The disappointing fifth-place box-office opening of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World means that Universal probably shouldn’t have spent $60 million on a Michael Cera movie. But most of all, it means things aren’t looking good for the future of U.S. films set in Canada.
Scott Pilgrim, based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels, takes place in Toronto just like the books do; the filmmakers shot all around the city to retell the story of a Canadian slacker (Cera) who becomes a video-game-style action hero when his new girlfriend’s ex-lovers try to kill him.
It’s one of the few recent U.S. productions to have shot in Toronto and not disguised it as another city—another was Mike Myers’s The Love Guru, which also flopped—making it the first comic book film where characters read one of the city’s alternative newspapers, Eye Weekly, wear CBC logo shirts, work at Second Cup, and break up in the Sonic Boom record store in downtown Toronto. And while the setting didn’t cause the movie to flop, it may not have helped: the vague, unfocused promotion for the film not only avoided making it clear what kind of movie it was, but where the movie took place. And yet no one ever considered moving it to a U.S. city: O’Malley told Maclean’s that though production on the film was almost moved from Toronto to New York, “it would have been doubling as Toronto, which would have been weird.”
The failure of Scott Pilgrim may be worse news for Canadians than for the American studio that produced it or the English writer-director (Edgar Wright, of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). It was all but adopted by Canadians determined to use it as a selling point for the entire country. A website, www.torontolovesscottpilgrim.com, was set up by a conglomeration of tourism boards to promote the film’s use of real Toronto places and to remind us that Cera loves Canada even if he doesn’t live here now. Peter Birkemoe, owner of the Toronto comic book store The Beguiling, says he’s seen “a fairly substantial increase in Scott Pilgrim-related tourism” driven by publicity and the fact that O’Malley used to work there.
It’s not just nationalistic pride that drove this campaign, it’s simple economics: this was our last chance to get into a big movie. Though earlier decades saw a fair number of U.S. films set in Canada, Hollywood started to avoid the setting after it lost its exotic association with the British empire. The 1957 U.S. film Zero Hour!, based on the CBC drama Flight Into Danger, kept the Canadian-ness of the original. But by 1980, when the story got a comedic remake as Airplane!, the studio had replaced Vancouver with Chicago as the airplane’s destination. Similarly, the 1986 remake of The Fly did not use the 1958 original’s Montreal setting, even though the remake was made in Canada and directed by David Cronenberg.
Still, Wright, determined to stick to the style of the comic—the movie puts onomatopoeia on the screen to describe sounds, and retains O’Malley’s instructions to have a “studio audience” effect at one point—seemed to think the location was an integral part of that style. Before the picture even started shooting, he told comingsoon.net that “it would be really crucial to shoot in Toronto.”
Why did Wright and Universal go where even David Cronenberg feared to tread? Scott Pilgrim could have been relocated, since the setting is not mentioned all that often; O’Malley says that “it just happens to be Canada. It’s like having a gay character in the movie and not being a gay movie.” The contrast between Scott and his New Yorker dream girl Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) could be done with another U.S. city, and most of the things he does—playing in a band, getting into karate fights, “powering up” like a video game character—are a normal part of twentysomething life everywhere.
But while the plot of the books may be transferable, the look and feel may not be. O’Malley was living in Toronto when he began the series in 2004, and so all the comics include scenes in real locations rendered in O’Malley’s manga-influenced style but still recognizable. Part of the joke of the books is that no matter how crazy the plot gets—no one seems surprised by a villain who fights Bollywood-style while backed up by singing female demons—it all plays out in a realistic atmosphere, in places the creator knows: characters in the movie version are seen at a Pizza Pizza store in downtown Toronto, or announcing that they’re “heading to [Toronto landmark] Casa Loma.” The film might not have been able to create that grounded feeling if the filmmakers had to disguise Toronto as another city: “Not everyone who has read the books has been to Toronto,” O’Malley explains, “but they get the sense of it. It grounds it and makes it feel real.” The filmmakers hope we’ll sense what Berkimoe calls “that ring of authenticity.”
But it may also be that the Canadian setting is the thing that has kept Scott Pilgrim from being a horrible central character. Cera described Scott to The Daily Beast as “very immature and a bit of an idiot,” and it’s true: all the characters except him see how pathetic he is. His remorse over dumping the sweet high school girl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) lasts all of 15 seconds before he’s feeling good again.
What makes him tolerable, apart from the rule that the top-billed character is the good guy, is that as a Canadian in love with an American girl and fighting American villains, he’s automatically the underdog.
While the comics and the film don’t spend too much time on this aspect of the story, they spend enough to remind us that Scott is an innocent compared to the more violent, powerful Americans (plus bad guys from other foreign countries like India and Japan). Part of Ramona’s fascination for him is that she’s from south of the border and therefore exotic: in one of his many Freudian slips, he says that “she’s America?.?.?.?I mean, American.” And it’s implied that Americans know secrets that naive Canadians don’t. When Ramona visits Scott’s home, she casually says she was able to use a “subspace highway,” adding, “I forgot, you guys don’t have that in Canada.” Berkimoe calls this joke a reminder of our idea that Americans are “otherworldly creatures,” that “Americans have certain things that we don’t have.”
As if that didn’t make it clear enough, the head of Ramona’s “league of evil exes,” Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), turns out to be all of Canada’s fears about America rolled into one bespectacled ball. He’s a music promoter who is opening a Canadian branch of his business and encouraging Canadian musicians to “sell out.” He even insults Scott’s “tragically Canadian sensibilities,” a line that provoked boos from a Toronto preview audience. O’Malley’s feelings about the place of Canadian artists in North America come out in moments like this: “In the entertainment industry, you feel the need to conquer America, to break out of the Canadian market and go further,” he explains. “It started subconsciously, but it develops as a Canadian creator grappling with this American world.”
Toronto may be the perfect setting for the story of a character learning to have some self-respect, because it’s a major city that has an inferiority complex—compared to cities that have been featured in more U.S. movies.
The story potential of a Canadian setting may be why, even with Scott Pilgrim’s anemic earnings, we’re seeing a thawing of U.S. resistance to Canada. It’s most visible on television: Flashpoint, a Canadian TV show made with an eye on the U.S. market, doesn’t disguise the fact that it takes place in Toronto, while How I Met Your Mother does fine with a Canadian character (and even set an episode in Canada last year). Though if more Canadian cities start turning up in U.S. films, it won’t be because O’Malley wrote about them: he lives in Los Angeles now, and when he visited the set of the movie while creating the last Pilgrim comic, he says “my experience of Toronto from that perspective,” as a visitor, “ended up going into the book as well.” That could be the underlying message of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World—if you learn to embrace your Canadian identity, you’ll finally be confident enough to move to the States.