Back to the Articles Page

NOTE: This article appeared around the time Jessica was in the movie "SING". It is mostly about Toronto, but it has quotes from Jessica towards the end.

Sunday, May 15, 1988
Section: Arts
Page: 5
Dateline: Toronto



By HERBERT H. DENTON, Washington Post

REMEMBER that fateful scene in "Moonstruck," where Cher's shy fiance leaves Brooklyn to be at the bedside of his dying mother in Sicily? In real life he did not take a plane to Italy. He flew to Toronto.

Toronto? Actually, so many U.S. actors, producers, directors and others in the movie business are flying to Toronto these days to shoot films that people here sometimes refer to their city as "Hollywood North."

That bedside episode in "Moonstruck" was filmed in a suburban studio warehouse here, as were all the other interior scenes. The weeping women keeping vigil were really extras from a home for the elderly in downtown Toronto. The gentle, silver- haired dire ctor, Norman Jewison, explained to them that they were supposed to be sad. On cue, without further prompting, they sobbed, seemingly uncontrollably. Cut! Wrap!

Canadians like to brag that the once dour and strait-laced Toronto now ranks third -- a distant third but growing -- behind Los Angeles and New York City as a North American film and television production center.

Cher was here twice last year, to film "Moonstruck" and "Suspect." This spring, the big names descending on the city to shoot all or part of 20 movies or television series include Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Al Pacino and Diane Keaton.

The cameras and lights on city sidewalks, the big parked movie vans that crowd the streets, the stars cruising around in their chauffeured stretch limousines all add an agreeable dash of glitter to somber Toronto, or "Toronto the Good," as its detractors still call it.

Both the Toronto Star and Toronto Sun newspapers run regular columns advising on the best places to indulge in star- watching.

One week last summer, three major movies were being shot within a small area near the lakefront, and passers-by could spot Ann-Margret, who was on location for Alan Alda's film "A New Life," as she walked across the street from her set to visit Burt Reyno lds in a trailer on his, where he was starring in the movie "Smoke." Close by, scenes for "Short Circuit 2" were being filmed.

The attraction of Toronto for U.S. film makers is first and foremost the rate of exchange. One U.S. dollar is worth about $1.25 Canadian. Toronto also has experienced film crews, actors and dancers, and ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Greeks, Italians , Jamaicans, Chinese and East Indians, among others.

The motley architectural styles of the city, 19th-century Victorian or Georgian homes on some blocks, art deco or futuristic glass and steel designs on various others, all of them fastidiously preserved, make it easy for film makers to conjure the illusion of most any Midwestern or Northeastern city in the United States during virtually any period over the past 150 years.

The producers of the television miniseries "Kane and Abel" told city officials that parts of Toronto looked more like early 20th-century Chicago than the extant neighborhoods of the real Windy City.

The often large task for movie production designers attempting to transform Toronto's calm, squeaky-clean streets into a convincing semblance of the bustling, grungy inner core of modern-day U.S. cities is to find ways to simulate the grime, graffiti and garbage so that they have that authentic, rundown look of years of neglect and decay.

The favorite "Hollywood North" story told here is about the film crew that carefully strewed litter and garbage bags along the sidewalks to give the appearance of Manhattan, broke for lunch, and returned to the set an hour later to discover that the ever- vigilant city public-works crews had whisked the debris away, not realizing that a movie was being filmed.

Producer Craig Zadan has been diligently disguising various neighborhoods of Toronto to look like his native Brooklyn last winter and this spring for filming of the movie "Sing," a musical of the genre of "Fame" and "Flashdance," which includes in its cast Louise Lasser ("Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman") and singer Patti LaBelle. The film, financed by Coca-Cola's Tri-Star productions, would have cost a prohibitive $15 million in Brooklyn, Zadan said. He is able to save about $3 million by shooting

''I can say honestly if it wasn't for Canada, this picture wouldn't have been made, so you can imagine how grateful I am to Canada," he said. "I'm amazed at this city. I'm amazed that you're able to make this city turn into so many different places. I don't know of any other place as adaptable as Toronto. We were very concerned about the look of the picture. We didn't want it to look 'white bread.' To our total shock, we found that houses, neighborhoods looked identical to the houses I knew when I was gro wing up in Brooklyn."

Virtually all of the interior scenes of "Three Men and a Baby" were shot in Toronto. This city is the "Any City, U.S.A." setting of the late-night CBS cop show "Night Heat." Much of ABC's controversial miniseries "Amerika" was shot here. The U.S. Capitol rotunda and the Oval Office were painstakingly replicated in a studio warehouse. All but one of the "Police Academy" series has been shot here. The facility used for the academy's headquarters building is actually a former psychiatric hospital. Toronto wa s disguised as Tehran for a CBS miniseries on the Canadian rescue of U.S. Embassy hostages.

