionaire, mermaids, and hope for global domination.

China had become the Promised Land for American filmmakers, who were increasingly looking to overseas markets to help bolster flatlining profits at home. In China, ticket sales had ballooned to nearly a billion dollars a year and grew by more than 30 percent every year. Due to strict censorship, homegrown Chinese films tended to be bland historical and patriotic epics. The government imposed an import quota, and only around 20 foreign films, mostly Hollywood superhero movies, were allowed to screen in Chinese cinemas each year.

A growing number of American studios and producers came to believe that the solution was coproductions. Filmmakers on both sides of the Pacific would combine forces and use Hollywood and Chinese talent to make movies in China that would capitalize on the mainland’s booming box office while circumventing the quota. But cultural differences plagued the sets, and filmmakers struggled to find a formula that appealed to both audiences while also appeasing the censors. There was Shanghai, with John Cusack; a remake of The Karate Kid starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan; and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, with Hugh Jackman. Coproductions tended to have wooden scripts, flat plots, and shoehorned celebrations of Chinese culture. Few achieved commercial or critical success.

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Jonathan Lawrence fell in love with movies as a teenager; Steven Spielberg was his idol. (Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Lawrence)

Empires of the Deep was supposed to be different. And yet, as of 2016—after nearly a decade and a reported $140 million—it still hadn’t seen the light of day. I wanted to find out why. Last fall, I met Jonathan Lawrence at a Starbucks in Burbank, California, and he offered to introduce me to some of the movie’s stars in L.A.

On a patio over coffee, Lawrence showed me photos from the shoot on his laptop, his signature fedora casting a shadow onto his stubble. Lawrence has deep-set, stone gray eyes, animated hands, and a kindly demeanor. “Everything I’d done in my career I felt was leading to this,” he told me. He still seemed forlorn about Empires after all this time, adding, “We wanted to make a great movie.”

It didn’t exactly work out that way.

INT. CHINESE RESTAURANT, HOLLYWOOD – DAY

Three men gather at a noisy restaurant. LAWRENCE sits across from JON JIANG, about 40 years old. JIANG is thin and rangy like a high school basketball player. He is dressed in a tracksuit with an ascot around his neck. PETER HU, a friendly man in his thirties, is JIANG’s assistant and translator. The table is piled with food, but the atmosphere is tense.

Two

In November 2007, Jonathan Lawrence’s longtime friend Mark Byers told him about a potential project in China. Byers, who was working as Empires’ “Hollywood guy,” wrangling American talent, had arranged a meeting between Lawrence and the movie’s producer at a Chinese restaurant in Hollywood during the annual American Film Market, a major industry gathering.

Byers gave Lawrence a brief summary of the project and its sponsor. Jiang Hongyu, a.k.a. Jon Jiang, had made a fortune in real estate when he was in his thirties by creating suburban developments for China’s new middle class.

Jiang loved the movies: He admired George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson, and believed it was his life’s mission to make big-budget Hollywood blockbusters in China. He wrote television and film scripts just for fun—sci-fi and fantasy, mostly—and he claimed to have watched some 4,000 movies. Now, after several years of writing, he had completed the script for his first feature, which he originally called Mermaid Island. He envisioned a trilogy, with video games and theme parks in short order.

Lawrence might have thought he’d found a kindred spirit. Spielberg was the reason he fell in love with movies; he even attended California State University at Long Beach, Spielberg’s alma mater. But after two decades in Hollywood, his only feature film, an independent sci-fi thriller called Dream Parlor, had never found an audience. His most recent gig was unpaid—three months in Europe filming an Indiana Jones fan film, which he’d accepted out of love for the franchise. Back in L.A., he was looking forward to spending more time with his daughter. When Byers called about Empires, Lawrence was intrigued.

But at dinner, Jiang was distant; he wouldn’t make eye contact with Lawrence and spoke in short bursts of Chinese, which Hu translated into patchy English. Jiang’s tone and body language conveyed a very specific message, Lawrence thought: You’re here for me. I’m not here for you.

Through Hu, Jiang described a fantastical undersea epic with world-class special effects and a poignant love story at the core. The plot would revolve around a Greek hero’s quest to rescue his father, who is abducted by soldiers from a mysterious mer-kingdom, imperiled by the rise of a demon warlord. A tale of good and evil, Empires would be a mix of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lord of the Rings, and Transformers—which had come out earlier that year and was enormously popular in China—with a dash of Shakespeare. Lawrence was skeptical but allowed himself a flicker of hope: This could be big.

Jiang, for his part, was unconvinced of Lawrence’s bona fides. “Why would I want you if you haven’t done anything of note?” Lawrence remembers Jiang telling him. “If you can go out and make a scene that’s as big as Transformers, I’ll consider you.”

Lawrence left the meeting thinking it was a wash; he had no intention of making a Transformers-like teaser on his own dime. But out of respect for Byers, he agreed to take a look at the script. He made it through the first act but found it bizarre and messy. Lawrence handed it off to his assistant to make a few notes, and they sent the feedback to Jiang.

CUT TO:

Two years later, LAWRENCE boards a plane to BEIJING.

Lawrence never heard back from Jiang. The job had gone to someone else. Then, in September 2009, Byers called: Empires of the Deep needed a new director. Lawrence signed a five-month contract.

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During the flight, Lawrence began revising the script. As Jiang imagined it, Empires of the Deep would tell the story of Atlas, the son of the sea god Poseidon. Atlas is depicted as a pure-hearted young man who is restless and unsure of his own destiny. He has an alter ego, the swashbuckling Silver Eye (think Batman vis à vis Bruce Wayne), who appears during moments of peril. During a celebration in Atlas’s village in ancient Greece, an invading army of mermen knights riding on the backs of giant crabs captures Atlas’s adoptive father, General Damos. A 90-foot-tall lobster absconds with a holy temple—the Temple of Poseidon—in its claws.

Atlas and his drunken, lusty sidekick, Trajin, then embark on a quest across the sea to find Damos and retrieve the temple. On the way they stumble onto Crab Island, where in a mysterious palace they encounter bewitching women, including the beautiful princess Aka, who lure men into bed and kill them after making love. From the script:

Atlas kicks open a door. One of his men lay in bed – cold and dead in a woman’s arms. Blood flows from the punctured neck.

AKA (O.C.) (CONT’D)

…let it be known that your quest is in vain, for the temple is not yours to possess…

Atlas kicks open another door – and another. Inside each room, there is a similar scene… a beauty over blood and death.

AKA

And we are not women, as you suppose, but rather faeries from the sea…

Suddenly, the ground beneath their feet crumbles and the palace fills with water. As they thrash about, they see for first time that the palace is actually built atop a 450-foot-long fish. Just then mermen haul Atlas and Trajin into a “spiral-shelled vehicle” with windows made of transparent jellyfish skin. The vessel is pulled by harnessed sea monsters. The women turn into mermaids.

The duo arrive on Mermaid Island, where the Eight Faery Kingdoms have gathered in preparation for an epic battle against the Demon Mage, who has risen after 1,000 years of banishment, spelling death and destruction for the mer-folk. The stolen temple, it turns out, holds magic powers that are needed to combat the “dark evil” that is about to emerge. The script describes Atlas and Trajin arriving at the kingdom:

MERMAID ISLAND – a strange and otherworldly place… the city continues above and below the water. It is an “archipelago” of rocky outcropping….

