'Ruins' worships its Greek roots


On Saturday, a rare event will occur in the history of the 2,500-year-old Acropolis of Athens, and it will involve 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 romantic comedy "My Life in Ruins" will shoot at the ancient Greek temple, marking perhaps the only time a Hollywood production has even been allowed to shoot at the venerable site, and at the very least one of a handful of productions ever to have shot there. "Ruins" also has been the only movie to shoot in Greece's historical sites of 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 by phone from Greece. "This is HUGE."

The movie, about a beleaguered Greek tour guide, began shooting with Donald Petrie at the helm on the Ciudad de la Luz soundstages in southern Spain. The production, whose cast also includes Richard Dreyfuss, Rachel Dratch, Harland Williams and Greek star Alexis Georgoulis, moved to Greece last week to shoot on its prized historical sites.

But getting there was not without its challenges. Securing permission to shoot at the well-known sites has been years in the making, a process that began when Vardalos agreed to attach herself to the script by Mike Reiss, which she eventually rewrote.

While Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman's Playtone, along with 26 Films and KanZaman, began raising the funds for the indie romantic comedy, Vardalos contacted then minister of tourism Fanny Palli-Petralia, who asked Vardalos to carry the Olympic torch during the 2004 Summer Games. 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 soon picked up the "Ruins" cause, prevailing in persuading the right people the shoot would be beneficial for the country and the sites would remain unharmed. Permission was granted for the locations the production asked for, and they were given the unheard of greenlight to shoot at the Acropolis -- for one day.

"One of the most important factors was that Nia is very beloved in Greece. She is a daughter of Greece and represents a very positive representation of what being Greek is," said 26 Films' Michelle Chydzik, a producer on the film. "Rita Wilson is also on the project with us and is also of Greek heritage. They have a true love of their ancestral homeland, and the other Greek people responded well to that."

Permission to shoot, however, came with strings attached, some obvious, some more cultural. No dolly tracks are allowed -- the production has been using Steadicams -- and no set dressing, either. No hanging lights off columns. For the Acropolis shoot, no food or drinks will be allowed 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 for the movie, 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 was ever closed down 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 travelers who luckily 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 so far.

"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."