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‘Ruins’ come to life October 27, 2007

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Greek-Canadian writer and director Nia Vardalos was in Greece working on a film that co-star Richard Dreyfuss says is about the ever-present possibility of love

Flanked by US actor Richard Dreyfuss on one side and Greek heartthrob Alexis Georgoulis on the other, writer and actress Nia Vardalos glowed as she addressed the press early this month. In town for the shooting of her new film My Life in Ruins, the star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding looked leaner and more glamorous than she did when she played the ugly duckling role for which she’s best known.

“I’m just a girl from Winnipeg,” said the Greek-Canadian actress, who still sounds a little shocked at her quick fame. “It’s a dream to be here,” she added, before confessing: “I get a little choked up to see the word ‘Coppertone’ in Greek.”

Vardalos co-wrote with Mike Reiss and stars in the romantic comedy My Life in Ruins. The film went into production in Spain earlier this summer before shooting throughout Greece from October 9 to 16. Some of the film was shot at the Acropolis on October 13. Though Greek films often depict the Acropolis, it is a rare thing for a foreign production to obtain permission to film there. Vardalos underlined this fact, and Dreyfuss joked about Francis Ford Coppola’s lack of such a permit for filming scenes from New York Stories there in 1989.

“The biggest challenge we have,” noted the film’s director, Donald Petrie [Mystic Pizza, How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days], “is that these sites, Olympia, Delphi and the Acropolis, are almost too big to capture on film.” He pointed out: “They are more than just places, they have an aura, a mystery. You walk into these places and it takes your breath away… I almost needed IMAX.”

The filmmaker revealed that he moved the Acropolis scene from the beginning of the film to the end as he felt “the journey ends at the Acropolis”. Petrie indicated that he wasn’t sure if the production will have to digitally recreate the green areas around charred Olympia. Petrie emphasised the fact that the film’s production didn’t interfere with the sites. “If it says ‘Do Not Touch’, obviously, we are not planting a light on top of it,” he explained. “If the script had paintball war in Ancient Olympia, they would have said, ‘No.'”

Upon reviewing the script for approval, the Greek government provided some help by pointing out historical inaccuracies. The film certainly promotes Greek tourism. Petrie explained that Vardalos plays a tour guide who has “lost her passion” for her job. But, while leading around a group, including a man named Herb, “she is almost taught to re-find her passion”. When the film comes out next year, Petrie hopes it will make viewers laugh, as well as cry.

Herb is played by Dreyfuss, who said he came out of retirement to play the part, he teaches civics. “I’ve always wanted to shoot in Greece,” Dreyfuss repeated more than once at the press conference. When asked the actor why Herb is the one who makes a difference in the tour group, he replied: “He woke up every day for 20 years smiling because he was in love with his wife and she with him.”

The actor enthused about Greece’s mythological, artistic and ethical contributions to the world. Dreyfuss said that “film is about magic and the mysterious”, but noted: “Film has created a cynicism and a shallowness in the world that is huge.” He said that he hopes My Life in Ruins will provide a message instead about “the ever-present possibility of love”.

My Life in Ruins is one of the first projects to be assisted by the new Hellenic Film Commission, which opened in 2007 with the purpose of facilitating productions shot in Greece. The office is affiliated with the Greek Film Centre, which funds and produces most local films. The film is the second one, after Mamma Mia!, to be shot in Greece this fall with Tom Hanks’ name in the production credits.

Two new movies filmed in Greece October 24, 2007

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A new comedy starring Nia Vardalos and the film version of Mamma Mia are both being bankrolled by US actress and producer Rita Wilson.

Tom Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, is helping to finance two new film productions. “My Life in Ruins”, starring Nia Vardalos, which was shot at some of Greece’s most popular archaeological sites, including the Acropolis and Ancient Olympia. The second film, a movie version of the Broadway musical “Mamma Mia”, stars Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep. It was filmed on the Aegean island Skopelos in August.

A strong helping hand toward getting Greece back on the Hollywood radar October 22, 2007

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Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson bankroll Greek-themed ‘My Life in Ruins’ and ‘Mamma Mia’

nia_acropolis1.jpg  The crew of the romantic comedy ‘My Life in Ruins’ at the Acropolis.

nia_acropolis2.jpg  In the film Nia Vardalos, plays a tour guide. Here is Nia Vardalos with Greek Culture Minister Michalis Liapis and Donald Petrie.

