Deep Trouble: On The Set Of China’s Most Expensive, Possibly Worst Film (Part 1)

Empires of the Deep mermaids

Editor’s note: Empires of the Deep is a much-delayed 3-D epic film that seems destined to disappear forever — for various unexplained but guessable reasons. Neither the film — known rather generously as “China’s Avatar,” starring Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) – nor the full story may ever be officially released. The New York Times profiled the film as far back as 2010, reporting a summer 2011 release. Much later, word on Douban had it that that this supposed USD$150 million flick — financed by real estate mogul Jon Jiang — was slated for cinemas around August 2013. That date has clearly come and gone with no sign of the maritime epic’s splashdown.

It’s now been five years — an appropriate anniversary — so, tired of waiting, we here publish the “production diaries” of a young Australian-British man, Dale Irons, who found himself back in 2009, for various reasons, on the set of allegedly the most expensive Chinese film ever made — and possibly the worst. Big words? Read for yourself. -RFH


It all began with a distant classified ad calling for extras for a big-budget Hollywood-style movie about mermaids, or some such shit.

Desperate for cash and willing to sell any pride (and later, any bodily harm) at whatever price to keep me away from a room full of screaming, irritating spoilt brats, this former English teacher took down the address and time. I’d seen Splash with my mother once back in the day, so I was positively swimming with confidence: oh yeah.

Arriving at the audition at Beijing’s The Place [Ed.’s note: This is a ritzy strip mall actually called The Place] I rendezvoused with my old high-school chum, Ryan. We had moved to Harbin from Australia together in 2006, but unlike my own, unaccomplished self, he was managing a rather large nightclub, which he never ceased to shut up about. (Maybe that’s a bit harsh: give me a few drinks and I’ll bore you to tears with my so-called “near-death experiences” in that notorious Dongbei city.)

It became apparent rather quickly that I was at a cattle market for agents, with four or five frantically trying to grab their merchandise to make it clear which livestock they were representing.

The confused herd, about 80 souls in all, was eventually ready to be presented to the casting director, who we’ll call Chen; his rented office was awash with mysterious sea scenes, maritime props, and strange figurines.

Chen, who looked somewhat goblin-like himself, made a speech that at least 80 percent of us did not remotely understand. His assistant proceeded to dramatically reduce this into a few short, welcoming sentences, and then it was down to business.

Chen asked anyone with acting experience to raise their hands and fill out an application form. I had exactly zero background on set; I raised my hand. Filling the form, I populated my resume with fictional commercials, every Australian film we could remember, a TV series in which I was the lead, and thank God IMDB was blocked in China at that time.

After a brief reading, we were asked if we had any “fighting or action experience.” Yes: tons. For my friend — built like a tank with a voice so deep he was actually able to bass you out of a conversation — this wasn’t actually so far from the truth, although the acting was mostly of the “fucking and fighting” variety, in assorted bars and clubs. With my shoulder-length hair and somewhat effete manner, I cringed at the thought of a demonstration of such skills. Luckily, they took my word for it.

After our turn in front of a camera, we were told we would be contacted in a few days if we were successful. The huddle of agents warned their potential stars that we must mention their names if we were successful.

That same night, we went out to dinner to ponder our potential career shift. Around9 pm, Ryan’s phone rang. It was the agent: we had not been successful. Disappointed, we continued to drink. Thirty minutes later, my phone rang. It was Chen’s assistant: we had been successful. We were going to be “featured extras.” And, yes, our faithful agent had unfortunately been cut out of the deal.

After signing a six-month contract, we were told to pack enough belongings for the entirety of the contract and be at Fuxingmen subway at 3 pm a week later.

I flung some crap in a rucksack and was ready to set off for a city we had never heard of, somewhere in Hebei, to film a movie we had no idea about, by a director we’d never heard of, in a language we didn’t understand. It seemed like it would be a fairly typical China adventure.

Arriving at the shoot’s chosen hotel, a basic number, we were invited to relax for an hour before visiting the casting director’s room to hear who we’d be playing.

During the audition, we’d been told that extras would either be mermen or pirates; that much we knew. The crucial part was that the merman role required a complete removal of all head hair. The pirates, meanwhile, would get to keep all theirs. On the elevator down, one of the ripped-off agents from earlier told me I looked like Johnny Depp and would certainly be cast as a pirate. (I look nothing like Johnny Depp, though a drunk Dutch girl once told me I reminded her of Adrian Brody.)

We assembled to await our filmic fate. After the Depp comment, I was confident I’d get to keep my shoulder-length hair and movie-star looks. Alas, as the pirates’ names were being read out, I realized mine was not among them. And after much arguing, moaning, whining, and outright bitching, my name still wasn’t among them: like it or not, I was going Full Mer.

On Day One of the shoot, I was roused from slumber by a rhythmic moaning to find my gorilla-sized pal curled around an unopened water barrel (I later discovered he’d inexplicably pilfered it from reception). The sight of his hairy back, glistening with beads of sweat, was almost harsher than the prospect of a full day’s shooting.

An early-morning minivan took us to the set, where I was introduced to our main role in the production: hanging around, waiting. Followed by more waiting, followed by sudden mass confusion, followed by further waiting. Eventually, the entire production crew gathered to point incense sticks in each nautical direction for good luck.

This was the first and only time when spirits were high.

For the first few weeks, the featured extras (including me) were tasked with playing what could best be described as Roman guards or Spartans in a village scene from 300. Much of the downtime waiting was thus spent kicking each other in the stomachs and shouting: “This is HEBEI!”

The set was populated by various poorly treated farm animals, plus some Russians who were bussed in daily. They were never the same Russians — so let’s hope no one pays too much attention to the blacksmith or butcher in the background.

My first close-up was simple: I had to confront the hero of the movie, who was demanding to be let through the town gates. “You shall not pass!” I told him bluntly and, to my money, theatrically. I was immediately informed that my lines would be dubbed, as I didn’t have a speaking-role contract; I wasn’t that surprised, except by the fact that they appeared to be taking the contracts seriously.

A week later came my first taste of some of the film’s continuity problems. I was informed that, as well as playing a village guard and a merman soldier, I would also be playing one of four helpless villagers who would be captured by the pirates. Wow, they really are getting their money’s worth, I thought.

Obviously, my face had already been captured on camera not letting any damn man pass, but it wasn’t until I was adorned in my Helpless Peasant robes and ready for action that someone else spotted that fact. The obvious solution, which I presented immediately, would simply be to recast me as a pirate — but the crew had other plans. The make-up team was called in to uglify me. I pondered the possibilities: prosthetic nose? A nasty, prominent scar? They decided on a curly wig — the perfect disguise.

For the first scene featuring the pirate raid, a wooden cage had been constructed, which was dragged in by a very unwilling and somewhat angry horse. The animal first came charging into the studio unheralded, and to the alarm of a crowd of Russian extras who had to scatter wildly. After a good half-hour spent calming the beast down, the crew told me to jump up and sit on top of the cage. My first taste of danger in the empire, and my fate was in the hands (or rather, hooves) of an untrained stallion. The cage gained momentum as the nag flew into the village, myself perched perilously atop. Cut. Phew. Danger over… Take two. Wait, what? It would take many more terrifying takes before the horse hit its mark and we were allowed down to live another day…

Continue to Part 2 of Dale’s diary on the set of Empires of the Deep, China’s most expensive — and possibly worst — movie.