Why can’t Vancouver just be itself for once?

Are movies shot in Vancouver because they are set in Seattle? Or are they set in Seattle because they are shot in Vancouver?

Lots of movies are filmed here, but a lot of them — like Night at the Museum, which takes place in a New York museum and was shot mostly on a soundstage, and Pathfinder, which takes place over a thousand years ago — are set in other times and places, so there’s no point in expecting Vancouver to reveal itself in those films.

But sometimes a movie makes extensive use of the cityscapes and scenery here, and on many of those occasions, we are asked to believe that the story is actually taking place in Seattle.

Now, sure, Seattle is only three hours’ drive from Vancouver, give or take, depending on the border traffic; and sure, because both cities are in the Pacific Northwest (as people south of the border call this region), they do have a very similar look and feel.

And sometimes, for story reasons, it is important that a film be set on the American side of the border. Case in point: The Last Mimzy, in which American national-security issues are a key part of the plot. As I mentioned in my review of that film, it is a little absurd how the buildings — filmed in Vancouver, but made to look like Seattle — “all have names like Seattle Elementary School and Seattle Research Facility, as though a city the size of Seattle would have room for only one each of these things.” But I can certainly understand the need to set that story in a particular place.

But then you get a film like The Invisible, which opened yesterday. It’s a remake of a Swedish movie about a high school student who is left for dead, and whose spirit begins tracking the murderers. I have never seen the original film, but to judge from the remake, this story could take place anywhere. So why not just say it happens in Vancouver, the city where it happened to be shot?

The question comes to mind with regard to this film in particular because it has several shots of the Vancouver skyline and cutaway shots of local things like the SkyTrain, and much of the film takes place at Burnaby Mountain Secondary School, which doesn’t even bother to hide its name on the “Graduation 2006” banners. (Yeah, the film was shot in late 2005 and was presumably intended for release the following summer… but instead it was dumped into theatres on a slow weekend in spring 2007, without any preview screenings. Now what does that tell you?) I don’t think we ever see the Space Needle, but we do see the Harbour Centre a few times. And yet the cars all have Washington license plates, and the cops pass out business cards with Washington addresses and so on.

Was that always in the script? Or did they decide on those details after they decided to make the movie here? If the latter, then why not just decide to set the movie in the city where it was shot?

Would it really have impacted the film’s box-office chances if the story had been set in Vancouver? If stories like these can be set in Anywhere, U.S.A., then why not just Anywhere, period?

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  • Not that the Winnipeg film community is anywhere NEAR that of Vancouver, but I’ve definitely noticed the same thing out here. We’ve stood in for Kansas (Capote, The Lookout), Chicago (Shall We Dance), and countless other midwest (or nameless) locations.

    But finally, the new Anna Paquin/Breckin Meyer movie Blue State – about a Democrat who follows through on his promise to move to Canada if George W. Bush is re-elected – actually takes place in Winnipeg. I wonder how they’ll make the city look.

  • Yeah, I’m curious to see that one.

    In fairness, BTW, I should mention that Vancouver has played itself a few times, though often it’s just a cameo, and sometimes at the very end of a movie — e.g., even though pretty much all of Shoot to Kill (1988) and Are We There Yet? (2005) were filmed here, the stories actually begin somewhere in the States, and then the characters cross the border and meet in Vancouver, whether for a shoot-out or a romantic reunion or whatever. In cases like those, the story of the film remains essentially grounded in the United States.

    One significant exception to this may be Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002), the bulk of which takes place in Vancouver — though the characters, as I recall, are still American.

    One of the weirder experiences I’ve had as a Vancouverite moviegoer was watching Junior (1994), directed by Canadian Ivan Reitman, and seeing a scene in which Danny DeVito supposedly walks through a Vancouver airport… except it was obviously filmed somewhere else. I guess Vancouver has doubled for other towns so many times, it’s only fair that another town double for us once in a while!

  • Face it, we are Canadians thus we are inferior. No one cares about us no one is interested in Canadian stories. We speak the same language and share much in common culturally, but we are not (apparently) interesting.

    • John Raymond.

      Until you have Hollywood city, Vancouver you can expect move of this. They filmed practical magic in Coupville on Whidbey Island and said it was on the East coast. Even painted the town white to make it look like the upper East coast area. It’s nothing personal and has to do with cost as much as anything.

    • John Raymond.

      Until you have Hollywood city, Vancouver you can expect move of this. They filmed practical magic in Coupville on Whidbey Island and said it was on the East coast. Even painted the town white to make it look like the upper East coast area. It’s nothing personal and has to do with cost as much as anything. This is weird posting site, no name? Ok. Then put name and now I am posting to fast? Then it’s a duplicate of a post not posted? Weird.

  • But that’s just the thing — The Invisible isn’t a “Canadian story” any more than it is a “Seattle story”, or a “Swedish story” come to that.

  • Same point though, no one cares about Canadians or really wants to see Canada as Canada. It doesn’t fly south of the border and the international market doesn’t seem too interested either.

  • It’s the same with fiction as it is with movies– you want to sell to American publishers, you set your story in an American setting, not a Canadian one. Even if it has no material effect on the story.

  • I found it funny that when the newswoman is speaking she says “Burnaby police…”

  • Anonymous

    I always wondered the same thing.
    Being a Seattlite I think it’s because Seattle is a bigger city
    and everyone south of the border
    knows about it. Not to be
    ignorant and insulting, but when
    you have a state (Cal) with the
    population close to Canada, the
    Hollywooders think it will sell
    better. I know Vancouver is just
    as bad-ass as Seattle, but when
    you’re shooting an action film,
    most of the U.S. (non-PNW), won’t
    buy it.

    You did have the big hit “Bird
    on a wire”. Don’t forget, this
    all used to be part of the Oregon
    Territory. If it hadn’t of been
    for the civil war, you’d probably
    be living in the U.S. now (look
    up “The pig wars of San Juan island”.

    All in fun, and nice blog.

    Brad in Seattle