HOLLYWOOD Vancouver — Hollywood’s favourite stand-in

Vancouver — Hollywood’s favourite stand-in


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This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to Vancouver

Where would the movies be without Vancouver? They call it Hollywood North for a reason: the city is a tireless servant to cinema, home to a vast honeypot of soundstages and special-effects houses, most famously the giant North Shore Studios. It all gets put to work in the making of our multiplex entertainment. And the ace up the sleeve of the city’s film industry? Sharing a same timezone with Los Angeles.

But Vancouver is not only an off-screen cog, however vital to the smooth running of the Hollywood machine. On-camera, it has been a frequent backdrop to studio blockbusters, if rarely credited as their real location: glimpses of Gastown and Lion’s Gate Bridge have been a feature of Marvel movies, the Twilight films, sci-fi stories from the Planet of the Apes remake to I, Robot, and a list of titles that could easily take up the rest of this piece. (The next season of TV hit The Last of Us will be the latest project to offer a chance to sightsee, albeit through the mournful lens of a fungal post-apocalypse.)

Sometimes the role might be a generic cityscape. Occasionally, an outright sleight of hand is involved, playing another city as an urban body double, a stand-in for New York, Washington DC, or even — in the case of Seth Rogen’s comedy The Interview — the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. 

But of course, the city also has a flavour all its own as well, and so what follows is the a brief but admiring guide to the best films in which Vancouver has stepped from the shadow of other cities — and claimed the focus for itself.

‘Deadpool’ (Tim Miller, 2016)

Vancouver’s Georgia Viaduct as seen in ‘Deadpool’  © Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

The one exception to our self-imposed rule in which Vancouver is named as such on screen, comic-book romp Deadpool compensates with the sheer depth of its connection with the city. To the untrained eye, the landscape through which Ryan Reynolds’ droll superhero wreaks havoc might look New York-ish. But for anyone who knows British Columbia, where we are will be obvious. 

The entire movie plays as a slideshow of Vancouver landmarks, from the Georgia Viaduct to Leeside Skatepark; from Chinatown to the PNE Agrodome. The clincher, of course, is the star presence of born-and-raised city product Ryan Reynolds: a pupil at Kitsilano Secondary School, and a real-life graduate of packing bags at the Safeway supermarket on West King Edward Avenue.

Where to watch “Deadpool”: Disney+, Apple TV, Amazon Prime and Google Play

‘The Bitter Ash’ (Larry Kent, 1963)

A black and white shot of a naked man and woman in bed in a scene from ‘The Bitter Ash’
‘The Bitter Ash’ fell foul of the censors in 1960s Canada © Canadian International Pictures

If Deadpool puts Vancouver at the heart of a multiplex frolic, The Bitter Ash makes the city the scene of a slice of bohemian vérité so raw that director Larry Kent had to personally screen it at 1960s Canadian universities, unable to secure more mainstream distribution. After fleeing apartheid South Africa, Kent found his adopted home the inspiration for a stark study of young adulthood, with a tang of Rebel Without a Cause and Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. 

It would just be a while before the city itself was ready for his vision. But Canada and the world beyond would eventually catch up. Early fans included Jack Nicholson, while the great Canadian maverick David Cronenberg would later speak warmly of Kent’s formative influence on him. And by 2012, the Toronto Film Festival was honouring Kent with a gala screening of The Bitter Ash, now beautifully restored.

Where to watch “The Bitter Ash”: DVD

‘That Cold Day in the Park’ (Robert Altman, 1969)

A film poster of Robert Altman’s ‘That Cold Day in the Park’, with the actors Sandy Dennis and Michael Burns in the top-right corner
Sandy Dennis and Michael Burns in Robert Altman’s ‘That Cold Day in the Park’ © Everett Collection/Alamy

Fabled director Robert Altman was often specific in the city he chose to tell stories in. Consider the LA of his late masterpiece Short Cuts — or that earlier American classic, Nashville. Less celebrated but just as notable in Altman’s long career is That Cold Day in The Park, shot and set in Vancouver, and loaded with the most explicit jitter of psychological horror Altman would ever deliver. 

