Deep Trouble: On The Set Of China’s Most Expensive, Possibly Worst Film (Part 2)

Empires of the Deep Part 2b

Editor’s note: Empires of the Deep, with a budget exceeding $100 million, was supposed to be China’s Avatar. But as our correspondent, Dale Irons, found out on set, this extravagant 3-D epic was plagued from the beginning by incompetence and misfortune — to say nothing of dangerous working conditions, a rampaging horse, and the tide. Five years after production began, there’s little reason to believe this film will ever see a big-screen release.

This is Part 2 of Dale’s two-part diary from the set of what might be China’s most expensive — and worst — movie ever. Catch up with Part 1 here, in which our correspondent fibs his way into a role before realizing he’d be forced to cut off his locks to play a merman. -RFH


As promised, the day of reckoning has finally come. I had managed to avoid my appointment with the razor for almost three weeks but couldn’t hide any longer. I would be reborn as a merman.

This is when things genuinely turned ugly. The eight or so merman extras were told to be ready by 4:30 am in order to get to the studio for make-up. Our previous night’s shooting had only left us in bed by 2 am, so we were more than a little tired. We arrived and put on our rubber suit for the first time. Not the most comfortable thing, but the novelty of becoming some type of mermaid soldier was exciting for about an hour. Perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who’s observed how lowly Chinese employees are often asked to don ill-fitting costumes, the suit proved baggy around the neck, arms and legs. Their solution was to glue the suit to our skin, starting with the legs.

After they had finished gluing my hands, I began to experience some minor irritation. I examined the bottles they were using and, sure enough, found a large warning in bold caps: Avoid contact with skin.” By the time they’d finished affixing a fin to my naked scalp, my entire body was experiencing a mild burning sensation. My scalp, freshly denuded and exposed to the elements for the first time in years, was undergoing God knows what culture shock: I could picture the toxics pouring like Viking raiders through my vulnerable pores and into my bloodstream.

By the time the face make-up had been completed, it was 9 am. We emerged into the studio to find not a single member of the crew present. It wasn’t for another seven hours that shooting finally began at 4 pm; I was told to “get used to it.”

The filming itself took 30 minutes, before it was time to remove our suits and accessories. Some type of alcohol was used for the avoid-contact-with-skin glue. My head fin wasn’t done with me: it left an angry, horseshoe-shaped mark behind. I was told not to “worry.”

We arrived home around 2 am again only told to be ready to get fishy again at 4 am.

After a few weeks of this nonsense, we set off to film somewhere in a cave. Only it wasn’t so much a cave as an abandoned quarry. Given China’s safety record with mining, this didn’t feel like the most safety-conscious shoot, but, hell, I was no longer being doused daily in toxic glue, so I went along with it.

Back in my curly wig and acting helpless, I noticed that every single crew member was wearing a hard hat. Every. Single. One. Except us — neither the pirates (our enemies!) nor my fellow villagers had been offered any means of keeping our precious skulls safe.

I’d already been marked down as a troublemaker, so when the pirates settled down to a feast at a picnic table, and we were chained to a wall, I said nothing. Then in came the horse again (that bloody horse); I was surprised it didn’t have a hard hat on, too. The animal had somehow been instructed to jump over the feasting table. After several failed attempts, I was glad to be bald, chained to the wall and persona non grata, rather than in the path of those hooves — which were under the command of local personnel who clearly had no concern if anyone else died or had their bones crushed.

Then, with a sudden almighty crash, the reason for all those helmets became apparent. A chunk of rock, around a meter across, came crashing down from somewhere on high and landed, destroying a spotlight. The cry went up immediately from the crew: “Don’t worry!”

Yet someone clearly was worried, because after a few more days, eventually even our crew of Jackass rejects were wondering whether the disused quarry was just too dangerous a work environment. As extras we were simply expendable. It was now the depths of winter; the conditions could not have been worse. The last thing we heard was that they would return in spring to finish the quarry shooting.

By this time, my hair was beginning to grow back, except for around the site of the horseshoe welt on my scalp. “If you don’t like it, go back to Beijing,” the casting director would now snap at my every approach. I was no longer viewed as an annoying gadfly but an actual menace to production. My complaints had annoyed just about everyone on set and my inappropriate amusement at the storyline and script hadn’t done me any favors either.

[Ed.’s note: the original script was written by the film’s main cheerleader and wallet, 43-year-old supposed "billionaire mogul" Jon Jiang. By 2010, it had gone through “40 drafts with the help of 10 Hollywood screenwriters,” according to the New York Times]

By this time, we’d relocated to Fujian province: namely, a small town called Qinyu, which you may have seen sometimes on the news in recent years for its infamous, deadly floods. Our hotel had spared no expense with a large red “big character” banner to welcome the production. Other than the aforementioned flooding problem, not much happens in Qinyu, so the Empires shoot was big news in the town. The locals, led to believe they would catch a glimpse of some famous actors, had already begun loitering around the hotel in clusters. How wrong they were: Cao Cao hadn’t even turned up yet.

