How up-and-coming makeup artists in the U.K. were lured to Indonesia to “interview” for a position on a big-budget Chinese epic — only to find out the project didn’t exist.
When Rogue One lands in December, its assortment of international stars — many already established (and in the case of Forest Whitaker, Oscar-winning) — will inevitably find their profiles get a sudden spike in a manner they probably haven’t experienced before.
Take Donnie Yen. The martial arts expert and action star may be a household name in his native Hong Kong and mainland China, but his turn as the blind warrior-monk Chirrut Imwe — already on his way to being a fanboy favorite after coolly taking out a unit of Stormtroopers in the latest trailer and having a prominent presence on the official poster — will offer him instant global recognition.
Yen’s first post-Star Wars project is therefore likely to attract a fair amount of interest.
Thankfully, The Master (or Tai See in Chinese) looks like just the right vehicle; an action thriller with an array of global locations and a plot that sees Yen in the starring role as a martial arts school owner forced to train in new combat techniques to take on a vengeance-seeking gun shop owner and his gang of thugs.
According to the lengthy treatment, the film comes with a healthy budget in the $60 million-$73 million range, with Yen producing through his Super Hero Films banner in collaboration with Chinese giant Huaxia Film Distribution. Sitting in the director’s chair is a proven hit-maker — Soi Cheang, the filmmaker behind the hugely successful Monkey King franchise, the first of which had Yen in the title role.
The six-week shoot for The Master, again, according to documents obtained by THR, is due to kick off in November, starting in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta before moving to Hong Kong, Bangkok and eventually Beijing, where it wraps Dec. 12, just days before Rogue One’s box-office domination begins and Yen’s star is set to go stratospheric.
There’s only one slight problem: the film is a complete scam.
In early July, makeup artists and makeup artist agents from the U.K. and across Europe began receiving emails from a woman calling herself Li Duan Zhao — otherwise known as Leslie — with a Huaxia email address saying she was Chinese and “one of the production managers of the upcoming film Tai See — The Master.”
Huaxia is one of two state-owned distributors in China, part of an oligopoly with China Film Co. that controls all Hollywood films imported into the country. In other words, it’s a major and legitimate business.
Zhao explained she was in the process of finding a principal makeup artist to oversee the film’s makeup and hair styling team and was enquiring regarding a particular individual. Adding authenticity — and an ego boost — to her request, she named a real person in the industry that each makeup artist had worked with, saying they had been recommended personally.
But her queries weren’t regarding those with the big-budget credentials a film of the scale of The Master would usually demand.
“It was a request for a less experienced artist of ours to do a very senior, very well paid movie,” says Mandi Martin, whose Milton Agency reps an array of Oscar and BAFTA winners in the hair and makeup categories.
The wage for The Master’s makeup designer — the top level in the department, and someone who works directly with the director and producer to create the looks — was set in the region of $180,000-$205,000.
“Some of my very best, at a push, might earn that, but definitely not for a six-week production,” says Martin.
But Zhao had skipped over the more established names on Milton’s client list to its “emerging talent” category, those with makeup credits looking to break through to the designer level.
One such target for Zhao — although not through Martin — was Heather Pitchford, an experienced TV makeup artist who has worked on major productions like of Black Sails and Marco Polo.
“She had put together an email that named specific people I’d worked with in the past, giving them as references,” she tells THR. The research and references didn’t end there. “I’d previously worked on a shoot in Malaysia and she said she was impressed with how I’d handled myself and worked with an international cast. She made me feel like I’d been chosen.”
When Pitchford queried as to why they wanted her rather than the big-budget film-tested colleagues she had worked with on the projects Zhao referred to, she was told they were looking for someone hoping to make the jump to designer. “I was hungry for that next step,” Pitchford says.
Correspondence with Zhao wasn’t entirely professional, with calls to her always going unanswered and her phoning back at her own convenience, citing time differences or issues with night staff. But doubts over her project were calmed not just via the extensive documentation she had sent over —a vast, colorful PDF document detailing the plot, characters, budget, schedule and location — on top of her clear knowledge of the industry and makeup terminology, but the film’s IMDb page.
There it was, The Master, with Yen starring and producing and Cheang directing. Other casting additions weren’t online, but according to the notes there was an extensive list of top-level Asian names involved. Nicholas Tsu and Chow Yun-Fat were also attached, while arguably one of the biggest stars of all, Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan, was being targeted for key roles. And on checking Huaxia’s own website, the homepage mentions its deal with Super Hero Films.
As it happens, there was a film in development called The Master, first announced by Yen in 2013 as a project for his then-new Super Hero Films banner. And the brief plot details revealed at the time did concern the owner of a martial arts gym and a vengeance-seeking gun shop owner. Cheang was set to direct, with Yen also cast. This was the film listed on IMDb.
But speaking to THR, Yen’s manager — and wife — Cecilia Wang said that development on this film had long since halted. She added that Super Hero Films – a joint venture between Yen and Media Asia first unveiled at the Hong King Filmmart in 2013 — was no longer in operation.