TRAJIN

What is this place?

ATLAS

A myth, my friend. The legends of the ages are true – an entire kingdom of mer-people.

TRAJIN

Hell of a place to die.

In the movie’s bloody third act, as the Faery Kingdoms fight for survival against the demon army, it is revealed that—gasp!—the Demon Mage has actually been Atlas, the hero, all along.

After reading the script multiple times, I still don’t understand how one character simultaneously travels across the ocean to Mermaid Island as Atlas, fights gallantly as Silver Eye, and ushers in the apocalypse as the Demon Mage. But despite its many flaws, Lawrence told me that he was taken in by its childlike delight in its own fantasy world. Just maybe, he thought, Empires of the Deep could capture some of the magic that had excited him so much as a teenager watching Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lawrence could tell that the script had gone through a number of revisions. In fact, Empires of the Deep already had a long and tangled backstory that Lawrence was only partially aware of.


CUT TO:

RANDALL FRAKES, mid-fifties, with shoulder-length hair and a thick brown beard, looks out a penthouse office window. The sun is low on the horizon, and there is a spectacular view of Beijing’s smog-shrouded skyline. Beijing is a city bursting at the seams; on nearly every block, a skyscraper is going up.

It all started with the Wolf Witch. In the spring of 2007, the actress Cassandra Gava, who is best known for playing the Wolf Witch in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian, made inquires in Hollywood on behalf of a Chinese producer: Screenwriter wanted. Must like mermaids.

Randall Frakes heard about the project from Gava and threw his hat in the ring. A longtime friend of James Cameron’s, Frakes had been a story consultant on Terminator and had penned a number of B movies, including the 1988 sci-fi comedy Hell Comes to Frogtown.

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Randall Frakes had written a number of B movies when he heard about Empires of the Deep. (Photo: Courtesy of Randall Frakes)

Jiang offered him $25,000 to develop the story and rewrite the script. Frakes envisioned a campy adventure film like 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. “It sounded kind of Disney, but I wanted to get my foot in China,” Frakes told me when I reached him by phone at his home in Los Angeles. “I thought, This could be fun.”

In 2007, Frakes flew to Beijing to meet Jiang. The tycoon invited him to his office in the central business district. Seated behind a desk in his large suite, Jiang asked Frakes what he thought about the story. Frakes was honest: It needed a lot of work. “It was a theft, a bad quilting version of scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, from some of the Star Wars films, from all the major films that had been successful in the eighties,” Frakes told me. “I recognized them immediately, and he admitted it.” In one part, Jiang described a chase through a mine with the characters riding mine carts. Frakes pointed out that the scene was cribbed directly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Jiang insisted that it stay in. “He was arguing with me adamantly, like the thing he had written was Holy Scripture,” Frakes recalls. “I said, ‘Your story doesn’t make any sense. People will see it’s a grab bag of all these movies.’”

Jiang didn’t debate; instead, Frakes says, he took Frakes down to the parking garage to show off his Lamborghini.

Frakes spent three weeks in Beijing. At night he and Jiang met in Jiang’s office. Jiang told him that he planned to cast foreign actors in the lead roles and wanted to tailor the movie for international distribution.

By the time Frakes got involved, Jiang had already been courting a director: Irvin Kershner, who was best known for directing The Empire Strikes Back and the James Bond film Never Say Never Again. Kershner was in his eighties, and his star had faded; Jiang’s movie offered him the opportunity to get back in the game.

Back in Los Angeles, Frakes met with Kershner at Kershner’s plush mansion in Laurel Canyon. They agreed that the story didn’t work and instead cooked up a modern-day version about a group of characters looking for an alternative energy source who accidentally discover a lost underwater kingdom. “This is the movie I want to direct,” Frakes remembers Kershner telling him.

Frakes sent the treatment to Jiang and argued that the modern setting would play better with Western audiences—namely, sci-fi obsessed teenage boys—and that the story would more naturally lead to video games, serialization, and theme parks. “What is at stake is not something that happened a long time ago, but like the first ‘Terminator’ movie, it is happening NOW, to people like ourselves,” Frakes wrote in the treatment.

Frakes explained that Kershner offered Jiang the best chance for getting the movie made. And Kershner wanted to make the modern version of the movie. But Jiang refused, and both Kershner and Frakes jumped ship. (Kershner died in 2010. Frakes is still listed as the film’s cowriter, though when we spoke he was adamant that none of his ideas were ever used.)

Next, Jiang courted Jean-Christophe Comar, a French director and visual-effects expert, who calls himself Pitof and directed the 2004 Halle Berry vehicle Catwoman. Jiang’s people sent Pitof the screenplay. “The script was just about impossible to read. It was basically a direct translation from Chinese into English,” Pitof told me. “I thought it was quite surreal.” But Jiang offered to pay Pitof $400,000 up front for a year’s work, and the French director agreed.

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Pitof had directed Halle Berry in Catwoman before he took over Empires. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Christophe Comar)

Pitof believed that the original script was so bad that he would need to start from scratch. He hired Michael Ryan, who had worked on a number of television cartoon series, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers: Animated, to help him draft a new script. Pitof says the finished product was like an improved version of 2010’s Clash of the Titans, with strong visuals and dashes of humor.

Jiang hated it and accused Ryan of being a “bad writer,” as Pitof recalls. After 12 months in Beijing, Pitof decided the project “was bullshit,” he says, and flew back to L.A.


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Maxx Maulion was new to Hollywood when he got cast in Empires. (Photo courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

Jiang had cycled through two screenwriters and two directors, all of whom had tried and failed to steer him to some semblance of a coherent story. So now he turned back to Lawrence, the director he’d rejected as not Transformers enough.

By the time Lawrence signed on, Jiang had appointed himself casting director and hired an agency in Los Angeles to find candidates for the leads. Lawrence attended the casting sessions and sent his picks to Jiang, who made the final decisions, sometimes based solely on their photographs or brief audition videos. The part of Aka, the mermaid princess, would be played by a young actress named Shi Yanfei, who had little acting experience and hardly spoke English but happened to be Jiang’s girlfriend.

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Irena Violette had appeared in 13 Going on 30 before she was cast as the mermaid Dada. (Photo courtesy of Irena Violette)

Irena Violette, a Romanian-born former model who’d had small roles opposite Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30 and Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon in Four Christmases, was cast as the mermaid Dada, Aka’s loyal bodyguard. Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci were reportedly courted for the role of the Mermaid Queen. That role would later go to Olga Kurylenko, a Ukrainian-born actress and model who had starred with Daniel Craig in 2008’s Quantum of Solace and who was the movie’s only bona fide celebrity. She was reportedly paid $1 million.

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Steve Polites had just finished theater school when Jiang cast him in Empires. (Photo courtesy of Steve Polites)

The role of Atlas went to Steve Polites, a handsome 29-year-old fresh out of theater school in Baltimore who had starred in a 2006 straight-to-DVD horror film called The Murder Game. He was signed on for the trilogy. Trajin, Atlas’s sidekick and the movie’s comic relief, described in the script as a “stocky, fun fellow,” would be played by a 27-year-old actor named Maxx Maulion, a cherubic redhead who had appeared in a few indie shorts and TV movies. Jonathan Kos-Read was cast as the menacing Ha Li King, an ally of the mermaid kingdom. Famous in China after a decade working in the country, Kos-Read was a rare Western actor who spoke fluent Chinese.

