It only took three installments over two decades, but the Portokalos family of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding film series is finally headed to the motherland. In the third movie, they head to Greece for a family reunion in the hometown of their beloved, recently passed patriarch. It’s a delightful development for the franchise, but it only came about via mundane logistics. “Something miraculous happened,” says the film’s writer, director, executive producer, and star Nia Vardalos. “Greece got a tax credit, and that is magic. That is music to any financier's ears.”
If the budgetary stuff is unromantic, it cleared the way for Vardalos to film the country with the “magical realism” she’d always dreamt of. “As I said to Barry, I'm trying to cram all the Greece I love into a camera,” she says of working with the movie’s cinematographer Barry Peterson. Filming, which took place last summer, was based in Athens and Corfu, with scenes in Santorini and some coastline shots of Crete, Paros, and Hydra.
Vardalos specifically sought to avoid visual cliches. “I wanted a way of showing Greece that was not what we've seen: the white buildings against the blue sky, [though] we love it, we've done it,” she explains. “I wanted it to feel like your faintest memory of a 1980s perfume commercial, nostalgic and at the same time, fresh and vibrant.” Vardalos, Peterson, and production designer Grant Armstrong frequently reviewed color boards and debated costumes against those palettes. “We had six meetings just for the interior paint of the main house that the family stays in,” she laughs. “It was just a constant discussion of colors and skin tones, pastels and dreaminess.”
Ahead, Vardalos spills more about the making of the film, its locations, and some tricky camera angles and achievements to watch out for.
SAG-AFTRA members are currently on strike; as part of the strike, union actors are not promoting their film and TV projects. This interview was conducted prior to the strike.
The movie takes place between Chicago and Greece, but was filmed entirely in Greece. How did you pull that off?
What we did is, Grant, [supervising art director] Matt [Kerly], Barry, and I transformed the Athens airport into Chicago O'Hare. Grant would do this thing, when we walked through any place—squint his eyes and turn his head sideways and go, “Guys, take a look at this.” And it was always just some vision he had where he'd say, “This looks like Gate 12 at O'Hare.” That's how production designers are! Where normally, we are taking in feelings and sounds and ideas and travel and emotions, production designers see. And so, he was able to transform Athens airport into O'Hare. Then there was the incredible feat of finding a house in a wealthy suburb of Athens that we could transform into the interior of the Portokalos family home.
Will you give me an overview of what other places appear in the movie?
I wanted to show neoclassical architecture. My overarching theme of the film is that immigrants and migrants, most often, do not go by choice. They go because they are left with no choice, as was the case with my dad. My dad immigrated because, and I put this line in the movie, he had everything. He had an idyllic, beautiful village he grew up in, in Greece, but no food. The message I'm trying to say is, worldwide migration is happening due to wars and famine and the loss of choices, so what I wanted to show was the beauty that they were surrounded by. My dad's house was beautiful. We found neoclassical architecture in Athens, in the Plaka, which is the main shopping area of Athens. It's like textiles, leather bags, shoes, soaps made out of olive oil and donkey milk, which God only knows what that is. And then if you look up, you realize, “Ah, I am looking at neoclassical architecture.”
The family journey in the movie is that we leave Chicago, get to Athens, and we do not stay in Athens. We go directly to an island, and while we are on the island, we go shopping in the big city. Well, the big city is actually Athens. We were in the Plaka at 6 a.m., which was a lifelong dream of mine—to get to film in this historic shopping area.
We also found neoclassical architecture on the island of Corfu, which became our second base. We were basically a two-base movie. We have many coastlines of Santorini, Paros, Crete, and Hydra. What we found on Corfu is a neoclassical village called Varipatedes, at the tip-top of a mountain. The architecture there is stunning. When we got there to scout with a 20-person team, we were greeted by the mayor, and found out that there are only 20 people who lived there during the winter. That became our main base.
Were there any locations where you had to clear out tourists? And how does that work exactly?
In the Plaka, we had to make it very clear that if you enter this area, you're going to be in a movie. Many, many tourists did want to walk through the scene, which was fine by us. When you're filming in a major city like Athens or New York or Miami, you have to enlist the help of the police, and what they do is lock off the streets. In fact, you'll hear it on an assistant director's walkie-talkie: “Lock off.” For safety reasons, the only cars that drive through a scene are driven by stunt drivers. Our stunt drivers were fluent in Greek, our second [assistant director] speaks Greek, I speak Greek, and that's how we got it done. You would hear, “Rolling sound, speed, action,” and then I would say, “Pame,” which is like, “Let's go.” We have three motorcycles driving through and a watermelon truck. A stunt woman is standing on the truck, and she stands up with a watermelon and smashes it on the street in one continuous shot. That was day one!
That's why we'd start at six in the morning. We also had to ask our tourists to understand that if they committed to being in a scene, they'd have to go back and do it again and again and again. We also had paid background actors. Our absolute goal was to employ as many locals as possible, period.
Tell me about filming in Santorini.
I don't know why I do these things sometimes, but I wrote a night wedding. I wanted to show something different. We've seen island weddings with the bride and groom walking through the sun, and I wanted to show what happens if we go at night. That's hard, because now you're starting at 9 p.m. and filming until 6 a.m., and with a lot of loud musical instruments. The other thing is that the island town is based on the side of a mountain, so everything is on a slope. Everyone had incredible calf muscles by the end of the shoot.
Were you and the actors recognized everywhere you went?
Yes. Look, we're a very, very close cast. I know people say it on press tours and it's usually bullshit. I swear, this is ridiculous, but we're like a family. For example, Gia Carides, who plays my cousin Nikki, came over for Christmas day and we all had dinner together. So if one of us is recognized, we'll turn around and then we'll see [mimes shocked face] when they realize it's the big family. And we are a very appreciative bunch. I don't think any of us has ever said no to a picture.
Can you tell me about any other major set pieces in the film?
We found a sailboat dock in Corfu, in a town called Benitses. Our location scout Giannis [Sotiropoulos] was ever diligent in finding these little gems of the place. When we saw it, we realized that, again, if you tilt your head and squint your eyes and look this way and that way, it could be four scenes. That's what we ended up doing. Every time the family is by water, we're actually in the same location, and you would not know. Barry, our cinematographer, used different apertures so that the sea looked different. Grant would paint sections of the wall or put up pieces of wood or sails. They have kite sailing here, so he would put up sails along the side of the beach and it looked like a different area. Benitses was extremely, extremely helpful for us.
Is there maybe one more that you could share?
I was looking for a remote area. There is a main character who lives away from everyone else, and that was very difficult for us to find. We’d find a house on the outskirts of Athens, and our architects would say it wasn’t safe to film. One time, we were on the scout and we walked all the way up an absolutely beautiful mountain and found a monastery. Again, it had been abandoned, so we couldn't film there. What ended up happening is we found a stretch of beach in Corfu and our production designer built a house of cardboard and stucco. It appears in the film on a remote beach. He did such an amazing job that even the Greek crew was like, “What's this house?” And Grant went, “Oh, I built it.”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler