Millions of TV and movie viewers have seen Vancouver on their screens – but would never know it. Vancouver rarely stars as itself in British Columbia’s booming TV and feature-film production sector. Instead, it tends to show up in disguise as fictional American locations such as Gotham City, Central City, or, in the hit series The Good Doctor, the real Californian city of San Jose.
All of this makes Family Law, a new production set in B.C.‘s largest city, stand out. Of the 41 movies, series, pilots and big-screen feature films scheduled to be filmed in the province, Family Law is a rarity: one of the few to star Vancouver as Vancouver. Seven years in the making, the show got off the ground this spring only to have to hit pause again because of the pandemic. But now cast and crew are once again filming, much to the delight of Susin Nielsen, the veteran TV scriptwriter who created the new series scheduled for a 2021 debut on Global TV.
“I really wanted to showcase beautiful Vancouver, the city I fell in love with when I moved out here in ’95 from Toronto,” she says.
Her show joins a relatively short list of series set in Vancouver that includes Motive, Cold Squad, Da Vinci’s Inquest and its sequel series Da Vinci’s City Hall.
The new show is about a dysfunctional family of lawyers practising, as per the title, family law. Actors Victor Garber, featured most recently in the Vancouver-shot Hollywood series DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Jewel Staite, who has starred in such B.C.-shot productions as Cold Squad, Stargate Atlantis and The Magicians, are central to the drama, playing daughter and father lawyers.
Vancouver was always integral to the Family Law pitch. “It was always just part of the original DNA. We didn’t know if we would be able to execute on that,” says Jordy Randall, whose Alberta-based Seven24 Films company has been a partner on Law. “As we got closer and closer, it became more and more possible. It was not an impediment.”
So far, it’s expected that such Vancouver-region locations as Granville Island and Deep Cove will play themselves. Nielsen wanted a house in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver for the heroine, but settled on a property in the neighbourhood of Kerrisdale. There are plans to shoot in Squamish.
The series’s main sound stage is a former retail space in Langley, and Nielsen said she expects there will be some exterior filming in that area.
Family Law executive producer Erin Haskett previously worked on Motive, and said there will be more of a focus on highlighting Vancouver in Family Law. “Where we are in 2020 is that people around the world are used to seeing different places, and are actually intrigued, and want to be dropped into new worlds,” she said. “We can celebrate [Vancouver] and not have to hide anything.”
Still, the boom creates some challenges.
Randall said it can be tough to recruit crews for Canadian shows, given that those workers are frequently busy with American projects. The costs of production can be higher as a result, he says.
Despite this, though, he vows that the per-episode Family Law budget is “definitely a fraction of what you would find on the bigger studio or Netflix productions.”
The show is now being financed by a mix of broadcaster license fees, funds from the Canadian Media Fund, tax credits from B.C. and federally, and other sources. “It’s a pie with a number of pieces that all have to come together to get to a number we need to make the show,” Randall says.
The assembly of the pieces was evident one day in March. Garber was on the north plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery, costumed to play Harry Svensson. Staite was on hand playing Abigail.
That plaza, featuring an imposing section of the neoclassical complex, has long been used as a production location. Not so long ago, the plaza was dramatically redone to appear as a key square in Gotham City for the series Batwoman, and it has been regularly used by other Hollywood TV series and feature films. In Family Law, it will be Vancouver.
David Shepheard, the Vancouver film commissioner, said series like Family Law are rare in an industry that generated $3.2-billion for the province’s economy and employed more than 70,000 people in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
He hopes more people will use Vancouver as the setting for their show, as that could be “a bit of a trigger for other people to write more stories about Vancouver as a place.” Shepheard said such enterprise promotes the city, in general, but also makes a general case to all producers about the city’s merits as a location.
Producer Simon Barry, who bucked the odds with his series Continuum, set in 2012- and 2077-era Vancouver, is in the process of he is developing a pair of series, one for CBC, set in Vancouver.
“If I can present Vancouver as Vancouver, my job is made a lot easier by not having to hide that. I can embrace things that elevate that show and elevate its texture by using Vancouver as Vancouver,” he said.
Sounding a more sober note, Nielsen notes few dramatic shows, set anywhere, are approved for production in Canada. “So I can’t say I have learned any lessons about what gets a show made here in Vancouver playing Vancouver for Vancouver,” she said in an interview. “All I’ve learned is, life is full of surprises.”
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