My Life in Ruins: About the Production
“My Life in Ruins,” starring Nia Vardalos and directed by Donald Petrie, is being released June 5, 2009 by Fox Searchlight.
When Nia Vardalos read Mike Reiss’ script for MY LIFE IN RUINS, she was instantly captivated. It wasn’t simply the chance to shoot a film in Greece, although that was certainly a plus for the Greek-American actress, Vardalos fell hard for the character of Georgia.
“What I added to the character was that she was so controlling and she had to learn to let go. I’ve always been told work hard and anything you want can be achieved. That actually turns out not to be that true, though. Sometimes you just have to let go and laugh—or dance!”
Although her character has what many would consider a dream job, Vardalos observes, “She’s not letting the magic of it enter her soul because she chooses to bring the disappointment in her life with her. She has to change her outlook. And it’s not just Georgia; it happens to all the characters.”
Vardalos, who received an Academy Award nomination for her first screenplay, MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, put her unique comic spin on Georgia. “The idea is that when you take yourself out of your comfort zone, life is magical,” says Vardalos.
Donald Petrie, who has directed some of the most successful romantic comedies of the past two decades, was approached to take the reins of the project. “If a script makes me laugh out loud when I’m reading it, that’s a movie I want to make,” he says. “This made me laugh out loud. We spent some time refining the arc of the character, so that Georgia’s evolution over one five-day experience is really clear.”
In Petrie’s eyes, Georgia has lost her passion for her work because she sees the tourists she deals with as stereotypes, not individuals. “Her ‘tour group from hell’ only seems that way because she’s not doing her job the way she should be doing it,” he says. “She thinks everyone should have the same burning desire for the history of Greece that she does, and when they don’t meet her expectations, she dismisses them. Over the course of the film, the tour group helps her find her kefi again by helping her recognize that it is okay to be different and that these are living, breathing, wonderful people.”
Petrie says he found a real collaborator in his leading lady. “Nia and I often finished each other’s sentences,” he says. “We were very much on the same page, constantly coming up with ideas, and going back and forth.”
Petrie had never been to Greece, much less shot a film there. “When the producers asked me if I could make this film on this budget in Greece, I honestly had no clue,” he admits. “If you asked me if I could make this picture in New York, I could say yes or no. I know what costs are in New York or Canada or even Louisiana. I didn’t have a clue about Greece. Were there crews in Greece? What’s the availability of personnel? How far apart are these locations?
“I read about Olympia and Delphi and the Acropolis and all these different places, but even though I could look on a map, you never know until you get there. So I went to Greece where I fell more deeply in love with the project and Greece. And I said, ‘Yes, I think this can be done.’”
The trip also gave Petrie a chance to visualize some important moments in the story. After seeing the dramatic sites that serve as the backdrop for the film, Petrie was determined to change the location of the movie’s climactic scene. “In the original script, the bus tour begins at the Acropolis and everybody is saying, ‘Well, I’d rather have ice cream.’ I felt strongly that that was the reverse of what should happen. The Acropolis is one of the country’s highlights and it needed to be the end of the movie, after we’ve all fallen in love with Greece.”
MY LIFE IN RUINS is constructed much like a real guided tour through Greece. Consequently, much of the action is set on the tour bus or at the actual sites that travelers in Greece are likely to visit. Filming during the height of the tourist season posed a number of challenges. “One time we were shooting in the middle of the Plaka, the main square of Athens, kind of like Times Square,” says Vardalos. “In the middle of the scene, I heard some people say, ‘Hey it’s that girl from MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING.’ Then they walked right into the shot and kissed me on the cheeks.”
Filming among the ancient landmarks presented logistical problems as well. The film had to share the locations with real tour groups. “We couldn’t just shut down the ruins so we could shoot,” Petrie says.
“A lot of times I would be walking my tour group through the ruins, carrying my sign saying Group B,” adds Vardalos. “We’d pass a real life tour group, and the guide and I would just look at each other. This one woman tour guide actually winked at me. And I thought, yeah! Tough job.”
In addition, almost every scene required all the characters on the tour to be on the set every day. “A scene might only be a page long, but it would have 20 characters in it and each had to have some time on screen,” says the director. “That can be a scheduling issue when you want to start your day and have twenty actors ready in make-up, hair and wardrobe.”
In addition, the script on the page was sometimes only a template for the larger scenes. “We went out of our way to cast actors with great improvisational skills,” says Petrie. “Oftentimes these actors had absolutely zero lines in the script that day, but I needed reactions from each one of them, and they had to be able to come up with it in character.”
The fact that the actors were improvising kept him on his toes, says the director. “I might shoot the scene from one direction and then somebody improvises something great when we were shooting the other direction. That meant I had to go back and shoot the first direction again if I wanted to include that new piece of business.”
Despite the logistical issues, Petrie knew the improvised bits would make the movie stronger and funnier. “We filmed a shopping montage with hand-held cameras in unsuspecting Greek shops,” he says. “Then we let the actors just go in character, almost like reality TV. One of our characters, Dorcas, is a kleptomaniac. She’s this little old lady, and you’d never think she would steal anything. The actress who plays her actually learned to be quite an accomplished thief. We had to go back afterward and pay for everything!”
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