University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Illustration of Mean Girls
Illustration by John Fraser


Why Hollywood loves U of T

You’d think Hollywood “It Girl” Lindsay Lohan had enrolled at U of T, given how much time she spent on campus last year. In the summer of 2003, the 17-year-old starlet was spotted at Convocation Hall while shooting scenes for the teen comedy Mean Girls. A few months earlier, she’d been hanging out at the MacMillan Theatre, filming Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen – at about the same time Julia Stiles arrived to shoot the romantic comedy The Prince & Me. University officials say they’ve lost count of how many movie stars have worked on campus over the past 30 years.

Hollywood loves U of T. Studio executives say they come to Canada because of a favourable exchange rate and generous government subsidies, but choose U of T because of the university’s wide variety of buildings – both modern and historic – and its resemblance to Ivy League schools.

Still, much preparation goes into creating on campus the look and atmosphere a movie script requires. Production executives scouting potential filming sites usually put their first call in to the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC), a government agency that has a digital photo library with 90,000 images of Ontario locations. After the OMDC puts a photo package together, producers may fly to Toronto to see U of T for themselves, or hire a local locations manager to do a scout on their behalf. At that point, the location manager will contact either Andy Allen, who works in the Office of Space Management and co-ordinates film shoots on campus, or the space-rental representatives for individual colleges.

In August, director Ron Howard recreated a 1930s Central Park shantytown for his next movie, Cinderella Man, amid the rolling meadows of U of T’s Scarborough campus. Jack Martin, director of hospitality and retail services at UTSC, recalls that the single four-hour shoot called for three days of preparation and required dirt to be trucked in to create a muddy, Depression-era encampment. Another four days were needed to restore the location to its former splendour. The one-day shoot was just fine for Martin, who, like all university administrators, is wary of interruptions to the lives of students and faculty. “I like [the crews] to get in and to get out,” he says.

Hosting a movie cast and crew – however deep their pockets – can be highly intrusive. “It’s like having a benevolent auntie come to visit. You hope they don’t stay long,” says another college administrator. Not surprisingly, U of T imposes ample constraints on film producers. Almost all of the shoots take place on weekends or during the summer to minimize academic disruption, and film crews are not permitted in residences. The university does not allow its name or insignia to be shown, as it has no control over how these will be depicted on screen. For interior shots, all wall plaques and paintings must be removed before the crews arrive.

While the university wants to do its part to sustain Toronto as a major film production centre, it also wants to protect its primary role as an educational institution. Contrary to popular belief, location shooting is not a big money-spinner for the university. In a good year, approximately 200 major film and TV productions take place in and around Toronto, but only a small percentage of those shoot one or more scenes on campus. The university charges a per-day rate of $3,000 – less for partial or preparation days. Every production, from a low-budget TV series to a large studio feature, pays the same fixed rate. With most campus film or TV shoots rarely going beyond two days, the modest revenue is shared by the Office of Space Management and the college where the filming is done.

As is the case with any production, unexpected problems sometimes arise. William Chisholm, the manager of building services at Trinity College, recalls an August shoot for Paramount’s Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). One of the stars contracted chicken pox, delaying production for two weeks until filming clashed with the new school year – and a wedding reception that had been booked for the college patio. The mother of the bride wanted all visible scaffolding and lighting taken down for the reception. Paramount, eager to placate her, offered to underwrite part of the honeymoon and even have the film’s cast, including Ben Kingsley and Joan Allen, mingle with reception guests. But to no avail. “They came to a financial arrangement,” says Chisholm.

Another time, an overnight shoot at UTSC for Expect No Mercy, a 1995 thriller about an elite assassination group, was to include a middle-of-the-night pyrotechnic explosion, complete with fire spewing out of the upper windows of a university building. Delays in preparation led instead to a dawn explosion, whose thud disturbed the morning prayer session of a Muslim community group, which was using a nearby area of the campus.

Film crews have their own logistical challenges in shooting on campus, as distinct from a studio where they fully control the environment. Directors scout possible locations anywhere from three to six months before actual production starts. In the interim, university construction or weather can play havoc with production schedules. Prudence Emery, the doyenne of Canadian movie publicists, has worked on two shoots at U of T that needed fake snow for key scenes. Back in 1974, she stood outside Hart House on the set of Black Christmas, a teen slasher movie about embattled Pi Kappa Sig girls in the college town of Bedford, Pennsylvania. Foam was used then to create snow, but with limited success. “The crocuses kept popping up through the foam,” Emery recalls. This past July, Wycliffe College stood in as Harvard for Disney’s Ice Princess, in which a young girl pursues her dream of becoming a champion figure skater. Emery recalls umpteen bags of ice being hauled into the college courtyard to create snow. Predictably, the snow kept melting.

And during wintertime shoots, filmmakers often want snow removed entirely from the scene. Trinity College’s Chisholm recalls producers in Los Angeles ringing months after an August shoot for a short-lived television series called Mr. Rhodes, asking permission to redo a couple of shots. Chisholm assured them the leaves were gone from the ground. But when the studio representative and a second unit crew arrived in early December, three inches of snow had fallen the previous night. The studio rep asked for the snow’s removal. “Do you have a lot of money?” Chisholm asked the rep. She did, and an army of groundskeepers were ushered in to shovel away the snow, and any semblance of winter.

Keeping students and the public away from location shoots can also pose challenges. An example, Jennifer Lopez made Angel Eyes in 2000, soon after she’d become a star. During the filming of key scenes at Varsity Stadium, the cast discovered a nearby pub. Lopez wanted to join the party one night, but balked for fear she might be spotted and accosted by fans. Co-star James Caviezel convinced Lopez to get back into her police uniform, a customized blue Chicago Police Department shirt and grey jeans, and to pull her cap over her forehead to cover her hair and partially obscure her face. But midway through the cast’s pub-crawl, a buzz went round that “J.Lo” was in the house, and the campus police were called to help everyone beat a fast retreat out the kitchen exit.

Etan Vlessing is Canadian bureau chief for The Hollywood Reporter in Los Angeles.

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  1. 2 Responses to “ Star-Struck! ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Etan Vlessing neglected to mention that much of the university was used as a backdrop in the 1973 classic The Paper Chase. Many Faculty of Law students were hired as extras. Thirty dollars a day was a considerable sum and much of the time on set was spent waiting for the shots to be taken. Of course, none of us look the same now as we did then, but who does? Except maybe U of T president Frank Iacobucci, a law professor at the time, who joined us at the movie's première.

    Stephen Grant
    BA 1970 Victoria, LLB 1973

  3. GSR says:

    Black Christmas used it in the background too. I'm proud that B Clarke made the film in Toronto and used local landmarks.

    I remember hanging out and studying at U of T downtown for the Gothic environment. It actually encouraged seriousness and studying. I still go there and walk the campus when I come into town from Ottawa. It's a great filming location - this from a proud York BA and MBA!