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Breaking the Curse of ‘Red Sonja’

For nearly two decades, the cult comics heroine battled her way out of development hell as scandal, conflict and plain bad luck doomed one project after another. Now, in Millennium Media's B-movie factory in Bulgaria, an unlikely team fights to get the movie made at last.

The site of the day’s carnage is a small village half an hour by car from Sofia, capital of Bulgaria. Under gray skies, Shire-like houses dot a lush green meadow. M.J. Bassett, back hunched, ponytail swinging, tramps across the location for the shoot, which will recount a key moment in the origin story of Red Sonja, the voluptuous comic book heroine known to fans for rallying kinfolk to fight evil while clad in her signature chain-mail bikini. The rain hardens and Bassett, with neither the time nor the budget to linger, sets up the scene. Pyrotechnics are fine, she tells an assistant director, but what really matters is emotional impact. She wants tight, close shots, the children’s painful choices to be clear.

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That Red Sonja is shooting at all is a minor miracle. The fantasy epic set loosely in the world of Conan the Barbarian could wind up achieving the same B-grade aesthetic as its progenitor. And it’s unclear when anyone will get to see it, given that the movie still lacks a U.S. distributor. But none of that has stopped the buzz. If anything, the cloak of uncertainty surrounding Red Sonja has helped spur an outsize interest in the movie — or, rather, the story of the movie’s making — which includes multiple false starts, nine scripts and four directors, including two embroiled in #MeToo scandals, over a span of nearly two decades. Despite those hurdles, production has been underway since September at Avi Lerner’s Nu Boyana Film Studios in the shadow of Mount Vitosha thanks to a scandal-plagued producer, his eccentric son and an outspoken transgender director who gleefully defies stereotype.

With a budget somewhere in the mid-teens, Red Sonja is a lo-fi attempt to garner a box office hit for Lerner’s Millennium Films — owned, like Nu Boyana, by his company Nu Image Entertainment. Known primarily for pulpy, explosives-laden fare featuring aging action heroes, Millennium also has produced a few profitable franchises, including The Expendables and the Has Fallen series (Olympus, London and Angel). Red Sonja’s longevity — the character has been around for more than 70 years and undergone myriad incarnations in comics and online forums — will no doubt give the film a leg up in global markets, due in part to a hard-core fan base. But the deciding factor ultimately resides in the lanky, 6-foot frame of M.J. Bassett, a 50-something trans woman whose relationship with Red Sonja dates to childhood and, in her own telling, borders on an “obsession.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger set the stage for the realm of wizardry and broadswords that Red Sonja would inhabit with Conan the Barbarian (1982), the fantasy blockbuster in which he starred. Three years later came the character’s big-screen debut, Red Sonja, with Brigitte Nielsen as the titular warrior, fighting the evil High Lord Kalidor, also played by Schwarzenegger. But the original Red Sonja couldn’t replicate Conan‘s box office success. Nevertheless, for nearly 20 years, Lerner has been trying to reboot the property, all while dodging one controversy after another, including prolonged battles with unions, a 2017 sexual harassment lawsuit and questions surrounding his ties to Russian oligarchs. (Lerner has denied the charges detailed in the lawsuit, which was filed by a former employee and settled in 2018.)

Robert Rodriguez was all set to direct Rose McGowan as Sonja in 2010 before McGowan was injured and Lionsgate quietly backed out. More attempts followed as one prominent name after another was floated and then abandoned: Amber Heard and Sacha Baron Cohen were slated to appear in various roles before quietly slipping away. In 2018, Millennium hired writer-director Bryan Singer, who wrote a brooding, dark script before his career imploded in a wave of sexual assault allegations in March 2019. When word of the allegations against Singer reached Sofia, where Nu Boyana is located and shooting would ultimately take place, protesters threatened to descend on the studio. Yariv Lerner, Avi’s son and Nu Boyana’s CEO — the man effectively in charge of Red Sonja‘s production — pleaded with city officials to install speed bumps in front of the studio so that “nobody would get run over” if the protests escalated.

Faced with the crescendo of #MeToo fury, Millennium did a quick 180. Dispensing with Singer, in 2019 it hired Transparent creator Joey Soloway, who had just come out as nonbinary and was dealing with the repercussions of a #MeToo scandal involving Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor. (The actor was accused of sexually harassing two trans women on set, allegations that he denies.) But that partnership quickly soured as well.

