• February 4, 2023

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

A golden arch marks the entrance to the Nu Boyana Film Studios, nestled in the side of Vitosha Mountain in Sofia. Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR hide caption

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Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR

A golden arch marks the entrance to the Nu Boyana Film Studios, nestled in the side of Vitosha Mountain in Sofia.

Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR

SOFIA, Bulgaria – There are signs that US film production is resuming after nearly a year of darkness.

But in those troubled times – Sofia, Bulgaria – the movie magic has found refuge in a tiny corner of Eastern Europe, where the Nu Boyana Film Studios are located on the edge of Vitosha Mountain overlooking the city.

The studio was state-owned during communism in the 1960s – but has been the setting for action, drama, and horror films for 20 years. It is home to The Expendables franchise and the biggest blockbuster film that was filmed here – 300: Rise of a Empire. Sylvester Stallone has made five films for Nu Boyana, including Rambo: Last Blood.

The studio manages Covid-19 tests for anyone who wants to participate – and tests all staff on Fridays, almost 400 people. Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR hide caption

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Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR

The studio manages Covid-19 tests for anyone who wants to participate – and tests all staff on Fridays, almost 400 people.

Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR

Frequent COVID-19 tests on anyone entering under the studio’s big yellow arch helped keep the studio in business during the pandemic.

Ivaylo Grancharov, usually in charge of the Nu Boyana film school, operates the proving ground in a small white trailer in a parking lot while the school is closed. He tests people who come to the set every day, and on Fridays all the staff – almost 400 people – are wiped down.

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

Nu Boyana boss Yariv Lerner said he would have to make a lot of changes to reopen safely last summer. “We had to reconfigure the entire studio … from where people enter, how they are going, how people interact with each other, set up disinfection stations, run temperature controls on the gates, close all parking lots because we didn’t want people just park and randomly go and all that kind of upkeep, “he says.

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

In June they made their first big movie – Til Death with Megan Fox. Actors Hero Tiffen and Kate Beckinsale have also been on set in Nu Boyana since June.

“We had four films and about seven commercials that we shot from June through December, which saved the company,” says Lerner.

But COVID protocols have complicated the way films are made. A movie called After that was being shot in Nu Boyana had a big wedding scene – which was difficult to handle with so many extras on set.

“It was like a whackamole thing,” says Lerner. “The actress would come in, all the extras would be clear. We’d shoot the actress and block where she was going. Then we’d shoot the exact same scene with the extras, the actress wouldn’t be there. Then we would.” Connect this scene together. “

The Bulgarian government has made Nu Boyana a must-have business for international talent and crews to work in the studio. Around 70 Americans did this under strict protocol. They test for COVID 72 hours before boarding the plane. Then when they arrive they will be quarantined and retested.

On the set of Abyzou, a horror thriller set in a Hasidic community in Nu Boyana, Sofia. Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR hide caption

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Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR

On the set of Abyzou, a horror thriller set in a Hasidic community in Nu Boyana, Sofia.

Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR

And while they identified some positive cases at Nu Boyana, Lerner says those cases were included in all safety measures in place.

Biggest problem now? Make an insurance.

“It doesn’t exist,” says Lerner. “They are still working on how to insure things. It will be a year and a half before things return to normal. By then, many companies will be out of business.”

The studio is working on the horror thriller Abyzou with Emm Wisemann and Nick Blood. Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR hide caption

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Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR

The studio is working on the horror thriller Abyzou with Emm Wisemann and Nick Blood.

Meghan Collins Sullivan / NPR

But Nu Boyana is pushing ahead. The Legend of Sinbad, Red Sonja, and Night Has Fallen – the latest in the Gerard Butler franchise – are all in the planning stages.

During a recent visit to the set, the horror thriller Abyzou was filmed with Emm Wiseman and Nick Blood. It is rooted in Jewish mysticism and takes place in a Hasidic community.

That day the cast and crew filmed a scene in a car. Both actors in the car wore masks and didn’t remove them until the cameras started rolling.

“Everyone seems to be sticking to the rules,” said Jonathan Yunger, producer, writer and actor for Abyzou who is also co-president of Millennium Media. “We all want to keep working, we all want to keep busy.” He notes that the number of people allowed in Nu Boyana rooms and near sound stages is limited – and that in addition to regular Covid tests, those working on the set and in offices often take temperature tests be subjected.

Bulgaria started a series of pandemic-related lockdowns on Monday. Large-scale vaccinations are now in progress. Lerner says he would prefer people vaccinated against COVID-19 on their own, but the studio is considering how to proceed – and that “I think it will eventually be needed”.

For now, they are staying under their new normal.

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

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