SOFIA, Bulgaria — Yariv Lerner couldn’t have made this movie 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, he was a self-described beach bum, living with half a dozen other beach bums.
One of those bums was Tom Black, an indoor star out of UCSD who was, like the others living in Lerner’s house, trying to make it on the beach. Black wasn’t making it — but he wrote about it, putting together a 100-or-so page screenplay he named Qualifying, the plot of which is exactly what it sounds like: A beach volleyball player grinding through the qualifiers. For 20 years the script was shelved.
Lerner is now the CEO of Nu Boynana Film Studios, one of the largest movie studios in Europe. He’s spearheaded and produced blockbuster films with gargantuan budgets and household names, movies such as Rambo, The Expendables, Hellboy, The Hitman’s Bodyguard. He’s worked with Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham, Gerard Butler and Megan Fox.
The next film on his production queue?
Yariv Lerner is bringing beach volleyball back to the big screen.
“I love the sport. I’ve never seen it represented in the way we’re trying to represent it,” Lerner said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “We’re trying to take you inside the game in a way that’s never been done before.
“What is it in the game that makes us fall in love with it? What is it that you’re feeling when you’re getting served at 20-19 and it’s match point? How do you translate that to an audience that doesn’t get it? What makes us love the game? The adrenaline, the constant improvement, the drive, the getting up in the morning when no one’s up because in three months, you have a tournament. Those little things, the nuance. It’s incredible. How do we take the camera inside the game?
“They did it with Friday Night Lights, Any Given Sunday, but not beach volleyball. Whenever we’ve represented beach volleyball, it’s always been a very superficial representation. I’ve always felt like it’s been an unrepresented sport in the world and it’s such an amazing sport. You’re at the beach all day, you’re interacting with the crowd, you’re traveling the world, you’re connecting with people in such a unique way. Then there’s the players that move across the globe, give up everything, just to pursue a dream that’s not financial, you’re never going to make money, just because you love it. That’s so pure to me. The fact that you can do something for love, just for love.”
And Lerner is doing this, make no mistake, for love. It’s a mighty balancing act he’s working at the moment. One second he’s on the phone with his crew for the upcoming Expendables 4, managing a cast that includes Stallone, Fox, Statham, Dolph Lundgren, 50 Cent, and Andy Garcia, among others. The next he’s in the weeds for Qualifying, tossing free balls to nail a beach volleyball sequence perfectly, where a team from the Czech Republic needs to swing angle to an American team, who needs to dig it and hit a mediocre jumbo in return, which the Czech team then needs to dig and convert in transition. It needs to be smooth. It needs to be believable.
More than anything: It needs to look like beach volleyball, something that’s never before been done properly on film.
“The movie is by beach volleyball for beach volleyball,” Lerner said. “The ultimate goal of qualifying is to get it. It’s for people to watch the movie and say: They got it. It’s not about the Olympic Games, it’s about getting into the door: It’s the one-star tournament where you need enough points even to enter it, then get enough points to move on. That’s the journey.”
It’s a journey Lerner has lived, has seen up close and personal, for decades. A native of Tel Aviv, Israel, Lerner was working in London, just two weeks away from attaining his British passport, when he watched the 1996 Olympics. After Karch Kiraly won the gold medal with Kent Steffes, he told reporters “Well I have the best job in the world, my office is the beach.”
“That kinda clicked,” Lerner said. “I said ‘Ok I got to go to California.’”
So he did.
His father, Avi, was already in California, working in the movie business. After a brief stint working as a chef — “it was a lot of hours on my feet,” he said — Yariv took a job working for his dad, “reading scripts, telling him if they’re good, not good, whatever. I could do that during the day and go play a lot of beach. That was my introduction to beach volleyball.”
Lerner would get to Sorrento Beach by 7 a.m., cutting his teeth with Black. At 9, the best players in the area would show up, players such as Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos. So Lerner would move to the Santa Monica Pier, play until 4, then take a break until 6, when the evening crowd rolled in.
He might have been a beach bum, but dammit, he was one happy beach bum.
“I was determined to stay in California, I wanted to stay as close as possible to the beach, so I bought a house and I just rented out rooms to rent the mortgage,” he said. “There was a district 11 loan for first time buyers, which allowed you to get a house without any credit history.”
He rented his house to fellow volleyball players, keeping the rent dirt cheap, just enough to cover the mortgage, low enough so the guys living there barely needed to work. They could just play beach volleyball all day.
“The goal was not to make money, it was just to cover the mortgage,” Lerner said. No one had to work super hard, they could all train.”
“Out of the last six Olympics, at least 80 percent of the people had lived in the house at one point,” Lerner said. “It was a super fun experience because everyone there was competitive. There was an insane amount of trash talk.”
Lerner’s evolution is still amazing to Roberts.
“He’s literally the same guy he was twenty years ago,” Roberts said.
Only now he’s the head of a massive movie studio.
The role was initially more necessity than choice. Lerner’s uncle, Danny, was running Nu Boyana in 2013, but he was diagnosed with melanoma and frequently needed to take off to receive treatments. When Danny couldn’t work, Yariv took over.
At the time, Nu Boyana was shooting Expendables 3, which called for a nine figure budget.
“It was trial by fire,” Lerner said, laughing. “I just stayed and I never left and that’s how I started running the studio. I had been running a yoga studio, and I had four people with me, and overnight I had 400. It was quite a jump. Big transition.”
He’s still a beach bum at heart, Lerner, spending every free minute he has at Sofia Beach, which hosted five FIVB tournaments this summer. Now he’s putting the beach bum journey on the big screen, producing Qualifying, reviving Black’s 20-year-old script and turning it into a bona fide film, with a legit crew, a full cast, the works.
As he mentioned, it’s a beach volleyball movie, by the beach volleyball crowd, for the beach volleyball player. The players he has cast are all either current or former players. Trevor van Unden is the lead, a full-time actor who was a former pupil of Marv Dunphy at Pepperdine. His partner in the movie is, well, me, someone who is quite well-versed in the journey of the qualifier player who is also well-versed in being on camera.
The antagonists? Canadians Jake MacNeil and Will Hoey, the No. 3-ranked team in Canada who have shocked Lerner in the best of ways with how good they’ve been on camera.
“You can have an actor shoot seventeen takes, and they still won’t be able to deliver the lines Jake does, with the comedic timing he does,” Lerner said. “That’s the interesting thing about this film: We’re using actual volleyball players, so we don’t have to cut away from the action.”
The action will be filmed in Bulgaria in the next few weeks. Sometime this fall, Nu Boyana will descend upon the South Bay to finish shooting, and then the film goes into post-production, with the goal to be released next summer.
Twenty years after the fact, Tom Black and Yariv Lerner’s farfetched dream is becoming a reality: Beach volleyball will be in theaters.
And it’s going to be done the right way.
“We took it on faith that we were going to do it,” Lerner said. “When he wrote the script, there was no way I could have made it. I was a beach bum, but things had happened, and now I’m running a movie studio, and I have the resources to make it, and it’s great to see things that would have never happened, happen.”