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Sunk: The Story of Empires of the Deep

Jonathan Lawrence was the third director hired to shoot the film Empires of the Deep, but the first of three to direct the actual shooting. In 2010, filming began in China, a co-production of the sort Hollywood is actively seeking in order to take advantage of the massive Chinese movie audience.  

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.

One shouldn’t make such jokes in China. When Lawrence was ready to shoot on the beach, there was a 15-foot wall hiding most of what they went to the beach for. That was just one of the many problems with the production of Empires of the Deep. Most of the main characters were played by Americans (the exception being the producer's girlfriend), the extras were Russian, and the crew was Chinese, which caused communication problems and left little time for actually filming the drama. The settings were dangerous, the weather uncooperative, and eventually everyone stopped getting paid. One American actress quit and had to sneak out a window with her boyfriend after the producer refused to return her passport. After Lawrence quit, two more directors gave it a shot, each with a different vision of what the finished movie should be. Six years later, the epic still hasn’t found a distributor, but the story of what went on behind the scenes at Atavist magazine is a fascinating look at how culture clash can suck millions of dollars down the drain. -via Digg       

(Image credit: Gilles Sabrie)

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