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."
Shooting the second half of its first season for CTV and CBS, Flashpoint is trying the same trick on the small screen. Focusing on a SWAT team that swoops into crises, its Toronto is big, urban, urgent - they've shot at Metro Hall, Dundas Square, Queens Quay marina, City Hall. Back in 2007, the show's producers, including Anne Marie La Traverse and Bill Mustos, pitched ten senior CBS and Paramount executives in L.A. about co-funding and co-airing the show. "We spent 90 minutes talking about nothing but the creative aspects - no budget, no business stuff," said Mr. Mustos in the Eastern Avenue office he shares with Ms. La Traverse, one floor above Flashpoint's sound stages. "At the very end, they asked where we were setting it. We said, 'Toronto.' There was a beat of silence. Then the head of Paramount said, 'That feels like fresh terrain.' " Flashpoint's first nine episodes attracted about 10 million viewers a week, nine million of them on CBS; it has since sold to every territory around the world. Though no one will say exactly how much cash the U.S. networks infuse into all these series, the producers insist the deal is good for both countries. The Americans get a quality show for less than their usual license fees, and the Canadians can bump up their production values - shoot on 35-mm film, secure locations and equipment, hire enough extras to make the crowd scenes real, and afford the kind of gorgeous aerial shots that give an iconic look to a city.
"We shot on rooftops, we shot outside the Eaton Centre, we shot in winter - that blue, blue sky above snow that you never see in Canadian TV, because the funding structure forces most shows to shoot in the summer," Ms. La Traverse said. "All that is expensive, but essential to making the show look as good as anything on an American network."
It worked: Three other dramas set in Toronto - Copper, The Bridge and The Listener - are due to air on both Canadian and American networks in the coming year. And the CBC series Being Erica - with a heroine who lives on Palmerston Boulevard, works on King West, eats in the Distillery District, and weekends in Muskoka - is currently running on U.S. cable's SOAPnet, where it's the channel's top-rated original series. "The postings on our message boards uniformly say that people love the setting," producer Ivan Schneeberg said in an interview with his co-producer, David Fortier, in their aerie-like office at King and Spadina. "It's even better for us - Toronto is where we're from, it's where we're raising our families. We're immensely proud to show it to the world."
It's a relief, the creators of these films and shows say, that they no longer have to leave Toronto to do top-level work. "It's great to have the money," says the writer Tassie Cameron, who worked on Flashpoint and is now writing for Copper. "But what everyone who works on these shows wants is the eyeballs. A good Canadian audience is maybe 600,000 viewers. To know that you can have millions is thrilling." Canadian shows have succeeded in America before, she said - Degrassi, Life with Derek, Ready or Not - but not in prime time. "A cynic would say that door only opened to us because of the writers' strike," Ms. Cameron said. "Well, a realist would say that. But it was up to us to make it work or blow it." Now, in pitch meetings, U.S. executives still say, "Toronto is so clean," and they still point out any trace of a Canadian accent, Ms. Cameron said. "But they're taking us far more seriously as a creative city. Agencies in L.A. are actively looking for Canadian clients. We don't have to hide our passports any more."
Further evidence that Toronto has arrived: When Universal agreed to set Scott Pilgrim in Toronto, the Canadian dollar was at par. For a moment, they considered shooting it in New York, dressed as Toronto. "Wouldn't that have been ironic?" asked Mr. Dale. His film will be shooting here until August, but Mr. Dale's favourite shot so far is of the flashing bulbs of the Honest Ed's sign, spread along Bloor Street like a carnival. "There they are up on the screen, the words, 'Come in and get lost,' that I've looked at my whole life," he said. Toronto, on screen, has finally been found.