For a long time Toronto cinema was ruled by a paradox: it was the city’s anonymity that made it so special. But after years as a chameleonic character actor, the city is slowly but surely gaining a greater presence as a lead performer on the silver screen.
From Goin’ Down the Road to the films of Atom Egoyan, Don McKellar, and others, Toronto has always had a prominent domestic cinema presence.
But Hollywood put the city on a significant and parallel second track dating back to the 1970s. American productions first came north to take advantage of tax shelter laws that made Toronto – the place that allegedly looked like “New York run by the Swiss” – a good place to shoot on the cheap. Virtually all the movies from that era were B-grade at best and are largely forgotten. But The Silent Partner – a gritty, violent thriller in which Elliot Gould and Chris Plummer chased each other around Cabbagetown and the shiny new Eaton Centre – and Ivan Reitman's rather gentler summer camp romp Meatballs are lasting reminders it wasn't all bad.
Production picked up substantially in the 1980s and 1990s even if the quality of the results continued to be more miss than hit. For every blockbuster such as Police Academy (in which Toronto played a generic American metropolis) or Three Men and a Baby, Moonstruck, and Sea of Love (in which it began carving out a solid niche as an ersatz New York City) there was box office fodder like Death Wish V: The Face of Death.
When shot the right way, Toronto had a quality that made it look like just about any American city. But efforts to disguise Toronto in the lesser films was lacking. Short Circuit 2, for example, staged the Yonge-Dundas intersection as Times Square, but even the surplus of American flags failed to make the Ontario legislative building look like anything in New York. Long forgotten TV movies and early cable TV series, such as Relic Hunter, were made on the cheap with little more than a few yellow cabs or the purposeful absence of the CN Tower to make it seem somewhere American.
But through this era, Toronto’s crews became more skilled, its production facilities more elaborate, and the reasons to keep coming back grew. The then-abandoned Gooderham & Worts Distillery quietly became one of the biggest shooting sites outside of Hollywood. Before being reborn as a tony tourist destination, the abandoned Victorian factory hosted hundreds of productions, appearing most prominently as a concentration camp in the first X-Men.
Gradually more high-quality shows came to town. Best Picture winner Chicago didn't film a frame in the Windy City and the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, like last year's Best Picture winner, Spotlight, deftly blended in just enough real Boston locations to disguise that most of the filming was done north of the border.
And that's mostly how it went, with Toronto appearing in more and more movies, but almost never as itself.
But things have evolved in the past decade and Toronto is gradually shedding its disguise. If not a Hollywood blockbuster, Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a cult hit with an unabashed love for the city's less celebrated corners. It's the biggest budget flick in which Toronto gets to shine on its own terms.
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Shortly after, Sarah Polley rolled out the sweltering drama Take This Waltz and Atom Egoyan his wintry thriller, Chloe. Writer Elan Mastai and director Michael Dowse showered the same photogenic love Polley had given the city's west end on the east side with 2014's The F Word, lending local colour to the sort of romantic comedy Hollywood producers generically stage in New York City or Chicago. Instead of a stroll in Central Park, an afternoon at Kew Beach. Instead of a retro Manhattan eatery, a bite at the George Street Diner.
Over the past few years the "Peak TV" era has brought more and more productions to Toronto. The likes of Hannibal and Suits have given the city a new cinematic lease on life and yielded a record $2-billion investment last year.
Last month, Orphan Black came to an end after five seasons during which it gradually eased from geographical ambiguity into embracing its Toronto locations, including the historic Valley Halla estate, the Old Don Jail, neighbourhoods in Markham and Brampton, and many more.
You won't see much of Toronto in the new locally shot Star Trek: Discovery when it airs later this month, but the recent first season of The Handmaid's Tale featured Hamilton, Cambridge and Toronto (both as itself and the New England-based Gilead) and a second season is in the works. The Neil Gaiman adaptation, American Gods also aired this past summer and used several of the same locations in totally different guises; a cross- country road trip filmed almost entirely in southern Ontario.
Alongside this newfound cinematic prominence comes a wave of ever-bigger Hollywood productions.
Guillermo del Toro shot his first English-language film, 1997's Mimic here, and Toronto has since become his home base for a roster of productions that now includes Pacific Rim, Mama, The Strain, and the forthcoming The Shape of Water. Crimson Peak made use of Hamilton's Scottish Rite mansion and Kingston City Hall to fine effect.
Next week also sees the release of Stephen King's IT, which turned parts of Toronto, Oshawa, and Port Hope into the fictional town of Derry; for King fans, it's akin to Tolkien fans seeing Hobbiton magically come to life in New Zealand. Though King adaptations are a dime a dozen, IT is one of very few to film in Toronto. Last year's 11.22.63 managed to recreate early-1960s Dallas, Maine, and Texas, primarily using parts of Hamilton and Guelph. And way back in 1983, David Cronenberg made fine use of a wintry Niagara-on-the-Lake for The Dead Zone. The production even left behind a legacy: a lakeside gazebo that has long since become part of the local landscape.
The shifting dollar and government tax breaks will always have some influence in the film industry but it's safe to say that Toronto has carved out its niche. It’s no longer a repository for cheapo Hollywood productions, nor is it content solely to embrace its inconspicuousness; Toronto has its own stories to tell.
David Fleischer has written extensively on urban affairs and Toronto's cinematic history for Torontoist and is a contributor to the book, World Film Locations: Toronto.
Photo courtesy of Canadian Pacific and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
Watch Nam Kiwanuka's interview with Geoff Pevere about Toronto on film on The Agenda in the Summer tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., or streaming on Twitter @TheAgenda.
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