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culture

Reel Toronto: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Toronto’s extensive work on the silver screen reveals that, while we have the chameleonic ability to look like anywhere from New York City to Moscow, the disguise doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny. Reel Toronto revels in digging up and displaying the films that attempt to mask, hide, or—in rare cases—proudly display our city.
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“Having lived in Toronto for a year I was always curious how Torontonians must feel about seeing The Incredible Hulk or Kick-Ass and seeing their city as something else. I hoped that our film at least did a service to this city, showing it as itself,” says director Edgar Wright with a laugh. “I was very happy to oblige.”
“As a British filmmaker making my first film outside the UK, I wouldn’t want anyone to give me demerits for getting the location wrong,” he says.
It seemed obvious to us that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, being such a landmark film for this column, deserved some special treatment. So, rather than simply listing every teeny location (we know you’ll nitpick something we missed!), we were so very pleased to talk with Wright about the film and its Toronto locations.


The movie was long-gestating, and Wright began working on it even before starting Hot Fuzz. He’d been to Toronto before even reading the book, first with with then-girlfriend Charlotte Hatherly when she opened for Coldplay, and then staying at the Drake Hotel for a week when he came to do a cameo with Simon Pegg for George Romero’s Land of the Dead.
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What makes Scott Pilgrim so amazing for this city is that it isn’t just a Hollywood movie set in Toronto, like the abominable Love Guru. It’s the way it tries to recreate the comic, shooting even the most banal of locations used by author Bryan Lee O’Malley.
The first thing Wright did when he met O’Malley here in 2005 was visit all the real-life locations. “Pretty much everything that was in the book, we shot the same place Bryan had drawn,” he says.
“I think it just gave it a really great jumping-off point. Having that kind of touch down at the real locations, I think, just made everything feel right. It was just starting off on the right foot for the crew, for myself, for the cast…it had a very specific and particular level of reality and the film gets absolutely crazy but at least you start somewhere you know,” Wright says.
“The apartments feel lived in, the neighbourhoods that they’re living in feel appropriate to the characters…the film and the book have that same arc from the mundane to the insane but you have to start on terra firma.”
A perfect example is the house in which Scott and his pal Wallace live. In reality, O’Malley lived at 27 Alberta Avenue, though he thinly disguised it as “Albert Avenue.”
As any true fan knows, however, the drawings in the book are actually at number 65, down the street. So, that’s where they shot, turning the garage door into the apartment door.
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Still, you can see a little tribute to the original address here. (We’ll just add the caveat that if you’re going to do a little Scott Pilgrim tour, try to remember that some of these places are private residences with residents who may or may not share your enthusiasm for hipster pop culture ephemera. Wright admits he regrets letting the public know where the house from Spaced is.)
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Ramona’s place is in Cabbagetown, on Carlton Street.
When O’Malley and Wright toured the book’s locations, the author actually couldn’t remember what building he’d drawn. A little driving around with the photographs O’Malley used as reference eventually yielded the correct one.
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The interior, however, was a set at Pinewood.
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Casa Loma has been used in so many films to play so many locales, there’s something very trippy about how it’s used here: as Casa Loma, being used for a big action movie set.
It’s something Wright was fully aware of, noting the original scene was inspired by O’Malley happening upon a Hillary Duff film shoot. If you’ve been downstairs at Casa Loma, you’ve seen the hallway with posters from some of the movies shot there.
“They have The Tuxedo, The Pacifier, and I kind of hope eventually a Scott Pilgrim poster will be up there, too,” he laughs. It’s kind of the least they could do, isn’t it?
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The scene also includes at least two in-jokes. Don McKellar and Wright became friends after the latter cited the former’s Last Night as an influence on Shaun of the Dead. Here he plays the director of the action film, Talk to the Fist.
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“I was so bummed that I missed seeing it,” says Wright about being unable to be in the city for opening night. But McKellar emailed him after catching a screening at Scotiabank to say people were going crazy as soon as this shot came up.
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It lasts about a second, but when Lucas Lee throws Scott through the New York backdrop, the CN Tower appears. On purpose!
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Just like in the comics, the scene culminates with Lucas Lee going down the perilous rails of the nearby Baldwin Steps on his skateboard…
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…and he blows up real good in one of the movie’s rare wide shots of the city.
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As Scott prepares to head out to Casa Loma, the TV is showing a Lucas Lee action pic that was filmed down at Polson Pier. That bit was the first thing they shot.
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The Bathurst–St. Clair area battles with Bathurst–Bloor to be the centre of the Pilgrimverse. This romantic evening in the (fake) snow was shot at Hillcrest Park. It also happens to be the same place O’Malley went on his first date with the woman who is now his wife.
If the park or another location looks a bit different than it does in reality, don’t be surprised. The falling snow is pretty much always CGI, and as filming moved from spring into summer, they also used a lot of fake snow. In post-production they also simplified a lot of the background (like the trees) to better emulate O’Malley’s spare drawing style.
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You can see those kinds of changes here, where Scott is contemplating how he screwed up, on Turner Road.
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Knives Chau (seventeen years old) goes to school at St. Mike’s, which, of course, is actually a boys’ school.
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Here, Scott and Knives pick up some books at the Wychwood Library
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…and shop at the nearby Goodwill.
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In the comics, Scott’s sister works at this Second Cup, near Bathurst and St. Clair. Despite every Hollywood film taking place in the Starbucksverse, Wright was able to shoot at Second Cup, but they used this location, at Queen West and Augusta. (You may recall we made an unsuccessful foray into invading the set.)