“A complete disaster,” said one crewmember with knowledge of Soloway’s involvement. “They just didn’t feel competent to do the movie,” says Yariv of Soloway, who nevertheless remains attached as an executive producer. (Soloway has a different explanation for the change of role, saying they left to work on a documentary series inspired partly by research done in building the world for Red Sonja: “I shifted into my producer role instead of directing when the timing shifted because I was journeying to the Fertile Crescent to uncover the erasure of the divine feminine and Abraham’s maternal line.”) By that point, Millennium had been trying to make Red Sonja for 15 years, a long time even by movie standards. “Did you ever see Lost in La Mancha?” asks Yariv, drawing a comparison with Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated first attempt to complete The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, only to be foiled by natural disasters, illness and the near-constant roar of NATO jets conducting military training exercises.

One day recently, Bassett sat slouched in a plush armchair at Spaghetti Company, a popular Sofia restaurant. She sipped an Aperol spritz through a straw, bouncing one long leg over the other. Bassett wore tinted sunglasses, red lipstick and a floppy hat. Her long straight hair fell to one side. Each foot was adorned in a loose-fitting 1970s-style clog sandal. For years, Bassett had tried, and failed, to get her shot directing Red Sonja. Until then, her most celebrated movie was Solomon Kane, a 2009 fantasy tale based, like Red Sonja, on a comic book character. “I cursed every time they announced someone else,” she says. “I kept telling them, ‘When you change again, let me know.’ ” In spring 2022, after Soloway’s departure, Bassett sat down with Avi Lerner. She began explaining her vision for Sonja’s journey when Lerner interrupted her. “Just make me a movie I can sell,” he told her.

The original Red Sonya of Rogatino first appeared in a pulp magazine story by Robert E. Howard in 1934, then was adopted as a Marvel character in 1973. She was a big-breasted, wasp-waisted, scantily attired warrior, a woman of extremes. Over time, other threads emerged to complement her legend. One involved the Marvel character Wolverine; another placed her in the future. In one comic book version, penned by Gail Simone, Sonja was bisexual.

The sheer variety of stories that surrounded Sonja gave Bassett carte blanche to pursue her own vision. “She was a blank canvas,” Bassett says. The one constant was the chain-mail bikini that had helped earn Sonja the title of sexiest woman in comics, according to Comic Buyer’s Guide, in 2011. “It’s preposterous,” says Bassett. “She became a character for prepubescent 13-year-olds that was never accessible beyond.” Bassett grins, sips her cocktail, then quickly self-corrects. “I mean, I loved it!” For the record, Bassett’s Red Sonja is keeping the chain-mail bikini.

During casting, Millennium reached out to Game of Thrones’ Hannah John-Kamen to play Sonja, but Bassett decided to go with an unknown instead. She chose the Italian American actress and model Matilda Lutz, whose natural sincerity and warmth appealed to Bassett. “She’s a beautiful, feisty, tough, committed young woman who people are going to want to watch,” Bassett says. Lutz, who gained 13 pounds of muscle for the role, says, “Every day it’s either climbing or horseback riding or fighting.” As she understands her, Red Sonja is a “woman alone in the world, trying to survive in a very crazy environment.”

Bassett’s script, which she rewrote half a dozen times, steers clear of sexual politics and gender. Curious and friendly in person, Bassett also is direct. “I didn’t warm to the previous script, which was much more sexual politics,” she says. “Obviously in my personal life I’m interested in that. But as a storyteller I don’t think it’s interesting.” She also eliminated a key plot point from the original 1985 film: Sonja’s rape by marauding enemies. “I have no interest in fictional women who use [rape] as an engine of motivation,” she says. “It’s not a strong motivation. She’s just a human being in the world of femininity.”

***

M.J. Bassett grew up as Michael in Shropshire, England, a land of small lanes and rolling hills on the Welsh border that served as the model for Tolkien’s Shire. Her childhood home was full of pets, and were it not for poor grades, she would have become a vet. As a teenager, she worked in a zoo and ran a wildlife hospital. At home she churned through Wes Craven and Sam Raimi movies. She was obsessed with Alien. “Because of the creature, right?” she says. One weekend, when she was an adolescent, her father brought home The Exorcist. “I was something like 12 or 13 years old watching a young Linda Blair ramming a crucifix into herself, yelling, ‘Fuck me, Satan,’ ” Bassett says. “That was quite a formative experience.”

It was around that time that Bassett realized that she felt trapped in the wrong body. The feeling grew more acute in the years that followed. “Deep in the fundamental essence of who I was, I was like, ‘This is the wrong version of me,’ ” she says. She chose to sublimate her gender dysphoria but felt “a grinding sense of not quite being right.” Instead, the questioning boy became an overly confident alpha male, “a man who does manly things.” She left school at 15 and became an assistant to a wildlife filmmaker, then drifted into conservation as an early activist on climate change and alternative energies. Her photography work ultimately led her toward movies. In 2009, she directed Solomon Kane — which become something of a cult hit — followed by a couple of video game adaptations and, during the COVID pandemic, two action movies set in Africa that focus on the evils of wildlife poaching.