However, with the film still present on IMDb and no statement declaring any inactivity, there wasn’t any reason to believe it wasn’t still going ahead.
After a few weeks of back and forth, Zhao requested that Pitchford fly out to Jakarta, where the first phase of production was to begin, for interviews, workshops and location scouting.
While the ask may seem normal, it came with a few unusual stipulations. She would have to pay for her own travel, which would later be reimbursed. And once in Jakarta, she would be met with a driver to whom she’d have to give $1,200 as a "ground tax," payment for several days of private chauffeuring between meetings and locations, and money that would have to be paid in cash due to card restrictions.
“She said that [having your flight reimbursed] was how it worked in China, that’s how it was,” says Pitchford, adding that the authenticity of the claims made by Zhao over a series of calls and emails made it feel like a “risk worth taking.” She adds: “I was totally up for it.”
Flights were booked, and in late July Pitchford, believing the job was practically hers, made the 17-hour trip from London to Jakarta.
At the city’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport she was met by the driver at a pre-arranged spot, giving him the $1,200 immediately before he set off to the pre-booked hotel, a five-hour drive away and paid for by the production company.
With a detailed itinerary in hand, the next day Pitchford was back in the car for another long spell, mostly spent stationary in Jakarta’s bad traffic, supposedly for location scouting. Such was the amount of time she was due to spend in the backseat, her driver — in his limited English — had recommended that she bring a pillow.
“The first red flag was when we arrived at the location,” she says.
Having expected to be greeted by Zhao and the production team, Pitchford was ushered out of the car at a tourist attraction.
“The driver just said ‘go take photo, take photo.' And I was like, ‘who am I meeting?’ to which he said ‘no meeting, go take photo'.”
Keen to make an impression, Pitchford did as she was told, taking photos of everything in sight to make sure she didn’t miss anything important. Then it was back in the car for another four-hour drive to the next location: a puppet show.
“There was something about puppets in the script,” she says. “At this point, I was still thinking that I really wanted this job and was going to do my research. So I was photographing everything, taking lots of shots of these guys doing makeup on stage.”
But it was at this location where Pitchford made a discovery: she wasn’t the only makeup artist who have been driven here.
“I started speaking to this girl working there who had said ‘oh, you’re here for an interview with the production company'?” Pitchford recalls.
The girl knew all about Leslie, but also said that another makeup artist had been there the week before, adding that she had seemed really upset because she hadn’t heard from anybody since she’d been in the country. Pitchford was feeling the same.
The artist in question was Anna Cichon, also London-based.
Like Pitchford, she had been contacted by Zhao, but on this occasion via a 7 a.m. phone call.
"She introduced herself and told me about this big movie with big names etc. etc., saying that they were trying to find a designer,” she tells THR. “I told her what I’d been doing and she sounded amazed.”
Cichon’s had previously worked in the makeup departments for Kingsmen: The Secret Service and Tarzan, specifically involving hair punching, adding real hair to prosthetics. While she did have one designer credit, on the relatively low-budget Jack the Ripper horror film Razors, The Master would have been a step up.
After around 10 days of emails and calls discussing the film and role, Zhao said she wanted Cichon to travel to China, then swiftly changed her mind and said she was needed in Jakarta for the first stage of production.
And like Pitchford, she would have to pay for her own travel, which would — again — be reimbursed.
In Jakarta, having paid the driver his fees — a figure Cichon estimates was “around $1,300” — the story was essentially the same as before: hours of navigating the notorious traffic for visits to locations with no sign of any of the pre-discussed interviews.
For Pitchford, at the end of day two and with the driver — whose poor English would always appear to peak whenever asked what was going on — explaining that her supposed interview wasn’t taking place ("no meeting, go to hotel"), she had enough. Eventually she received a call from Zhao.
“For the first time since I’d been in Jakarta!” she says.
Zhao assured Pitchford that she was still their number one choice, but as they were also stuck in traffic a meeting was unlikely to happen that evening. She requested they meet in the airport lounge the next morning before her flight back to London.
At the hotel, however, Pitchford received a note from a contact in Hong Kong who knew Yen’s PA, telling her he knew nothing about The Master production. Another friend had spoken to the British Consulate, which told her to “put her passport in her bra, back her bags, wait in the lobby until it's time to go the airport and just get out of there.” THR has since been in touch with the consulate, which confirmed that the issue had been raised.
With little understood about the designs of the scam or the intentions of Zhao, there were concerns for Pitchford’s safety. With her out in a car all day, somebody could have tampered with her luggage to smuggle drugs out of the country. Nothing was known.
So she did as she was told: arranged her own transport to the airport before the driver was due to pick her up and headed straight onto the flight, ignoring the frantic calls from Zhao that started coming through.
Back in the U.K., Pitchford started to call around to makeup artists and agents in the industry.
“They all said they had the same emails and calls. They’d either been out, or sent one of their artists out, or knew someone who had been scammed,” she says. “All of them have lost money. Some had even been out twice.”
Cichon was among those to have made a second trip to Jakarta, having been led to believe it was her own fault.
After a three-day merry-go-round of long drives, location visits and little in the way of explanation, she decided to opt out of yet another baffling tourist attraction to see a friend living in the city.
