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ARTS: Annex is still film set central (Feb. 2021)

March 5th, 2021 · No Comments

Strict COVID-19 protocols being followed

Rebecca Breeds, as the heroic Clarice Starling, and her fellow FBI Agents after catching a killer on Walmer Road in the TV series Clarice. COURTESY MGM TELEVISION AND CBS STUDIOS

By Nicole Stoffman

Our beloved Annex stood in for Baltimore when the CBS/MGM TV pilot Clarice took over Walmer Road for three days in October. 

Nineties-era Baltimore Police cars, two ambulances, and news trucks labeled “Evening News/Channel 6,” “Breaking News Live Nightly!/Channel 12,” and “News at 5,” lined the street. A location production assistant gingerly sprayed all the vehicles with water because, “everything looks better wet.”

As curious Annexonians looked on, an army of KN95 and surgical double-mask-wearing crew members crafted the following scene: 

FBI agent Clarice Starling has just intercepted an attempted murder at 100 “Somersby St.” The victim, an intrepid journalist investigating a murderous conspiracy implicating Big Pharma, is then wheeled out on a stretcher into the twinkling, leafy street, as Starling faces a barrage of journalists who demand to know if the serial murderer has been caught. 

Will Starling reveal they only caught a hired assassin that night, and the real villain is corporate greed? You’ll have to tune in the first episode, The Silence is Over on CBS All Access or GlobalTV.com to find out. 

Starring Australian actress Rebecca Breeds (Pretty Little Liars, The Originals) the Clarice series focuses on the bravery and psychology of the title character, originally played by Jodie Foster in the 1991 Academy award-winning film Silence of the Lambs. This year marks the films’ 30th anniversary.

“The overarching story is Clarice and her ability to go into her internal dark space, look at who and why these murders where committed, see outside the facts,” said line producer and longtime Annex resident, Paula Devonshire. “The heart of the story is her connecting with these women and taking these deaths to heart and making it her mission to find justice for them.” 

Producer Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek: Discovery, Hawaii Five-0) told the Hollywood Reporter that he considers Clarice one of the great heroines of recent film history, a woman working in a man’s world, and succeeding against all odds. “It’s very much Clarice’s time,” he said. 

The production team looked far and wide before director Maja Vrvilo (Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, Magnm P.I.) fell in love with 100 Walmer Rd. Devonshire notes that the Annex, with its small streets, and residents who aren’t fond of losing their parking, poses a challenge for film crews. The film company is responsible for finding suitable parking alternatives.

Location manager Malcolm McCulloch had to go door to door, lobbying residents to allow the back to back overnight shoots, which went off without a hitch. 

“They were filming all night, but I slept right through it,” said Arthur Ripstein, whose house is attached to the interior location where the gruesome attempted murder scene unfolded.

The Toronto film and television industry spent a record-breaking 2.2 billion in 2019, and is off to an extremely strong start in 2021, according to the Film and Entertainment Industries unit of Economic Development & Culture, at the City of Toronto. 

Despite shutting down between May and June due to the pandemic, the industry came roaring back in July. There have been 23 productions shooting in Toronto since October. 

It is a welcome source of revenue to shuttered event venues and empty office buildings, whose employees are now working from home. Clarice, for example, shot at Casa Loma, and the Canada Life building, normally a working office building off limits to film crews, said Devonshire.

The screen industry also employs over 30,000 Torontonians. The Annex is always been a particularly creative neighbourhood, with University-Rosedale being home to 2,500 screen industry workers. 

In recognition of the disruption they cause, film crews who come to the Annex typically make a generous donation to the Annex Residents’ Association. This year, the ARA donated $1,000 from Precious Productions, the company shooting the Clarice series, to the Avenue Road Food Bank. 

“I am very much supportive of allowing film companies to film in the Annex,” said former ARA Treasurer, Louis Florence.

But despite the many benefits the industry continues to bring even in an emergency lockdown (actors only unmask for takes in the presence of a skeleton crew), Clarice could not return to the Annex for Episode 3, due to the objections of a few residents. 

As a screen industry location, the Annex is prized for its historical homes and its open green spaces. “This is a popular look for commercials that include walk and talk scenes and require a well-established and lively neighbourhood backdrop,” the spokesperson from the Film and Entertainment Industries unit of Economic Development & Culture at the City of Toronto told the Gleaner in an email. 

Current and recent high profile television series that have shot in the Annex include; Suits, Designated Survivor, Taken, In the Dark, Locke and Key, and Workin’ Moms.“I did a series a few years ago called People of Earth and we shot down at Clinton’s,” recalls Devonshire, who exemplifies the abundant creativity in our neighbourhood. 

A member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nation, Devonshire’s own production company, Devonshire Productions, is gearing up to shoot the feature film Stellar, this summer. The film tells the poetic story of a man and a woman “connecting through their hesitancy to touch,” set against Indigenous symbolism rooted in the geology of Sudbury. 

Her 2017 feature film Indian Horse, a film adaptation of the novel by Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese, won 19 film festival awards. It tells the story of a residential school survivor turned professional hockey player, who must eventually confront his traumatic past through traditional healing. 

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