Jason Ginsburg

Writer and Digital Producer

Apr 3, 2021
Published on: DoubleViking
2 min read


Empires of the Deep has been billed as "The Chinese Avatar." It's a 3-D fantasy epic with the largest movie budget in China's history. Conceived and funded by Chinese real-estate mogul Jon Jiang, it tells the story of a mermaid kingdom... and pirates... and sea monsters... and something. All we have to go on is the trailer, which doesn't explain much. While that trailer was released in 2012, the film has still not been released in any venue or format.

Here's the original trailer, so you can judge for yourself.

This is what $130 million bought at the time, which is about the same budget as The Wolverine or Captain America. For me, most of the trailer looks like a Syfy TV movie, with the exception of the slow shot around the giant fish, which I think is pretty cool. Otherwise, this isn't China's—or anyone's—Avatar.

Years after production ended, with no release date in site, some of those involved have come forward to share their stories. They include Jonathan Lawrence, the longest-serving of the film's four directors (!); Randall Frakes, one of 10 screenwriters (!!) to have worked on Jiang's initial script; Steve Polites, who played the hero (and two other roles, as we'll see); and background actor Dale Irons, who kept a diary of his weeks on the set before being fired. Let's check in with each of them to see what went wrong.

The Director

Jonathan Lawrence had mostly directed commercials and music videos before signing on to Empires. He replaced Pitof, the director of Catwoman, whose initial hiring was certainly not a good sign. After five months, Lawrence left the project. He told io9: "By that time it was evident that my hands were tied creatively." But he was also concerned about the safety conditions on set: "When personal safety of the actors was being ignored daily, I reached the end of my tolerance. This may be the way they do things in China... but I won't stand for the cast I brought from the US being but into potentially life-threatening environments."

On the set of Empires of the Deep
On the set of Empires of the Deep

Lawrence was replaced by Michael French, who has directed some TV movies and documentaries. French was then replaced by Scott Miller, who has only directed documentaries. How all this non-fiction filmmaking will work for an ancient fantasy set underwater remains to be seen. Lawrence has watched dailies and, though he praises the crew and the special effects artists, says the movie will likely look like "a mid-range video game." He also said he was told the film would be released soon...but that was November of 2014.

The Screenwriter

Randall Frakes is the only credited screenwriter on the film's IMDb page, but multiple reports attach ten writers to the project, and 40 drafts. Frakes has written more than a dozen screenplays and is a close friend of James Cameron's. He told Den of Geek: "I was hired to co-write an English version of the original Chinese treatment." He doesn't name the co-writer. But he does give some insight on the story, or lack thereof:

"Due to the nature of the subject matter and the producer/original writer's concepts," Frakes said, "which were at best muddled and at worst incomprehensible to an international audience, I did not hold out much hope of this film being accepted by the general public, either in Europe, the States or even in China."

I can't find the names of any of the other writers, including Frakes's partner. Maybe they don't want their identities to be known.

The Star

Steve Polites had few credits to his name when he was cast as Atlas below: the male lead, along with the hero's alter ego, Silver Eye, and is revealed to be the film's villain (I said the script was confusing). He told Yahoo Movies that at first he was thrilled to be a movie star, but the indignities started right when he arrived:

"They bleached my hair, they permed my hair. I think it came out green, orange…finally it ended up in this blonde color 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."

Steve Polites as Atlas
Steve Polites as Atlas

He had asked for a gym so he could bulk up for the role; it didn't happen. Instead, he and a lot of the cast lost weight because they all ate the exact same meal on set every day: Chicken, broccoli, and rice. Polites also felt that the constant rewrites prevented him from having sufficient time to rehearse. Because the film was shot on film instead of less-expensive digital, there were few chances for retakes.

Unlike the other three men on this list, Polites stayed until the end. He even went back a year later for reshoots, and again had to endure insults to his hair: "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.'"

The Background Actor

Dale Irons was an extra on the film and kept a diary during his weeks on set at various locations playing different roles. This give us a fascinating, funny, and in-depth look at the troubled production, day to day.

For example, Irons had to wear a baggy rubber suit to play a merman. Makeup artists glued the rubber to his skin to make it seamless, and almost immediately, Irons felt a tingling sensation. "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."

The film wasn't American or union, so some rules went out the window. Irons mentions several weeks of getting to bed at 2 am, only to be due back in the makeup chair at 4:30. That either wouldn't happen on a "normal" set, or the performers would be paid overtime.

The film's original title was "Mermaid Island USA vs. The Plesiosaurs"
The film's original title was "Mermaid Island USA vs. The Plesiosaurs"

Remember those safety issues director Lawrence mentioned? Irons can explain. Filming in a rock quarry, which would appear as an underwater cave in the movie:

"I noticed that every single crew member was wearing a hard hat. Every. Single. One. 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!'"

Irons developed a rash on his skull from from the rubber headpiece, so one day he decided not to use the glue on his head and neck. When the filmmakers watched that day's footage, they saw Iron's bare neck and decided he had ruined all the takes. He was fired.

And this doesn't include the cinematographer who quit during pre-production, the late paychecks, the weather delays, and the supporting actress who quit while on location and had to sneak out of the production's mountain resort without her passport, requiring the help of the US embassy to get her out of China.

Will we ever see Empires of the Deep? Jiang and his investors have no chance of making their $130 million back without releasing it... but they could choose just to cut their losses. Making 3-D prints and launching a global marketing campaign is expensive. And who will appear at press events? Not Lawrence. Not Frakes. Not the actress who had to flee the production like a criminal.

On IMDb Pro, there is still no release date for the film. Whether anyone will ever see it may be a more compelling mystery than anything we eventually see on screen.


Jason Ginsburg studied film and theatre at USC. He wrote the fantasy film series The Age of Stone and Sky, whose first installment stars Corey Feldman and Jeffrey Combs, and is available on Amazon Prime Video.