It was a familiar sight: the twelve giant film trucks parked on Christie Street near the Wychwood Barns on Tuesday afternoon; the stunt team choreographing a fight on the lawn; the transformation of one of the barns into a nightclub set, complete with rows of spinning disco balls, white leather sofas, and rectangular light boxes casting a periwinkle glow. It could have been one of the countless U.S. big-studio films in which Toronto has posed as Chicago, New York, Detroit, Berlin.
But this movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, is not only being shot in Toronto. It stars Toronto.
It's a Universal picture with a hot British director (Edgar Wright, who made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), a cast of happening twentysomethings (Michael Cera, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh) and a budget nudging $100-million. But when its characters grab a slice at Pizza Pizza, a coffee at Second Cup, or a shirt at the Goodwill on St. Clair West, the store signs are in the shots. Nobody's switching mailboxes or changing the identity of St. Mike's school, the Wychwood Library, or Sonic Boom. When Mr. Cera, as the title character, fights an epic duel at Casa Loma, it's Casa Loma's turrets that loom over him.
Scott Pilgrim isn't alone. A slew of projects set specifically in Toronto - including Atom Egoyan's next film, Chloe; the CBC's Being Erica; CTV's Flashpoint; and three upcoming prime-time TV dramas, The Bridge, Copper and The Listener - are being partly or fully financed by American (or in Chloe's case, French) funds, and co-airing on U.S. television networks.
This new openness to Toronto starring as Toronto is partly monetary - post-SARS, the city instated some alluring tax incentives, just as the loonie dropped back under the U.S. dollar. And it's partly luck: U.S. networks, strangled by the 2007 writers' strike, were more willing to entertain pitches from Canadians and to partially fund shows made here. But Toronto's current close-up is also the fruition of decades of careful, behind-the-scenes work.
A huge pool of actors, crew members and permit-granters who trained on the American films and series in which Toronto played other cities now know how to get things done here with maximum bang for minimum buck. Plus, Toronto long ago graduated from a squeaky-clean, tame town into a thriving international metropolis. The U.S is finally catching on.
"Bathurst Street is practically the cerebral cortex of Scott Pilgrim," said Miles Dale, one of the film's producers, who stood at the back of the set wearing the de rigueur producer's uniform of jeans, baseball cap and chin stubble. He also produced, among others, Hollywoodland (shot in Toronto but set in Los Angeles) and Talk to Me (shot in Toronto but set in Washington, D.C.). Mr. Dale calls Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - based on a series of graphic novels by Toronto writer Bryan Lee O'Malley - "the biggest movie ever identifiably set in Toronto. The books are super-specific in their local details, and Edgar Wright, from the beginning, was set on using images from the books. Universal never suggested setting it anywhere else."
Written by Erin Cressida Wilson, Chloe was originally set in San Francisco, but Mr. Egoyan convinced his French backers, Studio Canal Plus, to switch to Toronto. "I adore San Francisco, and I'd dreamt of shooting there," Mr. Egoyan said. "But what more can you do with that city?
So many iconic films have been shot there. I was really excited about creating a romance around our city." His actors - Julianne Moore plays a doctor who hires an escort (Amanda Seyfried) to seduce her professor husband (Liam Neeson) - also made the move effortlessly.
"Toronto has an enormous good will because of the [Toronto International]Film Festival," Mr. Egoyan said. "Everyone in Hollywood knows what Toronto is; there's no feeling that it can't function as a character in a movie."
Ms. Moore and Mr. Neeson's characters live in a swank house on a Rosedale ravine, and dine at the Café Diplomatico on College Street and the Rivoli on Queen Street.
Her office is in Yorkville; he teaches at the University of Toronto.
The streetcar lines act as arteries fuelling a city that Mr. Egoyan described as "mysterious, elegant, inhabited, human, alive and vibrant." He deliberately chose "beauty shots" - down McCaul Street at sunset, with Will Alsop's Ontario College of Art and Design building and the CN Tower in the background; an angle on the ROM Crystal from Philosopher's Walk - to convey "what's compelling about Toronto, how inventive and elegant its contemporary vision can be. I felt really excited to bring out the romance of Toronto, which I've read in novels, but haven't really seen on the kind of mythic canvas that film can be. San Francisco has been analyzed and presented that way by commercial photographers for decades. So we looked at angles, framing, lenses, lighting choices, all with an eye to that kind of mythmaking."