In 'Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,' Toronto Played Itself
Ten years later, the Edgar Wright movie still honors the city where it was filmed.
Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World didn't exactly light up the box office upon its release in 2010. But up in Toronto, where the movie was filmed, it never felt that way, according to Melody Lau, an associate producer at CBC music. "It's funny because I know it was a bit of a flop," she says. "But having lived in Toronto for the past 10 years, Scott Pilgrim feels like a hit to us."
Lau recalls seeing the movie, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley and starring Michael Cera as a 23-year-old bassist who has to battle his new girlfriend Ramona's evil exes, in a theater over its first weekend. "When the movie opens and it says, I don't remember the words, but like, 'Once upon a time in Toronto...' or something, the entire crowd just erupted and everyone applauded," she says. "It's just because we never get to see ourselves represented on screen like that."
Toronto has long been a hub for movie production. It's home to the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the largest in the world. It's a cinematic city with the CN Tower sitting on its waterfront. And while the city has stood in for Baltimore (in Hairspray and The Shape of Water), for Cambridge (in Good Will Hunting), and for Chicago (in, well, Chicago), it rarely gets a chance to play itself. That's why Scott Pilgrim, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, holds a special place in the hearts of Torontonians.
"When you want to call it 'the most Toronto film,' I think it is 'the most Toronto advertisement film' and I don't say that in a bad way," says Emily Reid, the artistic and executive director of the Toronto Outdoor Picture Show. "I think it's kind of like if you were an American watching this and you weren't really paying attention to the fact that this was Toronto, you would still not be allowed to miss it. You'd have to pay attention."
O'Malley moved to Toronto at the beginning of 2002 and started writing Scott Pilgrim in March of that year; the first volume was released in 2004. "I really only lived in Toronto for three years," he explains over email. "I was really into the singer Joel Plaskett and he would do these hyper-specific songs about the Dartmouth Bridge or whatever, and I was introduced to the idea that writing specific locations into your work can make it paradoxically more universal. My first book, Lost at Sea, was pretty vague about locations, which also made it hard to draw, because I was pulling general visuals out of my head instead of using specific idiosyncratic places. So the fact that Toronto was all around me at the time, and I could look at it and draw it directly, that was part of it too. There was no Google Image Search back then."
Wright, the British director best known at that point for Shaun of the Dead, was adamant about shooting in Toronto, O'Malley remembers. "He was really focused on making it true to the original story in a way I couldn’t have anticipated," O'Malley writes. "And the idea that movies shoot in Toronto for non-specific locations supplied us with jokes in both the book and the movie." For instance, Ramona's evil ex Lucas Lee (Chris Evans) is filming a movie at Casa Loma, a castle that has been used for the likes of X-Men and Crimson Peak.
One of the locations represented in both text and screen is the record store Sonic Boom, which has since moved from The Annex to downtown. Owner Jeff Barber knew O'Malley as a regular customer, and says he immediately recognized the store -- and even some of his employees -- on the page, even though it wasn't mentioned by name. The staff holed up in Barber's apartment upstairs from the store on Bloor Street West during filming. "We'd sort of sneak down in a way -- they knew we were there -- and watch the filming process and interact with the cast and really had a ball," says Barber. "I know that Edgar Wright wasn't that thrilled that we were kind of overseeing and coming down and distracting. There were a couple of times they're trying to kick us out, and I was, 'Hey, this is my store.'"
Over the days he was shooting at Sonic Boom, Cera became a "very good customer," buying a "shitload" of merch, Barber adds. (He couldn't remember what Cera added to his record collection, and even so wouldn't say. Barber has had many celebs over the years and keeps their purchases private.)
Scott Pilgrim straddles the lines between comic book movie, video game movie, and music movie, with the latter arguably being most connected to the setting. Scott, who lives in a shitty apartment near the University of Toronto with his sardonic roommate (Kieran Culkin) and is dating wide-eyed high-schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) when he meets the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), performs with his band Sex Bob-Omb (with Alison Pill, Mark Webber, and Johnny Simmons as his bandmates) at a few venues around Toronto, and the indie scene that was thriving in the city in the early to mid-2000s was crucial to the whole production.
Jeff Cohen, the owner of Lee's Palace, wasn't really aware of the pedigree of Scott Pilgrim before he was approached by the filmmakers to use his venue for the pivotal scene where Sex Bob-Omb opens for the Clash at Demonhead, featuring both Scott and Ramona's exes. Once Cohen heard that bands like Metric and Broken Social Scene, acts that frequented Lee's constantly, were involved, he was on board. "There may be other films that have done a better job of showing mainstream Toronto, but this thing really goes to the underbelly and for me it means a lot because I live a block and a half away from where Lee's Palace is situated," Cohen says. "So the film takes place in the exact area I live, eat, and work in."
The allure of that scene was captivating to Kylie Miller, now of the rock band The Beaches, when she was a middle school student who went to see Scott Pilgrim with her sister and bandmate. "When we played there I was like, oh my god, we're in Scott Pilgrim, this is amazing," she says. As Envy Adams, the Clash at Demonhead's lead singer, Brie Larson seductively sings Metric's "Black Sheep" at Lee's Palace in the movie. Eventually, Miller's obsession would come full circle. Emily Haines and James Shaw of Metric produced The Beaches' first album. (The band is named after the more suburban neighborhood in Toronto where the Millers grew up.)
Even though Miller came of age in indie rock a generation after Scott Pilgrim, Scott's social circle looks pretty familiar. "The way that they portray the up and coming kind of indie scene in Toronto, even though it was filmed like 10 years ago, it honestly still feels like that now. Like when they go to that weird party and everyone's drinking red solo cups and they're like walking around in the snow trying to find out where to go and are connecting with other people who are musicians," Miller says. "That's honestly what our experience was like when we were first coming up, like, those are the places we were hanging out."
Time has obviously changed Toronto, and Scott's haunts have not been untouched. Miller notes that The Annex is now more developed and that kids are gravitating toward the West End more. Lee's Palace has a new mural (by the same artist). Sonic Boom has moved. The discount store Honest Ed's, with its famous facade visible on screen, is now gone. And while Scott Pilgrim is far from the only movie shot in Toronto that also takes place there -- Reid mentions Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz as another key film -- it remains a source of pride.
"We've seen so many movies where either people try really hard to mask Toronto as a different city, or they don't try that hard, and as a Torontonian, I watch a lot of movies being like, 'I know exactly where that is,'" Lau says. "It's so nice for a movie to be like, 'This is Toronto,' and not try to mask a Second Cup as a Starbucks or a Pizza Pizza as something else. Those are tiny little references and locations that are for us."
Miller agrees, especially about including the repetitively named chain, where Scott, his bandmates and Ramona eat. "Also shout out to Pizza Pizza, like the worst pizza in Ontario," she says. "They give love to that in the movie."
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