Ontario: Canada’s Method Actor for Film/TV Production

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Need squeaky-clean Toronto to become dark and dystopian? No prob. Or is a blazing L.A. sun on the agenda? Done. Meet the people who transform the province into almost anything.

For evidence that Ontario trumps Hollywood as a location for moviemaking, look no further than Guillermo del Toro. The creature-feature king now makes Toronto his home while juggling film and TV shoots on local streets and stages. Those projects include Mama, which del Toro executive produced; Pacific Rim, which he directed; FX’s The Strain, which he created and wrote with Chuck Hogan; and his next film, Pacific Rim 2, which shoots later this year at Pinewood Toronto Studios.

Location shooting in Ontario is the new normal for a slew of other Hollywood heavyweights as well: Toronto hosted Adam Sandler’s Pixels for Sony; Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad, starring Will Smith and Jared Leto; and U.S. TV series like Hulu’s James Franco starrer 11/22/63, Syfy’s Defiance and Netflix’s Hemlock Grove.

Beyond its lucrative tax breaks, Ontario also draws Hollywood with its skilled local crews and talent. The Hollywood Reporter asked Toronto directors, producers and location managers to discuss why Ontario continues to be Hollywood’s northern backlot of choice.

Eoin Egan, vice president of Pinewood International: It’s an amazing testimonial that Guillermo del Toro, who has worked all over the world, in New Zealand and Hungary — when he came to Toronto, he could have just as easily moved on. But I think the crews, first and foremost on Pacific Rim and The Strain, now have Guillermo constantly talking about other movies and TV series [he wants to shoot in Toronto]. It’s a testament to the people and the crews he’s worked with.

Luis Mendoza, Location Manager for The Strain: When you have specific ideas [for your projects], scouts and location managers can come up with so many options. In his mind, [del Toro] knew the setting of The Strain. He’d say “I need it dark, isolated, haunted and terrifying,” then we had a good sense. We didn’t want something too colorful and pretty. You want a dark alley with looming, tall and dark buildings in the background, with nooks and crannies where characters can hide. Abandoned factories where vampires will hide and the bloodsucking nemesis can hide and pounce.

Martin Katz, producer on David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, recalls scouting locations for a movie set entirely in Los Angeles and having Toronto double as Hollywood, thanks to a truckload of palm trees and artful gardening.

Katz: One of the distinct challenges was gardening because we wanted to ensure that when you saw outside a window, when action took place in grounds around the houses, the houses appeared to be in Los Angeles. We had intense lighting through the windows, so we had the California sun. And the art department provided a truckload of palm trees, which we carried around and placed strategically in shots, so it always looks like California vegetation. We even took an ordinary Ontario hedge and had small flowers sewn onto it so it looked like bougainvillea.

Peter Cullingford, owner of Picture Vehicle Specialties, says he has a number of tricks up his sleeve to make Ontario locations look less Canadian.

Cullingford: You can block something that’s very non-American, non-New York or non-Chicago. So throw a [New York City] bus, a delivery truck, a fire truck into the frame, and it’s the small things that say it’s a U.S. city. Sometimes that’s right down to U.S. Postal Service mailboxes, a hot-dog cart or a vending trailer. I probably have 40 vehicles that are just always New York City. I have two fire trucks, two ambulances, at least 14 [yellow] taxicabs and NYPD police cars. Take [the Toronto street corner of] Richmond and Spadina, which is often used for Manhattan — you can flood that street with 25 taxicabs and rotate those cars and keep driving them through the scene.

Need some realistic body parts fast? Jay Scanlon, owner of Lock Up Props Inc., a prop-rental shop in Toronto, is your man.

Scanlon: People often want body parts in jars. For [NBC’s] Hannibal, we rented out 30 jars of various oddities: dry mushrooms, weird liquids and moss. They also rented our morgue table. It’s a period white cast-porcelain table, a real one. It’s very old, I would guess early 1900s, heavy enameled cast iron, with drain holes and channels. They took quite a bit of medical equipment, including my cryogenic tanks. They’re 6-feet-tall, stainless-steel tanks.

Ontario also can play itself, transforming from squeaky-clean into dystopian and sinister thanks to skilled art departments. One example: Denis Villeneuve portrayed Toronto as a cold, dark, spider-infested megalopolis for his Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Enemy.

Niv Fichman, Enemy producer: Denis has called the movie a “love letter to Toronto,” and if that’s the case, I can’t imagine how he’d express his dislike for the city. It’s a highly urban film, and he plays that up very much. The whole spider motif, with the camera capturing streetcar wires, the canopy over a building, a motorcycle helmet like a spider’s web — he found spider images in places where none of us would have looked. Denis spent a lot of time walking around Toronto and being in awe of the city. It’s still Canada, and it spoke to him in a way it might not be.

Warren P. Sonoda, Total Frat Movie director: Hamilton [in Ontario] is two different cities. It’s the old steel town. But slowly, as the steel mills are phased out, now it’s a big medical hub. You get posh areas of town, and you get the grittiness of steel mills. On [fight flick] Unrivaled, we wanted very dark and gritty, so it felt and looked like Detroit and a U.S. inner city. But Total Frat Movie had to shoot like an affluent university town in the U.S. Deep South. So we shot on the McMaster University campus and the Scottish Rite Club, a huge downtown mansion. We get all sorts of looks, and you don’t have to dress every single inch to make the city gritty or elegant.

Still, directors shooting outdoors are at the mercy of the weather, as Ruba Nadda, who has shot movies in Egypt and South Africa, found while shooting Patricia Clarkson starrer October Gale on the Ontario waterfront. Cottage Country director Peter Wellington also suffered torrential downpours in southern Ontario.

Nadda: It’s Georgian Bay, and we had the most difficult winter in 100 years. We had storms and rain on a frozen lake, and I had a scene that takes place underwater. Unfortunately, we just had to throw [Patricia Clarkson] in the water. Because the water was freezing, we shot the piece in the swimming pool of our hotel. It looks amazing; we color-corrected in post. And I sent out divers with an underwater camera into the lake to get her point of view. The movie needed a storm to lock her on the island [and] stop her from leaving. We couldn’t do it in post. So when there was a storm outside, we had to be out there running down the rocks to the water.

Wellington: We needed Sparrow Lake [in southern Ontario] to be sunny and hot and an ideal vacation retreat. But almost every single day, it rained. Our lead actress, Malin Akerman, had to leave on the last day of principal photography. So she was on her way back to Hollywood. The crew was packed and done. Our only option was to shoot no matter what. So when the weather got bad, we put up silks to block the rain and turned on big lights and hoped people didn’t notice too much dripping going on from over the actors’ heads. And when the rain was literally horizontal, we had to move inside and turn on big lights and not point the camera out the window. Sometimes Canadian hospitality can play a key role in getting the perfect shot.

April Mullen, Dead Before Dawn 3D director: A big football field is hard to get in Toronto on a hot Friday night in the summer. But in Niagara Falls, I shot at my old high school, St. Paul’s, and we invited all the local high schools, family and friends to join us on the football field and get turned into zemons [zombie-demons]. We had 550 extras and, when a curse was supposed to happen, they all lay down and turned into zemons. Then, slowly, they started getting up and ran into the night. It was super helpful, and it was a fun night.

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