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Artist of the Week — Niki Iliev

February 5, 2013 by · 4 comments

Jasmina Tacheva Talks with Bulgarian Actor, Director, Screenwriter and Producer Niki Iliev

Niki Iliev: I wanted to make a film about the clash of cultures, but ultimately to show that people are generally not very different from one another, regardless of where they come from, and when it comes to love or other emotions – the boundaries disappear.

Niki Iliev

Hi Niki, where are you right now and what are you up to?

In Sofia, directing the last episode of the third season of the TV series “House arrest” on BTV.

In March we will be marking a year since the premiere of your debut feature film The Foreigner whose director, screenwriter and leading actor you are. What is your personal bottom line so far?

What happened with the movie surpassed my expectations and I can say that last year was definitely the best for me professionally. In general, the making The Foreigner was a very difficult and stressful process.

Everything was on the edge, we were collecting money throughout the whole process and the movie didn’t get ready until a week before its premiere. It was a film made with friends and great willingness, so the positive reactions of the audience and the prizes it won made us feel really great and helped us realize that there really was a point to it.

Together with my wife, Sanya, I presented the film in many places in Bulgaria and abroad, and our meetings with the audience after the screenings definitely gave us a lot of positive energy as well as courage to move forward. I can say for sure that my life changed quickly and I am most pleased by the fact that I found my way in this profession.

How was the story of the film conceived and was the writing of the script a difficult process?

There are a lot of absurd things happening in Bulgaria and if you look at them with a sense of humor, you will find numerous tragicomic stories. I wanted to make a film about the clash of cultures, but ultimately to show that people are generally not very different from one another, regardless of where they come from, and when it comes to love or other emotions – the boundaries disappear.

Anyhow, I always write in the same way – I do the first draft at once, in two months at most, and then edit for a long time. That’s exactly what happened with The Foreigner, I had a new version of the script every week. Around the thirteenth or fourteenth week we decided we could start shooting. The most difficult was to synchronize all the storylines that develop within three days in various places in Europe, and the way these characters get together in a particular moment.

Is it harder to write a script that makes the audience laugh than one for a drama or action?

It is no coincidence that there are so few good comedies. You can’t count on just a few stunts or a good dramatic climax – you must constantly look for originality and surprises to keep pace.

My goal however is to combine these three genres because if there is no emotion in the comedy and if the viewer doesn’t experience the hero’s drama, then the movie will be no different than a TV show. As for action, I love it when the stories I write are like an adventure for the characters inside of them, otherwise I get bored.

Picture 9(2)

What is the most memorable event from the filmmaking process that you can recall?

Perhaps the shooting with Christopher Lambert. When I was a child, he was one of my favorite actors, along with other action stars. I was pretty nervous about the fact that I had to direct him, but eventually I pulled myself together and told myself that I just need to get the job done.

He was very pleasant and professional and everything was OK. The scene where Sanya is the fountain was also quite interesting because we were shooting without authorization in Thessaloniki. We told the police who were there that we were shooting a documentary. They stayed and watched, I don’t know how they couldn’t tell.

How come you chose Paris as one of the main sites of the action? Has this something to do with the fact that you graduated from the French High School in Sofia? Is there a special relationship between you and France?

I have a certain affinity for France, that’s true, and perhaps it really has something to do with school, but then again it’s just so beautiful there. Also, since this is a film about the clash of cultures, I thought that perhaps the nation that is farthest from Bulgarian mentality is precisely the French.

How did you select the cast and how did you win Christopher Lambert and Catherine Gautier over for the project?

I was able to get into contact with Christopher Lambert and sent him his scenes. He told me he liked them and agreed pretty quickly. Then we met in Paris to discuss all the details. We liked the photos of Catherine and met her two weeks before the start of the shooting, we were very worried we weren’t going to find an actress. When I first saw her, I told her right away she was perfect for the role. She joined eagerly.

Magdalena, Sanya Borisova’s character, is an unforgettable figure. What do you think was the biggest challenge in playing this role?

