When A Chinese Billionaire Tries To Film An Avatar Knockoff
In 2009, Jon Jiang was inspired by the stunning visuals of Avatar to make his own epic movie, Empires Of The Deep. That's a daunting task, especially since he was a real estate mogul with zero movie-making experience. But he did have a spare $140 million, so wrote a script that combined Greek mythology and Star Wars, set it underwater, and hired cast and crew from all over the world.
To play the male heroes he got young American actors, for the female characters he got international models, and for the extras he got cheap, easy-to-neglect Russians. To oversee the project, he hired an experienced Chinese crew to whom the English language was but a myth. The production was a disaster that chewed through five directors, mostly thanks to Jiang's insistence on overruling the competent professionals he'd hired.
We talked to Steve Polites, who starred as the heroic Atlas, and Maxx Maulion, who played the wacky sidekick Trajan, about a film that sounds so astonishingly bad that we're kind of desperate to see it.
The Project Was Ridiculous From The Moment They Stepped Off The Plane
Steve was working as a bartender when he found the role on a major LA casting site. He auditioned, was called back several times, and was eventually hired. When he arrived in Beijing, he realized that Jiang wanted Empires Of The Deep to be a worldwide phenomenon. There were massive sets, state-of-the-art equipment, and plans for everything from action figures to amusement parks. Steve had even signed on for a trilogy. But there were early signs that the project was going to be a chaotic nightmare.
"I had curly brown hair. It seemed perfect for the part of an ancient Greek warrior. Fast-forward to me meeting everyone fresh off the plane. I had worn a hat, and everyone seemed concerned when my hair was not as curly as when I auditioned. I tried to no avail to communicate the concept of 'hat head.' I was suddenly in a chair and had seven people prodding and poking at my hair. After trying a wig or two, they proceed to usher me off to a salon, where they permed, bleached, cut, dyed my hair. My hair would come out white, orange, green ... when they hit blond, they figured that was good enough. It looked horrible. I thought, 'How the hell am I going to look heroic like this?'"
Meanwhile, Maxx found his part on a small indie casting site. He was hired after just one audition, but he had to pay his own way to China, where he spent the filming process wearing a costume that was little more than a burlap sack.
It was also clear to Maxx that Jiang had cast Americans to lend the project -- and his real estate ventures -- the illusion of Hollywood prestige. This photo looks like it's from a red carpet event, right?
But that's the opening of a hotel, and not even an underwater one. "We were paraded around like a bunch of Western fancy boys. Lots of pomp and circumstance. Dinners with I'm guessing investors, while Jiang would talk about the movie and we'd be sitting there like shiny dolls. It was all very funny because we were freaking nobodies back home."
The Shoot Was Like The Room, If Tommy Wiseau Didn't Know English
On Day 1, Steve had concerns about his Greek garb, which was "entirely too short, to the degree that the movie should've been called Empires Of The Balls." He successfully suggested a change, but that was one of the few times he was able to navigate both translation issues and Jiang's mercurial whims. Also, the hair issue never went away.
"Halfway through filming, we convinced Jiang that we had to find a way to tame [my] hair, slick it back. So that's what we did. They said, 'When you take your headband off, there will be lightning running through you and that will transform you hair.' There was [never a lightning effect added]. It would take hours to set that hair every day. So much work for such a shitty result."
Indeed, you can watch Steve's hair go on a magical journey over the course of the production:
Oh, and when they brought Steve back for a few reshoots six years later, his hair had changed so much that they just said "fuck it" in Chinese and glued a wig on him.
Meanwhile, Maxx's character was being rewritten every time the director changed -- which, as we mentioned, was often. First he was a fun drunk, then a sneaky rogue, then a big coward, then a sarcastic jerk.
Meanwhile, there were signs everywhere that the finished product might not look like a $140 million production. "Mermaids fins were foam and falling off and terrible. There was a pirate king, his hat was a stuffed possum." Also, note the obvious wrinkles in this merman's bathing cap:
Everyone tried to convince Jiang that the merfolk should be wearing wigs or makeup, but no, he insisted on wrinkly swimcaps. Not even the director knew why, and that communication barrier was destined to be an ongoing thing. A beach was going to be used as a stand-in for Mermaid Island, but a huge resort in the background would have ruined every shot. The director joked that they'd just have to build a wall to block it. Cut to:
Jiang had taken him seriously. The whole point of shooting on the beach was authenticity. Now they had to put a bunch of expensive special effects in the background instead of just dumping sand in an empty lot or sound stage and putting green screens everywhere. See, this is why when you're making your first movie, it's probably best to start small.
They Had To Do Their Own (Ridiculously Unsafe) Stunts
Steve and Maxx generally had to be their own stuntmen. Fun fact: Neither of them had any stunt training.
First, Steve met his horse, who was put through as much misery as he was. "The first horse I rode they trekked miles to the set. You could tell it was worn out. When I got up close, I noticed that its black coat had an interesting coloring. Upon further inspection, I realized they had spray-painted a brown horse black to match the other horse we were going to use."
At least Steve and the poor horse could bond over their hair being messed with. And at one point, he thought they were both going to be killed.