“We wanted to get the right details and Second Cup were up for it, and Pizza Pizza were up for it, and it just felt right…It means something to Canadian audiences and people in international audiences just think we made [Pizza Pizza] up ourselves. It sounds like a cute movie brand,” Wright says.
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Speaking of which, the intersection of Bathurst and Bloor also gets a workout. So many New York movies hit all the big tourist spots, like Central Park and the top of the Empire State Building. But Scott Pilgrim revels in the simplicity of something like this Pizza Pizza, right across from Honest Ed’s.
The book has an epic battle set within the emporium, but it only took one visit for Wright to realize it wasn’t feasible to film inside.
“It would be impossible to replicate. It’s something that just looks better on the page,” Wright says. “I went in there a couple of times and got lost.”
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Here’s some more Bloor, with Insomnia.
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They could have filmed at any ol’ record shop but, as in the books, they visited Sonic Boom, even changing the signage to how it used to look.
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With all this authenticity was there anywhere Wright couldn’t shoot? One popular chain of drug stores was resistant—use your imagination, it won’t take much—which led the filmmakers to instead use this fake location.
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In what must be the farthest excursion from downtown, these arcade scenes were shot up at Markville Centre.
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Wright takes some pride in having captured the original Lee’s Palace mural before it was torn down to make way for a burrito joint, and then replaced by a new painting.
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The club’s interior has been renovated since drawn by O’Malley, and while it may only be a few aging hipsters who’d even notice, Wright took the trouble to reconstruct the old bar interior as a set on Commissioner’s Street.
So accurate was the recreation that Wright recalls receiving kudos during visits from Toronto bands like Sloan, Metric, and Broken Social Scene.
“They were all touching the bar, saying, ‘It’s so weird,’” Wright says. “I think they wanted it preserved as a museum piece.”
During a New York screening, artists who’d stopped there on tour, like Yo La Tengo and Jon Spencer, said they assumed he’d shot in the real venue.
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The Lee’s set, complete with exterior alleyways, was actually built within this huge set, where a later battle takes place.
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When Brandon Routh and Michael Cera battle in the back alley, there’s actually some special effects at work.
“Every Chuck Norris and Steven Segal film that shoots in Toronto uses that alley,” Wright says. “The funny thing is, I went to see Kick-Ass, I thought, that’s the alley that we used, but we reconstructed it as a set.”
They’re still standing on a soundstage, but the backdrop is a green screen image of the alley behind the Big Bop.
So impressive is the alley, Wright suggests the city should start hanging plaques at such locations, indicating their place in cinematic history. That so few of the movies are good fails to dissuade him.
“The weirder the better,” he says. “The Silver Dollar should have a plaque to commemorate the Blue Oyster Bar!
Given that a similar project now has a plaque installed on the Bloor Viaduct with a passage from In the Skin of a Lion, we find it hard to disagree.
Like us, Wright can’t watch Toronto-shot movies the same anymore. Whether it’s The Long Kiss Goodnight or Police Academy, Wright, like us, now finds himself constantly saying, “I know where that is!”
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Of course, the film visits a series of clubs, of which Lee’s is the most prominent and true-to-life. These scenes ostensibly take place at the Rock It, but the club is long gone and now home to Goodhandy’s on Church Street.
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They recreated the interior (but, as with Lee’s, bigger) as a set.
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Speaking of sets (if you don’t mind, for a sec): Stephen Stills’ apartment, seen in the opening scene, was shot at Cinespace.
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So was the huge Chaos Theatre set, from the finale.
“It was incredible. To walk in there was like walking onto a Ken Adam set,” says Wright, recalling the man famous for designing the look of the early Bond films.
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The theatre exterior is at Front and Cherry, where you can see the shuttered Canary Grill on the right.
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In this scene, Scott and Ramona stroll down eastern Front Street, by the Canadian Opera Company’s main office.
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…and walk into this club, where the fight with Roxy happens. This set was built inside the Wychwood Barns.
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This verbal confrontation with Jason Schwartzman was shot out on Trinity Street, at (tear of joy) the Distillery District.
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Here, our heroes are walking down Manning Avenue, off Queen West. The arches are on the side of Psyche. Note the blinking “L” on the Flight Centre sign, warning of the inevitable fight to come.
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Also some love for TTC nerds: this vintage bus is heading down Carlton, towards Parliament.
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It gets some interior work, too.
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Scott Pilgrim vs. The World isn’t the sort of flick that contains glorious skyline shots or fawns over the CN Tower, but when it does get around to the tower, here for the final shot—well, it does things right, don’t it?
We admit we had high hopes that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World would rock the shit out of the box office, but let’s face facts: it was a cool, indie property, sitting a bit out on the edge, and with no major stars to boost the cume, as Variety likes to call it.
“One of the worst things about the film business now is that the story of the film is supposed to be written in seventy-two hours…and if you look at the history of cinema, you can’t predict the life of any movie,” Wright says. “If the internet was around the Monday after The Wizard of Oz opened, people would be calling it the biggest turkey of all time.”
So, even if the box office wasn’t through the roof, Wright says he got great responses from fans, critics, the studio, and cast members who continue to enthusiastically promote the film. As Wright’s previous two films showed, there is something to be said for longevity.
“I think everyone was aware, even before the film opened, this was something that needed a little more time to percolate,” he says. “It is something a bit different and it can’t easily be put in one box.”
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.

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