Eat, Pray, Tour – My Experiences (and then some) at Nu Boyana Film Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria

This was written in the summer of 2014 when I was going through an incredibly rough time. In the spirit of new beginnings and new years, I decided to try to finish all the pieces I have backlogged, including this one. Some of what I wrote is now dated (it was shortly before Expendables 3 premiered), but I think it’s still worth posting—visiting the studio and Sofia was one of the best experiences of my life. Happy new year!


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Downtown Sofia, Bulgaria.

There are times in your life when you just need to get the fuck out of dodge and find solace in a new place. Maybe you just got fired from your job, maybe your spouse left, maybe your neighbor got killed walking your doggie, whatever. You just need to escape and experience something different, even if the prospect is more than a little scary.

I’ve been going through one of those times recently and found my relief in a whirlwind adventure to the Balkans in the middle of June. I moved to the Czech Republic two years ago, back in July of 2012, and had the dubious pleasure of interviewing John Hyams for MUBI six or so months later. He mentioned during our interview that he had shot Universal Soldier: Regeneration in Sofia, Bulgaria. My interest was piqued and, after a bit of investigation, I realized that many of my favorite action flicks were shot at a magical place called Nu Boyana Film Studios, which is owned by Nu Image and Millennium Films. Undisputed II and III, Ninja and even Expendables 2 and 3, The Black Dahlia, Legend of Hercules, 300: Rise of Rise of an Empire, Olympus Has Fallen, and oodles more, were all filmed in Sofia. I knew I had to visit as soon as possible.

After a year or so of on/off emailing, a very nice woman named Monella Kaplan and the incredibly kind Yariv Lerner arranged for me to visit this summer. Yariv put me in touch with perhaps the most generous and caring person I’ve ever met, Dessy Sims, to arrange hotels and such. She’s the executive assistant to the CEO, David Varod. After emailing Dessy for a while, we learned that we had a lot in common, and she charitably offered to let me stay at her home during my trip. I’m still overwhelmed by her and her family’s compassion. Thank you, Dessy and co.

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My train from Brno to Belgrade. Hopped on a smaller one from Belgrade to Sofia.

So, on the 18th of June I boarded a train for a twenty-four hour journey from Brno to Sofia with a transfer in Belgrade in-between. On the way there, my food was stolen, I peed in a Turkish-style toilet that must have been built over a geyser, and may or may not have felt like a piece of steak left in a kennel when I was trying to sleep in a freezing train car full of creepy men. Not exactly the change of pace I was looking for at that point, but it was still an adventure I’ll never forget.

Eventually (and thankfully), I made it to Sofia and was picked up by a Nu Boyana driver named Sasha. He grabbed my luggage and we darted off towards the studio, which is on the outskirts of Sofia at the base of the Vitosha mountain. I looked like hell, so after meeting Dessy in person, she escorted me to one of the showers at the studio. I felt like a real VIP. After washing up, I left my things in the large room next to Dessy’s office, which just happens to be the room where all of the actors do table readings at the studio. It was basically my office while I was there and I may or may not have gotten to sit in the same chair as Sylvester Stallone at one point (I must have because I sat in every chair just to make sure). Then I was introduced to Yariv, grabbed some grub from the studio café and Dessy started taking me on a tour of the studio.

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Table reading room/my “office” at the studio.

First, I must say that the building of the studio itself is quite lovely. The studio was established in 1962, but the building must be much older. It feels and looks like something out of an old Hollywood movie about making old Hollywood movies. The space is very open and inviting, with tons of enormous old doors lining the walls on the many floors inside. There are posters and photos from the numerous movies they’ve filmed or produced plastered on the walls everywhere, but that doesn’t take away from the classic feel of the joint.

