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All photos courtesy of Jonathan Lawrence
Film

What it’s Like Directing a Vanity Film for a Chinese Billionaire

"Empires of the Deep" was supposed to be "Transformers meets Shakespeare." But $100 million and a string of Hollywood directors couldn't save it.
January 14, 2021, 4:47am

“You’re nobody. You’ve done nothing. Why would I hire you?”

Jon Jiang wouldn’t even look at Jonathan Lawrence as he fired off short bursts of Mandarin for his assistant to translate. It was strange that these men were sharing a table in a Los Angeles restaurant. Jiang, a few years shy of 40, had founded a real estate empire that had grown with China’s middle class and made him a billionaire. Lawrence, an American on the wrong side of 40, had directed short films and music videos, and his last gig was unpaid.

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But the two men shared a love of Hollywood cinema. Since seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark as a teenager, Lawrence’s hero had been Steven Spielberg and he often wore an Indiana Jones-style fedora. Jiang too claimed to have watched over 4,000 films, and believed he could use his vast wealth to make Chinese epics in the vein of Spielberg, George Lucas or Peter Jackson. They were meeting because Jiang was considering hiring Lawrance to direct his debut screenwriting effort: a CGI-driven underwater epic called Empires of the Deep. But the men just weren’t connecting. Jiang was being standoffish, rude.

“You don’t have to hire me,” Lawrence replied finally.

Later, after the meeting, Lawrence handed the script to his assistant to make a few notes as a favour to his producer buddy, Mark Byers, who had set up the meeting. His assistant called the script “horrific and completely disjointed”. And that was the last Lawrance heard from Jiang for nearly two years, until he got another email from Byers. It wasn’t a long email, but it set Lawrence on a strange and frustrating journey that would ultimately consume a year of his life.

“Would you like to direct this movie in China?”

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This is the story of how indie film director Jonathan Lawrence came to direct what was in 2007 billed as the most expensive Chinese film of all time. According to Jon Jiang, Empires of the Deep had a budget of US $100 million and a plot that was just as inflated.

Set underwater in Ancient Greece, the film chronicled an epic war between mermaids and demons. Using a mixture of American and Chinese cast, and shooting in China, Jiang’s vision was to make “Transformers meets Shakespeare”—but from Lawrence’s telling the production was more like Apocalypse Now meets The Room. And in the end, no one saw the final product.

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In the two years since his first meeting with Jiang, Lawrence had heard a few rumours about the project. The French director known as Pitoff, best known for 2004’s Catwoman, was hired to direct, but Lawrence’s producer buddy said Pitoff and Jiang had been butting heads and little was achieved. Pitoff had apparently left the production for a short holiday and never returned. Now Jiang wanted Lawrence.

“I was probably still a little bit hurt by how rudely I felt I’d been treated,” Lawrence says, “but I said ‘sure, I’ll direct a movie in China. Make a little money, have a little fun’.”

The offer had come so suddenly that Lawrence was still reading the latest version of the script—which at this stage had been rewritten by multiple hands—on the plane to China. It certainly seemed as though it had been written via committee; it read to Lawrence as a convoluted, disjointed mess.

“But I did see potential,” he admits. “I did see that this could be a really fun movie if it would lighten up and stop taking itself so seriously.”

Lawrence got to work rewriting it yet again. The assistant director told him “this is in complete disarray. Nothing is ready and they want to shoot immediately”—supposedly because they knew winter was on the way. But Lawrence saw this as an opportunity. This could be his big break. The script could be more cohesive, and the CGI department was working on some great models of the giant monsters that would do battle on screen.

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He was taken to a warehouse filled with props so he could pick out what weapons and wardrobe he wanted for the main cast—many of whom hadn’t even been hired yet.

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“They took to me to this giant warehouse full of amazing sculptures and finely-crafted wardrobe and props and set pieces, and I was like ‘this is great!’ Then someone said ‘oh there’s nothing here, this has all been rejected by Jiang. We’re going to the next warehouse’.”

