This bridge, at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, had a starring role in the smash hit movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. As is often the case with American-made movies, Ontario locations fill in for U.S. cities. In the case of Greek Wedding, Toronto stood in for Chicago. (Photo courtesy Konstantinos Morfonios)

See Ontario without leaving home:
Waterfront communities popular film locations

News Archive BY GARY MAY
Hollywood filmmakers have been producing their movies in Canada for years, usually because production costs are lower. The practice has become so common, in fact, that for some movie-goers, the game of “spot the location” has become just as enjoyable as the flick itself.  

My wife and I recently turned on the TV and watched one of the worst movies we’ve ever seen. But we kept watching. Why? Because despite the bad acting, the implausible plot and the whole ridiculous scenario, we enjoyed spotting the locations where various scenes were shot — close to our Leamington home and many featuring our area’s beautiful waterfront.  

The movie, released in 2003, was called Love Wine, and was about a young woman who inherited a winery from her aunt and uncle who drowned in a boating accident. She soon learned that in order to keep the winery, she must continue the family tradition of making love in a vat of grapes. We won’t ruin the ending for you.  

We can say, however, that while the film itself was a giant yawn, it was still fun identifying and shouting out the locations. There was the farewell kiss at the Leamington airstrip, for instance. There were beautiful sunset shots over the waters of Lake Erie, a blue heron gliding gracefully over the surface, and views from/and of, the Jiimaan car ferry that links Pelee Island to the mainland at Kingsville and Leamington.  

There were unending views of the vineyards that are such an important part of the economy of not only the island, but the north shore of Lake Erie throughout Essex and Kent counties. And to add to the wine theme, we spotted the ruins of the Vin Villa winery on Pelee Island that was Canada’s first commercial wine-making operation when it began in the 1850s. Finally, we caught glimpses of the modern-day Pelee Island Winery’s island Pavilion and park.  

James Cagney in Captains of the Clouds

Ontario’s many waterfront communities have captured starring roles in plenty of feature-length films over the years. In fact, the first movie to be made entirely on location in Canada, Captains of the Clouds, featured generous doses of the province’s waterways. Produced in 1942, Captains was a wartime story aimed at boosting public support in the United States for the war effort. It starred James Cagney as an airman.  

Besides the airbase shots done in Trenton, Mountain View at Picton and Ottawa’s Uplands, the producers of Captains headed deep into Northern Ontario to shoot scenes at Rabbit Lake in the Temagami region. Some were shot at Matabitchuan Lodge, a hunting camp on the northeast end of the lake, where the Sand Dam separates Rabbit and Ross lakes. The lodge is still operating today and displays several props from the nearly 70-year-old movie.  

Since Captains hit the screen, movie-makers have scoured the province in search of pretty waterfront locations, quaint villages, bustling cities, massive forests and raging rivers to act as the locations or backdrops for their works. One of the most-filmed locations are the Niagara Falls, which are probably Ontario’s most widely recognized natural feature.  

It all began in 1953, when director Henry Hathaway brought Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten to town to make the film noir thriller, Niagara. Critics consider Niagara one of Monroe’s finest performances, in which she plays the just-married wife of a mentally unbalanced man.  

The Falls were visited again in 1980 by director Richard Lester for the filming of Superman II, starring Christopher Reeve, Canadian-born Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman. Those crowd scenes were shot in some of Niagara’s most heavily travelled tourist areas.  

Fifteen years later, Canadian Bacon was also shot at Niagara Falls — Ontario and New York. It was a political spoof about a hapless U.S. president, played by Alan Alda, who decided to start a war with Canada to improve his dismal approval ratings. It also starred the late Canadian funnyman John Candy as Sheriff Bud Boomer, as well as Rhea Pearlman of Cheers.  

The 1996 The Long Kiss Goodbye was also filmed with a significant Niagara Falls backdrop. Starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson, it told the story of a woman’s fight to regain her memory.  

Niagara Falls a filming favourite

Here’s a trivia question: What Johnny Depp movie features a world-ending waterfall you might think was entirely computer generated? Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, was released in 2006 and became the second-largest grossing film in the Pirates franchise. And no, the waterfall wasn’t entirely a computer image. A film crew went to Niagara Falls and shot the cataracts, then used the footage to create that world-ending scene where the ship goes over the falls.  