Once the film was cast, Lawrence flew to Beijing. On the plane, he tried to reconcile the attempts of the previous writers. Somewhere in the blurry distance he began to see the outlines of a story. He needed to clean up the plot, flesh out the main characters, and bolster the comic elements. The 13-hour flight was too short.

INT. BUSTLING OFFICE, BEIJING – DAY

The place is a hub of activity: Dozens of YOUNG CHINESE SPECIAL-EFFECTS ARTISTS are at work, surrounded by mermaid paraphernalia: mermaid murals on glass, oil paintings of mermaids. There’s a large screening room, JON JIANG’s office in the back, and, off to the side, a chilly, dimly lit room where some 60 designers are working on special effects and graphics.

Three

Around 2007, Jiang launched a special-effects company called Fontelysee Pictures to handle the production of Empires. (“Fontelysee” is a garbled transliteration of Champs-Élysées, the boulevard in Paris.) When Lawrence arrived in Beijing, he went straight to Fontelysee’s offices: All around he saw designers working on illustrations depicting finned and fanged sea monsters, phosphorescent mermen soldiers, and vast underwater kingdoms. Many of the drawings were reminiscent of H. R. Giger, the late Swiss surrealist who designed creatures for the Alien series. Artists drafted detailed maps of the kingdoms of Jiang’s imagination and produced CGI trailers to present to financiers, whose money would add to Jiang’s own considerable investment. Chen Peng, who worked in the Fontelysee art department and hired local staff for Empires, remembers the early days as exciting. Everybody bought into Jiang’s vision, Chen told me, which he described as “mysterious” and “unprecedented.” “It’s different from Chinese classical creations,” he said.

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On his first day, Lawrence met with Jiang in his office, with its view of downtown and specially designated nap room in the back. Lawrence hadn’t spoken to Jiang since their awkward first encounter in L.A. The real estate tycoon was friendlier and, through a translator, welcomed Lawrence to Beijing. That night, Jiang treated Lawrence and a few members of the crew to an extravagant meal, and Lawrence presented everyone with American-made gifts. Lawrence remembered how Jiang wouldn’t look him in the eye back in Los Angeles; this time he did.

Over the next few days, Lawrence got to know the team. The movie’s assistant director was a stoic man in his early thirties named Hai Tao, and the coproducer, Harrison Liang, had lived in Los Angeles and spent the bulk of his days chain-smoking in the office between Lawrence’s and Jiang’s. Hai Tao and Liang both spoke fluent English and served as the director’s liaisons with the billionaire, struggling to translate directions so confusing that language often failed them entirely.

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The script called for massive crabs. (Photo: Maxx Maulion)

INT. MOVIE SOUNDSTAGE – DAY

LAWRENCE walks through a set depicting a Greek city square with temples resembling the Parthenon. One temple stands apart from the rest: It looks like something from ATLANTIS – the roof is decorated with a fish-scale motif: THE TEMPLE OF POSEIDON. Statues of nude Greeks with ten-foot spears guard the temple.

Soon after he arrived, Lawrence toured a prop warehouse filled wall-to-wall with swords, suits of armor made with actual metal, and the Mermaid Queen’s lavish throne. These were the rejects; Jiang had already ordered all new props to be made.

Outside Beijing was a complex of soundstages where sets for Act I were under construction. Lawrence went to see the set of an ancient prison. Walking down the hallway leading to the dank, dark cells, he noticed that it “looked like a hallway at a YMCA gymnasium”—clean, sterile, and freshly painted. He told the set crew that the hallway had to match the rest of the prison: dirty, decrepit, with roots coming out of the ground. “I need this to look like it was built a thousand years ago!” he commanded. The crew tore it down and started again.

Lawrence also worked on casting extras. Jiang wanted to hire foreigners who lived in China: Those chosen would be paid 8,000 yuan (about $1,200) per month for four months of work. Men had to be at least six feet tall, women five-foot-seven. “European/North American origins are preferable,” one ad read. Some days the office was flooded with actors auditioning for bit parts. Many were Russians or foreign models living in Beijing who barely spoke English. “There wasn’t a large well of talent,” Lawrence told me.

Once Lawrence had oriented himself at Fontelysee’s offices, he holed up in his hotel room, surrounded by storyboards, and turned his attention to the script. He wanted to put some soul into the characters and improve the pace of the plot, removing cumbersome dialogue and exposition. His inspiration was his favorite movie, Raiders. He envisioned Empires as an action comedy, epic and fun. In L.A., Lawrence’s assistant researched the mythology of Poseidon and old Germanic runes, which appear on Atlas/Silver Eye’s skin:

Releasing immense ANGER and dark HATRED, Atlas/Silver Eye mercilessly cuts down all the Mermen Soldiers and in the mix slaughters the Demon Soldiers in savage bloodlust.

He LAUGHS wildly. The RUNES appear all over his body. He releases his true bestiality slashing the monstrous Demon Soldiers… killing one… killing a second… killing a third…

Lawrence worried that audiences wouldn’t root for Atlas, the protagonist whose quest to retrieve his abducted father and the stolen temple propels the narrative forward. He created a romantic storyline involving Atlas and a village woman, as well as a subplot with a child from an orphanage with whom Atlas would develop a father-daughter relationship. Lawrence needed to make the universe of the movie consistent with itself and the plot sensible from beat to beat. But there were a lot of holes. In one scene, Atlas’s father figure, Damos, dies after a major battle in which thousands of mer-people are slaughtered by demon warriors. As the surviving characters mourn, one of the mermaids reveals a magic pill that brings Damos back to life.

Lawrence laughed when he read it. If the mer-folk possessed magic pills that could restore life, why wouldn’t they revive all the others who had been killed? Lawrence rewrote it so that the mermaids revived Damos using a dangerous ancient spell, one that could have grave consequences to the mermaids: They risked their lives to save his. This solution, Lawrence thought, added a sense of jeopardy to the scene.

After spending hours each night working on the script, Lawrence would meet with Jiang to talk about the revisions. Harrison Liang translated the meetings as the two men launched into heated but amicable debates over the script. Then one day, as Lawrence and Jiang were arguing over the magic-pill scene, Lawrence said to Liang: “Tell him ‘Your script is one of the worst pieces of fucking shit I’ve ever read.’”

Liang refused to translate, but Lawrence insisted. Liang passed on some version of the message, although Lawrence doubted it was the literal translation.

Jiang remained calm. “What makes you think you’re a writer?” he asked Lawrence. “You have no credits on IMDb as a writer.”

“Neither do you,” Lawrence said.           


INT. FONTELYSEE OFFICE – DAY

The atmosphere is like the first day of school. The STARS have arrived. STEVE POLITES and MAXX MAULION get their first taste of fame when Fontelysee’s female employees mob them in the office.

In November 2009, Lawrence greeted Steve Polites and Maxx Maulion at the Beijing airport. Lawrence warned them that the movie wouldn’t be like anything they’d ever experienced before. “Nothing is like it is in America,” he told them. “Everything changes here from moment to moment. What is true today will not be true tomorrow.”

