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

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

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

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

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

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 Abyzouwho 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.