Jiang’s touch was everywhere, and his vision was not to be altered. When Lawrence made suggestions, Jiang would reply via his interpreter “Pitoff said the same thing. I have no need for the ways of Hollywood, but I want to conquer Hollywood”.

“At some point he permitted me to rewrite the first act, and he said ‘ok, this is actually really good’. And then he proceeded to cut all the heart out of what I had written,” Lawrence says.

“He was like ‘ok, get to the action’, and I said ‘well the action isn’t important unless you care about the people that are in peril. I’m trying to build up that care first’. But no no, he wanted to get to the action.

“He kept talking about Transformers: ‘this is going to be big like Transformers’. He said it was a cross between Transformers and Shakespeare. I was trying to wrap my head around that and said ‘I think you’re going to alienate one of those audiences’.”

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As the main cast began to arrive in China, it was clear things weren’t shaping up like in a Hollywood production. The script was still a mess, and sets and props had been scrapped and rebuilt. A very experienced cinematographer walked off the production, telling Lawrence “this is a train wreck, I’m not going to do this”. But Lawrence, after weeks of feeling out Jiang, was starting to feel like he had a little more pull on the production.

“Initially I was feeling pretty good once we got on set,” he says. “The first thing we shot went quite well. Then we went to another set, and it was like, ‘this is harder’.”

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The several hundred fully-costumed extras that Lawrence had been promised never eventuated, so he had to make do with, at most, about 30. The locations were cold and wet, and the actors didn’t have trailers to warm up in. On one set the cages of chickens that were being used for background scenery were left unattended, so every morning there would be dead chickens that stunk out the set.

Then there was the problem of communicating with the Chinese crew. Lawrence had been assigned an assistant to translate, but he only found out towards the end of his tenure that she was only fully translating about half of the time. She was worried about offending Jiang and being fired, Lawrence says.

The culture on set was different too. In Hollywood everyone would keep quiet between takes, but on the Empires set the noise rose tremendously as soon as Lawrence yelled cut, slowing down takes.

“At some point I just screamed at the top of my lungs to shut the fuck up, you know? And everybody stopped, looked at me, and then went right back to talking,” Lawrence says.

Throughout all of this, Jiang would be making contradictory choices or riding roughshod over Lawrence’s direction.

“I had already recommended several times that we could shoot a lot of this on a stage, a 20-foot by 20-foot stage of sand with a green screen. But Jiang said ‘nope nope, gotta shoot location because Peter Jackson said you gotta shoot location’.”

Watch this video to see the giant wall constructed after a translation issue.

For a pivotal battle scene they’d found a beautiful stretch of coastline marred only by a beach resort off to one side. Lawrence had joked that they could just build a wall to hide it, and both he and the assistant director had laughed. But the humour didn’t translate.

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“When we finally came to shoot at the location I saw this giant wall being built, and I was like ‘oh, I was kidding’.” So they had to comp in a background after all.

The script was still a mess too. Jiang wouldn’t budge on most things, and ignored Lawrence’s suggestions.

“At one point about halfway through I said to my interpreter ‘tell him this is the worst fucking script I’ve ever read’,” Lawrence recalls. “He didn’t seem offended, and without missing a beat he said ‘well who are you? You don’t have any credits on IMDB as a writer.’ And I said ‘neither do you!’

“Looking back after all these years I probably should have listened to my assistant director who said ‘stop caring about this. Just get the shots. Stop trying to make it something it’s never going to be. Just realise this is what Jiang wants, and he’s going to get what he wants one way or the other, so stop caring and just go out and make pretty shots’.

“I really couldn’t take that at the time,” Lawrence continues. “I couldn’t deal with that. I was really looking at this like, ‘hey I can see how fun this could be. A big fun movie’. He kept trying to make Shakespeare, but that’s not what it was. I should have somehow stopped caring, or cared just enough to get the shots, collect the paycheque and go home.”

