Megan Park, director Michael Dowse, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Daniel Radcliffe, and screenwriter Elan Mastai of The F Word at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2013.
TORONTO — Try for a moment to remember the last time you saw a major feature film that was set in Toronto. Other than Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I mean.
Thanks to local and national tax breaks, a film friendly population, and a variety of urban settings that can easily double for somewhere else, Toronto has long been a popular location for feature film productions angling to save some money. But having Toronto play itself?
“It is a rare thing,” director Michael Dowse told me at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. The Canadian filmmaker has set a few of his films (Fubar, Goon) in his native country, but never in Canada’s biggest city. That changed with The F Word, a charming romantic comedy staring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as two Torontonians who are perfect for each other — except she’s got a long-term boyfriend. (The film, which debuted at TIFF, was picked up at the festival for a U.S. theatrical run by CBS Films.)
Dowse says that the decision to shoot in Toronto was purely financial, but there was a version of the script that set the story in Chicago. Instead, the creative team decided to let Toronto be Toronto. “I think it’s important in these types of movies to have a specific location,” he said, “and feature the city, like some of the classic romantic comedies do, and create these little vignettes and establishing shots, just to give people breathers and look at where they’re set.”
Over the course of the experience, Dowse discovered just what it is like to be a Canadian filmmaker shooting a movie in Toronto that is also set in Toronto. Here’s what he learned:
1. You shoot in locations in Toronto that aren’t normally used for feature films.
Without the constraint of having to make Toronto look like somewhere else, Dowse was able to seek out locations — like the lakeside neighborhood of Leslieville — that evoked the local character of the city itself. “I really fell in love with the east side of the city,” he said. “It was a part of the city that hadn’t been captured as much [on film] as the downtown core or the west side… I like the water. I like the beaches. I like Leslieville specifically because it’s not as gentrified. I mean, it’s getting there, but it has that real mix of old and new, and esoteric restaurants and stores. But it didn’t feel too twee, which is something I was trying to avoid completely with this movie.”
2. Your star can use his natural British accent without having to make a big fuss about it.
In his other two films at TIFF, Radcliffe acted with an American accent, but he’s a full-blooded Brit in The F Word — and because Toronto is one of the most international cities in the world, the film never bothers with having to explain why. “Like, today, I’ve had meeting with people with Irish accents, English accents,” said Dowse. “It just made sense. We had talked about maybe trying an American accent. But I think really with comedy, you don’t want to have another level to think about, just for charm and timing and all that stuff. But it wasn’t a big deal by any means. And it works here.”
3. You get to shoot during the Toronto International Film Festival.
Dowse started production on The F Word in August 2012, and kept filming while TIFF 2012 was in full swing in September, “which is fantastic, because you never have producers on set,” he said with a laugh. “They definitely weren’t even close to the set during the festival. No problems.”
(Pictured: Zac Efron at the TIFF 2012 premiere of The Paperboy)
4. Your budget pressures aren’t nearly as big.
Dowse said he’s hoping his next film can be bigger in scale, perhaps an action comedy with a Hollywood studio “in the vein of the early Joel Silver films, like 48 Hours.” But he’s still acutely aware of the creative freedom making films in Canada affords him. “I really like the position up here, where I’m making $10 million-ish films and don’t have a lot of cooks in the kitchen and we can find nice scripts,” he said. “It’s a nice sweet spot in terms of budget that doesn’t exist as much in the states. You can do these more intimate films and still attract the talent, and still have enough time to shoot it properly. I’m happier up here.”
5. You do still have to make some compromises.
“I’m a Montrealer,” said Dowse. “If you’d given me my choice, to be honest, I would shoot [The F Word] in Montreal, because I think it’s a vastly more romantic city, and I could location scout it in about a half an hour in my mind.”
6. You aren’t harassed by paparazzi all that much.
With a star of Radcliffe’s international fame, there is always the chance that a cloud of paparazzi and Potterheads will be hovering near the set. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as Dowse had feared. “We were prepared for the worst, never really knowing what it means,” he said. “And for the most part, we were left alone. There wasn’t really screaming fans, and we were shooting in the middle of Toronto, busy streets. Every once and a while, we’d have a guy lurking around with a camera, but they weren’t that interested, so they weren’t a problem for us.” It really wasn’t until The F Word’s gala premiere that Dowse got a true idea of Radcliffe’s fame. “When he stepped out of his limo at the red carpet, I even stopped. I was like, ‘What the fuck was that?’ because the sound was so loud.”
7. Your biggest “controversy” is whether Lake Ontario is too polluted for a skinny dipping scene.
At a post-screening Q&A for The F Word, Radcliffe and Kazan reportedly gave Dowse a hard time for having them leap into Lake Ontario while (mostly) naked without a proper warning that the water was perhaps a bit too polluted to go swimming. When I asked Dowse about this, however, he just chuckled.
“I think Zoe felt like maybe she didn’t have all the information she needed before she jumped into Lake Ontario, in terms of its pollution and whatnot,” he said. “But it’s fine. People say they swim in Lake Ontario all the time.”
8. Toronto is such a fine city, you know audiences won’t freak out about watching a movie set in Canada.
“It’s the fourth largest city in North America, so I don’t think it’s crazy to set a romantic comedy here,” said Dowse, who then laughed. “Now, if you set it in Montreal, that would be another thing.”