[Ed.'s note: Stars would be in short supply, anyway. After numerous Hollywood actors turned down roles, the lead went to Italian actress Monica Bellucci. Belluci pulled out and was replaced by Bond girl Olga Kurylenko: she remains the headliner. Rest of the cast, including Angry Villager, here.]

So it wasn’t for another week that filming would begin, this time on the beach. This was a welcome change from the dullness of the studio and the dangers of the quarry. The whole scene was essentially an invasion: mermen emerging from the water and running along the beach till someone told them to stop.

Unfortunately, the shoot was marred by a daily Act of God no one could possibly have ever envisaged: the tide. We would arrive in the morning; the usual confusion would mean we began filming in the afternoon, and then the twin enemies of fading natural light and the rising tide would wreak havoc upon every plan for that day. We would literally film for a maximum of one or two hours each day. The extent to which the quotidian twin events of sunset and tide plagued filming – events you could literally set your watch by — was far worse than any pirate raid, mermen invasion, or maritime war.

By now, we must have been at least three months behind schedule. Actors and crew were threatening to leave daily, due to not being paid and the production running way over schedule. The director at the time, Jonathan Lawrence, had clearly had enough.

[Ed.'s note: Lawrence was shortly to leave the shoot. After five months’ filming in difficult conditions (“aside from slippery wet rocks in pouring rain, this included a cave that was falling apart and dangerous crushing equipment,” according to an “anonymous source” quoted in a sci-fi blog), his contract expired and somehow did not meet the requirements for renewal. Lawrence’s exit followed the earlier walkout of the singularly named director Pitof, of Catwoman infamy (Catwoman for Chrissake!), along with the sideways promotion of Empire Strikes Back and Robocop 2’s Irvin Kershner from director to executive producer, which didn’t stop him from eventually bouncing, either. IMDB now lists two directors, Michael French -- who we’ve never heard of but has something called Heart of a Dragon to his cinematic credit -- and Scott Miller (ditto; did camera work on 2000’s Bus Driver’s Union).]

Meanwhile, the stunt director was frustrated at dealing with a plethora of unprofessional action experts like myself. Like the troubled underwater productions of Titanic and Waterworld, everything seemed to be turning into an expensive disaster movie.

On what felt like Day 236, we were informed that the empire would be marching up a neighboring mountain in order to film a line-up scene. The minibus twisted and turned up the dangerous winding paths with the blaring horn as the sole safety device. Upon reaching the summit, we donned our fish suits, although this time I refused to apply their glue to my neck due to a rash. This seemed to go unnoticed (the make-up artists had had enough of my non-stop bitching by this point).

We were to stand in a row as the camera swooped over in a horizontal line, much like a football team during the national anthem. Things seem to go rather smoothly.

On the descent, though, I overheard a phone call where my name was repeated several times, accompanied by troubled groans from the recipient. Back at the hotel, word soon went round that I was in the soup.

The problem? That damn glue again.

On reviewing the day’s footage, my bare neck had been spotted by the crew. I was not given a chance to argue my point, or even point to my rash. The verdict was already in: “Tomorrow you go back to Beijing!” The empire had finally struck back.

My dismissal, while humiliating, had probably been a long time coming. My stunt acting and fight scenes had been lackluster to say the least: It had taken ten takes for me to simply fall from a rooftop on wires. I had failed to fire plastic arrows at imaginary targets. I couldn’t even look mean on camera. A week before, I had armed my fellow mermen with BB guns we found at a nearby toy store and recreated scenes from The Matrix in the hotel corridors. By a tragic and unforeseen accident, the casting director had gotten himself caught in the crossfire. My card was marked.

On the train home, though, I was smiling. All said and done, it was damn good fun and I would do it all over again. As one blogger, who seemed to have some impressive behind-the scenes access, optimistically noted in 2010: “Empires of the Deep is planned as the first of a trilogy [and] scheduled for a 2011 release. Hopefully, it will rise above accusations of resource mismanagement, financial issues, poor production decisions, corner-cutting, inexperienced extras and the other problems.”

I couldn’t agree less. Fingers crossed that the movie does live up (or down) to all the hype — after all, not many people can say they starred in the worst movie ever made; even fewer can say they were from sacked from it.

According to Douban, Empires of the Deep was rescheduled for an August 2013 release. It never happened. The latest IMDB update, from October 2013, lists it as under post-production.

Part 1 of Dale Irons’s account is here.

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