In addition to the thirteen sound stages, spacious back lot acreage and the many standing sets the studio possesses, they also have a big special effects department and their very own visual effects company called Worldwide FX. The special effects department can provide an entire SFX package and Worldwide FX is one of the most important visual effects companies in Europe. I had a great time sitting down for a chat with Worldwide FX’s Operation’s Manager, Jordan Markov, on my second day. He gave me a presentation on the visual effects they made for Olympus Has Fallen and I even got to take a special sneak peak at some of the visual effects for Expendables 3. He shared some off-the-record stories (very funny, let me tell you) and highly praised Nu Boyana for always trying to hire local Bulgarians as crew members. The company started with just five work stations and is now a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility with over two hundred animators. Not bad, huh?

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Gulag set at the base of the Vitosha mountain.

Everything outside the studio building was just as snazzy and interesting. Dessy opened the door and, like Alice in my own version of Wonderland, was thrust into the make-believe world of filmmaking. The first stop of the tour was the Manhattan set, the same one Florentine used for Ninja. David Varod told me during our meeting about showing the set to Stallone the first time. Nu Boyana actually got its start using a swimming pool as a location/set in the early 1990s so Stallone couldn’t believe his eyes when he walked into what was seemingly Manhattan. “You mother fucker,” he said in disbelief. I’ve only been to New York once, but it felt like the real deal. Then we strolled through the suburban American set, the Rome set, the Greek village set, the Middle Eastern streets set, toured the weapons department (so many guns!), all while Dessy was greeting the various crew people, introducing me to just about everyone, and pointing out “Oh that’s where one of the shootouts in Expendables 2 was shot,” “Oh that’s the stage where the final fight in Undisputed III was shot.” I insisted we go inside that stage and majorly geeked out while doing so. Boyka! We finally started making our way up the mountain to visit the gulag set. During all of this walking around, Dessy and I chatted about life and love, living in Bulgaria and/or the Czech Republic vs. living in the USA, and many other topics before climbing over a very large locked gate to visit the gulag. It was a nice, sunny day and it felt quite odd to see a gulag surrounded by such spiffy flowers and greenery. The mountainside was covered with old pine trees and the air was really fresh. I’m from southern Oregon and hadn’t felt so at home in quite a long time.

We eventually made our way back inside the studio building after our big set adventure. A few minutes later, I was asked if I was ready to interview Avi Lerner, who is not only Yariv’s father, but one of the founders of Nu Image and Millennium Films and owner of Nu Boyana Film Studios. I grabbed my crumpled up notebook, pen and tape recorder and made my way into his grand office. We sat and chatted for a couple of minutes before he said something like: “My darling, I’m sorry but I only have a few minutes to talk before I have to leave for the set.” My tape recorder was, of course, on the fritz, so I quickly ran and got my computer and began the interview with both him and Yariv (hope to publish this soon!).

Afterwards, I complimented him on his cap, shook his hand (good handshake), and thanked him for his time. Yariv escorted me down the hall and showed me the new screening room they built for sound mixing. I remarked that I felt like a bunch of wrinkled businessmen in Stetson hats should be sitting there smoking cigarettes while watching some new movie. Then Yariv took me to his office where he showed me an awesome behind the scenes look at Expendables 3 where I got to see some footage mixed in with the actors discussing the highlights of working in Sofia and at Nu Boyana.

Some of the weapons used in Expendables 3.

Some of the weapons used in Expendables 3.

It was now around 1:30 or 2:00. I’d gotten off the train early in the morning and had already toured all the sets and interviewed Avi by the middle of the day. Now it was time for Sasha to drive me to the set of a movie that was being filmed across town. I talked to Sasha in the car and found out that he has a young son and used to be a truck driver before joining the Nu Boyana gang. He brought me to the Septembers of Shiraz set, which is a new movie starring Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek about an Iranian family during and after the Iranian revolution that brought about the Islamic republic. That day’s scenes were being shot inside a gorgeous old Turkish bathhouse, which was located near a park full of pedestrians who weren’t the least bit concerned a movie was being filmed nearby.

