Empires Of The Deep: The Bonkers True Story Of The ‘Most Expensive’ Unreleased Movie Ever Made

Four different directors, almost 10 years in the making and costing an alleged £100million, yet ‘Empires of the Deep’, China’s planned answer to ‘Avatar’, remains unreleased. 

We spoke to its producer and lead actor to find out just what on Earth is going on.

China’s Avatar

Most people would like to make a film. The glamour, the excitement, the glory. Well, perhaps, but only if you are able to actually make it.

That’s the quandary faced by Chinese real estate mogul Jon Jiang, who decided in 2006 to write China’s answer to James Cameron’s blockbuster, only to find it much harder to do than he expected.

“I think I’m the only one who’s seen it other than the creators,” says actor Steve Polites, who signed a three month contract in 2009 to play the hero of ‘Empires of the Deep’ (and weirdly two other characters), only to find himself still stuck in China nine months later.

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Incredibly, seven years on the movie is still unreleased, with only a trailer full of shonky underwater CGI and a brief appearance by Bond girl Olga Kurylenko as the queen of the mermaids to show for it.

“[Jon has] a really good heart and the core of a great idea, but couldn’t let go of it,” says Mark Byers, a Hollywood veteran who came on in late 2007 as a producer to try and help. “[He] was influenced by George Lucas and James Cameron, he just grabbed onto the auteur thing.”

Rogue’s gallery

The problem was Jiang didn’t really know what goes into making a film. He initially hired Pitof, aka the single-monikered director of legendary flop ‘Catwoman’, but soon decided that wasn’t working out and hired a further three directors, who also arrived and departed before the film could be finished.

He signed up people who’d worked on the 3D for ‘Avatar’ and even got Spielberg’s three-time-Oscar-winning editor Michael Kahn to do a pass in the editing room, but his seeming inability to collaborate eventually meant it all came to naught.

The script too had its issues. “It takes place in Greek times, so I have the full Greek garb with the cape and everything,” explains Polites. “But then there are creatures and underwater battles and a whole other kingdom.”

Frankly, judging from the trailer, it’s impossible to tell quite what the film is about. There are pirates, mer-people and Hong Kong-style wire work, while Polites plays a demi-god called Atlas and “I have an alter ego character called Silvereye and then also, spoiler alert, I play the demon mage villain at the end, which is all CGI.”

True lies

What’s very clear is a grand vision coupled to a lack of attention to detail.

“You’d walk onto one of the biggest soundstages in the world where [there were] these huge, elaborate sets that were constructed by hand and huge greenscreens,” remembers the actor. “But then you’d see a character walk by and they’d have this cheap, plastic armour on that looked horrible and it was so confusing, like, how could they build all this and miss this little detail?”

The answer is simple: money.

While the film is touted elsewhere online as costing upwards of £100m, the reality is “£6m to £9m, it may have slid to £11.5m or £13.7m,” says Byers. “That’s just my estimation.”

Er, that’s pretty far from its supposed blockbuster budget?

“When Jon was getting ready to do casting, he said, ‘we’ll tell everyone it’s a $100m movie’,” reveals Byers. “It’s like, no don’t do that! Of course he persisted and then got to Hollywood and started talking to agents and he wants to pay scale and they say, ‘it’s a $100m movie, what do you mean scale?!’”

“Money was an issue,” adds Polites. “We’d get to set sometimes and the gates of the studio were chained shut because somebody didn’t pay something.”

The lack of budget meant a lot of on-screen details were compromised.

“I’d grown [my hair] out,” says the actor. “I wore a hat on the plane and when I arrived, the translation of ‘hat head’ wasn’t happening. I kept on saying, ‘just let me go and wash my hair, it’ll be totally different.’ But they said no and rushed me into a salon. They bleached my hair, they permed my hair. I think it came out green, orange…finally it ended up in this blonde colour and it’s horrible-looking. That alone, having the confidence to go on camera with this hair was ridiculous. It looks like a wig but it’s not.”

“A year or so ago, they said you need to come back for a week of reshoots,” he continues. “My hair was short so they went out and bought this Marilyn Monroe-type wig at the closest wig shop in this little province town I was in. I was like, ‘here we go, nothing much has changed.’”

Cult classic in the making?

So the question is, will ‘Empires of the Deep’ ever see the light of day?

“There’s enough you could cut a workable movie,” says Byers. “It’s never going to be great, but there are cool effects, a decent rough story. It certainly can be better than ‘Sharknado’.”

“It does have all the makings of a cult movie,” admits Polites. “It seems like every six months or a year I get a call or an email saying it’s premiering.”

Still, he’s not holding his breath.

“I’ve made my peace with it,” he laughs. “I learned a lot about myself and the business. I don’t regret it.”

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Image credits: Emagine Studio, Facebook, China Film Group, Rex Media