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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.
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.
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