The actors drove straight to the Fontelysee offices. To prepare to play Atlas, the hero and the son of Poseidon, Polites had grown out his hair to match the concept art he’d been shown. But at the office, the hair stylists were alarmed by the state of Atlas’s mane. Polites tried to explain that he had hat head, but the term was lost in translation. “This is not how my hair looks normally,” he said. “Let me wash my hair.”

The women spoke in rapid-fire Chinese. They pulled out a wig that looked like “a knock-off Lord of the Rings hobbit wig,” Polites recalls. He was then escorted across the street to a hair salon where stylists permed his hair and bleached it.

Over the course of the next week, his hair changed from orange to green to black and finally to blond, styled in tight curls. He pleaded with Lawrence to step in, but it was too late. Polites looked like he’d had a bowl of instant noodles dropped over his head.

Then he was handed over to the wardrobe department, which had fashioned his costume ahead of his arrival. At the fitting, he drowned in the immense armor that covered his torso, while his pteruges, a skirt worn by Greco-Roman warriors, seemed to reveal a daring amount of thigh; it fell six inches above his knee.

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Polites and Maulion in costume between takes. (Photo: Maxx Maulion)

Other characters’ costumes weren’t much better. Maxx Maulion’s Trajin outfit was a burlap toga. The merman costumes were full-body rubber outfits with nubs meant to look like coral. The actors’ faces would be painted green, with fins affixed to their heads. The suits were too loose and needed to be glued to the actors’ skin. (With actual glue. In a blog post, one merman extra recalled that his skin became irritated; when he checked the adhesive bottle, he noticed a warning label that read “AVOID CONTACT WITH SKIN” in large print.)

For the mermaids, the hair department opted for purple skullcaps with what looked like cornrows on top and dreadlocks dangling from the back. The wardrobe team had envisioned the mermaids with plastic seashells covering their breasts, their bodies painted in shimmering blues and greens. But the tails presented a problem: Lawrence wanted to use pliable fins that would delicately wrap around the actors’ legs like a skirt, so they could get around the sets. Instead the costume department devised rigid appendages that would attach to the actors’ thighs. Walking would be a problem.

Looking at the costumes and props, Maxx Maulion—Trajin—kept thinking, Oh man, this is going to be crazy. The Americans began mockingly referring to Empires as “the fish movie.”

Meanwhile, Lawrence was still hard at work on the script, and he asked the actors to meet with him periodically to discuss how to enrich their characters. Polites and Maulion rehearsed their lines in their hotel rooms. The movie seemed only theoretical until the day the cast was invited into a screening room. The special-effects department had made a trailer featuring some of the movie’s early animation and CGI. The graphics looked low budget, but at least there was plenty of room for improvement.

While the preproduction teams got ready to start shooting, Polites and Maulion became fast friends, wandering between the looming skyscrapers of their downtown neighborhood and watching DVDs in their hotel rooms. The pair were on a high; when locals discovered that they were actors from Hollywood, they would ask for autographs. Polites was new to the industry; he had moved to L.A. just a year before he was cast. He worked at a restaurant while he auditioned for acting roles, and Empires was by far his biggest booking. Maulion had had a few small roles in film and TV and only recently obtained his Screen Actors Guild card. Suddenly, he was cast in a leading role—with a paycheck of $70,000, more than he’d ever made.

When I met Polites and Maulion over breakfast on a sunny Hollywood morning in November, they spoke of the optimism of those early days. True, there were things that seemed off—the uncertain schedule, the unfinished script, the weird costumes—but like Lawrence, they believed Empires could be their break. “This was a big deal for me,” Maulion explained. “To book something of this nature was like winning the lottery.”

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Jon Jiang on the set. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Four

In December, Jiang ordered the production to begin shooting. Lawrence was frustrated. There hadn’t been time to rehearse or even to have the full cast do a read-through, but Jiang insisted.

Plus, Lawrence was only about a third of the way through rewriting the script. He shared what he had so far with the cast, the draft peppered with emotional notes. After one scene, in which the characters are transported through an ocean portal to the South China Sea, where they encounter a group of Chinese characters—a scene included to accommodate government censors—Lawrence wrote: “Jiang – I don’t know what to do with this section – it does not fit or serve the story.”

Finally, on page 45:

(DIRECTOR’S NOTE TO ACTORS: THE ENTIRE SCRIPT FROM THIS POINT ON IS BEING RE-WORKED TO FILL IN ALL THE LOGIC HOLES – YOU WILL RECEIVE AN UPDATED SCRIPT LATER)

The production moved to a small town outside Beijing and into a hotel with a karaoke bar and a restaurant that served shark fin soup. The soundstage lot—with sets for Atlas’s home village, a prison that housed captured pirates, and the city square, where the merman/crab invasion takes place—was located nearby.

Before the first take, there was a ceremony at the city-square soundstage to bless the expensive Panavision cameras that had been rented for the picture. Red blankets were placed over them, and incense sticks were lit. A crew member made a brief speech in Chinese.

EXT. ANCIENT GREEK VILLAGE FILM SET – DAY

POLITES and MAULION, in character, walk through a Greek village. They pass caged chickens, merchants’ tents, residents’ homes, and the general’s residence. The cameras roll.

The first scene Lawrence shot depicts Atlas and Trajin. Atlas picks up an apple and tosses it to Trajin. A horse crosses their path. It was a thrilling moment. “Here I am, a nobody in the scheme of things, an independent filmmaker, here on the set of this big movie,” Lawrence says. “We had a lot of hope at that point, because it was everything we’d ever wanted to do. Massive sets. Huge crew. Film cameras.”

But something would go wrong during each take: the horse wouldn’t cross, an extra would fall down, Maulion would drop the apple. After a handful of tries, they wrapped the scene. Neither Polites nor Maulion thought they actually got the shot they needed, but they shrugged it off. Polites was still trying to make peace with his hair, and his skirt felt obscenely short, but he was living his dream.

This is great, he thought. We’re doing it.


Lawrence learned quickly how the style of filmmaking in China differed from the West. Whereas Hollywood sets are extremely hierarchical collaborative dictatorships, Chinese sets are decidedly unsystematic, improvised operations where problems are dealt with as they arise. Just like in Chinese society as a whole, the concept of guanxi—relations or connections—is enormously important. One’s loyalty depends on who it is one has the strongest relationship with. That might be the director or a cinematographer or a producer—but it’s rarely the audience or the movie’s bottom line, which are generally the two highest priorities for American movies.

Empires’ original cinematographer left before shooting began, replaced with Rao Xiaobing, a veteran director of photography who split time between China and the U.S. Rao, Lawrence discovered early in the shoot, was talented and a respected professional who wielded a lot of influence with the crew, to whom he was fiercely loyal.

At first the plan was to shoot the movie with two cutting-edge digital cameras, but Rao lobbied to shoot on film, an old-fashioned and more expensive option. Lawrence supported the choice—after all, his hero, Spielberg, once said he’d shoot on film until the last processing lab shut down.

Because of the expense, Rao would shoot quickly and move on. The actors often had to complete a scene in three or four takes, whereas on a Hollywood set a director might film dozens. It became clear to Lawrence and others that Jiang had decided to get Empires on film fast. Despite all the money that had been invested in preproduction, the frantic shooting schedule and constant cutting of corners led to the first of many rumors that the budget for the movie was far smaller than the reported $100 million.