I was introduced to one of the film’s producers, Les Weldon, and felt comfortable talking to him immediately. He brought me down to the video village, which is the room where the producers and writers sit and watch what’s happening on monitors as the movie is being filmed. I got comfortable in one of the producer’s chairs and watched in fascination as they shot using the Arri Alexa. Les sat with me for a long time and we talked about me living in the Czech Republic, the effects communism has had on both the CZ and Bulgaria, his life in Bulgaria and movie making. When they were filming, everyone was deathly quiet. I watched Adrien Brody enter and re-enter a darkly lit room half a dozen times live on the monitor.

Following that, I was introduced to the director, Wayne Blair, who was incredibly friendly and offered to answer any questions I might have had. Then the crew picked up all of the equipment in the blink of an eye and everybody moved to a different part of the bathhouse to shoot another scene. It was fascinating to watch them take down and setup all of the digital film equipment. Everything seemed relatively lightweight and it only took the team a few minutes to get everything ready to start shooting again. The second location was in a cramped, spider web-filled space that smelled old and musty, perhaps a little similar to the way a farmhouse basement might smell.

I initially stood in the back to watch them set everything up while trying not to get in the way. I saw three prop people delicately arranging an ornate tea cup and sugar cube bowl on an antique-looking tray to show the director for his approval. When everything was arranged, Les escorted me to the video village and I sat with the movie’s screenwriter, Hanna Weg. A thunder storm was rolling in around this time and one of the crew people asked Hanna to take care of the set’s adopted stray dog, Sofia, while they were filming. Hanna and I talked about our own dogs and she showed me some pretty pictures of her, I believe, ten year old Bull Mastiff. Sofia whined at the door, but was a good girl for the most part.

Monument to the Deity All-Holy Sofia.

Monument to the Deity All-Holy Sofia.

Soon, it started pouring rain and it was time for me to take off. I said my thank yous and goodbyes, walked past Adrien Brody’s and Salma Hayek’s trailers, and Sasha drove me back to the studio where we picked Dessy up and drove to the center of Sofia to attend a dinner party at her friend Meggy’s flat. She and I bought some wine and happened to meet the second host of the party, Mariano, in the same little market.

I don’t know if I can accurately describe how wonderful it felt to be in that flat. Meggy is not only a charming, beautiful hostess, but a dancer, actress and marketing whiz kid. She made me, a complete stranger, instantly feel welcomed and appreciated. Mariano is a kind and funny filmmaker who shares my love of horror and sci-fi movies. He and I had great fun gushing over and discussing our mutual favorite films and directors, like John Carpenter and Dario Argento. It takes a cinephile to know one, I suppose. I’m normally very quiet and feel uncomfortable in social settings, especially around people I don’t know, but I was able to shut that part of myself off and live in the moment. We all sat around Meggy’s kitchen table for hours eating exquisite food and drinking far too many “Super Yellow’s,” Mariano’s special vodka cocktail. We chatted about cinema, art, life, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, America, and much more. I honestly can’t recall the last time I felt so warm and fuzzy, which is why I was delighted when they invited Dessy and I back the next night for a Russian evening of vegetarian piroshkies and more vodka. I went to bed that night with stars in my eyes and a big dumb smile on my face.

***

Dessy and I woke up bright and early the next morning a little worse for wear, but wearing it well. She went and snagged us each a traditional Bulgarian breakfast sandwich fresh from a place around the corner. They were basically eggs and Balkan cheese wrapped in something similar to phyllo dough. A perfect follow-up after a night of vodka cocktails. Sasha picked us up a short while later and we were back at the studio in no time at all. Dessy and I had cappuccinos and discussed perfume in her office before working hours began. Soon enough, I went to the VFX presentation with Jordan Markov and talked to him for a good ninety minutes. One more cappuccino.