Toronto film commissioner Naish McHugh persuaded the crew shooting "Kane and Abel" to film from a certain tight vantage point on the shores of Lake Ontario on a snowy winter day to give the illusion that the scene was set in Siberia. On occasion, Toronto residents have become annoyed with the jolts caused by the dreams manufactured around them. A fire company was once summoned to a Westend Toronto park by panic- stricken apartment dwellers who were unaware that a helicopter they saw crashing was movie fak ery, a scene from the HBO feature "The Park Is Mine." The army tanks and thousands of soldiers parading around the city for "Amerika" offended many.

When the crew of "Short Circuit 2" took down the red Canadian maple leaf and draped the Ontario legislature building in Queen's Park in red-white-and-blue bunting and scores of U.S. flags to make it appear to be a U.S. county courthouse, many were angered.

''Obviously bad taste," huffed city Alderman Dale Martin. "You could hardly conceive of the White House being smothered with Canadian flags, just for the sake of a movie."

The headline over the front-page photo in the Toronto Star was "The Americans Have Landed." Only half in jest, the accompanying article suggested it might be the first overt campaign in a U.S. assault to conquer Canada.

But the Star was hardly one to criticize. The paper lent its newsroom to producers of the movies "Eleni" and "The Killing Fields" to double as the city room of the New York Times. The austere Toronto Arts and Letters Club was disguised as a flophouse in Boston's notorious red-light "Combat Zone" for the television movie "Ruling Passion."

''Toronto is now probably the most photographed invisible city in North America," CBC correspondent and producer Mary Lou Findley, who has reported on the impact of the pervasive U.S. culture on Canadians, commented with disappointment.

In the movie culture of this continent, Toronto has posed as almost everything but itself, a phenomenon that deepens the irony of remarks by Northrop Frye, one of Canada's most respected men of letters. Frye observed long before the Hollywood invasion beg an five years ago that his country's "famous problem of identity" is "less the question 'Who am I?' than some such riddle as 'Where is here?' "

Canadians are voracious consumers of U.S. culture. Except for the enduring passion for hockey over football and a preference for watching their own news anchors interpret world events and report on local occurrences, their choices are nearly identical to those of U.S. audiences.

Nielsen ratings for the top television shows in Canada vary only slightly from those in the United States. In this country of 25 million, more than 100 million movie tickets are sold each year. Nine of 10 features on the big screen are U.S. productions, many of them filmed in Toronto but pretending to be someplace else.

Visitors to Toronto, especially film makers, regard it as the city they
wish they had in America.

''It's so clean," said Dean Pitchford, the screenwriter for "Sing." "It doesn't feel like it's lost its spirit. It feels like New York when it was hopeful."

But those enthusiasms are not portrayed on the big screen.

''People are looking for romance when they go to the movies," said Toronto free-lance production designer David Davis, who is working on a new version of the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" television series set in various U.S. cities, continuing a career in which he has made Toronto and its close environs look like Manhattan, Chicago, Seattle, Houston, Washington and Kansas City.

''Toronto hasn't managed to capture that image of romance and high adventure. I'm sure a convincing director could make it work, but it's not an industry that likes to take chances. There's too much money involved."

The Canadian government has spent millions in grants and tax breaks in thus far unsuccessful ventures to develop a home-grown feature-film industry and break the monopoly of Hollywood here.

There are occasional successes, such as the joint Canadian production with Disney to make "Anne of Green Gables" and recent art-house films such as "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing" and "The Decline of the American Empire."

One problem is that even with the government aid, only the shoestring, low-budget Canadian movies costing less than a half-million dollars can recoup their costs by appealing solely to Canadian audiences.

According to pollster Donna Dasko, Canadians respond favorably to the idea of increasing the Canadian content of what they see, "but that doesn't mean they're going to watch it."

Piers Handling, who chooses Canadian films for Toronto's annual film festival, contends that Canadian movies reflect a culture that was colonized first by the British and now subtly by the influence of America.

''A lot of Canadian film deals with failure as opposed to dealing with success, deals with victims as opposed to dealing with people who control their destiny. American cinema is forced to resolve itself. It is forced to give people that notion that a sit uation can be resolved, that something can be achieved and accomplished.

''Canadian cinema is much more tentative, the cinema to my mind that is closer to real life. It deals in grays. People's lives continue beyond the closing credits."

According to the surveys, most Canadians do not care very much for it.

To cater to mass tastes and break through to the big U.S. market, many Canadian film makers who benefited from the government tax breaks in the late 1970s and early 1980s imported over-the-hill or yet-to-be-discovered actors, such as Tony Curtis and Sylvester Stallone's brother, for their movies.

Indeed, it was these Canadian film producers who pioneered in masquerading Toronto as "Any City, U.S.A." The subliminal message in those "bad imitations of Hollywood movies," argues Toronto Life magazine film critic Martin Knelman, was that "nothing of any importance happens in Canada, so let's pretend we're not in Canada."

City film commissioner McHugh dismisses the concerns about U.S. culture expressed by Canadian nationalists.

''We're only a small country," he said. "The market isn't big enough, plus we have a major competitor south of the border. If you can't fight them, join them."