Polites, the star, quickly lost the optimism of the early days. He felt the shoot was being rushed; they were rarely given the chance to rehearse a scene. Most of the actors’ time was spent sitting around in costume while shots were set up. As they waited, he and Maulion talked about their next career moves and chatted up the female translators.

The actors had been brought to China on generous contracts that promised cushy amenities, most of which failed to materialize. American actors are used to well-appointed trailers where they can hang out between takes. None were provided. Polites had asked for a gym so he could bulk up, as the role demanded, but his request was ignored.

The Americans had expected a selection of food provided by on-set craft services, but the Chinese productions ate more simply. The cast and crew were given the same thing every day: bone-in chicken, a cup of broccoli, and rice. Maulion, whose character was supposed to be chubby, immediately began dropping pounds. Before bed he would eat peanut butter out of the jar and an entire sleeve of Oreo cookies to keep his weight up. He asked his mom to send him cans of tuna from the States.

On set, tension between Lawrence and Rao began to simmer. Lawrence was a hands-on director when it came to lighting and lenses, and he asked the crew for complicated setups to get the shots he wanted. He had a grand vision for Empires. Rao, however, was more of a realist—this wasn’t a Hollywood movie, and he knew it. The communication problems meant that setting up a shot that would take 45 minutes on a Hollywood set would sometimes take four or five hours, with Rao shouting instructions to the Chinese crew. And then, after all that prep time, the actors would be rushed through the shot.

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Shots took hours to set up, leaving actors with nothing to do but sit and wait. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Jiang did not attend the filming, but he called Harrison Liang frequently, asking for updates and sending instructions for Lawrence and the rest of the crew. Indeed, Lawrence rarely had a chance to talk face-to-face with the billionaire. When Jiang did show up, he would make unreasonable demands, like insisting that a smoke machine make more smoke—a time-consuming process—when the actors were ready to shoot.

But there were moments of camaraderie. Once, Jiang approached Polites, placed his hand on his shoulder, and said, “I want to make you into a big star.” And Jiang was respectful of his director, even if he ignored most of his suggestions. “Mr. Jiang likes you,” Lawrence remembers Liang telling him one day. “He’s never given anybody as much respect as he’s given you.”

EXT. BEACHSIDE, QINYU, FUJIAN PROVINCE – DAWN

In a canvas tent, TIRED ACTRESSES playing MERMAIDS sit in chairs as the makeup team applies full-body paint. Raindrops pelt the roof of the tent.

Five

In January, after a few weeks of shooting outside Beijing, the crew moved to coastal Fujian province, in southeast China. The weather was miserable, with day after day of rain.

Fujian sits on a spectacular stretch of coast, with mountains, rivers, caves, and valleys nearby. The script included many scenes in such locations, but the sites were remote and in some cases dangerous. Lawrence began to grow seriously concerned about the state of the shoot. The script was ever changing and the schedule in disarray, and the challenges of the terrain exacerbated the strained relationships on set.

Irena Violette, the mermaid Dada, joined the production in Fujian. Her boyfriend, Jerred Berg, an actor between jobs, came with her. Violette arrived ready to work and with a sense of humor. Oh well, this is China, she shrugged whenever problems arose. But soon her good humor wore thin, and she began describing herself as “the black sheep” on set because of her disagreements with the crew.

The makeup to complete her costume required hours of preparation every day. But the shooting schedule was so haphazard that sometimes she would spend several hours getting ready and then never shoot a frame of film. Frustrated, she would voice her concerns to the crew. She was furious that the actors had to wake up so early and sit around for hours in makeup when it was obvious that the weather wasn’t going to cooperate.

In particular, Violette and Rao didn’t get along. When Violette finally got in front of the camera, she wanted more takes. Rao refused, claiming that they didn’t have enough film.  

Other tensions arose. At one point, Lawrence saw a crew member being kicked in the head by a camera operator. He rushed to step in, but Hai Tao, the assistant director, held him back and told him not to get involved. The stunt team operated independently of Lawrence, and he wasn’t on hand for most of the stunt shoots. Lawrence had no power over the team, but he heard reports that the stuntmen’s safety was being compromised. There were regular accidents, and one stuntman, after hours of being pulled around on ropes, quit in tears because of the pain.

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Maulion and Polites on the beach (Photo: Courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

And still, Lawrence had been looking forward to shooting on the beach. The script described a  thrilling raid led by the Ha Li King, played by Jonathan Kos-Read wearing a tentacled crown on his head, who tries and fails to defend the Faery Kingdoms from the Demon Mage. When Lawrence discovered that the beach was flanked by a resort, and that the crew had subsequently built a giant wall to disguise it, it was too late to find another location. In the script, the Ha Li King’s forces are overwhelmed by the Demon Mage and he surrenders. Lawrence surrendered to the chaos and shot on the beach.

Then a scene took the crew to a cave set, where the script called for Silver Eye, Atlas’s alter ego, to free Greek merchants captured by “Thracian Marauders”—pirates. The crew had prepared a massive, unruly horse for Polites:

FROM A LEDGE ABOVE THE PIT

The mighty, black horse leaps into the air – its WHINNY NAY is haunting. Silver Eye holds tightly to the reins. The horse and rider seem to fly overhead.

PIRATE CAPTAIN (sounding alarm)

Silver Eye…!

The cave was dark and cold. The crew wore hard hats; the actors did not. The horse was difficult. The script called for the animal to jump over a feasting table, but instead it reared around excitedly, frightening the extras, some of whom were chained to the cave’s wall. Then suddenly a chunk of rock the size of a manhole cover came crashing from the roof and crushed a spotlight.

Meanwhile, based on Jiang’s frustrated missives, which Liang and Hai Tao transmitted to Lawrence, the billionaire seemed to be growing increasingly irked by the foreign cast and crew’s difficulties adapting to the Chinese way of doing things. Jiang believed the Americans were being soft.

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To reach a location shot on a remote riverbed, the cast and crew were forced to crawl on hands and knees over slippery boulders. (Photo: Maxx Maulion)

EXT. ROCKY RIVER VALLEY – DAY

A river snakes through a rocky ravine. The day is overcast, drizzly. The camera pans down to a GROUP gingerly making their way through the challenging terrain. PEOPLE slip and stumble, yelling “shit!” and “fuck!

A few days after the cave scene, Lawrence, Polites, Maulion, Violette, and Berg, along with some of the Chinese crew members and translators, hiked out to scout a shooting location situated on a rocky riverbed. It had been raining for days, and the rocks were covered with wet, slimy moss.

As a safety measure, the crew had laid carpet over the rocks and hired carpenters to build a handrail along a particularly difficult section. Still, there were spots so precarious that the group needed to get down on all fours and crawl.

The hike took an hour, and once they arrived the Americans debated with their translators and a few Chinese crew members about whether it was possible to shoot there at all: The costume and makeup tents had to be set up at a distance from the shooting location, and Irena Violette and the mermaid actors would need to walk over slippery rocks with fins attached to their legs.

Violette was particularly concerned that she might get hurt. Nobody even knew how long it would take to get to the closest hospital.

“If I slip and fall, is there a helicopter?” Violette said.

Lawrence asked one of the translators if the movie had medical insurance. The translator said that it did but that there was no evacuation plan.

“If somebody falls and breaks their neck or their skull, what’s the backup?” Lawrence asked.

