For years, Toronto has been both a disguised supporting character in hit Hollywood films and a cinematic muse in its own right. A new anthology from the University of Chicago Press—World Film Locations: Toronto, edited by Tom Ue—explores the city’s role as shooting location, inspiration, and international film destination through articles on everything from David Cronenberg to local architecture. To mark the book’s publication, TIFF will be welcoming a number of its contributors this coming Sunday and putting on a free screening of Drying Up the Streets and The Strip, both works that explore the grittiness and seediness of ’70s Yonge Street.
Torontoist‘s own Reel Toronto writer David Fleischer contributed to the volume—his essay “Distilling Toronto History: How a Victorian Industrial Site Became a Hollywood Backlot” is reproduced below in its entirety:
Typically, it is Toronto’s mix of urbane but indistinct architecture that has allowed it to successfully play any number of cities in Hollywood productions. So it is somewhat ironic that its distinctive, best-preserved Victorian-era neighbourhood, the Distillery District, has allowed it to do much the same thing. Today, it is a thriving commercial centre, filled with upscale chocolatiers, cafes, galleries and shops. Increasingly, it is flanked by modern, upscale condominiums and populated by well-to-do Torontonians and tourists. It plays host to posh weddings and jazz festivals and you can tour it either on foot or by Segway. But it was not always so. Until quite recently the 14-acre district was effectively terra incognita for local residents, if not for film crews.
The Gooderham and Worts Distillery was founded in 1832, and would become, over the course of that century, the world’s single largest producer of spirits (“Distillery District” here and for the remainder of the paragraph). Hard times followed in the 1900s, however. World Wars and prohibition took their toll, as did a series of ownership changes. By 1957, whiskey was no longer produced onsite—only rum products. In 1986, the parent company that owned Gooderham and Worts was itself purchased and, in 1990, after 153 years of continued production, the distillery closed its doors. Though it was developed on the shores of Lake Ontario, landfill over the years moved the water to the south and so despite its apparent centrality, the district was geographically isolated. Even if it was not, there was little reason to go there unless one is an architecture buff. Even at its nadir, its distinctive buildings—the red-brick and green doors, the bold limestone hulk of the Stone Distillery—were never fully hidden from view. Toronto’s well-driven, elevated Gardiner Expressway passes mere feet away, and a major rail line runs even closer.
In 2003, it reopened as a reclaimed industrial site already familiar from the likes of Chicago’s Navy Pier, New York City’s South Street Seaport and Baltimore’s Inner Harbour. But during that two-decade interregnum, the distillery hosted more than 1,700 film productions, and it became perhaps the single biggest location for film shoots outside of Los Angeles. With distilling operations done, the cobblestone streets and narrow laneways took on many new lives. It became a de facto backlot for dozens of film productions in search of the kind of scenery that is not typically extant in North America.
Look at the opening shots of Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), for example, and you see nothing that remotely suggests Toronto. In the heavy rain, with the addition of some barbed wire and appropriately dressed actors, the distillery easily passes for a Nazi concentration camp. (It is worth noting that director Matthew Vaughan meticulously re-created this scene for his “reboot,” X-Men: First Class (2011) on constructed sets at England’s Pinewood Studios. But all Singer needed was set dressing.) At the other end of the tonal scale, the area’s gates pass equally well as the Ohio auto parts plant owned by Chris Farley’s family in the comedy Tommy Boy (Peter Segal, 1995). Combining its ability to play comedy as well as drama and the war elements, the distillery plays an anonymous, war-torn European street during a flashback sequence in the film Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (Kelly Makin, 1996).
Carol Ballard’s The Black Stallion (1979) is a period piece into which the district fits gracefully. Looking for his runaway horse, the film’s young hero, Alec (Kelly Reno), finally gives up in a narrow, foggy alley. From it, almost as in a dream, emerges a man on a cart who happens to have seen the horse. Hovering in the background, visible only in silhouette, is the Stone Distillery, the largest, oldest and most distinctive building in the district. Filmed a generation later, but taking place roughly in the same period, is Academy Award winner for Best Picture Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002). It shot not a single frame in its eponymous city, yet here the same distinctive grey building plays the role of a penitentiary exterior. Despite that foreboding cinematic presence, today you can see some of its heritage reclaimed in an on-site sake distillery, or browse a series of art galleries.
Somewhat more obscurely, the district also played a prison in Trapped in Paradise (George Gallo, 1994), starring Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey. Unsurprisingly, given that it once fronted on the water, it also passes well for a naval yard in the climactic moments of the Al Pacino–Colin Farrell vehicle, The Recruit (Roger Donaldson, 2003), and as a New Jersey dockyard, in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man (2005). More anonymously, its unused interior spaces would host productions like Three Men and a Baby (Leonard Nimoy, 1987) and Frequency (Gregory Hoblit, 2000).
Outside the district proper are ancillary warehouses and buildings bearing the same architectural imprint. One of the most prominent of these was the Canary Restaurant, a timeless, old-school diner that played itself in dozens of films, including the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Maximum Risk (Ringo Lam, 1996) and the rom-com Three to Tango (Damon Santostefano, 1999). Today, the restaurant is closed, and the street is a dead-end while the area directly to the east undergoes a massive redevelopment.
This anonymous streetscape can be seen at the end of Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) as the exterior of the Chaos Theatre, a rare Hollywood film in which Toronto plays itself. The film closes with a final shot from the same location, but with the camera turned 180 degrees. Instead of the dark, closed streetscape to the east, we see the sun setting behind the CN Tower and Toronto’s downtown, in all its glory. It reminds us that the Distillery District is a world of its own, but still very much a part of the city—especially in its often anonymous role as Hollywood North.