Calgary’s established, inner-city communities shine on screen
It has posed as part of the brutal, snow-covered plains of Minnesota, the demon-riddled streets of Purgatory, and the hospital corridors of a ranching saga.
Fargo, Wynonna Earp and Heartland have all filmed in one of Calgary’s oldest neighbourhoods: Bridgeland. The community’s quaint main thoroughfare and surrounding streetscapes can reflect different eras and different small towns, says Ali McMillan, Bridgeland-Riverside Community Association planning director.
Meanwhile, nearby Inglewood, with its historic buildings and businesses along Ninth Ave S.E., has recently served as the barrio home of a vigilante crime-fighter in El Chicano – a movie expected at the Cannes Film Festival this season – its bars and restaurants have been the backdrop of award-winning FX series Fargo, and an empty lot became Christmas tree central in a major North American insurance commercial.
“For Fargo, we had that similar feel to the town we were replicating,” said Rebecca O’Brien, executive director of the Inglewood Business Improvement Area. “(It’s) funky and edgy. It was that prairie, northwestern feeling, with older, red-brick, historic buildings.”
While southern Alberta’s scenery is an obvious filming draw, Calgary’s older, core neighbourhoods, including Inglewood, Bridgeland, Bowness, and Ogden, are consistently used as film production sites in an industry that contributed $178 million to the region’s economy last year.
So, what makes these neighbourhoods so film friendly?
Tom Cox, managing partner for Seven24 Films, which produces both CBC’s family drama Heartland and SyFy’s supernatural western Wynonna Earp, says film companies “go where the stories lead us.”
For example, Heartland’s season 10 hospital scenes, which were logistically impossible to shoot in a real hospital, were filmed in a vacant Carewest building in Bridgeland that also served as an indoor set for Fargo.
Cox says communities like Inglewood and Bridgeland, with “nice-looking, interesting architecture,” can represent many small towns in North America, while also being friendly, logistics-wise.
“You go there and they have the right look for the story, with you maybe only having to change or hide some signage,” he said. As Calgary film commissioner Luke Azevedo puts it, these communities offer a lot of different looks, for a lot of different genres (from Westerns to science fiction), in a short period of time.
“They can move one street over and get a completely different look from the first street,” he said.
The film commission’s role includes helping with location scouting and supporting permit acquisition for everything from street closures, equipment transportation and logistics, to noise exemptions.
Azevedo says while movies and TV series get the most attention, commercials bring significant revenue and focus for site locations.
Most recently, a national Jeep commercial was filmed in Bridgeland with the downtown skyline in the background. McMillan watched as trucks of snow were delivered to First Avenue N.E., only to be trucked out the same day after the shoot was finished.
Filming brings obvious economic benefits to the area – businesses and homes are paid for their use, crews and actors drop into local coffee shops and restaurants – but the greater benefit may be neighbourhood bragging rights and tourism.
McMillan says being a filming site “celebrates our pride in, and the quirkiness of, our neighbourhood.” And that includes being able to spot popular Bridgeland Market as the backdrop of a Fargo scene featuring Billy Bob Thornton.
O’Brien recalls watching the action unfold from her office window while Fargo crews filmed at Inglewood Pizza, until a loudspeaker voice asked if she would mind stepping back. “I was almost in the shot!” she said.
She often overhears tourists strolling through Inglewood as they recognize shooting locations from Fargo. Those relationships with neighbourhoods are important, says Cox.
“We always try to keep the inconvenience to a minimum” he said. “We don’t want to wear out our welcome. I think the neighbourhoods are proud to participate, and hopefully will want us back.”