As a filmmaker, the issue of where you shoot is a critical part of
the process. What audience members don’t always realize is the
extent to which a filmmaker must adapt his or her piece when producers,
in their interest to save money, shoot in countries that don’t
necessarily service the needs of a given story.
Over the years, economic conditions have pushed productions away from
the U.S. As a result, I’ve worked on TV shows and films in Mexico,
Canada, South Africa, France, and I spent six years on and off in New
Zealand. But of all the distant locations, Bulgaria was by far the most
challenging. My film, Man with the Screaming Brain, became
a good example of “adaptation by necessity.”
The answer to the question “why shoot there?” lies in the
simple fact that the average Bulgarian worker earns $110.00—a
month. The U.S. can’t compete with that scenario, so producers
wind up taking even average stories to the strangest places.
When we were in Bulgaria, there were at least half a dozen other film
productions going at the same time. Demand for English-speaking, “American-like”
actors was so huge, talent was pulled from nearby U.S. military bases.
fellow who worked for the Peace Corps jumped on the Bulgarian film train
and quickly racked up some 18 credits—playing anything from a
marine to a sonar technician—and almost always getting killed.
I ran into this very busy, self-described “non-actor” on
the streets of Sofia and mentioned
that he looked very dapper.
“Oh, thanks,” he said, confidently. “I just had an
audition for Hallmark as an F.B.I guy—and I don’t even get
Aside from incredibly cheap prices, Bulgaria had little to offer my
story, which was originally set in East Los Angeles. Part of the
former Soviet Bloc, Bulgaria was ironically one of the “whitest”
places on earth. Where was I to find people of color? Would I have to
cast Gypsies as Latinos?
It seemed like a bad idea all the way around, so to prevent a sociological
train wreck, I decided to embrace the unknown, adapt my story to match
the location, and make the best of it. In the end, re-writing Man
with the Screaming Brain for Bulgaria worked in our favor. I was
able to capitalize on post-communist locations that would be otherwise
unavailable to the average film (like an abandoned airport terminal
and an incomplete subway system), and thankfully, my Bulgarian cast
didn’t have to pretend they were from California.
During production, communication was a huge issue. One translator was
assigned to the crew, and one was assigned to me as the director. They
both worked non-stop, but I couldn’t help but feel that something
got lost in the tedious process. To combat the information drain, I
purchased a dry erase board. Whenever words failed
during a meeting, I could always resort to scribbling a picture.
The saddest of all “lost in translation” moments came the
day I stepped out of our “lab” set and found my translator,
Assia, in tears.
“What’s with her?” I asked Joel, the assistant director.
“She’s crying because they’re about to wreck her
That exchange wouldn’t mean much to the casual listener, but
it represented everything frustrating about filming in a different culture.
Previously, I’d taken numerous meetings with the “transportation”
department, and we discussed the Vespa issue ad nauseum. I was repeatedly
assured that the one they secured could not only be painted pink, but
it could be destroyed as indicated in the script.
“Holy crap, the Vespa is Assia’s?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yeah. They never told her they were gonna wreck it.”
“That’s not the worst part,” Joel said, cracking
a wry smile. “It was a birthday gift from her father.”
I hunted down the transportation guys and we exchanged some “words.”
In this case, it didn’t
matter that we spoke different
languages—everyone knew exactly what was being said.
I don’t want to pick on Bulgarians. To be sure, they were eager
to please the onslaught of loud American filmmakers, and I was grateful
for their hard work. But the next time you watch a movie that doesn’t
look or feel quite right, read the fine print in the end credits. What
you thought was “Detroit” could very well have been filmed
in a different hemisphere.