“They say they will take the fastest measure,” the translator said.

Back at the hotel, Lawrence fought to scrap the location, and Rao agreed that it was unshootable. But Jiang, who was not on set, was unwavering; the rumor was that his girlfriend, Shi Yanfei, insisted on the spot.

Lawrence appealed to Hai Tao, the assistant director. Could he explain to Jiang that Lawrence didn’t want to shoot under such dangerous conditions? Jiang asked Hai Tao to tell Lawrence that if he didn’t do his job, he’d be fired. He took back his threat, but Lawrence reluctantly went ahead with the shoot anyway.

In the coming days, Chinese workers hauled the gear to the location, carrying it atop bamboo poles. Then the crew set up a tent where the actors could dress and get into makeup.

On the day of the shoot, Violette hiked out at dawn. It was yet another cold and drizzly day. Inside the tent was dark, but there was a heater, so at least it was warm. The artists began applying makeup and affixing fins to her legs.

A few hours later, Rao rushed over. “Come on,” he said, according to Violette, “let’s shoot.” The makeup artists explained that there wasn’t enough light in the tent. They asked Violette to move outside so they could finish more quickly. Violette objected: It was wet and cold, and she was half naked. She asked for someone to bring in another light and finish inside the tent. (When I reached out to Rao to discuss his experiences on Empires, he declined to participate in this article, writing in an email, “I have moved on.”)

A translator told Rao that Violette would not cooperate, and Rao relayed the message to Jiang. Violette insists that wasn’t the case; she simply didn’t want to stand in the cold and risk getting sick.

Violette began to cry. “This is bullshit,” she said, “I’m done.”

She left the tent and walked across the rocks to tell Rao she was quitting. On the way, she ran into Lawrence, who told her that he’d heard that Jiang planned to fire her. “Good,” she said, “because I’m quitting anyway.” Lawrence told her to let Jiang fire her so she could keep her wages.

Violette hiked back to the hotel to pack her bags. She called Harrison Liang; her contract stipulated that production owed her a ticket home, and she wanted one now.

Two days later, no ticket had arrived. Liang told her that the production would not pay for her ticket and demanded that she repay all of the salary she’d earned so far. He threatened to sue her in a Chinese court. (Liang didn’t reply to requests for an interview.)

Violette and Berg’s passports were at the production office, so Violette called an American consulate for help. The official on the phone advised them to make their way to the nearest U.S. consulate, either in Guangzhou or Shanghai.

The couple met with Lawrence to plan an escape. They decided that in the evening Lawrence would call an all-hands production meeting in the hotel lobby. While the crew was distracted, Violette and Berg would slip out a window.

That night, with the entire production gathered around the director, the couple scurried down a hallway unnoticed. They dumped their luggage out the window and crawled after it. Then they walked down to a riverbank beyond the hotel grounds and hiked along the river until they found a spot narrow enough to cross. They waded through the water, carrying their luggage above their heads, and then climbed up the steep embankment on the other side.

CUT TO:

Under the cover of darkness, VIOLETTE and BERG plop down on the riverbank, their feet and pant legs soaked. The night is cold. They change their socks and shoes and begin the long hike down the mountain, hiding in bushes whenever a car approaches.

The next morning, the couple reached a police station in a town called Fuding. The police gave them travel papers and drove them to a train station, where they caught the 11 a.m. to Shanghai. “Once we were on the train and the train moved, I felt I could exhale,” Violette says.

That night they checked into the Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai. The American consulate provided them with temporary passports and obtained Chinese exit visas. A few days later, they were on a plane to Los Angeles.

At the mountaintop hotel, Lawrence kept up a ruse that the couple were refusing to come out of their room. During mealtimes, he would take a tray of food into their room and dump it out the window.

Eventually, the crew demanded that Violette return to the movie. Lawrence knocked on the door one last time.

“Hey guys, it’s me,” he said. He went into the room and emerged moments later to face the Chinese crew with the truth. “They’re gone.”


The casting director soon recruited Kerry Brogan, an American actress living in China, to replace Violette, and Lawrence resumed shooting the movie. But a few weeks later, he realized that he wanted out, too. His contract would end soon, and the movie wasn’t at all what he’d signed up for. Plus, he had another project offer, not to mention a young daughter waiting for him back in Los Angeles. Worse yet, the cast and crew, and Lawrence himself, had not been paid in weeks.

He told Jiang that he would finish the picture—for a million dollars. Jiang accused him of extortion. Lawrence was off the movie. He went to Jiang’s Beijing office to arrange for his payment, refusing to leave until the money had been sent. The director and the billionaire said a cordial goodbye. They shook hands, and Lawrence bowed slightly.

The experience on Empires was tough on Lawrence. He took a yearlong sabbatical, but the frustration lingered. “It knocked the wind out of me,” he told me when we met in Los Angeles. “I questioned what I’m doing in this industry.” He describes his time on the set of Empires as “a dark comedy.”

Although Lawrence’s journey had ended, Jon Jiang still believed Empires was poised for global box-office domination. The cast and crew remained in China. Before Lawrence left Beijing, Jiang asked him, “Do you know any other Hollywood directors?”

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Chinese film sets are decidedly unsystematic, improvised operations where problems are dealt with as they arise. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Six

Last December, I met the director Michael French for coffee in Vancouver to find out what happened on the set of Empires after Lawrence left. French, a laid-back Canadian director of comedies, wore a half smile when we spoke about Empires that suggested I had no idea how much of a circus it was.

A few years before Empires, French had become good friends with Rao Xiaobing on Heart of a Dragon, a biopic he had directed in China. The film chronicles the life of Rick Hansen, a Canadian paraplegic who circled the globe in his wheelchair, focusing on the days Hansen spent in China climbing a section of the Great Wall. The shoot was grueling, but French left with a valuable understanding about how Chinese movie sets operate.

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Michael French had directed a number of comedies and decided to direct Empires as one. (Photo: Courtesy of Michael French)

After Lawrence left, Rao reached out to French about the Empires job, and French agreed to take over the project in February 2009. He had one condition, however: He had a work commitment and had to be back in Canada at the end of April. Jiang agreed to the terms.

French flew to Beijing and then onward to Fujian. The next day he went down to a beach where he found “a big wall, and mermaids, and people killing each other in the water,” he told me. Jiang’s team forbade French from speaking with Lawrence, so he wasn’t sure exactly how to envision the movie. But he found the script campy, so he decided to direct it as a comedy.

French’s laid-back approach and good relationship with Rao improved the mood on set considerably. Filming was about a third completed when French arrived. He had roughly 100 days to shoot, and he planned to finish the script during that time. To speed things up, French cut big swaths of dialogue from the script; he figured his job was “to fix the leak in the pipe. All I cared about was making my days,” he told me.

Olga Kurylenko, the Mermaid Queen, arrived in Beijing in April to film her scenes. She was well-liked on set, playing her character as a powerful leader preparing her kingdom for battle against the Demon Mage:

INT. THRONE ROOM – PALACE – MERMAID ISLAND – CONT’D

The Queen sits on a throne with an empty seat beside her. NOBILITY from the other SEVEN FAERY KINGDOMS stand before her.

QUEEN

My lords and ladies, it has been a thousand years since the nobility of the Eight Faery Kingdoms have all been assembled in one place. I only wish we were here now under more auspicious circumstances.

