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The Location Scout; Movies @ Humber
Give me a bit about your background working in film, what was your role, and how often did a film come to the Lakeshore Grounds?
I started working in film and television in 1983, when the industry in Toronto was quite small. American film and TV producers were drawn to Canada by the weak Canadian dollar and more so to Toronto as is was a city that could stand in for a wide range of American cities: New York, Boston and Chicago to name a few. It was right around that time that I began working in the industry, initially as a production assistant and later on as an art department trainee.
I was fortunate to have begun my career in the industry at that time as that was the era of the big multi hour mini-series with stories that spanned many decades. The art department crews for TV movies were much larger at that time and we were given months of prep-time to research, design and build the sets. In between film projects, I worked as a location scout in the location library at what was originally called the Ontario Film Development Corporation (OFDC) now Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC) which was a huge proponent in encouraging production companies to film in Ontario.
One of the incentives that the OFDC would offer was that if a company filmed in a building that was owned by the Ontario government, the cost of the location rental would be waived, therefore making it a relatively free location. Production companies would only have to pay incidental fees for maintenance and security.
What did you do as an OFDC Location Scout?
Producers who were deciding where to film their productions would send a copy of the script to a consultant at the OFDC who would in turn hire me to read the script and create a location breakdown of the sets. The two of us would decide on the key locations that would be included in the package of location photos that would be sent to the producer.
The OFDC location library was an incredible resource as it contained thousands of files of photos of everything from offices, peoples’ homes, hospitals and schools to farms, parks, hotels, resorts, trailer parks, you name it. I would begin by selecting location files from the photo library. If a location was required for which there were no photos, I would scout and photograph the relevant locations and include these in the package of location photos that would be sent to the producer.
These photos would also be added to the ever growing number of files in the library. On average I would spend about three days researching and putting together the files for the location proposal that the OFCD consultant would send to the producer, who was often based in Los Angeles. If the producer thought that the locations were suitable for their script, they would then travel to Ontario, sometimes on their own, but more often with the director and production designer and we would drive around and survey the locations in person. From there, the producer would decide whether or not they wanted to shoot in Toronto.
What projects do you know of, or have been a part of, that filmed at the Lakeshore Grounds?
I worked on Echoes in the Darkness which was a mini series from 1987 featuring Peter Coyote, Stockard Channing, Peter Boyle, Jane Eastwood, and Robert Loggia. It was a drama that follows the murder of Susan Reinert, a school teacher, and her two children in Pennsylvania. The case went on for about seven years, and it captured a lot of media attention at the time because two of the suspects in the murders were the principal at the school and a fellow teacher that she had become romantically involved with.
The former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital (now the Humber College Lakeshore Campus cottages) was then owned by the government of Ontario, and so the production company most likely filmed here because there was no location cost and there was the potential to create numerous sets in the many vacant buildings. Most of the buildings were vacant and fairly run down at that time, so we were able to bring in our art department and transform the spaces into a variety of different film sets.
We were able to do pretty well whatever we wanted to do in terms of creating our sets. We had the carpentry crew add walls to make some rooms smaller or even build other sets within existing spaces. Some of the sets we created were: a nursery school, a police station, school classrooms and hospital rooms. The Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital was a great location because it was far removed from traffic and pedestrian noise, which was great for the sound department, and we had access to the different buildings via the underground tunnels which was great for moving equipment from one set to another without having to go outside; a great feature if you were filming in the winter.
Can you offer a picture of a ‘day in the life’ when yourself and a crew would film here?
All of our set prep work was done ahead of time. If it was a daytime shoot, call time could be as early as 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. for the drivers followed by hair and makeup staff at 5:30 or 6:00. Depending on the complexity of our setup, our call would often be at 6:30 or 7:00 at which time and we would complete any final touches on the set and get the approval from the director and producers.
The director and DOP would set up the camera and show us what the shots would be for the specific scene they would be shooting. As a production designer you are designing a 360-degree view as you don’t really know what the camera will see. Even though we’d go through the shot list with the director, that would often change later on in the day when I wouldn’t be on set because we would be prepping the next location.
What do you best recall from filming Echoes in the Darkness at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital?
I remember the work of a scenic painter named Sandy Spencer who was both the scenic artist and the on-set painter for Echoes in the Dark. I remember that one of the spaces was turned into a nursery school where he painted these magnificent clouds on the walls. That was the benefit of filming at this location. You could paint all the walls and create a bunch of different kinds of environments and then when filming had completed, it was all gone and it another film crew would move in and create their own sets, often removing or painting over the work of the previous film crew.
But that nursery room was quite memorable for me. I was taken back by Sandy’s creativity and incredible talent. When I went to university at Victoria College at The University of Toronto, I would study in the reading room of the E.J. Pratt library and during breaks I would sit there and stare at this enormous painting of a mountain that hung on the wall. Turns out that the artist of this painting was Sandy Spencer. I found his work really captivating - both his canvas and scenic work. He is a great Canadian painter!
Were there particular areas of the grounds that are used more frequently than others?
I worked on a series, for a brief time, staring Mr. T from the A-Team called “T and T” which shot here from 1988-91. This was an example of when they not only filmed here but also used one of the buildings for their production offices. They were located in building E on the second floor.
A feature film called Sing starring Lorraine Bracco, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Patti LaBelle, was also filmed here the 1989. The production offices for this project were located in the Admin building. The Assembly Hall was used as a school gymnasium in the film.
The television series Night Heat also filmed here and used one of the buildings for its production offices. The art department for that project converted the interior of another building into the main police station set where much of the series action took place. So again, you can see how cost effective it was to use the buildings that now belong to Humber to satisfy the wide variety of a production company’s needs.
Were there any parts of the grounds that were more challenging to film or others that were easier? Which areas were they?
Not necessarily because it was a controlled environment. There was no traffic that you had to deal with and with the hospital not being active by then, it meant that it was empty. Loading and unloading sets and film equipment was quite easy since there were no other vehicles to compete with as there would have been if we were filming in downtown Toronto. It’s likely more challenging to film here now, however, I am aware that productions are still filmed here at Humber on occasion.
How many people can be on a crew that chooses to use Humber as a location?
Depending on the scale of the production, a film crew could be anywhere from 40 to 60 to even more depending on what was needed that day.
How long would it take for a picture to be filmed on this location? Where would they keep their stuff?
That depended on if we were filming a feature film or a TV film. At the time that I was in the business, feature films would shoot 3 – 5 pages of dialogue a day (depending on the complexity of the scene) while a TV movie of the week would shoot 8 – 10 pages a day.
For Echoes in the Darkness we filmed here for several days moving from one set to another during the days that we were here. The move Sing shot for weeks in the Assembly Hall, while Night Heat shot here for the run of its series which was about 5 years.
Anything else you would like to add about your time filming on set at Humber?
I very much enjoyed the time I spent here during my film career. There was a peacefulness to filming here and as I mentioned earlier the hassle of noise, parking and moving into a location was eliminated.
It is quite funny, though, that things have come full circle for me. While filming here at the Lakeshore Grounds in the 90’s, I never would have imagined that I would someday be working in these very buildings as a mental health counsellor at Humber.
The Location Scout: Movies @ Humber is the newest pillar, featuring an investigation spanning approximately thirty years when production companies began to use the space in the 1980s following the closure of the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital.
The Movies pillar includes the inside scoop on what it takes to film a movie on the Lakeshore Grounds, which movies and television shows were filmed on the location, and a great guide to spotting a film crew in the area. As the curator of this brand new topic, it has been an exciting research endeavour to learn about the versatility of this space and how well it worked for media production.