Many Ontario locations were chosen not because of their worldwide appeal, but because they looked pretty much like any typical American location. Such was the case when producers went to the City of Welland to make a scene for the campy holiday classic, A Christmas Story.  

You’ll have to be eagle-eyed to spot the location, however. Several Ontario spots were used in the film to replicate Indiana during the 1940s. Welland was chosen for one of the film’s funniest scenes.  

Remember the “Oh Fudge” scene, when Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) blurts out the “F” word in front of his father? It was shot on a road that parallels the Welland Canal. Look carefully, and you might be able to make out the stern of a ship called the Oakglen, which was a grain carrier back in the ’80s.  

Not far away in another part of the Niagara Peninsula, the 2000 film, The Skulls, starring Canadian Joshua Jackson, featured rowing scenes filmed at the world-famous Henley Island in Port Dalhousie. The Port’s iconic lighthouse appeared in another scene. The film is about a secret elitist college fraternity at a New England university.  

Much of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone was filmed at Niagara-on-the-Lake and took advantage of the Lake Ontario/Niagara River waterfront town’s charming Victorian main street and Old Courthouse Theatre. A key scene in the supernatural political thriller, starring Christopher Walken, featured a gazebo that was specially built for the film. The gazebo remains in place to this day and has become a favourite tourist spot, elegantly overlooking the water.  

Port Perry on the Trent-Severn Waterway has shown up in at least three films. In 2004, the town served as Mooseport, Maine, in Welcome to Mooseport, which starred Gene Hackman as a former U.S. president. It appeared briefly as a town in Missouri in Killshot, a 2009 film based on an Elmore Leonard novel. It was also featured in Fly Away Home, made in 1996, about local inventor Bill Lishman’s experiment with imprinting geese to alter their migration routes.  

Remember Meatballs? The camp's still there

Meatballs was one of the earliest blockbuster hits produced in Canada. And while it was considered risqué in its 1979 era, the film, which marked Bill Murray’s first movie performance, seems pretty tame by the current standards of films aimed at adolescent boys.  

Meatballs was filmed at Camp White Pine, on Hurricane Lake, as well as other Haliburton-area locations, and launched the directing career of Ivan Reitman. It followed the foibles of camp counsellor Tripper Harrison (Murray) at the cut-rate Camp North Star and co-starred Chris Makepeace.  

Produced during the summer of 1978, Meatballs used campers and staff as extras and even secondary actors. The real Camp White Pine is still going strong today on the lovely shores of Hurricane Lake. Among the real-life camp alumni are best-selling Canadian author Margaret Atwood.  

In the same northern Muskoka/Haliburton area, Away From Her was filmed in 2006 at Lake of Bays. It starred Canadian Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie, who played a woman with Alzheimer’s.  

Cheaper By the Dozen II was made in 2005 on Stoney Lake at Burleigh Falls in the Kawartha Lakes, and starred Hilary Duff, Steve Martin and Canadian Eugene Levy.  

The Time Traveler’s Wife was a 2009 romantic drama about a Chicago librarian with a gene that caused him to travel in time. But in actual fact, he wasn’t travelling in Chicago at all. Sometimes he was travelling around Chalk Lake, in Ontario’s Skugog Township. The film starred Rachel McAdams.  

In the Northern Ontario town of Kirkland Lake in 1989, Termini Station was made by director Allan King. It starred Canadian Colleen Dewhurst as a hard-drinking, hard-living woman desperate for one last fling at life, as well as fellow Canadian Megan Follows (Anne of Green Gables) and Gordon Clapp.  

Speaking of P.E.I.’s most famous Anne, the Anne of Green Gables films made widespread use of various Ontario locations to sub for island communities. Scenes from both Anne films showing the “Lake of Shining Waters” were filmed near Bruce’s Mill at Gormley, north of Toronto. The bridge shown in the films is gone now, but the rebuilt one is identical to the one in the film. In one scene made at the site, Anne nearly drowned while pretending to be The Lily Maid.  

Meanwhile, the famed Windermere House resort on the shining waters of Muskoka’s Lake Rosseau, near Bracebridge, was used to represent the White Sands Hotel in the first Anne movie.  

Disney Studios’ 1985 One Magic Christmas did quite a bit of filming in the Georgian Bay-side communities of Collingwood, Meaford and Owen Sound. These charming communities helped to tell the story of an angel who showed a mother the true meaning of Christmas.  