For 30 years, Bassett lived a secret life. A wife and three kids knew nothing of her fear of “dying in the wrong body without ever having really lived.” Many “miserable years” passed during which Michael Bassett conceded to his wife that something was wrong, but refused to tell her what. When Bassett finally did tell her the truth, she apologized for making Bassett “live a life you didn’t want to live.” After Bassett came out as trans in 2017, their marriage of three decades changed. Bassett still reads the woman she married to sleep each night, usually with a passage from the latest popular science book to hit stores. Bassett chose not to watch Transparent. “Way too close to the bone for me,” she says. One of Bassett’s daughters works as a stylist on Red Sonja. “I managed to hold on to the things that were most important to me while essentially dying before [my family’s] eyes and becoming another person,” says Bassett.

For all her struggles, Bassett refuses to adopt many of the tenets of trans advocacy. She hasn’t disavowed J.K. Rowling and retains fond memories of reading the Harry Potter books to her children. “I can’t even remember the thing that Rowling said which is ‘bad,’ ” she says, emphasizing the air quotes. In public statements, Bassett has gone further. “Mammalian biology is divided into male and female — it just is!” she told me casually. Mention a term like “non-menstruating humans,” and Bassett rolls her eyes. She knows stances like these will disturb some. “I have friends who’ve been very much upset by what I’ve said publicly,” she says. “But I have no doubt about the biology of it. It’s nonsensical not to have ‘biological woman’ as part of your vocabulary.”

With Red Sonja, Bassett wanted to steer clear of the obvious identity politics that audiences might expect her to bring to the table when telling a story about a female hero imprisoned by misogynistic portrayals for decades. But how do you make a movie about a powerful woman that has nothing to do with gender? “It’s an oxymoron, right?” she acknowledges. Instead, she wants Sonja’s journey to be an allegory for more existential questions around the survival of the species in the face of climate change.

Director M.J. Bassett Frames A Shot On The Bulgarian Set Of Red Sonja In Fall 2022.
Director M.J. Bassett frames a shot on the Bulgarian set of Red Sonja In Fall 2022. Courtesy of Millennium Media

***

The headquarters of Avi Lerner’s Nu Boyana Film Studios is a big hunk of Soviet columns, tall windows and imposing cornices that once housed Mosfilm, the immense state-owned studio that produced films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Eisenstein. Before the collapse of the USSR, thousands of poorly paid Soviet actors were employed here as full-time performers. Bulgaria was long considered Mother Russia’s “little brother” for its Slavic inheritance, close cultural ties and strict adherence to hard-line Communist doctrine.

After the Berlin Wall fell, Mosfilm employees who didn’t flee the country retreated to other professions, and Bulgaria lagged other Eastern European countries, like the Czech Republic and Hungary, in rebuilding its entertainment architecture. “Reminds me of Vancouver 30 years ago,” says Melissa Stubbs, Red Sonja‘s stunt coordinator.

Every day, the war in Ukraine forms new fissures whose ripples are felt here immediately. Russia has cut off Bulgaria’s supply of natural gas. With one foot in the Soviet past, and in Putin’s Russia, and the other leaning hard into Western sociocultural tropes that Putin claims to abhor — a Hollywood-inflected politics and democracy, to name just two — the country, which is part of both the EU and NATO, straddles worlds.

Avi Lerner’s older brother, and Yariv’s beloved uncle, Danny, first touched down in Sofia in 1999 to produce Bridge of Dragons, a Dolph Lundgren special, replete with tanks and choppers, about a mercenary named Warchild. Danny Lerner followed that in 2001 with Replicant (2001), in which Jean-Claude Van Damme is “The Torch,” a serial killer who targets women and sets them on fire. Most of the movies the brothers made went straight to DVD, a brief era that Yariv characterizes, unironically, as “the golden age of movies.” Enamored with the ease and affordability of producing in Bulgaria, Danny convinced Avi to invest. The brothers bought the Mosfilm studio and rehired some of the former Soviet-era actors.

Eight years of high-octane schlock ensued before Danny died of cancer in 2015. In the early days of streaming, in 2010, Netflix acquired 127 first-run movies from the studio in a major licensing agreement. “Ted Sarandos bought them from my dad,” Yariv says. “People never took my father seriously in Hollywood,” says Yariv, “but he survived everything.”