Playing a coarse village girl speaking a dialect – all things that are far from her. Sanya was also responsible for the overall appearance of the film and the characters and in this sense her task was no easier than mine.

How did the filming process with Niki Iliev as a writer, director and actor at the same time go – were there moments of split personality?

You could say there was even quadrupling of personality, because I was also the producer, which was what took me the most time and nerves. It was really hard, the tension was high but there was no other option because our budget was very limited and this way we saved much money that we invested in the movie. At least I learned a lot and yet I hope it will be easier in the future.

The Foreigner

The film has already won dozens of awards at leading international festivals. How does this make you feel, and does it motivate you to keep working on new projects?

Given the hard work, the nerves and the sacrifices we made in the name of the movie, the awards came to me as a relief. Indeed, when you are rewarded for something you’ve devoted a lot of work and love to, you really appreciate the recognition. I felt a strong surge of positive energy and a desire to continue what I’ve started.

What can the audience in Berlin and Hamburg expect from the screening of the film in a few days and what is your stay in Germany going to be like?

Before Germany will be in Prague for the Bulgarian film festival there. In addition to watching the film, viewers will be able to meet with me and my wife, Sanya, and have a discussion about the movie and the things associated with it.

I love to meet with viewers, listen to their reactions during the screening and hear their opinions afterwards. Except for us, we made the film for the people themselves and their opinion is very important to me. That’s how I can find out which things have worked out better and which ones worse.

Do you yourself think that love can prevail over the cultural differences and misunderstandings?

Otherwise I wouldn’t have made a film about it.

What do you think is the most important spice of love?


At a time when many Bulgarians seek to leave the country you continue to live and work in Bulgaria. Is that where you feel best?

I think that one should live where they feel comfortable and where there is an opportunity to do what they want. For the time being there is nothing that I lack here and I do what I’ve always dreamed of.

It may be true that if I was doing that in another, more developed country, I’d be richer, but that’s too hypothetical. If someday my job took me abroad, I would have no problem to leave Bulgaria as long as my family was OK with that.

“Fighting Spirit” or “Out of Breath”?

One of the two is going to be the title of my third project which will be an action drama revolving around mixed martial arts, but I still can’t decide which one to use.

If you had to choose between directing and acting, which one would you prefer?

For now directing gives me more options and less restrictions, but I still like acting.

Are there similarities between the martial and performing arts besides the fact that Niki Iliev has mastered both?

Both have a lot in common, it’s not a coincidence that they are both called arts. Martial arts are also a way to express yourself. I used this in The Foreigner – my character, Kalin, is not able to express his emotions in a normal way and that’s precisely how he manages to impress Magdalena. Martial arts are very much like an intricate dance but without the music. They have to be studied for many years and they change your lifestyle in every possible way.


Have there been times when your exceptional beauty and charm have done more harm than good?

I can say that my appearance has been an obstacle, yes. Unfortunately, in Bulgaria there are many people who are just looking for an excuse to reproach someone who actually does something, and reject them, instead of looking at their own selves and moving forward.

People who do nothing but criticize appear on TV so often. Fortunately, not all people are like that and I realized that if don’t pay much attention to the others and just keep doing what I love, I will get enough positive feedback.

What does your typical day look like?

I get up early and write. I work on some of my scripts. There are good days and bad days, but I try to write something every day, no matter how little. At noon I go to practice, usually kickboxing, sometimes Wing Chun.

Then go to meeting that I have arranged, usually related to my upcoming projects. In the evening Sanya and I usually stay at home, have dinner and watch a movie. When we are shooting this option fails because the shooting day is 12 hours long.

Where can you be seen on a Saturday night?

At the movie theater or out at a dinner with friends, I don’t like partying. And quite often at home.

What don’t have enough time for?

Maybe to meet more often with friends from my childhood but this is normal.

What are you looking forward to in 2013?

My next film with the working title “Living Legends”. We are working on it right now and have to start shooting both at the Bulgarian seaside and in Monaco in May and June.

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