Films

Montreal, movie capital

BRENDA BRANSWELL October 20 1997
Films

Montreal, movie capital

BRENDA BRANSWELL October 20 1997

Montreal, movie capital

Films

BRENDA BRANSWELL

The late, great alumni of the Montreal Canadiens—legendary figures like coach Toe Blake or goalie Jacques Plante—would probably have been dumbstruck if they had caught a recent glimpse of the Montreal Forum. Outside the building along Lambert-Closse Street was an urban campground, with trailers lining the block. The building’s interior, abandoned by the Canadiens last year for the new Molson Centre, sported a boxing ring at the centre and neon signs heralding the “Atlantic City Arena.” Moviegoers won’t recognize hockey’s most hallowed shrine when American director Brian De Palma’s murder mystery Snake Eyes, starring Nicolas Cage, hits the big screen next year. The Habs’ former home has been transformed into a place that celebrates not just boxing but also the arms-dealing sideline of the film’s fight promoter, a tycoon played by John Heard. Instead of Stanley Cup banners, grey and blue rocket mock-ups hang from the ceiling, along with a giant American flag. The movie’s Montreal-based production designer, Anne Pritchard, is no hockey fan, but she says that tampering with a beloved icon unsettled her. “ ‘My God,’ ” I thought, ‘we’ve changed the Forum.’ ”

The makeover of the Forum—now slated to become an entertainment complex— may border on sacrilege for sentimental Habs fans, but in clear-eyed economic terms it is a boon for Montreal’s burgeoning film and television industry. A Paramount Pictures production with an estimated budget of $115 million, Snake Eyes is being touted as the most expensive movie ever made in Canada. Wrapping at the end of October, it is injecting about $75 million into Montreal’s sluggish economy. It is also a pivotal project for a city that is trying to catch up to Toronto and Vancouver in attracting American productions. During the past few months, a production boom in the Montreal area has brought in Cage, Marlon Brando, Olympia Dukakis and even the grape-colored dinosaur Barney. “Having Paramount in town is helping a lot because it’s kind of a flagship,” says André Lafond, Montreal’s film and television commissioner, who notes that inquiries about shooting in the city have tripled since Snake Eyes. “It’s rating the city

major-league in terms of moviemaking.” Not that Montreal’s moviemaking capacity has ever been in doubt. For decades, the city has yielded scores of feature films, TV movies and series—many of them for francophone Quebecers. Over the years, dozens of European co-productions and U.S. projects have also been shot in the area, including the features Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Agnes of God (1985). But the influx of Hollywood producers came to a complete halt in 1992— even as Americans, lured primarily by a favorable exchange rate that allowed them to save as much as 30 per cent, were flooding into Toronto and Vancouver. Lafond attributes the decline to the fact that the city was spending less and less to attract Hollywood, and that various groups involved in the local industry had failed to adopt a concerted approach to promoting Montreal. ‘We left that ground entirely to Toronto and Vancouver,” Lafond says wryly.

Montreal appears to have rectified the problem. In the past five years, foreign shooting—mostly American, and mostly TV

movies of the week and feature films—has steadily increased, reaching $86 million in 1996. Domestic production, particularly for TV (which accounts for 70 per cent of Montreal’s activity overall), is booming as well, especially with the proliferation of specialty channels. Last year, both foreign and domestic producers spent a record-breaking $405 million on entertainment programming and commercials in Montreal, placing the city third behind Toronto and Vancouver.

De Palma’s apparent enthusiasm for the city may help boost production. At a recent news conference at the Forum for Snake Eyes, in which Cage plays a detective probing an assassination at a boxing match, the film-maker waxed enthusiastic about his crew and the film’s thousands of extras, who cheered when he and the cast entered the former arena. “This seldom happens to me,” said De Palma. “I hate to sound like a public relations person. We have nothing but positive things to say.” Others Americans share that view. Local crews, who draw kudos for top-notch skills, also win points for enthusiasm. Jay Cohen of Los Angeles recently spent his first Canadian shoot holed up in the Laurentians and Old Montreal as coproducer of The Blouse Man, a film starring

Foreign cameras are rolling again

Diane Lane and Anna Paquin. Recalls Cohen: “The caterer had read the script and had questions about it creatively like, Why would [the character] do that?’ ”

Montreal’s wide range of locations is also a drawing card, with nearby mountains and water, and a city filled with modern architecture and older buildings suitable for period productions. Cohen says his company, Punch Productions, a partnership with Dustin Hoffman, considered nine states and Toronto and Vancouver before deciding on the Montreal area for the movie, which is set in New York’s Catskills in 1969. “Every set we needed was here,” says Cohen, including Old Montreal as a stand-in for Brooklyn. Locations are also less expensive, according to Cohen, who paid $1 to a municipality in the Laurentians for use of a road and a waterfall at a public park, which he maintains would have cost $25,000 or $30,000 in the United States

Montreal continues to be the country’s centre of francophone film and TV production, which comprises most of the activity. But the city is also a popular backdrop for non-Quebec Canadian producers. Toronto-based film-maker Bernie Zukerman, who recently shot the TV mini-series The Sleep Room in Montreal, says the number of vacant buildings means a wider than normal choice of locations. “My sense is you can get better deals on buildings in Montreal right now because there are so many more available than in Vancouver and Toronto.” The flip side to the bustling production activity in Montreal is that crews and actors are harder to book, according to veteran Montreal film-maker Robin Spry, president of Telescene Film Group Inc., which is producing Student Bodies, a sitcom that recently debuted on the Fox, Global and YTV networks. “In a way we’ve become victims of our own success,” says Spry.

Lafond expects Montreal to rake in $525 million this year. He is currently trying to lure a large film project to the city, but will not divulge many details. Sitting in his office in Old Montreal, Lafond lowered his voice, as if industry spies were hovering outside, and explained how discretion is essential in the fiercely competitive industry. He recalls how an L.A. producer once visited Montreal to check out locations. On his way home, he was intercepted by three people—“commandos,” in Lafond’s words—at Dorval Airport. The trio, who Lafond believes were freelance location managers, convinced the American to stop over in Toronto, where the project eventually got made. The film commissioner’s voice does not betray any anger. His apparent equanimity is understandable—the cameras continue to roll in Montreal more feverishly than ever. □