Decades after serving as the setting for hit films like “The Guns of Navarone” and “The Big Blue”, Greece has elicited help from Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks to get back on Hollywood’s radar. The Hollywood star, whose wife Rita Wilson is of Greek descent, is helping bankroll two movies which officials here hope will translate into extra tourist arrivals at the country’s archaeological sites and island holiday spots.

nia_acropolis3.jpg  One production stars Nia Vardalos, the Greek-Canadian writer and star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, the 2002 romantic comedy that became one of the most successful independent US box office productions of all time. Titled “My Life in Ruins” the new comedy centers on a tour guide played by Vardalos and was given rare permission to shoot in key Greek archaeological sites, including the Acropolis in Athens, Delphi and Ancient Olympia.

The second production is a film version of the hit Broadway musical “Mamma Mia” starring Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep, and was shot on the Aegean islands of Skiathos and Skopelos in August.

The back-to-back Hanks projects are a welcome boon to a Greek state eager for a fresh start after decades of scaring away big-name productions with a combination of nightmarish bureaucracy, poor organization and sheer ineptitude.

“In the 1980s, the word in Hollywood was that Greece was an unwelcoming place to shoot a film,” acknowledged Markos Holevas, director of the Hellenic Film Commission set up in May to facilitate foreign productions in the country. “Now there is a desire to change things… the Greek state has realized the benefits and wants to promote Greece through film… and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were the first to respond to this policy. The message is: Forget the past, let’s make a new start,” Holevas said.

Greece’s picturesque islands, many of them major tourist destinations, have provided the backdrop for scenes in recent films, but have not served as major movie locations. The Ionian island of Cephalonia was in 2001 the site of “Captain’s Corelli’s Mandolin” starring Nicholas Cage, while the Aegean island of Santorini had a scene in “Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life” with Angelina Jolie two years later. Greece also apparently had a chance to host Oliver Stone’s 2004 blockbuster “Alexander” but the government failed to pursue the offer, Holevas said.

The country boasts impressive archaeological sites that have long been in demand for both television commercials and films, but projects have routinely run afoul of strict regulations laid out by Greek archaeologists. And amid price hikes following its adoption of the euro, Greece has had a hard time competing with neighboring Balkan and Eastern European countries which can combine lower production costs with similar landscapes for location shots.

“Foreign productions have a tendency to get ripped off here,” noted producer Christina Aspropotamiti, who worked on an American documentary shot in Athens last year. She said she was stunned when she sought permission to film long-range shots of the Parthenon, the classical temple atop the city’s famed Acropolis citadel. “The local archaeological office asked us for 1,500 euros ($2,120) per square meter (per 10 square feet) of the entire Acropolis site… at those rates it would have made better sense to just buy the place,” she said.

Political sensitivities have also complicated film plans, as in the case of the 1984 production of “Eleni”, an American film starring John Malkovich on the thorny topic of the 1944-1949 Greek Civil War. “The film showed the communists brutalizing the areas they occupied during the Civil War,” said the film’s co-producer Nick Gage, a Greek-American journalist whose biography on his mother’s execution by the Communists was the basis of “Eleni.”

“We had trouble with the film unions, which were communist-dominated at the time,” Gage said. “There was sabotage overnight as we began the shooting in Athens… equipment was broken, you’d find your lights busted.” When the production company decided to relocate to southern Spain, Gage’s home region of Epirus lost millions of dollars, he said. “It was very unfortunate, we spent the equivalent of $450 million in today’s figures that could have been spent in Epirus, one of the poorest areas in Greece. It would have benefited the area considerably,” he added.

Nia Vardalos at the Acropolis October 15, 2007

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New film co-written by Oscar-nominated Greek-Canadian actress gets rare approval by Greek authorities

nia_vardalos_acropolis.jpg  Nia Vardalos standing in front of the Erechtheion temple during the shooting of ‘My Life in Ruins.’ Scheduled for release in 2008, the film is produced by Tom Hanks. 