David Cronenberg, reigning king of the horror flicks, is one Canadian director-producer who has been successful around the world without leaving Toronto. He said his crews are Canadian, he is Canadian and therefore his films are Canadian, even though they are not about "beavers eating maple syrup."

In his 1986 box-office hit "The Fly" and in "Twins," the film he is shooting now starring Jeremy Irons as identical twins who become gynecologists, Cronenberg said he explores fears about disease, death and aging.

''I think what I'm dealing with is very universal and that even is applicable to Toronto the Good."

All of his films have been shot in Canada. Although his movies of the early '70s mentioned Toronto or Montreal, recent films have not. Cronenberg said he liked the comment of a San Diego movie critic who once called him out of the blue to say that there was something unsettling about the films, something that was American but a "slightly off America."

Although it was shot in Toronto and locations were instantly recognizable to filmgoers here, "The Fly" never settled just where it was supposed to have taken place. Cronenberg said he resisted efforts by the U.S. producer Stuart Cornfeld to fly the U.S. f lag and place U.S. mailboxes on the streets.

But in one critical scene in which money was flashed, he gave in and agreed that it would be a U.S. $100 bill. There was both U.S. and Canadian currency on the set until the disagreement was resolved.

''It was my homage to the American dollar, which was financing the movie," Cronenberg said, just a tad defensively.

There will be a breakthrough of sorts in "Twins." Toronto will be identified as the setting.

''Twins" is a government-stamped, Canadian-certified film. After the deal with Hollywood backers to finance the $10 million movie fell through, Cronenberg did what many Canadians do when they fall on hard times. He went to a government agency, Telefilm in his case, and got it in as an investor with about a 10 percent stake.

The Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles estimates that there are about 800,000 Canadians in the greater Los Angeles area, more than one in five of whom are employed in the motion- picture industry. From Toronto's Mary Pickford, "America's Sweetheart" on the silent screen, to Vancouver's Michael J. Fox, Canadian actors have been successful in Hollywood.

Canadian directors in Los Angeles have also been unusually adept at capturing the U.S. imagination. The Rambo image is condemned by Canadian politicians as the emblem of what is wrong with America, but they conveniently sidestep the fact that the character was shaped and molded by director Ted Kotcheff of Toronto, who directed Sylvester Stallone in the original saga, "First Blood." Torontonian Ivan Reitman was a producer of the wildly popular "Animal House," which depicted life in a U.S. college fraternity of the 1960s, and later directed the megahit "Ghostbusters."

Director Norman Jewison, also of Toronto, has sensitively explored black military life in the segregated South in "A Soldier's Story" and the culture of Italians in Brooklyn in "Moonstruck."

Jewison, who commutes between a house in Malibu and a farm on the outskirts of Toronto, has been the guiding force behind the creation this year of the Canadian Center for Advanced Film Studies in Toronto, a program that has received generous funding from both the federal and provincial governments to train 12 fellows in a two-year program of workshops on film writing, directing, acting, cinematography, production design and editing.

''The center . . . does not expect the residents to wrap themselves in the flag and make 'Canadian' films," the film center's full-time executive director, Sam Kula, wrote in the current issue of the magazine Cinema Canada. "The most that can be expected is that the residents will have learned to define their own identity rather than lip-sync to anthems from other lands."

Alvin Greenman, the dialogue coach for the movie "Sing," tried to teach the young Canadian actors how to talk Brooklynese with sometimes hilarious results. ''It was not working," Greenman remarked wearily afterward. "So we said, 'If they just don't sound like Canadians, we are safe.' "

That has not been easy either. Many tended to say "oot" and "aboot" for "out" and "about." He would play their voices on tape, but they still could not hear the difference.

''So I said, 'Let's just take the words out of the script.' "

He listens closely on the set to make sure that there is no utterance of "Eh?" -- that all-purpose Canadian interjection, that national expression of a certain tentativeness.

''If I could just get them to turn it around," Greenman says, smiling. "Instead of saying, 'Let's go to lunch, eh?" if they would say, 'Hey, let's go to lunch,' that would sound like New York."

Peter Dobson, 23, the male lead in the film, who comes from New Jersey, speaks of culture shock in coming to Toronto. When he met "Sing's" female lead, Jessica Steen, 22, she asked him where he had been, only she pronounced it "bean," the British and Canadian way.

''I thought she was talking about the vegetable," Dobson said.

Steen's eyes crinkle as she recalls her conversations with Dobson.

''He runs words together," she said. "He skips syllables. He'll skip chunks of words."

To prepare her for her part, the producers sent her to New York City two years ago for two months, but she said she ended up spending most of her time at the airport coming back home for visits.

''You have to psych yourself up to go out and do anything," Steen said about the Big Apple. "It's very dirty. It's hard to feel good about yourself. Every time I came home, I would say, 'Thank God Toronto's not
like that.' "

Back to the Articles Page

Last update: November 1, 2000 3:45 AM