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five years

it's a beautiful day in the neighbourhood...
one of the really fun things about shooting conversion was the fact that we got to make our beloved city of montreal a sort of omnipresent background character in the film. we selected locations that showed the montreal we know and love- full of hot lighting, gaudy street painting and decrepit but picturesque byways. one thing that i did not think of at the time, however, was that we were actually recording bits of montreal history. however, all cities are in a constant state of flux and while the best known areas tend to remain in place, those that really show off the glory of urban grit tend to be swept aside by the giant backhand of progress.

i'm not saying that to argue against progress. during one of our longest shoots, our lead actor paul ash ended up with a hypodermic needle embedded in his boot courtesy of one of the montreal areas less frequented by tourists. some of our background shots were taken in areas where i didn't even feel comfortable leaving the car unattended. at the same time, there is always something lost when a city "progresses". i'm not just talking about the dangers of gentrification, either, but rather the unique character, art and history that is paved over to make something cleaner, more modern and possibly better.

i was reminded of this today when i heard about the closing of the notre dame de grâce institution, d.a.d.'s bagels. d.a.d.'s doesn't make a direct appearance in the film, however, during long nights shooting in the neighbourhood, we were constantly taking advantage of their cheap and delicious food, both the eponymous bagels and their delicious homemade indian food. since they were open at all hours, they were a godsend to a team of guerilla filmmakers working through the late summer nights.

:-(
sadly, d.a.d.'s, a family-owned enterprise with a devout following, has been forced to close [today] because their landlord refused to renew their lease. instead, the space has been let to d.a.d.'s next door neighbour, dollarama, who are willing to pay top dollar to secure the adjacent property for an expansion. and so a local business once again falls to a larger corporation [albeit one with montreal roots, although none of their products are manufactured here] and both the city and the neighbourhood lose something distinctive [seriously, where are you going to get your jewish and indian cravings satisfied now without going to two separate locations?] in favour of something streamlined, something which is the same no matter where you encounter it.

notre dame de grâce is a great neighbourhood. there is a distinctive community feel to the place, reflected in many small, unique businesses. it probably has the most vibrant mix of cultures of anywhere in the city and is among the most densely populated. it is also remarkable for its lush, verdant streets [see photo of a typical street above], something which is not particularly common in montreal. it has sections that are quite posh and others that are rough, but all of them seem to coexist fairly easily. but ndg is also a neighbourhood in transition. a mammoth hospital being constructed in its southern extremity has resulted in a building boom and its shabbier side is being clearcut in order to make room for the usual mix of modern office space and shiny new condos for young professionals.

so i thought i would take give you a look at a couple of the locations where we shot and what's become of them since.



first up, let's take a look at the corner of oxford and de maisonneuve. five years ago, this was the intersection of a slightly rough stretch [along de maisonneuve] populated mostly by auto-body shops and small warehouse spaces. however on the perpendicular streets [like oxford] there were brick townhouses with cute yards and pleasant front porches. there was even a daycare adjacent to where we were shooting. on the corner, there was a soup kitchen [since forced to move on] which had a "free wall" where graffiti artists could practice their craft. it was an absolutely phenomenal space for us, since the wild and beautiful graffiti provided the surrealist backdrop we wanted. we used this location for a couple of shoots, because one of the office/ warehouse spaces was occupied by cinepool, who generously furnished us with lighting and other equipment.

the alley directly behind the building was where we staged our "garbage hunt" scene and where i thought i'd broken my ankle. i'm lucky that that particular alley was one of the cleaner ones that we encountered.


this was also where we shot our "bus stop" scene. to be clear, there is no bus stop at this location. this was just an ingenious piece of set decoration by our director of photography. [true trivia: if you zoom in on the numbers of the buses that "stop" there, they form his birth date.] but that insanely beautiful mural on the wall was created by an artist who likely has no idea that his or her work was captured for posterity.



in fact, the changeover on one of the walls there was so rapid that we were able to use the location as an inserted shot late in the film- the art was completely different. 

and here's what that corner looks like today:

i can see for miles...
the going rate to live in conversion history
that first photo is taken at close to the same angle as the shot of us sitting at the bus stop. the whole bunch of buildings around which we were filming is gone, leveled to make room for condominiums. 

similarly, there is the location where we shot the entrance of the walk-in clinic. this location was the entrance to nothing. it was an l-shaped alley off the corner of sherbrooke street and prud'homme. it wasn't even close to the location where we actually filmed the scene in the clinic. [which was itself a glorified alcove in the basement of an office building. behold the magic of cinema.] but it did give us that great, slightly degenerate vibe. [and yes, the "my boss sucks" tag was completely, but fortuitously, coincidental. behold the magic of life.]



and we did dress it up a little...

one 11x17 piece of paper with a caduceus between green lights
let's face it, this place was never going to win any beauty contests, but it was the sort of seedy little corner where some misfits could set up and shoot a movie without reprisals. it's nice for a city to have those sorts of places.

and now?

tah-dah!

this is sort of the location. i say sort of, because that building is sitting right on top of the alley where we shot. the surrounding buildings were leveled and this shiny new block of office and living space smacked on top of it. [i really hope that they cleaned out the syringes beforehand.]

one "side" of the alley [the bottom of the "l"] is still there, in some sense. 

facing prud'homme street, looking east
same alley, facing west from prud'homme
in that second picture, you can see all the way to the decarie expressway. the alley where we shot was located approximately where you now see the entrance to the parking garage. the buildings that stood behind it [and shielded us from the roar of the expressway] are long gone.

of course, sometimes change is a more subtle thing, a thing that just shows how a city is in constant motion, like a body of water. to whit:


then
now
those don't look so different now, do they? this tunnel that runs underneath the train tracks alongside de maisonneuve isn't likely to be destroyed anytime soon, but that doesn't mean it isn't different. when we were shooting there, a couple of teenagers happened upon us setting up and- with our encouragement- left us a signature graffito [betcha didn't know there was a singular form of graffiti!]. now, of course, it's long gone- painted over and replaced with other, different graffiti, probably several times over. the past is there, buried under the paint, but it's not like anyone is going to excavate is and preserve it in a museum. the only evidence of its existence is a few seconds of footage as the camera rolls by it.

there are other changes, of course, along with spaces that haven't changed and others that never really existed in the first place [that's another story]. and i want to make it clear that i'm not passing judgment on a city's progression. i think that it sucks to see local businesses like d.a.d.'s get pushed out for larger companies willing to pay higher rent. and it really sucks that the creation of a brand new hospital should cause a food bank to be evicted so that developers can cash in. but building a spiffy new hospital is not exactly a bad idea. building new condo developments, as much as we might like to mock them, encourages people to live in the city rather than out in the suburbs, something which can only improve urban life.

what strikes me is that i'm incredibly happy to have- however accidentally- played a role in documenting some of the "unremarkable" areas in the neighbourhood that would otherwise have been lost.

if you'd like to see these and other glimpses of montreal as it was just a few years ago, you can stream or download conversion here.

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