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Collecting those paycheques weren’t even that easy. Actors constantly complained about being paid late, and when a group of Russian extras said they hadn’t been paid Jiang’s people sent police to their hotel to check visas as an intimidation tactic. Even Lawrence’s payments were sometimes late, so he threatened to walk off the production if the money wasn’t transferred immediately. One day the crew arrived at the studio to find they’d been locked out because someone had forgot to the pay the bill.

By Lawrence’s own estimation, the claimed $100m budget was probably just Jiang talking up the production. He estimates that in reality it was more like $30m.

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“That’s a generous estimate,” he says. “But in many respects, there was money spent.”

Such trying conditions also impacted the American cast, who many of the Chinese crew along with Jiang thought were being soft. After a day’s shooting inside a wet, cold cave—another of Jiang’s ‘shoot on location’ musts—actor Irena Violette walked off set. Whether she quit or was fired depends on who you ask, but the spat between Violette and Jiang’s people escalated until Jiang’s people said they wouldn’t return Violette’s passport—or her boyfriend’s passport—until she paid them back her fee.

Lawrence spoke with the couple and together they hatched a plan. They had to get to the American embassy so they could get temporary travel documents, so in order to help them escape the hotel Lawrence called a full production meeting while they slipped out a window.

Lawrence also had a trusted Chinese crew member write the couple a note explaining the situation to the police, who would hopefully help them get to the embassy. For the next few days following the couple’s flight, Lawrence secretly emptied the plates of food left at their door to maintain the illusion that they were still bunkered down in their room.

A few days later they let him know they’d made it to the embassy, and were on their way out of China.

“At that point my mind was just turning to the movie about the movie,” Lawrence says. “‘This movie may never be made, but the movie about the movie has to get made’. To me everything just kind of became a cinematic experience.”

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But Lawrence’s passion had been waning for a while. After five months of trials and tribulations on set, he’d had enough.

He was due on another production back in the States, and Jiang’s people asked if he would stay on. When Lawrence gave them the figure it would take, Jiang called it highway robbery. So Lawrence thanked Jiang for the chance to work on his film, said his goodbyes, and left. He had mixed feelings about leaving the film incomplete, but it was time.

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“Had they scrounged up the money I was asking for I would have stayed another couple of months and tried,” he says. “But I think it’s probably best that it worked out the way it did, because I was so soured I don’t think I was much benefit to the production.”

Another director followed after Lawrence, and then another. Lawrence kept abreast of what was happening on the production through the actors he had befriended. He heard about the new directors struggling with Jiang’s vision, heard about the legal troubles holding up the film’s release.

Then, in 2012, these “godawful” trailers started coming out, and it looked like Empires of the Deep would finally see the light of day. It seemed in a perpetual state of being six months from being released—but that was almost a decade ago. Today, Lawrence thinks we’ll never see Empires on the screen, even though there is apparently a final cut.

“I think there’s so much embarrassment and shame involved in this production that I don’t think the authorities that are in charge of cinema there will ever let it out,” he says. “I think there’s too much embarrassment and humiliation from this entire production.”

In the years since, Lawrence’s opinions of Jiang and the production have softened, and he says he recognises he could have done things differently.

“I think in the early days my own frustration contributed to making Jiang sound like an egomaniac, which maybe he was, but he did build this from the ground up. He did pull this together, as unconventional as it was; he did have quite a vision for it, no doubt. So I can’t really fault him for that, or for wanting to have this in a very particular way.

“I actually respect Jiang for his vision and unrelenting drive to get it done his way. But that was also kind of the demise of the project, because he wouldn’t let much go when it wasn’t working.

“If I had been a little more ‘go with the flow’ it might have gone a little smoother,” he says. “It might have gone smoother if they were a little more malleable too.”

Today, Lawrence is still making smalltime films—but he’s happy in the work.

“At this point in life I am removed from any bitterness or resentment of everything that went wrong, and I’ve made peace with my own shortcomings on the project,” he says.

“I was a nobody at that time. Probably still am,” he adds after a moment’s pause. “But that’s okay, because I’m still having a good time making movies.”

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