Picture this: Edmonton is auditioning for a role as a cosmopolitan city in a million dollar TV film. Its demo-reel includes clips of the 2007 kids' flick Christmas in Wonderland and cameos in Fubar II and Snow Day, as well as scenes from The Assassination of Jesse James shot at Fort Edmonton Park. Would it get the role? After all, this is Edmonton as theme-park, or a place of hard-drinking roughnecks and bottomless snow.
Last January, two young local film companies, Rocky Mountain Pictures and Panacea Entertainment, deployed 85 cast and crew throughout the city for I Think I Do, a romantic comedy about three urban businesswomen starring Mia Kirshner and Sara Canning. The camera captured a turning point in Edmonton, where charming restaurants, shops and historic buildings characterize the streets. And behind the lens, the project is proudly local. Everyone from interns to the make-up artists and film editors were hired from within Alberta.
For 23 days, character buildings in Oliver, Old Strathcona and the warehouse district received fresh attention, and downtown businesses amended their hours for the chances to be extras in a film casting a more sophisticated light on their city.
It’s January. Kirshner sits in a pew at the Parish of Christ Church in Oliver, shooting scenes for her pretend wedding during a very real and exceptionally cold winter spell. She’s bundled up in a poufy Canada Goose jacket over a white dress, 4,000 kilometres from her New York home. Even more foreign to her, she’s on the set of a romantic comedy, a departure from her dramatic roles in the Showtime series The L Word and The Black Dahlia, which co-starred Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson.
Yet despite the distance, difference and draft billowing past the church’s old wooden beams, her demeanour is warm. “This movie is the most fun I've had on a set since The L Word,” says the Toronto native. “For me, laughing is so important, but you can't force it. I just feel so comfortable here, and that actually gives me a new appreciation for my job. I'm really honoured and really grateful to be here.”
When it’s time to get back on set, Kirshner slips out of her winter coat and into the role of the lead character, Julia, a type-A bride-to-be. Hot on her Hollywood-heels is Canning, who made her splash in 2009 on the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, which rippled into a starring role for three seasons. This is a reunion of sorts for Kirshner and Canning. They played enemies on The Vampire Diaries for six episodes last year. This time, they’re excited to play sisters. Their on-screen camaraderie is apparent between takes.
Raised in Sherwood Park, Canning is enthused to be filming on her home turf. “I'm a big advocate of Canadian film,” says the Vancouver-based actor. “It’s exciting to see what will happen here over the next year or two as the city’s film industry continues to grow.”
It’s also somewhat of a return for the third sister in the movie, Jenny Cooper, who’s also a Canadian artist based in the U.S. The actor, producer and screenwriter — who, in fact, wrote I Think I Do — has fond memories of landing her first TV job in Edmonton on Canwest Global’s Jake and the Kid more than 15 years ago. The television series was set in a fictional prairie town in Saskatchewan in the 1950s, based on a collection of short stories by W. O. Mitchell.
And, so, Cooper has come full circle, opening a momentous chapter, with her first produced screenplay, in the place where her story began. “This project has been in development for quite some time, and is sort of my original baby,” Cooper says, looking toward her toddler-son playing with the chorus books in the church pew. “So, I feel like I’m having triplets,” she says, pointing to her baby-bump, “with twins, and now the movie-baby, too.”
But teaching this baby to walk was a combined effort.
The script took Cooper eight years to write, not counting the time spent searching for the right director. She found him four years ago in Ontario, after starring in 27 year-old Dylan Pearce’s award-winning feature debut, Baby Blues. Several years before that, the Ontario filmmaker got a flavour for Alberta while enrolled in Red Deer College’s Motion Picture Arts program, though his film school studies came second to his pursuit of an Alberta girl, Ashlee Leible, who is now his fiancée, and is in fact a wedding planner herself. (That was extra useful for I Think I Do, as she helped design the wedding scenes.)
Edmonton as a potential candidate for the feature didn’t occur to him until he moved here from Windsor in 2009. By the time it was green-lighted, scouting locations around the city was quite easy. When he was looking for an urban yet lived-in event-planning office for the main characters, he naturally gravitated toward the Armstrong heritage building on 104th Street, home to interior design store, 29 Armstrong, and bakeshop, Dauphine. “It was the brick,” says Pearce. “I really wanted this certain feel for where the three sisters worked. I wanted a rustic kind of look to it.”
The location also made it easy to host the cast and crew. Pearce encouraged everyone on set to explore the city’s new food culture, at places like Il Pasticcio, the Creperie, Corso 32 and Blue Plate Diner, while production assistants made daily runs to Transcend and Credo Coffee with a long list of orders in hand.
But securing the locations was the easy part. Like most Canadian films, the money for I Think I Do came from varied public and private funds — Lifetime TV, Corus Entertainment, federal and provincial tax credits and government grants. The most surprising production paycheck came from the film’s international presales, a rarity for televised film, says Pearce.
Of course, when those international audiences see the movie, it will be a much different viewing experience than locals’.
The characters in I Think I Do never formally acknowledge the city on-screen. Instead, Edmonton is an adaptable, anonymous metropolis, one that could, in fact, exist anywhere. But who can resist that great feeling, like seeing your child on stage?
Spot the Locals
When you watch I Think I Do this month, look for local landmarks including the Old Scona Academic High School, The Bower (formerly Halo Lounge), High Level Bridge streetcar, Holy Trinity Anglican Church and the Trans Alta Arts Barns.
There’s plenty of props from local stores, too. For example, Bridal Debut in Sherwood Park rented the wedding dress worn by Mia Kirshner (another poufy, though this time elegant number by Australian designer Maggie Sottero, not Canada Goose she bundled up in between takes). Colleen Bryant, a Kelowna-based wardrobe and set supervisor who worked on the first and second Blade movies, scoured original pieces from independent boutiques C'est Sera, Groove Stone and Derks, and, of course, utilized the retail goldmine that is West Edmonton Mall.
And, Avenue magazine also makes a cameo too. Look for it in Canning’s character’s apartment, though don’t expect to see the May 2010 issue, which featured her on the cover.
Kirshner on Style
Kirshner describes her on-set wardrobe as “good girl,” “pretty” and “conservative.” How does it compare to her natural appearance? “My character’s style is radically different from how I dress in real life,” she says.
“I’m sort of going through a French new-wave, but simple '60s-androgynous style. I love the idea of wearing a black pair of pleated pants with a white T-shirt that’s beat up, and really cool jewellery,” she says. “I love Isabel Marant and Celine, but I also love vintage stores.”