The fishy tale of Pierce Brosnan’s near-unreleasable mermaid movie

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Pierce Brosnan and Kaya Scodelario in The King's Daughter - AP/Gravitas
Pierce Brosnan and Kaya Scodelario in The King's Daughter - AP/Gravitas

You probably haven’t heard of the new(ish) film The King’s Daughter, despite its featuring a starry cast including Pierce Brosnan, Kaya Scodelario and William Hurt and being based on a best-selling Nineties fantasy-romance novel, The Moon and the Sun. It opened in the United States last weekend, and duly became one of the most egregious commercial flops of all time.

Even at a time when major films are routinely bombing commercially, it is still a shocking result for a major release to take in a paltry $750,000 at the US box office last weekend. (By contrast, the latest Scream sequel made $12.4 million in its second weekend of release.)

It is unlikely to have a second weekend in cinemas. As for its UK release, a low-profile berth on a streaming service seems inevitable. Yet its apparently cursed status is far more interesting than anything that takes place on screen, despite its high-fantastical subject. It has encompassed everything from a near-indefinitely delayed release to one of the leading actors disappearing from view amidst a blitz of controversy, and state interference.

This is not what was anticipated for it in two decades ago, when it first began its development process. The author Vonda N. McIntyre had written a series of science-fiction and fantasy novels throughout her earlier career, several set within the Star Wars and Star Trek universes. However, she did something different with The Moon and the Sun, which was published in 1997. It was set in 17th century France, at the court of Louis XIV, and combined elements of romance with high fantasy, revolving around the relationship between a lady-in-waiting at court and a magical sea monster.

It was an eccentric book that mixed apparently incompatible genres. Originally McIntyre had intended it as a screenplay, but Steven Spielberg suggested that it would be too expensive to film, so she turned it into a novel. It attracted a large readership and won the 1997 Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America association. One of the books that it beat was a little-known fantasy novel called A Game of Thrones by a prolific writer called George RR Martin.

After the novel’s success, the American producer Michael London acquired the film rights in 1999, saying he was drawn to “the weird juxtaposition [of] a completely imagined creature in this very specific historical world”. He managed to interest the Jim Henson Company in producing it, and approached the theatre director Christopher Renshaw to direct it, with a script by actress-turned-writer Laura Harrington.

However, the Jim Henson Company became cautious thanks to flops like Muppets from Space, and withdrew, before the film’s fortunes changed dramatically. Super-producer Bill Mechanic, who had made megahits such as Independence Day and Titanic through production when he was CEO of 20th Century Fox, came on board, and tried to broker a deal with Disney.

He attached some impressive talent to the project. Natalie Portman was picked to star as the protagonist Marie-Joséphe, and Ang Lee’s regular collaborator, the Oscar-nominated James Schamus, was hired to rework the screenplay. Meanwhile, Gregory Hoblit, best known for directing big-budget films such as Fallen and Primal Fear, was on board. It had all the hallmarks of success, but then the project fell apart, with Disney passing on the opportunity to make it. But Mechanic believed that it could be a hit, and held onto the rights as he looked for opportunities to resurrect it at a more opportune time.

Two developments a decade later led Mechanic to believe that the project was now viable. The first was the success of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which successfully recreated Jazz Age America on location in Australia, and led Mechanic to believe that the Versailles setting of the novel could be recreated reasonably inexpensively elsewhere, meaning that the film could be made for a mere $40 million. Nevertheless, even mid-budget pictures were now difficult to finance. As Mechanic commented: “Titanic bifurcated the market: you can make a movie that’s $200 million, or you can make a movie that costs nothing. What you can’t do is make a movie in-between.”

Benjamin Walker as Yves De La Croix - AP
Benjamin Walker as Yves De La Croix - AP

The second was the involvement of Chinese finance in the international filmmaking business. The new Chinese studio Kylin Pictures was prepared to invest $20 million, making this their first foray into non-Chinese language pictures, as the film now capitalised on a growing interest in fantasy and romance. Mechanic, somewhat over-optimistically, pitched it as a cross between Twilight and Alice in Wonderland, but he managed to attract the likes of Brosnan, Scodelario and Hurt (replacing Bill Nighy) to the cast.

In something of a coup, he and the director Sean McNamara played to the all-important Chinese market by hiring the actress Fan Bingbing as the novel’s sea creature, who was now transformed into a mermaid. Brosnan relished the chance to play the all-powerful Louis XIV, saying: “My Louis is Jim Morrison meets Alexander McQueen meets Tom Ford, in the costume department, with a magnificent wig, a great-looking horse and lots of attitude. He certainly was the rock star of his time. His is a grand vanity: he wants to live on forever so he can eat, fornicate and go to war… This guy is the king of all kings.”