The faces in the room are grave.

QUEEN

Our darkest hour is upon us. Our only hope lies in the fulfillment of the prophecy. (she rises) We have recovered the sacred temple. But only the Royal Blood will ignite its power. Will you shed your blood for your subjects – for your future?

Like his predecessors, French had to contend with a meddlesome billionaire. One day, Jiang interrupted filming to berate Jonathan Kos-Read, who was playing the Ha Li King. The character marries Princess Aka to secure a royal alliance between the mermaid and Ha Li kingdoms, combing forces to fight the Demon Mage. But Aka loves another. “My heart is weary and my spirit drifts like seaweed uprooted in a storm,” she laments.

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Shi Yanfei as Aka on set. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Kos-Read saw the king as a ghoulish and conniving figure and played it with a hunched posture. “You are like the boundless sea, my Queen—all who encounter you, high or low, lose themselves in your beauty and grace,” he rasped in a growly British accent. He had already filmed for ten days when Jiang scolded him for his acting.

“Do it liked a prince in Shakespeare!” Jiang demanded.

“OK,” Kos-Read replied, “but there won’t be much continuity.”

Jiang didn’t care, and so Kos-Read tried the scene with an upright posture and a poncy British accent.

“Yes! That’s the character,” Jiang said.

French stood by watching. When Jiang left the set, French offered a solution: They would film each scene with both versions of the character—and forget about Jiang’s vision in the editing room.

INT. AUDITORIUM, DOWNTOWN BEIJING – DAY

A press conference is taking place. On a stage made to look like an ancient temple, MERMAIDS wearing what appear to be swimming caps with dangling dreadlocks dance to heavy drumbeats and flashing lights.

In April 2010, a little more than two months after French took over Empires of the Deep, the cast and director were asked to appear at a press conference in Beijing. Journalists were given 3-D glasses to watch a trailer that featured Kurylenko as the Mermaid Queen. Her words echoed over the auditorium: “The Demon Mage, so long imprisoned by our ancestors, can no longer be restrained!” The trailer looked half finished, the special effects as if they were from a nineties video game.

Shi Yanfei, who plays the mermaid Aka, and Polites took the stage. Kos-Read, the event’s host, announced Kurylenko, who walked down a red carpet leading from backstage in a slim black dress. “Ni hao,” she said in stilted Chinese, “wo ai dajia”—I love everyone. Applause broke out across the theater.

A few weeks later, Michael French’s contract expired. Most of the script had been put on film, but Jiang began adding extra scenes and demanded that French stay through the end, or else he wouldn’t be paid for the last of his work. French was exasperated. “The train was off-track. They couldn’t pay the crew. They couldn’t pay for the cameras. But they could add extra scenes?” he told me. He believed the producers had failed the movie. “There was nothing they could offer that would beat the prospect of going home.”

He told his friend Rao that he was leaving and booked a plane ticket to Canada. On April 30, his birthday, Empires’ third director flew home.


Throughout that spring, Jiang invited journalists to visit the set. “This is a Hollywood film made by Chinese,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’ll use our resources to market it so it will succeed. It has to.” To a reporter from The New York Times, he compared himself to George Lucas, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson. “Empires,” he said, was “a very serious love tragedy” that “is a combination of something mystical, something that satisfies your bloodlust, and something sensual.” Jiang boasted that the script went through 40 drafts with the help of ten Hollywood screenwriters, and he envisioned distributing his movie to 160 countries. In Jiang’s office, according to the Times, was a dry-erase board that read “Days until Monica Bellucci shows up on set,” “Days until the Cannes Film Festival,” and “Days until the grand premiere,” all left blank.

The Times reporter also noted a problem that Lawrence had encountered during the earliest days of the film: People weren’t getting paid. At the beginning of the shoot, checks were a day or two late. But as the production stretched on and the budget ballooned by a reported $50 million, pay arrived weeks and even months behind, and in some cases not at all.

Jiang admitted to the Times that some people were getting paid late because of “liquidity problems.” Once, according to French, a group of foreign extras who hadn’t been paid in weeks threatened to walk. Instead of paying them, the production team called the local police to come to the hotel and check their visas—a scare tactic. One day, China Film Group, the behemoth state-owned studio, locked the door to a soundstage because it hadn’t been paid for use of its gear.

No one knows how much of his own money Jiang invested in the project. Some of the people I interviewed think he nearly bankrupted himself, but Peter Hu, a former Fontelysee executive, told me that he believes Jiang relied almost entirely on outside financing and that when it dried up, the payments to cast and crew stopped. By the time the movie was finished, the investors were furious. “It’s not a happy ending,” Hu says. “They lost a lot of money.”

After Michael French left, Jonathan Lawrence heard from someone in Jiang’s office. Would he come back to the movie?

No.

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American actors were promised plush trailers where they could relax between takes. None materialized. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

INT. A SOUNDSTAGE, BEIJING – DAY

Empires’ fourth director, SCOTT MILLER, rushes around the set. CHINESE SET BUILDERS are constructing a palace for a banquet scene atop a GIANT FISH, 20 feet high and surrounded by green screens. ACTORS wait for the set to be completed.

The interior is too dark to film; the WORKERS saw off the top of the palace they have just finished building.

MILLER

I guess that’s one way to get light.

Seven

In early 2016, I tracked down Empires’ fourth and final director, the man who saw the movie to wrap. Scott Miller is a Los Angeles–based filmmaker and the son of Warren Miller, the famed producer and director of over 750 sports documentaries. Miller got along well with Jiang, and unlike many of those involved, he has fond memories of the three months he worked on Empires. “It was a blast,” he told me when we spoke over the phone. “I enjoyed it immensely.”

Miller had worked with Harrison Liang in the past and accepted the Empires job with enthusiasm. He saw Empires of the Deep as a love story between Atlas and Aka. It was epic and fun, yes, but what it was missing was emotion, and he added material to build up the romance.

When he arrived in China, morale on set was abysmal. He tried to improve it by allocating more money for better food for the cast and crew. He slowed down the pace of shooting and worked closely with Steve Polites and Shi Yanfei to deepen their portrayals. He watched the footage of the previous few directors and lobbied to reshoot the whole thing to realize his vision. (Miller’s request was denied. The directors and actors disagree about how much each director shot. Most agree that the shoot was almost evenly divided between Lawrence, French, and Miller. But Miller says that he shot a full two-thirds of the movie.

Maxx Maulion couldn’t imagine reshooting the film. By May 2010, he had been in China for six months and saw no end in sight. With three different directors, he had three different takes on his character. Was he a joker? A drunk? A sad sack? He hadn’t been paid in three months—he was owed more than $30,000. He noticed that the production was rushing his scenes and believed that they were trying to film him out of the movie to avoid paying him what he was owed.

Maulion’s agent told him to walk off the set and come back to Los Angeles. He told his friend and costar Polites that he was leaving. He felt guilty, but Polites understood. While he was in the cab to the airport, his phone buzzed with texts: He was due on set in an hour. He didn’t respond.

Polites wanted to stick it out: He was the star, and he was fighting sea monsters. Empires was what he’d always dreamed of doing. A few months later, Polites shot his final scene: a brief encounter in the mermaid palace that required him to get sopping wet. He was ready to go home. Before he departed, he asked the wardrobe department if he could take Atlas’s sword with him as a souvenir. They said no, so he settled for his cape.