"These huge fight sequences, you think they would be choreographed and rehearsed, but no. [In one scene] the horse starts running and a branch nearly takes my head off. The next day we were on location in this massive cave. I walked in and the entire crew have hard hats on due to the possibility of falling rocks. No hard hat for me though. They shut down the location the next day due to falling rocks that they finally deemed 'unsafe.'"
Even the Pirate King and his stuffed possum got a hard hat, but of course it came off while shooting (though it'd be amazing if he had just worn it in the scene), so Steve just had to pray that he wouldn't be crushed to death in the middle of a stirring monologue.
They also spent days shooting underwater scenes in a diving tank that seemed grossly unsafe, due to lights that were barely secured to a pipe hanging mere inches over the water (one of the mermaid actors kept accidentally kicking them). It was also clear that crews were struggling to keep the water clean.
"At one point, we were shooting there all day for about a week straight. You could tell they were just dumping more and more chlorine into the pool to clean it. It got to the point where I couldn't keep my eyes open out of the water because it hurt so bad. I'd have to feel my way back to my hotel room because it was so painful and blurry. I'd wake up with both eyes just crusted shut from them cleaning themselves out."
The Conditions On Set Were Definitely Low-Budget, Even If The Movie Itself Wasn't
"There were no union rules," says Steve. "I shot for 22 hours at one point. There were a few consecutive days like that. We also were not getting proper meal breaks. At the end of this stretch of days on Christmas Eve, I had to jump off this four-foot block holding a spear. Not that hard, right? My body was so fatigued that I couldn't land on steady legs. I kept falling over. 'I need some food,' I said. They proceeded to bring a soggy ham sandwich in a plastic bag that I had seen sitting in a room upstairs for hours."
Maxx didn't have it any better. "I didn't receive meals sometimes. It was cold, no heaters, no water. No toilets, I had to bring my own handicap chair to take a shit. No days off, some days I'd sit in makeup and then just sit in a goddamn room with no windows by myself for 12 hours. I couldn't go in case they needed me. This happened a lot. Last month of filming, they are late with [half] my money, 35k. They start shooting my scenes much faster, trying to wrap me out. I asked for my money before the last week, and they just shook their heads. So I flew back to America. They never paid me, they shot the rest of the film with some extra with a wig on."
Maxx never got that 35k. If you're wondering why they'd let actors literally walk away rather than pay them on a production with a $140 million budget, well, there are probably lots of people who'd love to know the answer to that.
So Will We Ever Get To See The Damned Thing? It's Not Looking Good
Steve is one of the lucky few humans to have ever seen a cut of Empires Of The Deep. His opinion is that it's so marvelously terrible that it could be a cult classic if it were ever to see the light of day. Part of the charm, if you can call it that, is the wild variations in quality from shot to shot -- remember, we're talking about five directors here.
"Some parts I watched in awe and amazement as I battle monsters, and other parts I couldn't find a deep enough hole to hide in. A cool sequence is when Maxx and I are getting chased through underground caverns by this huge lizard. Then we pop out through this hole in the ground to this massive arena where [rival factions] are battling. Then they all turn on me. I go into demigod mode, and it's on. Did I mention the Mermaid Queen is in attendance?"
"Another part that sticks out is my battle with Gava, a mer-henchman who morphs into this huge anglerfish with arms and legs. One mer-general turns into a giant lobster. Others ride giant crabs which have to be fought off. I take on all these mermen, and I'm throwing boulders and swinging huge tree trunks. I'm sure it's humorous to notice which parts of the fights are me and which are obviously my stunt double."
In 2013, Jiang was supposedly planning to show a new trailer at Cannes. They rented Steve a tux so he could walk the red carpet in France, but on the morning of his departure, he got a call from China telling him that the whole thing had been called off for some vague reason. Maxx suspects that the cost of improving the CG to the point where it doesn't look like a 2008 PlayStation game was just too overwhelming.
"The amount of animation that needed to be done was on the scale of an Avengers film. I saw them at the American Film Market trying to sell their film, it was embarrassing. No one was in their office, they had printed so many DVDs and posters, and they were just sitting in the basement of the hotel." In 2016, they tried -- and failed miserably -- to raise $150,000 on a Chinese crowdfunding site to get the movie released. It's unclear if all $140 million of the supposed budget was spent, or if Jiang just cut his losses, or if the budget was even that large to begin with.
After Empires, Maxx drove for Uber while putting the money he did get toward his own movie, while Steve went back to tending bar. They both still act, but their careers never really took off. But for a while, they got to be the stars in a blockbuster action movie. "I was acting in this big-budget movie as the lead in China," says Steve. "I was working with a Hong Kong stunt team doing wire work and these crazy fight scenes. I got to carry a sword and wear a cape. It was unbelievable."
And hey, who knows? Maybe Jiang will decide to release it soon to cash in on all those Avatar sequels.
For a similar experience, please check out The Disaster Artist by Greg Sesteros.
Support your favorite Cracked writers with a visit to our Contribution Page. Please and thank you.
Follow us on Facebook. Because you deserve the very best.