Toronto and Vancouver: Hollywood can't quite disguise them -

Toronto and Vancouver: Hollywood can’t quite disguise them

Ever noticed those mountains looming behind New York City?

Toronto and Vancouver, barely incognito

Kerry Hayes/Vow Productions; Shutterstock; Photo Illustration By Levi Nicholson

In a scene from The Vow, Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum park by the Chicago waterfront, strip down to their underwear, and scamper into the lake for a frigid late-night dip. But the lake is Ontario, not Michigan. The couple is cavorting on Cherry Beach in McAdams’s home city of Toronto, and the skyline is visible—minus the CN Tower. Canadian locales routinely impersonate American cities in Hollywood movies, but what’s striking about The Vow is how blithely it shows familiar glimpses of a city that’s supposed to be incognito. The lovers first cross paths at City Hall, and exchange their vows at a guerrilla wedding staged in the Art Gallery of Ontario. The movie is punctuated by postcard vistas of the real Chicago, but whenever the actors are in the shot, Toronto backdrops shatter the illusion, at least for anyone who knows the city.

There’s nothing wrong with faking locations. It’s something Hollywood has always done and always will. Movies, after all, are in the business of make-believe. But after so many years, the routine casting of Toronto and Vancouver for American burgs has become irksome, especially now that these cities have more personality and profile of their own. Ontario film commissioner Donna Zuchlinski claims local audiences enjoy spotting their hometown onscreen—“it adds to the movie-going experience, that sense of pride.” But stripped of its character, a surrogate city exudes blandness. In a confection like The Vow, despite a spirited performance from McAdams, that cavalier lack of authenticity penetrates deep into the bones of the movie, from the generic characters to the formulaic script. It seems to say: what the hell, the audience will never notice.

When American studios shoot movies north of the border, would it kill them to set one there? That almost never happens. Although Canada is the only country in the world that’s lumped into Hollywood’s domestic market, apparently we’re not domestic enough to be a place where people would actually live. “Americans want to see American cities,” says Toronto production designer Sandra Kybartas, a veteran of both Canadian and U.S. shoots. “They have a limited palate for exoticism.”

Despite the rising strength of the loonie, U.S. production is booming north of the border, attracted by diverse locations, skilled crews and tax credits. Last year, Ontario hosted $413 million in foreign production, up 30 per cent from the previous year. Toronto is often cast as Chicago—even Chicago, the Oscar-winning musical, was shot here. The Vow’s production designer, Kalina Ivanov, says the two cities look alike because “they’re both from the same era and they’re both on lakes.” Kybartas, who spent years dressing Toronto as Chicago for TV’s Due South, disagrees: “It’s hard to get Toronto to look like Chicago, because Chicago has all the power lines buried.” But U.S. productions “generally do a good job,” she adds. “They’re very careful in eliminating the CN Tower and catching the iconic bits.”

Yet incongruities do pop up. The most ridiculous case was Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx (1995), in which Vancouver’s mountains loomed behind New York City. But even last year’s 50/50—a credible cancer comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen—has absurd moments. Shot in Vancouver and set in Seattle, 50/50 shows Adam (Gordon-Levitt) in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, lamenting, “I’ve never been to f–king Canada.” In another scene, he jogs along the seawall and ends up at Seattle’s Space Needle. “Long run,” he sighs.

Why not just set 50/50 in Rogen’s hometown of Vancouver? “The marketing people at the studios prefer to set American stories in American cities,” says Shawn Williamson of Brightlight Pictures, one of 50/50’s producers. “There’s a perception that it matters to American audiences. I don’t think Canadian or international audiences care where a film is set.”

Two recent U.S. productions driven by Canadian talent actually did set stories in Toronto—Chloe, directed by Atom Egoyan, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, starring Michael Cera. Sadly, both bombed. Toronto’s stardom will just have to wait.


Toronto and Vancouver: Hollywood can’t quite disguise them

  1. McAdams is from St. Thomas/London, not Toronto.

    • This is why Toronto is viewed (by themselves and other provinces) as the Centre of the Universe.  Of COURSE they are, if everywhere else is Toronto.

    •  But she lives in Toronto (in the Annex, I believe).

      • I take hometown to mean where someone is born and raised, not where they currently live as an adult. I have to agree with 2Jenn on this one, it’s a little lazy to suggest London and St. Thomas fall under the Toronto umbrella. Not a big deal, but certainly an oversight on the part of the author.

        • The article doesn’t say “hometown,” it says “home city.” I take “home city” to be “city where one makes their home.”

          I agree that Toronto thinks they’re the centre of the universe, but I’m just explaining your mistake.

      • I think she lives in Parkdale.

  2. Seems funny that this article is mostly about Toronto, yet Vancouver gets significantly more U.S. film production business.

    • Yeah, the article refers to Ontario hosting $413M in foreign production last year, but according to the BC Film Commission, B.C. hosted $778M in foreign production. 