The film was completed in May 2014, after filming in Versailles and Australia, and Paramount Pictures, who were set to distribute it, announced that it would be released on 10 April 2015, retitled The King’s Daughter. It would serve as counter-programming to the big-budget Avengers sequel Age of Ultron. Brosnan loyally continued to promote it, saying: “It’s not a historically on-the-nose rendition, it’s a fantasy fable. So, it allows one a lot of leeway to make an impressionistic gesture at the whole court of Louis. And, by heavens, we’ve pulled it off, I think.”

Unfortunately, his faith proved to be misplaced. In March 2015, Paramount cancelled the release altogether, without scheduling a new one. There was a vague rumour that the special effects needed more work, but after a nine-month post-production period, they should have been ready. Instead, the whispered assumption was that the film was simply too poor to be released.

Fan Bingbing as the Mermaid - AP
Fan Bingbing as the Mermaid - AP

With many pictures, that would be the end of the matter. But over the next seven years, the fate of The King’s Daughter became a topic of fascination, not least because of what happened to its star Fan. Between the film’s re-announcement in 2013 and 2017, she was the biggest actress in China, and made appearances in big-budget Western films such as Iron Man 3 and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Had The King’s Daughter been released when scheduled, it would undoubtedly have been a hit in China and amply repaid Kylin Pictures’ investment. But in July 2018, something entirely unexpected occurred. Fan, who had 63 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese social media network, and was said to be worth $100 million, simply disappeared.

There had been rumours that she was addicted to plastic surgery and that she had led an unorthodox private life – her younger brother was said to be her illegitimate son – but these were simply dismissed as products of the overactive gossip industry. Yet after a trip to Los Angeles in May 2018, Fan was accused of having fraudulently declared insufficient earnings to the tax authorities, was placed under house arrest, and then vanished from public sight altogether.

When she reappeared in October after a three-month period of “residential surveillance”, she issued a grovelling and unprecedented apology for her actions. She declared that, with “an unprecedented amount of pain”, she felt “ashamed and guilty” for “not setting a good example for society and the industry”. She said: “Today I’m facing enormous fears and worries over the mistakes I made! I have failed the country, society’s support and trust, and the love of my devoted fans! I offer my sincere apology here once again! I beg for everyone’s forgiveness!” She concluded that “Without the party and the state, without the love of the people, there would have been no Fan Bingbing!”

If this sounded like something produced by a totalitarian public relations department, her humiliation was compounded by the government’s declaration that she had embezzled vast amounts of money from the state and was fined $131 million, of which she was personally responsible for $70 million. Fan was lucky; a decade before, she could have faced the death penalty for economic crimes of that nature.

Pierce Brosnan as King Louis XIV in The King's Daughter - AP
Pierce Brosnan as King Louis XIV in The King's Daughter - AP

But her disappearance and public humiliation were a clear warning from the Chinese government to those who wished to make money out of its rapidly-emerging film business. Pay your taxes, or face severe consequences. (Apparently $1.7 billion in back taxes was recovered from Chinese entertainment figures in 2018.) Fan has not worked in China since, and the only picture that she has made subsequently, the American-produced Jessica Chastain thriller The 355, has been another commercial flop, not least because it now cannot be released in China.

The King’s Daughter is similarly toxic in the Far Eastern market. But it is doubtful whether it would have fared any better even if the Fan controversy had not happened. During its endlessly protracted release schedule, the similarly-themed Guillermo del Toro picture The Shape of Water, about the romance between a mute woman and an amphibious creature, came out to great acclaim, Oscars and box office success.

Meanwhile, neither Scodelario or her co-star Benjamin Walker have become household names in the interim, although they are now married with two children: a rare example of something good coming from the film’s haphazard and endlessly delayed afterlife.

It was eventually released in the United States on over 2000 screens by its new distribution company Gravitas Ventures, in a traditionally dead time for new releases. The hope was that its unusual subject and big-name stars would at least attract curious viewers in its first weekend of release, but it was DOA, not helped by dreadful reviews. The summary on Rotten Tomatoes states: “A muddled mess that was clearly tinkered with in post-production to little avail, The King's Daughter is a royal disappointment.”

So it has joined the ranks of all-time flops, with the strange detail of Fan’s subsequent activities turning it into a cautionary tale about the dangers of getting into bed with Chinese production companies, even if they are offering tens of millions in finance. Perhaps that story may, one day, make a more interesting film than anything on screen here.

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