The Anywhere City: Why Vancouver is Never Vancouver

Vancouver never plays itself. You hear that phrase a lot when you live in the Lower Mainland, an unofficial stretch of land in BC which reaches from Hope to the edge of the US border. We are also called Hollywood North, or Hollywood of the North, as we hold some of the largest production facilities in Canada, with the exception of Toronto. But unlike Toronto, which has been actively featured in films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) and Turning Red (2022), Vancouver is rarely Vancouver in these films. At best, it’s a vague city that is neither Canadian nor American, so you can imagine that it’s either. Most times its American though, and projects often go out of their way to inform the viewer of this. You’ll see a Vancouver city line but with a few American flags thrown in. Or the characters will mention in vague exposition what city they’re in, usually New York or Portland. Sometimes they’ll just cut away to areal footage of one of these places before cutting back to characters who are clearly just at Main Street.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw Vancouver in a production that didn’t immediately try to redefine it as somewhere else. And Vancouver appears in every kind of production, from extreme sci-fi Godzilla (2014) and I, Robot (2004) –  to fairy taleThe NeverEnding Story (1984) and Once Upon a Time (2011-2018) – superheroDeadpool (2016 and 2017)and dramaJuno (2007). You get used to it when you live here, because odds are you will either stumble across an ad or show from your neighborhood or will actually stumble into a film set. I used to attend UBC, and so I’ve seen firsthand the way in which the university gets framed, literally. I most recently saw it in The Adam Project (2022), which takes place in possibly Seattle, along different timelines. At least there UBC was still a school. While it’s appeared in multiple Supernatural episodes as such, it’s also been used as several other things. I remember one notable day where a bunch of actors dressed as Nazis and WWII Allies appeared on campus with zero warning to the student body, and were just wandering around, which was alarming. The worst was when a site went up along your class route, and so you would have to suddenly reroute or be late for class. I once had to sprint past a choregraphed dance number so I wouldn’t miss my History lecture. It sort felt like they were taunting me. These productions were always exciting, even though the school was never supposed to be your school, and the production was never interested in Vancouver’s story. It’s not meant to be hurtful; you get used to it.

What is it about Vancouver?

Why Vancouver? We are the ideal climate, we are close to the border, tax incentives, and there are multiple terrains within driving distance. I often joke that Vancouver is the best place to live, excluding the insane house market, rental world, and several other ongoing crises, because you can drive and visit whatever climate you like. The valley gets extremely hot and dry in patches, Whistler is only a few hours away, so you can visit snow and then come home. Our forests are expansive, and some parks allow horse riding, so next time you see people riding horses through a forest in a film, it’s probably us. The constant rain is probably the only weather downside to living here, but it keeps the tourists away. These are all surface details, of course, what Vancouver prides itself on, rather than the darker details underlying those states.

People often suggest that Vancouver is just so nondescript that it can be anything, but that inadvertently also suggests that Vancouver isn’t anything on its own. I’ll admit, Vancouver is varied, even by block, but that shouldn’t mean that it’s nondescript, rather the opposite. Sure, the architecture is assorted and could be any location around the world, but Vancouver is also home to countless identities, cultures, and stories, and to condense that into a single frame in a story that isn’t interested in those perspectives is a disservice. My experience with Vancouver will be radically different from another person who grew up even in the house next to me, or my own building. There are so many important and even difficult stories about these parts, varied ones which should have just as much opportunity to be told.

Vancouver has an amazing film industry, we are one of the largest production cities in North America, filled with incredible individuals and teams who are creating profound stories. That much is certain. I am interested, however, in why Vancouver isn’t itself in media. It’s cast and crew is often largely Canadian, and so these projects are inadvertently about Vancouver, but why not directly? I’ve heard every kind of suggestion, and it mostly comes down the fact that Vancouver isn’t Canadian enough to play Canada, because most American viewers assume Canada is somewhat uniform, when in fact, each province is drastically different. I just went with that for a long time, I was content that productions were even happening here and didn’t think too much about what that meant for Vancouver representation, let alone identity. Then I watched this video essay around 2017, and later went to a talk hosted by the creators Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou. It got me thinking about Vancouver, and what representation would mean, what hearing stories of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland in an open capacity could do. Again, there are Vancouver based storytellers, and Canadian content, they just don’t receive nearly enough attention and funds. I highly recommend checking out the video, as in addition to being perceptive, it makes the point that Vancouver is a location, not a setting, and so it has played everywhere but Vancouver, and that includes playing Vancouver Washington, which is just infuriating.

