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As COVID-19 Mostly Halted Filming In The U.S., Movie Magic Forged Ahead In Bulgaria

Mar 29, 2021
Originally published on April 7, 2021 12:34 am

SOFIA, Bulgaria — There are signs that film production in the U.S. is coming back after being dark for nearly a year.

But movie magic has found shelter in one small corner of Eastern Europe during these tough times — Sofia, Bulgaria — where Nu Boyana Film Studios sits on the edge of Vitosha mountain overlooking the city.

The studio was state-owned during communism in the 1960s — but for the past 20 years, it's been the site of action, drama and horror films. It's home to The Expendables franchise and the biggest box office hit to be filmed here – 300: Rise of an Empire. Sylvester Stallone has made five movies at Nu Boyana, including Rambo: Last Blood.

The studio administers Covid-19 tests to anyone who wants to enter — and tests the whole staff, nearly 400 people, on Fridays.
Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR

Frequent COVID-19 testing of everyone who enters under the studio's grand yellow arch has helped keep it in business during the pandemic.

Ivaylo Grancharov, usually in charge of the film school at Nu Boyana, runs the testing site in a small white trailer sitting in a parking lot while the school is closed. He tests people coming to set daily, and on Fridays the entire staff — nearly 400 people — gets swabbed.

The studio was mostly closed for the first few months of the pandemic. They made one commercial in the spring, which they filmed across continents using wireless technology, with a director in Los Angeles, the client in France, and the production crew in Sofia.

Yariv Lerner, the head of Nu Boyana, says he had to make a lot of changes to reopen safely last summer. "We had to reconfigure the whole studio ... from where people enter how they walk how people interact, putting in sanitizing stations, temperature checks at the gates, closing all the parking lots because we didn't want people just parking and walking randomly and all of this sort of upkeep," he says.

The changes cost more than $350,000 — and the studio also accrued more than $3 million in debt for salaries and maintenance.

In June, they filmed their first big movie – Till Death with Megan Fox. Actors Hero Tiffen and Kate Beckinsale have been on set at Nu Boyana since June, too.

"We had four movies and about seven commercials, which we managed to do from June 'til December, which kind of saved the company," Lerner says.

But COVID protcols have complicated the way movies are filmed. One movie that just finished filming at Nu Boyana, called After, had a big wedding scene — which was tricky to manage with so many extras on set.

"It was sort of like a whackamole thing," Lerner recounts. "The actress would walk in, all the extras would clear. We'd shoot the actress and block where she would walk. Then we'd shoot the same exact scene with the extras, actress wouldn't be there. Then we'd splice that scene together."

The Bulgarian government designated Nu Boyana an essential business, so international talent and crews can come work at the studio. Around 70 Americans have done so, under strict protocols. They test for COVID 72 hours before getting on the plane, and then again when they arrive, they then quarantine, then they test again.

On the set of Abyzou, a horror-thriller that takes place in a Hasidic community, at Nu Boyana in Sofia.
Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR

And while they have identified some positive cases at Nu Boyana, Lerner says these instances have been contained by all the safety measures in place.

The biggest problem now? Getting insurance.

"It doesn't exist," Lerner says. "They are still working out how to insure things. It's going to be a year, year-and-a-half before things get back to normal. A lot of companies will be out of business by then."

The studio is working on the horror-thriller Abyzou, starring Emm Wisemann and Nick Blood.
Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR

But Nu Boyana continues to press ahead. The Legend of Sinbad, Red Sonja and Night Has Fallen — the latest in the Gerard Butler series — are all in planning stages.

On set during a recent visit, filming of the horror-thriller Abyzou starring Emm Wiseman and Nick Blood was underway. Rooted in Jewish mysticism, it takes place in a Hasidic community.

On this day, the cast and crew were shooting a scene in a car. Both actors in the car wore masks, removing them only as the cameras started rolling.

"Everyone seems to follow the rules," says Jonathan Yunger, a producer, writer and actor on Abyzou who is also co-president of Millennium Media. "We all want to keep working, we all want to keep employed." He notes that the number of people allowed in rooms at Nu Boyana and around sound stages is restricted — and that in addition to regular Covid testing, those on set and working in offices frequently undergo temperature checks.

Bulgaria began its latest in a series of pandemic-related lockdowns on Monday. Meanwhile, large-scale vaccinations are underway. Lerner says that while he'd prefer people get innoculated against COVID-19 on their own, the studio is considering how to move forward — and that "at some point I think it's going to be required."

For now, they continue under their new normal.