Blue Water Bridge, Sarnia made famous

Director Ron Howard went to the Hamilton waterfront to make Cinderella Man in 2005. Starring Russell Crowe as a washed-up boxer who makes a comeback in the 1930s, Howard filmed scenes of dockworkers on the boardwalk of a gritty Hamilton Harbour pier.  

Another trivia question: How many people know that the Blue Water Bridge isn’t really in Sarnia? In fact, it starts out in the village of Point Edward, which is surrounded on three sides by Sarnia. And it’s appeared in several feature films.  

Look for the bridge in the 1994 Renaissance Man, starring a down-on-his-luck ad executive played by Danny DeVito. You can also see it in the 2000 Bless the Child, in which Kim Basinger is a reluctant mother and Jimmy Smits an FBI agent.  

And Michael Moore, whose films have been a thorn in the side of all sorts of comfortable people in the United States, chose the bridge’s adjacent waterfront City of Sarnia for two of his semi-documentaries, the anti-gun film, Bowling for Columbine in 2002, and his 2007 send-up of American medical insurance, Sicko.

The Ref
starred Denis Leary as a thief who took Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey hostage. At one point in the 1994 film, a boat sailed off across Lake Ontario, off Cherry Beach. The lake, in this case, subbed for New York’s Long Island Sound.  

Toronto is, of course, no stranger to Hollywood feature films, but it rarely appears as itself. Instead, it’s a favourite place to stand in for Chicago, a similar-sized lakefront city. That’s the case in the 2002 hit, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Take a look at the bridge that John Corbett and Nia Vardalos strolled to during a romantic evening walk and you might just recognize Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, a popular tourist destination on the shores of Lake Ontario.  

And speaking of Toronto, the CN Tower has often been seen in films, sometimes with Lake Ontario spread out below it. Probably the tower’s most dramatic appearance came in 1979 in the action movie, Highpoint, starring Canadian Christopher Plummer. Plummer’s character did a stunning nose-dive off the tower.  

The charming Victorian lakeside community of Port Hope is a popular spot for making television programs and commercials, but it has also seen its share of feature films. One film was Molly: An American Girl on the Home Front, which, set in the 1940s, included a scene in a vintage soda fountain diner. The real diner is in Port Hope. Another film with Port Hope locations was Orphan, produced in 2009 and telling the story about a not-so-innocent little girl.  

Spot Galt's historic buildings, river in several films

One community that’s been oft-filmed is set some distance away from the big lakes, but perched picturesquely on the banks of the Grand River. Cambridge has proved to be a popular location for film crews, especially since 2000, when Denzel Washington came to town to film scenes for John Q. The film told the story of a desperate dad who took a hospital hostage, after his son was denied critical medical treatment because he didn’t have insurance.  

Then in 2002, Canadians Paul Gross and the late Leslie Nielson starred in the Canadian comedy, Men With Brooms. The Southworks Outlet Mall was used for several scenes.  

In the same year, The Inlaws, starring Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks, came to town, as did Big Spender, about a prisoner who nurtured a sick horse back to health. Big Spender starred Canadian actor Graham Greene.  

In 2003, Disney filmed Cold Creek Manor at Cruickston Park, just outside the city. The movie was a psychological thriller about a city couple who moved to the country to open a B&B.  

Cambridge has preserved many fine heritage buildings in its downtown areas as well as its beautiful residential neighbourhoods. It was just the place to attract the makers of Saint Ralph. Set in 1951, Saint Ralph chronicled the story of a boy and his naive search for the miracle that could help save his mother. It filmed using several city locations, including the Main Street Bridge and Queen’s Square.  

Homie Spumoni
, with Whoopi Goldberg, used Cambridge locations when it was filmed in 2006. Scenes included a large basket floating down the Grand River at the Parkhill Road Bridge, as well as the Mill Race Park area. The film was about an African-American baby lost by his parents in a boating accident.  

Meanwhile, a Windsor man has plans to continue the tradition of made-in-Ontario films. Jim Shaban of NAFTC Studios says he plans to build a 50,000-square-foot sound studio in the city.  

“We’re already in discussions with film production companies to bring projects here,” said Shaban. “We know there are a great many more out there that just need a financial nudge.”  

Location spotters can hardly wait. Hopefully, it won’t be long before Ontario’s waterfront communities are again featured on the silver screen. — December 2010