Back in L.A., still stinging from his experiences in China, Maulion wondered if Empires would ever be released—and whether his character would still be in the film. The movie was scheduled for a 2011 premiere. But the date came and went. In October 2012, two years after principal photography wrapped, a 3-D trailer appeared online. The website Den of Geek wrote that it looked “hurriedly put together for the Syfy Channel.… Clearly, this was not a film that would make James Cameron fear for his position as the king of the glossy blockbuster.”

After Empires, Maulion wrote and starred in an indie comedy called Tony Tango. In 2012, he promoted the movie at the American Film Market at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. As he walked into the lobby, he noticed a banner for Empires of the Deep.

He searched for the Empires booth and found it downstairs in the international section, where, in a dark, largely empty corner, he encountered Jon Jiang. Maulion greeted him, and the exchange was amiable. Maulion asked if he was still in the movie, and Jiang said through a translator that he was; they’d hired a chubby European man to shoot from behind for the remainder of Trajin’s scenes. There were no visitors to the booth, and Jiang appeared disheartened. Maulion figured he wasn’t having any luck finding a distributor.

“No hard feelings?” Maulion said, shaking hands with Jiang. He still hadn’t been paid for his last three month’s work.


In 2013, one of Jiang’s assistants called Steve Polites and invited him to the Cannes Film Festival to promote the movie. The producers bought Polites a ticket to France and rented him a tux. On the way to the airport, he got a call with news that the trip was canceled. “After that I was kind of like, OK, I’m washing my hands of this,” Polites says.

But Empires wasn’t done with him. The next year he was invited to a screening of the movie at the Sony Pictures lot in Los Angeles. Jiang had reportedly hired Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s longtime editor, to cut the film, and it looked as if it was finally being geared up for release. Polites went to the theater with some trepidation; he was still trying to come to terms with his hair, among other things. He brought along his wife for emotional support.

Although he was amazed to see himself on the big screen fighting sea monsters and demons, much of the film was outright ridiculous. The story was a mess, the plotline didn’t work, and the CGI looked cheap and unfinished. The best the movie could hope for, Polites figured, was to find a cult following. “It’s so kind of wonderfully weird in its own way. It’s so bad it’s good.”

Two weeks later, in April 2014, almost four years after filming ended, he flew back to China for reshoots. Neither Scott Miller nor Rao Xiaobing was there; in fact, Polites didn’t recognize anyone from the original crew. He spent a week in China and did only one full day of shooting. By then Polites’s hair was short, so the wardrobe team picked up a wig for him to wear. He describes it as “Marilyn Monroe–esque.”

INT. THE LOBBY OF THE CHINA WORLD HOTEL, BEIJING – LATE AFTERNOON

Three men and a woman sit around a table in the luxury hotel’s café. JON JIANG wears sweatpants, white sneakers, what looks to be an expensive black lambskin coat, and an ascot tied around his neck. CHEN PENG, his friend and former employee, sits across from him. A jet-lagged JOURNALIST and his FIXER question the billionaire about his missing blockbuster.

Eight

In late November 2015, I traveled to Beijing to find out what had happened with Empires of the Deep. After some prodding, Jiang reluctantly agreed to an interview. As we sat over drinks in the hotel lobby, he was friendly, with a nervous bounce in his knee. Drinking Coke with lemon from a glass, he displayed an earnest excitement, especially when he mentioned a new movie he was writing called Parallel Universes, based on the theories of quantum mechanics.

I asked him about the revolving door of directors on Empires. Pitof, he said, was good at special effects and played a positive role in the early stages of the movie. But he kept changing the script, of which he had little understanding. “I thought it would be better to hire a director from Hollywood,” Jiang told me. “It’s very hard to communicate with the French.”

“We wanted it to look as good as Star Wars,” Jiang continued. He said he hired 3-D experts from Avatar and added more than 1,300 special effects—more than Transformers. Postproduction was expensive, and it took years to complete. Jiang said the production was waiting for more investment money. The budget for the movie kept growing, and they struggled to pay for it all.

When I asked Jiang if I could watch the latest cut of Empires, he told me I’d have to wait for the theatrical release. It wouldn’t do the movie justice to watch it on DVD.


On January 21, 2016, a new and improved trailer befitting a slick video game appeared on a Chinese crowdfunding website. The special effects were better than earlier versions, but the teaser didn’t reveal much in the way of plot, focusing instead on sea monsters, mermaids, and epic battle sequences. “The war between good and evil has just begun,” the text overlay read.

The producers were seeking to raise 1 million yuan ($150,000) by March 23 for an undisclosed purpose and were advertising a dubious April 2016 release date. For less than $25, an individual donor’s name would appear in the credits, and for $7,600 a company’s logo could be printed on movie posters and advertisements. The promotional material on the site included a picture of Steve Polites with another actor’s name written underneath it, listed Irvin Kershner as one of the directors alongside Scott Miller and Michael French, and credited Randall Frakes as a screenwriter. It made no mention of Pitof, Jonathan Lawrence, or Maxx Maulion.

Four months later, just 2 percent of the fundraising goal had been reached.

EXT. UPSCALE RESIDENTIAL COMPLEX, BEIJING – DAY

On a frigid winter morning, a JOURNALIST searches for an opening into a padlocked three-story rental office decorated with Greco-Roman columns. He finds a door that’s not quite closed and yanks it open.

Before I left Beijing, I traveled to one of the properties that made Jon Jiang a rich man. It’s called Fengdanli She, which translates to “red maple leaf beautiful house.” Situated on the dusty outskirts of Beijing, six miles north of the Bird’s Nest stadium, the gated community has a faux-European design meant to convey luxury. Although it’s only a decade old, up close the brick homes look cheap and worn, like so many properties hastily erected during China’s boom.

mermansuits-1464020215-49.jpg
 In a dusty abandoned office outside Beijing, the remains of an empire. (Photo: Mitch Moxley)

Well-to-do young families bundled in parkas and wool hats strolled past neatly trimmed hedges. Guards in military-style winter hats and oversize yellow uniforms manned the front gates with clipboards. Next to the front entrance was the complex’s former rental office, a three-story white building. The doors and windows were padlocked, but eventually I found a door that was ajar and crawled inside.

The air was cold and still; the building appeared not to have been entered by another human being in years. Used mattresses, discarded office chairs, and filing cabinets collected dust. But among the detritus were other, more peculiar artifacts. In one room there were dozens of swamp green rubber merman costumes hanging on racks. In another, fake pieces of coral littered the ground. There was a chest plate for a Greek warrior, a five-foot-wide starfish, and a helmet with a plaster fin on top. There was what looked like a castle turret made of styrofoam, statues of seahorses, and dozens of spears and axes stacked against a wall.

Jiang told me that he is determined for the film to be more than a collection of dusty props in a warehouse. Ten years after he first shopped Mermaid Island around Hollywood, six years after filming wrapped, and four years after the first trailer appeared online, Jon Jiang’s dream remains very much alive. When we met in the China World Hotel, the man behind the mermaids insisted that Empires would soon be released. It just needed to be approved by Chinese censors, and then he would begin looking for an international distributor. Empires of the Deep was still poised for global success, as it has been all along.

“The world,” he said, “has never seen anything like this before.”

FADE OUT.

THE END