Assumption and Identity

There are some broad assumptions about Vancouver, like it’s a version of Portland, that it’s the more liberal province, that it’s weed obsessed, that it can play anything, and these might be true in some ways, but like any city, there is more. Seeing the reception to Domee Shi’s Turning Red makes that abundantly clear, as anytime I went online, I heard people from Toronto talking about how much the film meant to them, how special it felt to meet characters who came from the same place they did, and to actually see real locations, even in-jokes, in the film. Right before I watched Turning Red, I rewatched Always Be My Maybe (2019), which is another fantastic film, and was filmed largely in Vancouver. As I watched, I saw the two leads pass through Commercial Drive, the area I grew up in, in fact, they were only a few blocks away from my childhood home. I had to pause the film and get my Mom, because it was so funny to see that area, albeit as a character playing San Francisco. It was weird at the same time though, as at one point they wandered past Joe’s Café Bar, which has this large mural of a cappuccino cup and rainbow, but what felt strange was that this mural has a huge backstory that only someone from the Drive would know, namely what is underneath and why it was created in the first place. Here, it was just a feature, a spot of colour for the shot, which is fine, but there was this whole other story happening inside the film that neither the film nor its creators intentionally included but was foundational to that area. To see it as San Francisco felt odd because that story was there but wasn’t.

I am not trying to suggest that Vancouver can’t play other places, obviously it can and should. I am still genuinely excited to just see my hometown in media, and it’s fun to witness how many places it can become while still being Vancouver. I am also a filmmaker and will most likely be filming in Vancouver for projects that don’t take place in Vancouver, nor have to. There is a massive film community that is creating relevant and significant media, for Canadian, American, and other international productions here. My point is that Vancouver should get to play itself occasionally, or at least have the opportunity to, especially in a film which doesn’t need to take place in the US, but for some reason does. Why is that? Does being Canadian change the story? Does it make someone uncomfortable? Is it just that the target is American, and there is a worry that a Canadian story might not resonate? I am mainly addressing media here where the plots aren’t about any specific place, but rather than having it stay in Vancouver, a random background shot will include a US flag, which ultimately does nothing to the plot other than establish that it isn’t taking place in Vancouver. Sometimes the flagpole has very clearly been added to a building because it’s cleaner than anything else in the shot. It’s just there, never addressed, but hard to deny.

I think being Canadian does change the story, not necessarily in a grand way, especially if it’s one of those vague but probably in the US stories, but certainly in some ways. Canadian identity, Vancouver identity, is varied and complex, so to boil that identity down into a uniform image is inaccurate and a disservice. To find a story about Vancouver, even if it’s an entirely different perspective than your own, is crucial to understanding this place, especially if you live here. I’ve only recently begun to realize how little I know about Vancouver, even though, I see it anytime I turn on my TV. I did a ghost tour in Gastown this past October and learned this whole history about the city and province I had lived in my whole life, a history that was never addressed in my schooling. I remembered bits of it from the Storyeum museum we once had in Gastown, where actors would re-enact Canadian events, but that place closed in 2006. I can’t speak for other BC students, or even other Canadian, but there is a tendency to focus on other places, especially American, rather than the very place you currently live, and in doing so, whole systems that are still operating never get addressed. For instance, in my entire high school education, we spent half a year on Canadian history. That’s it. Our media is somewhat reflective of that.

Witnessing Stories

I just finished reading Eden Robinson’s Blood Sports (2006), a modern version of Hansel and Gretel, which occurs around Commercial Drive and Hastings. Notably, the text takes place in 1998, the very year I was growing up in that exact area, which I didn’t realize would move me in such a strong way. The book often focuses on documentation, from describing video tapes to just talking about what the neighborhood looks and feels like. It’s protagonist, Tom, is trying to raise his young daughter while also dealing with his violent past, but he often frames this story as though he is trying to teach his daughter. Helping her understand what her childhood is like, why he acted in certain ways, and what it felt like to endure these things. The book reminded me of what it was like to grow up in this area, the good and bad. It mentions businesses, people even, who I encountered on a regular basis. Like the Hare Krishna group that would chant their way up the street, or Commercial’s mix of Hippie and Italian businesses, those which are slowly disappearing because of high rent. While Commercial was one of the cheaper places to live when I was a kid, I don’t know anyone who currently lives there, nor could afford to. I’ve recently been writing for Bored in Vancouver, and just wrote about the closure of one of my favourite video rental stores on the drive, Black Dog Video, which is closing both because of streaming and high rent.

I want to emphasize here, Vancouver stories are being told, stories like Blood Sports and Robinson’s other work, along with so many other authors and creators, but they aren’t being given the same funds and global attention as a story about LA or New York, not to suggest that films are ever strictly accurate to those places. That’s true of many filming locations I am sure, but my issue here is that Vancouver is so often used to tell stories, but rarely given the opportunity to tell its own. Robinson’s novel Son of a Trickster (2017), which takes place in Kitimat BC, was adapted into a fantastic CBC television show called Trickster (2020), but that was canceled after one season amid some controversy. That said, I think things are changing, potentially, and I recognize that this is a deeply complex issue, more so than I can really describe here. It’s also not just an American discussion, as Vancouver is different than the rest of Canada, and so what is a BC story might not resonate with someone from Ontario, for instance. I just hope that these stories get the wider distribution they so rightly deserve, it’s something I want to be a part of. It feels special to hear a story from where you are from, not just a news report, but an actual story. Vancouver can be anything, so why can’t it also be itself?