  3. “I don’t think Canadian or international audiences care where a film is set” – Yes, only Americans enjoy seeing themselves and their communities reflected in media and entertainment. The rest of us get a thrill experiencing a slice of American in everything we watch, listen to, read, eat,  etc. since the whole world obviously aspires to be American. The real question then is, isn’t everything non-American ultimately just a set?
    I also can’t help but wonder how many Canadians sat through “One Week” simply for the purpose of catching a glimpse of familiar scenery on the big screen that wasn’t fed to us as Americana?

    • Well said, JoLaMcB

      The thing that bugs me the most is that I care where a film is set. A lot. I have for years. 
      I purposely don’t watch most US film and TV because I don’t want to know anything more about US culture. It has become far too tedious, repetitive and preachy. I want to see our stories. I actively seek out movies set in Canada. But they are so few and far between. And the few that do exist are sadly full of Canadian worship of the US. Like Scott Pilgrim who was madly in love with—what else?—an “American”. In fact I can only name one or two Canadian-based movies that don’t mention the US at all. Which is strange. Books based in Canada are similar. I’ve notices that a reference to the States will usually be made within the first 3 pages. This pandering is weird and pathetic. It’s like we are conditioned to believe that a story isn’t valid unless it is “American”.

      Indeed, it does simply boil down to the US wanting to watch US-based movies. And Canadians also wanting to watch US-based movies. 

      But not me, I don’t like them, so I do more activities.  

  4. A 1990’s movie starring Richard Gere titled “Intrsection” was filmed and presented (although in a most subtle way) as Vancouver. Although the movie was just very average, it did OK numbers at the box office.

    • I recall that movie now that you mention it…. ‘very average’ is a generous rating, IMO.

  5. I love seeing Toronto portrayed as an  American city, makes me chuckle every time!

  6. The 1999 film “The Third Miracle”, about the Vatican’s process of determining whether someone qualifies for sainthood, is set in Chicago, but one scene is clearly shot in front of Toronto’s one-of-a-kind city hall, some of it straight on, if I recall correctly. A less obvious part of that scene can be viewed in this trailer, from 1:36 to 1:38: .

  7. Lol. Paid promotion of Canada in movie content goes back to the 1930s. Yet that is exactly what this article ends up proposing. To promote Toronto, just beam a webcam into a bunch of US homes.

  8. I don’t know about Chloe, but didn’t the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World kinda HAVE to be set in Toronto?  After all, it’s based upon a series of graphic novels by a Canadian artist, focused on a titular hero who LIVES IN TORONTO.  

    So, that example isn’t an example of filmmakers deciding to set a story in Toronto, it’s an example of filmmakers deciding not to take a story already originally set in Toronto and relocate it somewhere else.  Shooting a story about Chicago in Toronto while keeping the setting of the story in Chicago (but insufficiently disguising Toronto to make it look more like Chicago) is one thing, but surely taking a story that was set in Toronto in the first place and re-working it to be set somewhere else would have been a more egregious move.  Especially for a GRAPHIC novel set in Toronto.  There’s Second Cups, and Pizza Pizzas all over the graphic novels.  Casa Loma, TPL, Honest Eds, the TTC, the Baldwin Steps, Lee’s Palace and Sneaky Dee’s all feature as locations in the graphic novels, along with a host of other Toronto-centric references.  Scott Pigrim’s little brother is named Lawrence West for Pete’s sake.  Setting the movie version of Scott Pilgrim somewhere other than Toronto would have been a travesty, imho.

  9. The article when speaking of the mercans stated “They have a limited palate for exoticism.”

    That’s hilarious, Toronto being ‘excotic’

  10. Not entirely a counterexample, but I did think of “Away We Go,” which had a prominent section set in Montreal.  Though, strangely, that felt kind of forced to me.  The movie was centred on two expectant parents trying to decide where to raise their child.  But, the Montreal section was presented as if it were just another option, no more complicated than the others, despite the obvious immigration hassles they would have had to go through (let alone any consideration of the effects of Bill 101).  I’m willing to forgive it, since it wasn’t really clear that the couple had seriously considered any of the places before visiting, with most of the details to be worked out later.

    • a. the Montreal they showed was the cool Montreal with a bit of the exotic to it.
      b. under 101 wouldn’t they be clear, being parents having been schooled in English?

      • You would think that, but no.  The exemption only applies if you were educated in English *in Canada*.  Immigrants to Quebec from the United States, for instance, are required to attend francophone schools.  

  11. Did everyone forget the X-Files?

  12. In a recent rerun for Due South I saw the right part of an old Gooderham;s logo on an old brick wall –neat! Sometimes one see red “County______” coffee/donut shop sign.

  13. Here we go again with the Toronto bashing! Seems like the rest of Canada has an inferiority complex! I live across the globe and meet quite a few Canadians, when I tell them I’m from Toronto, they blatantly start spewing hateful and derogatory comments about Toronto. Nice! Met one guy recently who from a small town in the north of Ontario, when he asked if I’ve heard of it, I replied no. He was stated, “of course you from Toronto”.