But the next day, on which she was due to finally meet Zhao before flying home, she received a call from the so-called producer explaining that they now “didn’t want to have an interview” with her because she hadn’t completed the itinerary. She flew home thinking she’d damaged her chances, having been told they’d complete the interview online.
“I was quite anxious when I got back to London, and about two days after she phoned me up and we kept the conversation going and had Skype interviews, taking about the different characters … they saw how passionate I was about getting the job and how much research I was doing,” says Cichon, adding that by this stage another producer — calling himself Ian — had joined the discussion.
Despite still not having met anyone, she was offered juicy details about The Master’s pre-production developments, with the costume designer from Mad Max apparently on the verge of signing up, and interviews with an individual working at Peter Jackson's Weta in New Zealand apparently underway.
“And then they asked me to come back to Jakarta," recalls Cichon.
She returned a week later, again paying for her own flight and again paying the driver — the same one — at the airport. Again, the interview never took place, with the horrific traffic once again ruining supposed plans.
Over two trips, the makeup artist thinks she’s lost in the region of £6,000 ($7,300). The promised reimbursement never materialized, with Zhao initially expressing her surprise at the transfer not having gone through and then simply ignoring calls and emails.
“I never thought I’d be a victim of a fraud, but I’m basically a wreck of a human at the moment," says Cichon. "I’m trying not to think about it.”
For all the elaborate work in researching individuals' previous production credits and putting together such a detailed treatment, the actual crime committed doesn’t appear to have to do with drugs or human trafficking or any of the more sinister motives first speculated about.
It lies in the simple wad of petty cash in an envelope handed to the driver at the airport.
Pitchford paid $1,200, while Cichon estimates she handed him more than $2,000 over two trips (although he still tried to get her to pay more to cover road tolls). Martin at the Milton Agency was told her client (who she didn't send to Jakarta) would have to pay $1,500.
“This is ultimately where the scam was,” says Pitchford. “Actually, if you were going to America or South Africa or wherever, $1,200 for someone to drive you personally for four days isn’t that much money, and not that unusual.”
Pitchford says she knows of two others who were duped. Martin says she’s heard of 20 artists who went to Jakarta, most from the U.K., but some also from continental Europe. And the template is the same each time: all female, all relatively young and all with credentials in the makeup department, but looking for that key break as a designer on a major film.
“They knew what they were doing. They avoided the artists who were a bit long in the tooth for them. Young artists, that’s their prey,” says Martin, who spotted something was amiss from the very first email.
“One of my artists was at the time, working with Donnie on Star Wars,” she says. “So she asked him and came back within 10 minutes. He didn’t know what she was taking about.”
The financial reward seems relatively small for such an elaborate hoax, but given the number of the people who went — and in a country where the amount is roughly equal to the average monthly salary — it starts to add up.
Pitchford and Cichon only heard back one more time from Zhao, each receiving a call several weeks after they had returned to London. Pitchford was asked why she had “run away,” with Zhao flat out denying any other makeup artists had been contacted. To Cichon she simply expressed exacerbation that she — still — hadn’t been paid back.
Alongside the British Consulate, Action Fraud, the U.K.’s fraud reporting center, has been told about The Master and the emails from Zhao. Speaking to THR, a representative for the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau said that the geography of the scam was out of its jurisdiction, so it hadn’t been passed on to the police force for further investigation.
But the rep urged “anyone who thinks they may have been targeted by fraudsters in this way, or may have been a victim of this fraud,” to still issue a report, enabling the bureau to build up a profile and warn others. The scam has also been brought to the attention of BECTU, the U.K.’s union for film and TV crew, which has issued an alert.
Since contacting Yen’s manager Wang, who is understandably upset about how the film has been used to scam artists, the IMDB page for The Master has finally been taken down.
Whoever Li Duan Zhao or “Leslie” is, is still unknown — calls and emails to her from THR were, unsurprisingly, not answered. But Milton says her language implied that she knew the industry inside out, and in using The Master, a project in limbo, she could hijack something that already had an IMDb presence and published announcement, with major names attached, and give it enough meat to sound legitimate.
As Wang tells THR: “Our Master is a completely different story,” adding that the entire treatment from Zhao was “made up.”
For some, it’s the nature of the film industry and doing business in Asia that allowed the scam to happen.
“The culture of saving face and honor rides above so much else, and perhaps it’s this why some of the high-profile people who were attached to this film had their names on it for so long and didn’t consider removing them,” says Jonathan Weissler, a U.K. producer who has made three films in Hong Kong and one in China.
“Everyone looks at IMDb, and it's almost currency for independent films in development. By having Donnie Yen’s name on the film for so long just legitimized the con men’s agenda and allowed a lot of good people to believe it was a real film — and they lost money.”
Whether Zhao and her fellow fraudsters find another stagnant film to claim as her own, give it legs and use it to defraud more industry professionals out of their money remains to be seen. In the literature created for The Master, they certainly have a template.
A group of makeup artists, at least, is going to be looking at any request via email with extreme caution in the future.