After that, Jordan walked me back to Dessy’s and I found out that Dessy’s boss, David Varod, was in that morning. She led me in to his office, which was another beaut, and I sat down in a big, important chair. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared to interview him, but we had a nice conversation anyway. He told me about his career and how he started out in the art department as a set dresser and decorator and then production designer before making the jump to producing in the late 1990’s. Varod worked in South Africa when Avi Lerner founded Nu Metro Entertainment Group in the 1980’s. Things didn’t exactly work out there (a couple of crew people were murdered), so Lerner, Varod and Co. relocated to Los Angeles and eventually Sofia in the 1990’s. He’s since settled down there and owns a house on the Vitosha mountain. Though he’s mostly worked on and produced action movies, Varod’s own artistic interests are a bit more on the sensitive and classic side. Like his friend Stallone, Varod is an active painter. His colorful canvases line the walls of his office alongside posters from the movies he’s worked on. He’s also dabbled in writing and told me he’s working on getting one of his stories about a blind opera singer made into a movie.

Some of the pictures on the studio walls.

Some of the pictures on the studio walls.

Peppered through this whole conversation is a discussion about our pets. I talked about my itsy bitsy seventeen year old Dachshund. Varod has two wolves, a mother-son duo whose names are Fifi and Fat. When he was building his mountain house, Fifi began hanging around the property looking for food. He started feeding her by leaving food at the edge of his property and slowly earned her trust by bringing the food closer and closer to the house. Finally, he got her to eat out of his hand. They’ve been dear friends ever since. Fifi had Fat a short while later and now they’re one big happy family.

Dessy told me later that she and Varod’s girlfriend, Tatyana Pedersen, produced a Uwe Boll movie that was released this year called In the Name of the King 3: The Last Mission.

Vitosha Boulevard.

Vitosha Boulevard.

Following my visit with Varod, I cooled my heels for a bit in my “office” while Dessy made lots of phone calls. I submitted the final draft of my essay about Pawlikowski’s Ida to my editor/friend, Lee Ferdinand, at Music Box Films. It will be published in the DVD booklet later this year. I looked out the window as the rain drizzled onto the various sets while wondering how in the hell an American girl from a town of seven hundred people could possibly be sitting in a room in Sofia, Bulgaria that’s been occupied by dozens of movie stars. I flip-flopped between Dessy’s office and mine, chatting with her between phone calls. Soon enough, it’s the end of the day and my time at Nu Boyana had sadly come to a close. I said goodbye and thank you to Yariv, took one final look around the building, and headed back into Sofia with Dessy for another fun night of wining and dining with Meggy and Mariano.

***

The following morning, Dessy and I woke up and discussed religion over breakfast. Dessy is a very devout person and listening to her speak so passionately about her relationship with God was very moving, especially considering how much it has helped her in her own life. I’m something of a spiritual agnostic who has had a very complicated relationship with religion thus far, but I honestly admire and am a little envious of those who genuinely believe in a higher power. Our conversation isn’t something I’ll soon forget.

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

A short while later, we were out the door to go sightseeing. We smelled perfumes, ate doughnuts, and visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with Mariano and Meggy. There were perhaps twenty people inside the building, a few of which were teenagers taking selfies with statues of the Virgin Mary. Meggy bought some candles to light. Mariano and I watched as she prayed with her eyes closed, looking very peaceful and serene. I thought back to the night before in her kitchen when the food had been eaten and the many drinks had been drunk. She and I sat alone at her kitchen table while Mariano and Dessy chatted on the balcony. I told her some of my troubles and she told me some of hers. With the same look of serenity and peace, of utter confidence and joy, Meggy smiled at me after letting me cry on her shoulder and said, amongst many other wise things, “Sara, life is beautiful.” It was the first time in God knows how long that I actually believed it.

Sunset near Sofia I saw on the train while heading home.

Sunset near Sofia I saw on the train while heading home.

Meggy handed me a candle. I lit it while silently praying to somebody, anybody, to make sure everything will be okay and to keep those I love safe and sound. A few hours later, I boarded the train back to Brno and said my goodbyes and thank yous to Sofia for everything that had happened in those few days. I stuck my head out the window of the train car and smiled as the wind rushed through my hair and the sun set in the distance.

Everything is going to be okay.

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