Nina Gregory edited and Kelli Wessinger produced this piece for radio.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Film production in the U.S. is coming back after going dark for almost a year. But during the pandemic, movie magic did find shelter in one small corner of Eastern Europe. NPR's Meghan Collins Sullivan takes us north of Greece to Sofia, Bulgaria.

MEGHAN COLLINS SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Arriving at the security gate of Nu Boyana Studios here in Sofia, I'm quickly whisked away to a standalone trailer in a parking lot for a rapid COVID antigen test.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Take a seat, ma'am, please.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: OK, thank you. All right. You're going to make this easy for me, right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's the easy one, yeah - only the nose.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's it.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: Swab up the nose plus 15 minutes tells me I'm likely COVID-free and also free of flu A and B.

It's clear?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Clear, yes.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: This is my golden ticket to enter through the studio's grand yellow arch.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right. Now let's go in.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: OK.

Nu Boyana was a state-owned studio during communism in the 1960s. For the past 20 years, it's been the site of action, drama and horror films. It's home to "The Expendables" franchise and "300: Rise Of An Empire," not to mention...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAMBO: LAST BLOOD")

SYLVESTER STALLONE: (As John Rambo) The time has come to face my past. And if it comes looking for me, they will welcome death.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: Sylvester Stallone has made five movies here, including his most recent "Rambo: Last Blood." Frequent COVID testing of everyone who enters here has helped keep the studio in business during the pandemic.

IVAYLO GRANCHAROV: We already tested 56 people.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: Fifty-six people today.

GRANCHAROV: Oh, yeah.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: That's Ivaylo Grancharov. He's usually in charge of the film school at Nu Boyana, but he's running the testing site while the school is closed. He tests people coming into set daily. And on Fridays, the entire staff gets swabbed. That's nearly 400 people. The studio was mostly closed in the first few months of the pandemic. They made one commercial in the spring.

YARIV LERNER: We did it with a director - actually, he was in LA (ph). The client was in France, and the production crew was here.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: Yariv Lerner is the head of Nu Boyana. He says he had to make a lot of changes to reopen safely last summer.

LERNER: So we had to, like, reconfigure the whole studio from where people enter, how they walk, how people interact, putting in sanitizing stations, temperature checks at the gates, closing all the parking lots because we didn't want people just parking or walking randomly and all this sort of upkeep.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: It costs more than $350,000. Plus, the studio accrued more than 3 million in debt for salaries and maintenance. In June, they filmed their first big movie, "Till Death" with Megan Fox. Actors Hero Tiffin and Kate Beckinsale have been on set here since June too.

LERNER: We had four movies and about seven commercials we managed to do from June til December, which kind of saved the company.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: But COVID protocols have complicated the way movies are filmed.

LERNER: This movie we just finished with Voltage Pictures called "After" had a big wedding scene. It was like - so, like, a whack-a-mole thing, you know? The actress would walk in. All the extras would clear. We'd shoot the actress and block where she would walk. Then we'd shoot the same exact scene with the same camera with the extras, actress wouldn't be there.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: Designated an essential business by the Bulgarian government, international talent and crews can come work at the studio. Some 70 Americans have under strict protocols. They test for COVID 72 hours before getting on the plane and then again when they arrive. Then they quarantine, and then they test again. And while they've identified some positive cases at Nu Boyana, Yariv says they've been contained by all the measures in place. The biggest problem now is getting insurance.

LERNER: It doesn't exist. They're still trying to work out how to insure things, so that's the main issue. So it's going to be, you know, a year, year and a half before things get back to normal. And then it's going to be - a lot of companies are going to be out of business by then.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: But Nu Boyana continues to press ahead. "The Legend Of Sinbad," "Red Sonja" and "Night Has Fallen," the latest in the Gerard Butler series, are all in the planning stages.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Shouting) Rolling.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DRIVING)

COLLINS SULLIVAN: Now they're filming the horror-thriller Abyzou starring Emm Wiseman and Nick Blood. Rooted in Jewish mysticism, it takes place in a Hasidic community. On this day, they're shooting a scene in a car.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ABYZOU")

EMM WISEMAN: (As Claire) Grandkid or not, I’m still just a shicksa.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: Both actors in the car wear masks. They remove them as the filming starts. In Bulgaria, COVID vaccinations are underway. Yariv says the studio is watching closely.

LERNER: At some point, I think it's going to be required.

COLLINS SULLIVAN: For now, they continue under their new normal.

Meghan Collins Sullivan, NPR News, Sofia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.