Nia Vardalos, the star of «My Big Fat Greek Wedding,» stood under a big reflector on Saturday, filming a new romantic comedy among the dramatic ruins on the Acropolis. The scene will appear in «My Life in Ruins,» also starring Richard Dreyfuss, and follows a decision by Greek authorities to relax a longstanding ban on any commercial use of ancient sites. Authorities vetted the film script for historical accuracy and convened a panel of senior archaeologists to give final approval.

«Imagine how I feel being here shooting a movie… I can’t believe things like this can happen to me,» Vardalos said late Friday before the Acropolis shoot. Released in 2002, «My Big Fat Greek Wedding» was a surprise international hit and earned Vardalos an Oscar nomination for its script.

On Saturday, dozens of tourists gathered round a tiny set to take pictures of Vardalos. The 45-year-old Canadian actress plays a tour guide and has already been filmed at Delphi and Ancient Olympia.

«I’m just a girl from Winnipeg. I write these ideas and somehow they happen,» said Vardalos, who co-wrote the new movie. «I have cousins from America, from Australia and we all met up here. I have so many memories of being here.»

Director Donald Petrie denied suggestions the script had been watered down to secure access to ancient sites. «If the script had had a paintball war in Ancient Olympia, I think they would have said no,» he said. «The only major restriction for us is that we treat the sites as they are. We don’t bring in fake Roman columns,» he said, smiling.

«The story revolves around the character that Vardalos plays who has actually somewhat lost her passion. She has led so many tours with so many tourists who don’t care… and it’s depressed her beyond belief,» Petrie said. «Through one group of tourists… she is almost taught to rediscover her passion.» The love interest for the film was found in Alexis Georgoulis, an actor popular in Greece.

«It’s a romantic comedy, and we wanted a Greek actor who was experienced but not necessarily well known internationally,» Vardalos said. «We found Alexis Georgoulis. He’s a great kisser, a great actor and a great guy.» Dreyfuss said he had always wanted to come to Greece and was enjoying his time here. «This movie is about the ever-present possibility of love,» Dreyfuss said.

«My Life in Ruins» is the first major project helped by the Hellenic Film Commission, recently created by Greece’s Culture Ministry to try and lure international filmmakers to Greece. «Even small African countries had film commissions. But not Greece,» said the Commission’s Markos Holevas. «This is our first effort,» he said. «We will get organized and provide tax breaks and do what everyone else does.» «My Life in Ruins» is due for release next year.

Acropolis not too old for Hollywood debut October 14, 2007

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On Saturday, a rare event occured in the history of the 2,500-year-old Acropolis of Athens, and it involves Nia Vardalos, the writer-actress who became the face of Greek culture through her worldwide indie smash “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Vardalos and her indie romantic comedy “My Life in Ruins” shoot at the ancient Greek temple, marking perhaps the only time a Hollywood production has even been allowed to shoot at the venerable site. “Ruins” has already shot at the Oracle at Delphi and Ancient Olympia, the site of the first Olympic Games.

“No one has ever been granted permission to shoot at the ancient sites,” Vardalos said, currently in Greece. “This is huge.”

The movie, about a beleaguered Greek tour guide, also stars Richard Dreyfuss, Rachel Dratch, Harland Williams and Greek actor Alexis Georgoulis. Donald Petrie is directing. Filming in Greece started last week.

Getting there, though, was not without its challenges. Securing permission began several years ago, when Vardalos contacted then-Minister of Tourism Fanny Palli-Petralia, who asked her to carry the Olympic torch during the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. Once Vardalos made her case, Palli-Petralia and the Minister of Culture at the time, George Voulgarakis, began the long process of working the request through many levels of government.

“It was a lot of dinners and hand shaking, a lot of requesting permission and really assuring them that we would leave the ruins exactly as we found them,” Vardalos said.

When an election saw the ruling party voted out, the producers thought all their efforts were for naught. But the incoming Ministers of Tourism and Culture picked up the “Ruins” cause, persuading the right people that the shoot would be beneficial for the country and the sites would remain unharmed. They were given the greenlight to shoot at the Acropolis, for one day.

“One of the most important factors was that Nia is beloved in Greece. She is a daughter of Greece and represents a positive representation of what being Greek is,” said Michelle Chydzik, a producer on the film.

