Geoff Pevere talks to us about Toronto’s role in cinema history
“It’s kind of like living in the world’s biggest stand-in,” writes Toronto Star veteran film critic Geoff Pevere in his essay for the book Toronto on Film. He and other contributors such as TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling chronicle the role of Toronto in cinema history. At last night’s book launch at the Gladstone Hotel, we sat down with the now Star books editor to discuss whether a movie set in Toronto could capture an international audience, why local filmmakers try to hide the CN Tower and the irony of having a British film open the festival on the city’s 175th birthday.
What’s your response when you see a movie that’s filmed in Toronto but isn’t set in Toronto?
My reaction is probably the most common experience for people in Toronto; they’re used to seeing Toronto in drag as another place. What I find myself doing, as do most locals, is to instantly look for things that give away the illusion that it’s not Toronto like the random Toronto Sun boxes, the streetcars and the Ontario licence plates.
Is that a good thing?
I think it says something about the city itself. We didn’t really have a strong, local film culture, and I think it says something about Toronto being more successful as a location than a filmmaking centre. The centre of Canadian film for years was the National Film Board, which is based in Montreal and not Toronto. So to work at filmmaking in Toronto has always been an uphill struggle and a counterintuitive struggle. As I mentioned in the essay, David Cronenberg didn’t even consider being a filmmaker until 1965 when he was studying science at U of T. He saw a film made by a fellow student and it had never occurred to him that it was possible to make a film in Toronto.
The essay mentions how the Yonge strip is often used as a setting for gritty, sketchy scenes. Now that it’s cleaned up and the iconic Sam the Record Man is no more, will filmmakers still use it?
Yes, the city has changed so dramatically psychologically and culturally since the early ’70s. I think there’s now a different way of looking at the city and there’s a pressing need to experience that as someone from the second generation of immigrants in the city.
That has worked well domestically on the small screen with shows like Flashpoint and Being Erica but what are the odds that a film set in Toronto will be successful for audiences overseas? Can an American relate to Toronto?
There’s really no reason why not. In Toronto, we can relate to a movie set in New York or Chicago, anywhere—it’s all about what’s happening on screen. It becomes a question about what story is being told and if that can connect to a global audience. I have heard from people over the years, filmmakers included, that Toronto just isn’t interesting enough of a place and that’s self-censorship. But so many people around the world are drawn to Toronto and decide to live here, so there is something going on in Toronto.
Toronto is in a “world class” mentality right now, constructing huge landmarks and attractions. Will that stop foreign filmmakers from coming in because it will be harder to disguise the city?
As long as there’s an economic imperative and as long as they’re willing to bring the crews to Canada, that’s not going to go away. What’s more interesting is whether there will be more filmmakers who are sufficiently inspired by their experiences in Toronto and will want to go out and make films that will reflect that experience and not feel that in order to sell the film they will have to disguise it somewhere else.
That’s difficult since a lot of people probably know more about the history of New York than Toronto.
What you’re taking about is an urban mythology. That mythology is relatively not existent in Toronto films. It has an awful lot to do with the fact that the geographical charms of Toronto are invisible. There aren’t any mountains, big rivers or great harbours. Toronto is a city where you have to dig around to find its charms in the ravines and neighbourhoods. The absence of geographical landmarks results in the city having a hard time to establish itself in our subconscious.
You’d think that the CN Tower would provide an anchor like the Empire State Building, right?
Weirdly, the CN Tower rarely appears in Toronto movies. As intrusive as it is downtown—I mean, people use it as a reference point to get around the city—it rarely makes it into scenes. I think anything built in the ’70s has a hard time getting that icon status in only 30 years. I open the essay with a description of a dance sequence from 2002’s Bollywood/Hollywood that featured the Skydome and the CN Tower in the background. The audience during that screening let out a gasp because they were looking at their own city and they weren’t used to it.
Piers Handling writes in the forward that you approached him with the idea for the book. When did the idea come to you?
It was probably around 2000. I was originally asked to bring an idea to the festival at that point because they were publishing a series of books on directors. I was interested in doing a book for them, but I didn’t want to do a book on another director. The thing that has interested me for a long time is the way cities are represented in film.
And the project took nine years?
It was originally something that was going to be made available in 2002 but they held it off for the 30th anniversary of the festival and then the opening of the Bell Lightbox and then as the 175th anniversary of the city approached, it was the right time to release the book. The essay took about two or three months to write.
Isn’t it ironic that the festival’s opening film is a British biopic on Charles Darwin, considering the book launch and the city’s 175th birthday this year?
I haven’t even though about that. I’d like to think they’re bringing this book out to counteract that. It’s about the origins of us all, really.