It’s the uneasy tale of a lonely adult woman and taciturn teenage boy, with a hint of Rosemary’s Baby hanging in the air — but in place of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the location is an apartment building by Tatlow Park in Kitsilano. The film was coolly received at the time, but later reappraised. And Altman came back to Vancouver for the acclaimed McCabe and Mrs Miller, even if this time the city would be more disguised as 1900s Washington state.

Where to watch “That Cold Day in the Park”: Amazon Prime, Google Play and DVD/Blu-ray

‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’ (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, 2019)

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Violet Nelson in ‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (left) and Violet Nelson in ‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’ © Everett Collection/Alamy

For all the closeness of the relationship between Vancouver and Hollywood, an independent spirit ticks away in the city’s cinema too. That fierce energy infuses The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, a modern social-realist thriller co-directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, and distributed by Ava DuVernay’s Array.

Creatively, the movie is irresistibly bold, filmed to appear as if shot in one unbroken take. And the story is just as compelling, the tale of two indigenous women (one played by Tailfeathers) from different ends of the class spectrum whose paths collide as strangers before one helps the other escape a violent ex-boyfriend. The movie plays like a feminist riff on Hitchcock, shot in a rainy East Vancouver that quickly becomes a third co-star.

Not currently streaming or on DVD

‘Zero Hour!’ (Hall Bartlett, 1957)

A scene from ‘Zero Hour!’, with a man cradling an unconscious child behind a man and woman in the pilots’ seats in a cockpit
The 1950s melodrama ‘Zero Hour!’ went on to inspire the 1980 disaster-movie spoof ‘Airplane!’ © Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

A hidden nugget of movie history, airborne melodrama Zero Hour! flips the later Hollywood script on its head by being set in Vancouver — but actually shot in California. That said, much of the film supposedly takes place far above the ground, on a flight to the city from Winnipeg that threatens to become the scene of a disaster. 

The culprit is the on-board catering, which leaves both the pilot and co-pilot helplessly sick with food poisoning. There is, thank heavens, a pilot among the passengers — even if he has never flown a commercial flight, and is still scarred by his wartime experiences. And yet our hero now bravely steps into the cockpit to save the day — helped only by his wartime commander, now on the ground with radio in hand at Vancouver airport. And if much of that sounds strangely familiar, there is a reason. The whole premise of the movie would later be revived and spoofed to death as blueprint for the blissful high comedy of Airplane!

Where to watch “Zero Hour!”: Amazon Prime

‘Meditation Park’ (Mina Shum, 2017)

Four Chinese women walking down a Vancouver Street in ‘Meditation Park’
Sharmaine Yeoh, Pei-Pei Cheng, Alannah Ong and Lillian Lim in ‘Meditation Park’ © Courtesy of Mongrel Media

If the story of Vancouver and cinema is tied up with the union between Canada and the US film industry, tender drama Meditation Park explores another long international relationship: the history of migration to the city by Hongkongers. At the heart of the film is Maria Wang (played by veteran Chinese actress Pei-Pei Cheng), a stay-at-home grandmother whose orderly life is upended on learning that her husband is having an affair. 

Amid the fallout, she finds camaraderie with a new group of women friends and solace in her adopted city. The supporting cast features Canadian treasures Sandra Oh and Don McKellar, but Vancouver itself takes a star role too, most notably the boisterous streets of Hastings-Sunrise, which director Mina Shum calls home. 

Not currently streaming or on DVD

The Bear (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1988)

A man standing face to face with a grizzly bear on the side of a mountain in ‘The Bear’
Tchéky Karyo in ‘The Bear’ © Collection Christophel/Alamy

A stickler might say we were overstepping our remit by moving out of Vancouver and into wider British Columbia, scene of The Bear, the lyrical-realist portrait — poised on the cusp between drama and documentary — of a young cub growing into adulthood. (That same pedant would complain even more learning the film was actually shot in the Alps.) But the movie stays on the list. The connection to Canada was the stuff of literary history: director Jean-Jacques Annaud worked from the 1916 novel The Grizzly King, whose author James Oliver Curwood set it specifically in British Columbia. And what snapshot of Vancouver could really ignore the wider nature of the city — the vast and timeless wilderness just outside it?

Where to watch “The Bear”: Amazon Prime

Which films set in Vancouver would you recommend? Tell us in the comments below. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter

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