When the brothers Lerner — Avi and Danny — opened Nu Boyana in 2005, only about 15 percent of their staff were Bulgarian; the rest were flown in from overseas. Today, it’s the inverse. Yariv’s oversight is workmanlike, though his true passions lay elsewhere. “Avi wants Yariv to run the studio,” says one acquaintance who’s friendly with Yariv and Avi. “But Yariv wants to be a chef and a yoga teacher.” Yariv says he would only teach yoga part time. As for the days he once spent in a restaurant kitchen, he says, “If I needed a job, I would do it.”

Nu Boyana employs roughly 400 people, but on any given day during the busy months, upward of 5,000 populate the grounds, which includes a New York borough, a medieval-era slave market (later repurposed as a Mexican fighting ring for the Expendables series) and a full-scale replica of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. When he was still Bulgaria’s president, Rosen Plevneliev showed up on the set of London Has Fallen, applauding gleefully when a car was made to explode. “He loved it,” says Yariv. In October, 50 Cent performed at the studio’s Roman amphitheater set as part of a fashion show featuring Balkan designers.

Inside a row of nearby offices, the Kiwi director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) pops his head out of a door to take a break on prep for a Millennium production, Dirty Angels. Campbell also was teaching a course called “Intro to Film” for Film Forge, Nu Boyana’s on-site film school. “The value for money is great!” he says of shooting at Nu Boyana.

Like many Millennium films, Red Sonja is a largely mechanical enterprise, prioritizing practical effects over computer-generated imagery. “I’d rather do it for real whenever I can,” says production designer Clint Wallace, who was supervising art director on Top Gun: Maverick and worked on Marvel movies including Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Millennium’s approach, he says, represents a welcome change of pace. At Marvel, he had “this huge support system on almost every movie, and then coming here, it’s just me, and I couldn’t bring anybody. So it was just a real roll of the dice, but I was ready to shake it up and do something entirely different.”

Most of the shots in Red Sonja are filmed on location or on Nu Boyana sets that have been built to spec. “It’s Gladiator meets Lord of the Rings meets Spartacus,” says Wallace, adding that the aesthetic combines elements of steam punk, Mad Max and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Nu Boyana churns out commercial popcorn pulp with surprising success. “We make a lot of shitty movies,” Yariv says, heading toward the cafe for a lunch prepared in part by three Ukrainian refugees. “We make a lot of good movies, too, but nobody watches them because they’re art movies.” In particular, he loves Septembers of Shiraz, a 2015 feature starring Salma Hayek and Adrien Brody as Iranian Jews caught up in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, and 2017’s Bullet Head, the story of three generations of a crime family reunited for one last caper involving a dog-fighting ring, with Brody, John Malkovich and Antonio Banderas. “It’s like Cujo meets Reservoir Dogs,” says Yariv. “A very nice movie.”

He rises to leave the studio. “We’re a factory at the end of the day,” Yariv says. “Our product is movies.” A black car arrives to pick him up. He’s headed to Turkey, where the price of textiles for Nu Boyana’s ever-expanding wardrobe department is 15 times less expensive.

Brigitte Nielsen And Tad Horino In 1985’s Red Sonja, which, though set in ihe World of Conan The Barbarian, failed to Replicate that film’s success.
Brigitte Nielsen and Tad Horino In 1985’s Red Sonja, which, though set in the world of Conan the Barbarian, failed to replicate that film’s success. MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

***

One day recently, Matilda Lutz is preparing to duke it out in a sword battle inside a set constructed to replicate a real Bulgarian cave known as “The Eyes of God.” From behind a camera rig, Les Weldon, a producer on Red Sonja, looks on approvingly. Weldon, a Brazilian American, reckons he’s made upward of 60 movies in Bulgaria, where he has lived with his Bulgarian wife and daughter, who plays a young Sonja, for the past 16 years. “I’ve lost count, to be honest,” he says. Weldon is ruminative. “You know,” he says. “There are ancient ruins in Bulgaria from the Thracian period.” He nods toward the impressively elaborate set. “You grow up around that, and when it comes time to make a costume or a set, it’s in your DNA.”

Lutz picks up an ax and Bassett scoots in to adjust the scene before retreating to her chair.

“Action!” bellows an assistant.

Bassett seems perfectly at ease with whatever contradictions and challenges the project, the country and the times have imposed on her. “She’s absolutely in charge here,” says Stubbs, the stunt coordinator. For all involved, after a such a long wait, it suddenly seems unthinkable that anyone else would be up to the task.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.