Toronto, Hollywood North

by Elizabeth Willoughby

TIFF is one of the most significant film festivals in the world. It draws thousands of visitors, big name celebrities and up and coming producers and directors who all have one thing in common: a love of film.

001 TIFF press conference

When the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) invited me as press, I was sceptical about the city's usability for an adventure article. There would be no wild animals to track down, no extreme climates to endure and no ancient cultures to unravel — just rubbing shoulders with the likes of George Clooney and Matt Damon. One paragraph into the letter, I picked up the phone to accept. I am, after all, a movie junkie.

In preparation, I chose 60 movies out of over 300 that would show in various theatres over the 10 days of the festival. Then I went shopping for some dresses to wear to the obligatory galas, and hopped on a plane to Canada. I managed to squeeze in four already-in-the-cinemas movies during the flight, which I figured was a good warm-up, and a clear indication of the level of junkie that I really— might be.

Neatly plugged into a spacious room in a choice location of downtown Toronto — at first glance a clean and frisky waterfront city on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario — I opened up my press package and found an agenda. Apparently Toronto had a few other things for me to do besides watch movies, and my schedule was packed full of them. Studying the agenda, I saw a curious pattern forming — it seemed that the press were invited to TIFF to gather as much information about all things Toronto. A chill ran through my body, a celluloid withdrawal symptom no doubt.

018 Toronto CN Tower

Our first obligation was the "Made in Toronto" tour. As one of the leading movie production centres, Toronto is often dubbed Hollywood North. It's got a good exchange rate, excellent crews, top notch sound studios and streets to double for anywhere. Besides a favourite substitute for New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore period movies, Toronto has stood in for such unlikely locations as Nepal, New Orleans, Georgia, Spain and Egypt. Visiting Casa Loma, a chateaux (now museum) built by a financier just before WWI, I find instead Professor Xavier's school for the gifted from X-Men II; Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jone's Chicago came to life in the Elgin Theatre and throughout the Distillery neighbourhood; and there was Matt Damon humiliating a history student in the Harvard college bar on Toronto's Front Street (Good Will Hunting). The historical Royal York Hotel is not only a favourite place for "stargazers", but its various rooms, stairways, lobby and halls can be recognized in dozens of major films, television shows and commercials.

Then it was time for the opening night screening of Creation, a film following Charles Darwin struggling to accept the death of his daughter and his battle with faith, aptly timed for the 100th anniversary of the year of Darwin's birth. After a few words from the festival director and a bow from the lead actors, Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany, the movie played in the only surviving double-decker vaudeville and (originally) silent film theatre from 1913, the Elgin, restored and modernized. Next, we were shipped off to the opening night gala. While sipping wine and nibbling on canapés, I rubbed shoulders with many in the crowd but the star power was negligible. We were probably all industry people. Or I was in the wrong room. The newspapers next morning were filled with photos of celebrities signing autographs for fans outside theatres. I was in the wrong room.

 016 Mary Pickford poster

My agenda provided plenty to see and do beyond the scope of TIFF and movies, of course. It was a 10-minute ferry ride to Toronto Islands' amusement parks and beaches; a ride up the CN Tower, the world's tallest free-standing structure when it was first built, offered expansive views of the city from 346 metres (1,136 feet) and through glass floors; the Dead Sea Scrolls were on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, one of the largest natural history and world culture museums; the Toronto Zoo was home to 287 hectares of habitats, trails and over 5,000 animals; the Art Gallery of Ontario displayed over 79,000 pieces; Ontario Science Centre offered engaging exhibitions, including hands-on exploration for kids, a planetarium and IMAX Dome theatre; and the Cirque de Soleil's impressive feats and colourful performances kept the audience rapt from beginning to end. Outside the city were daytrips to the beautiful Niagara Falls shared by Canada and the US, and wine regions producing surprisingly good wines and pairing them with food and festivals.

However, after a week in town I had only managed to see three films — a dismal result even for a film festival amateur. In a last-ditch attempt to see a real live celebrity outside of press conferences, I went to a public appearance: In Conversation With Michael Caine. Unfortunately, my press pass didn't get me in. Without a ticket I was relegated to the RUSH line up, which stood for "wait to see if there are available seats", which there were. Unfortunately they accepted only cash at this venue, and I had only a credit card. But hey, I was in Canada, the land of the friendly, and the lady standing next to me, whom I'd met 20 minutes earlier because she was also in the RUSH line, fronted me the money. For almost two hours, Caine entertained the packed hall with anecdotes from his long acting career and if he ever needs a career change, stand-up comedy would not be problematic for him. At the end, a man in the audience asked him for advice on becoming an actor. Caine recounted that when he was young and asked for advice, he was always told to give it up. He, however, recommends to never give up, which is exactly what he told another young man many years ago, whose name was Tom Cruise.

005 Michael Caine at TIFF

The thing about Toronto, besides that it's safe and easy, is its hum. It's a brisk and snappy city without the stress. New, shiny buildings jut out of and tower over restored 19th-century relics, and old-fashioned streetcars weave along the streets around them. The city's well-known multiculturalism is evident in restaurants, the well-established music club scene and in the strong art presence. It's also clear on Torontonian faces and in the distinct neighbourhoods that look like little villages transplanted from foreign lands and distant eras. Pedestrians buzz along the sidewalks, gabbing and smiling.

George Clooney said TIFF is one of the best film festivals and the place to release domestically: "[TIFF] has grown in its strength as well as the fact that it happens to be filled with people who like films. It doesn't always happen that way. I've been to film festivals where they like the film festival more than they like films. [Toronto] is a great city."

I think he's right. I was right too — Toronto was a different kind of adventure. What I didn't' expect was that TIFF would be as much about Toronto as it is about movies.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2009

This article was published at © 2009

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