Permission to shoot came with strings attached, some obvious, some more cultural. No hanging lights off columns, for example, and no food or drinks on the site. Also, the production had to assure the Greek government that it would not fake any of the sites, even with a fake background or column.

“You can’t call something Delphi if you are not in Delphi,” Chydzik said. “If you are standing at the Temple of the Oracle, you have to say it is the Temple of the Oracle. You can’t cheat it even in the location. You can’t walk 50 feet away and say that that’s the temple.”

The government, having read the script, requested minor changes, including red-flagging a running gag in which two men on a tour bus are always drinking beer. Because drinking alcohol is not permitted on the sites, the scenes were rewritten. And because tourism is perhaps the country’s biggest industry, the government stipulated that no site or road could be closed or access restricted, something almost impossible to imagine happening in Los Angeles.

“There are more visitors coming to the country than the amount of people living there,” Chydzik said. “They won’t do anything to interfere with tourism. They do not want a situation where you show up and you’re told, ‘Sorry, the Acropolis is closed today.'”

So the production has had to deal with European, Canadian and Chinese travellers who fortunately have been very well behaved. “People take pictures, and we have signed some autographs, but there is a really cool quiet that comes over tourists when they come to these sites,” Vardalos said.

For the filmmakers, shooting in Greece was necessary for the sake of authenticity, a feeling Vardalos has been reminded of every day. “You can really feel the vibe, the mysticism, the history, the culture, it’s everywhere,” she said. “We walked through the grounds today, and it occurred to me over and over: We’re not on a set. It’s a field completely strewn with ruins. It’s real. It’s all very real.”

Greek-Canadian actress Nia Vardalos filming in Greece October 13, 2007

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nia_vardalos3.jpg  Greek-Canadian actress Nia Vardalos reads over her lines during a break in filming ‘My Life in Ruins’ in Ancient Olympia. The film will also feature scenes on the Acropolis. It is the first time a foreign film studio has received permission to film on the Acropolis ancient site.

Actress Nia Vardalos talked to reporters about the upcoming romantic comedy ‘My Life in Ruins’ at the Acropolis Sacred Hill in Athens, on Saturday, October 13, 2007. The Canadian-born star of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ was granted a rare permission by Greek authorities to film on the Acropolis and other ancient sites in Greece. Vardalos has already filmed at Delphi and Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games.

nia_vardalos2.jpg  Nia Vardalos, star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” stood under a big reflector on Saturday, filming a new romantic comedy among the dramatic ruins on the Acropolis.

The scene will appear in “My Life in Ruins,” also starring Richard Dreyfuss, and follows a decision by Greek authorities to relax their ban on any commercial use of ancient sites. Authorities vetted the script for historical accuracy and convened a panel of senior archaeologists to give final approval.

“Imagine how I feel being here shooting a movie … I can’t believe things like this can happen to me,” Vardalos said late Friday before the Acropolis shoot.

Released in 2002, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was a surprise international hit and earned Vardalos an Oscar writing nomination.

nia_vardalos1.jpg  On Saturday, dozens of tourists gathered round a tiny set to take pictures of Vardalos. The 45-year-old Canadian actress plays a tour guide and has already been filmed at Delphi and Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games, a big deal for a girl brought up Greek.

Director Donald Petrie denied suggestions the script was watered down to secure access to ancient sites, saying restrictions to protect monuments were obvious. “If the script had had a paintball war in ancient Olympia, I think they would have said no,” he said. “The only major restriction for us is that we treat the sites as they are. We don’t bring in fake Roman columns,” he said, smiling.

The love interest for the film is Alexis Georgoulis, an actor in a local television series. “It’s a romantic comedy, and we wanted a Greek actor who was experienced but not necessarily well known internationally,” Vardalos said. “We found Alexis Georgoulis. He’s a great kisser, a great actor and a great guy.”

Dreyfuss said he had always wanted to come to Greece and was enjoying his time here. “This movie is about the ever present possibility of love,” Dreyfuss said.

“My Life in Ruins” is the first major project helped by the Hellenic Film Commission, recently created by Greece’s Culture Ministry to lure international filmmakers to Greece. “My Life in Ruins,” was co-written by Nia Vardalos and is due for release next year.

Related Links > Hellenic Film Commission > http://www.hfco.gr