Toronto Is Hollywood's Go-To City for That Real New York Feel

On a gray December day, Peter Cullingford walks through his lot of "picture cars," or vehicles used on movie sets.
On a gray December day, Peter Cullingford walks through his lot of "picture cars," or vehicles used on movie sets.
Katie Toth for the Village Voice

Growing up, Peter Cullingford never figured on someday owning a fleet of NYPD-labeled Crown Victorias, a New York Department of Corrections vehicle, and an MTA bus. He definitely didn't expect to be holding on to the sad carcass of a yellow cab destroyed by a fire.

But when Hollywood calls, as it often does, asking him to make Toronto, Ontario, look like New York City, he needs every resource at his disposal. See also: Things Torontonian Hip-Hop Artist Drake Is Disgusted By: A List

Cullingford is the man behind Picture Vehicle Specialties, which owns about 180 vehicles that production companies rent out for film and television sets. And it's not all New York–centric, either. He's added some international flair to his fleet with European scooters and an old East German Trabant sedan. He also has futuristic sci-fi cars, as well as a row of frequently used military vehicles, available to any production crew looking to blow things up. But he says his most popular requests are for vehicles that will make this Canadian city look like the Big Apple.

How does one end up in this line of work?

It started in 2007, when Cullingford was trying to decide what to do with his Mercedes Unimog, a giant truck he'd once used to road-trip through Europe. A friend in the film industry tipped him off that the producers of the film The Incredible Hulk — which was to be set in New York but was actually filming in Toronto — were looking to rent cars like his to give their set the right look. "[I thought], let's see if it can pay for itself," he says. "I didn't know what kind of money they paid."

It was enough money that, when the film finished shooting and offered to sell Cullingford some of the extra Hummers from the set, he "took a leap." Cullingford's fleet grew as more film crews rented his cars and offered to sell their own vehicles back to him once production wrapped.

American movies and TV shows are famously shot in Toronto because, as Ontario Film Commissioner Donna Zuchlinski puts it, "Ontario has the ability to be a bit of a chameleon." With a film industry that employs more than 25,000 people, Toronto is the third largest "screen-based production center" in North America, behind New York and Los Angeles, according to the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists.

But Toronto isn't looking to serve as a permanent New York body double. In fact, Zuchlinski says, calls for her city to portray NYC don't come as often as they once did. "The productions where Toronto is doubling for New York are not that many anymore," she says. "It used to be. But over the last few years, that has changed. It's a wide swath of places that we double for."

In fact, one of the locations Toronto has begun playing more often is...itself. The film industry in Ontario brought nearly 1.15 billion Canadian dollars into the province in 2013. But only $372 million came from American and other foreign productions.

That said, New York City is still the metropolis that puts the Toronto film industry on the map, if you ask Cullingford. "New York is the most popular, then Washington, then Toronto," he says.

So what's the secret to giving Toronto that true New York grit? The first step is to remove any semblance of Toronto — like streetcar stops or Canadian banks — that could muddy a shot. Production designers can usually take care of that with a strategically placed MTA bus or a made-in-Toronto NYPD command truck. "We call it a 'blocker,' " says Cullingford.

Next, crews fill the streets with all kinds of junk — the sort of bric-a-brac, preferably, that looks as though it should have been replaced years ago: a broken payphone, a rusty mesh garbage can. Some set designers bring props with them up from New York. Others scour warehouses for the old, the decrepit, and the dirty. It's these accoutrements, according to the Canadian magazine Toronto Life, that make the Fake Apple seem real.

But perhaps the real key to giving Toronto a true New York feel is flooding the streets with yellow cabs. New York taxis, repainted to look like they're in mint condition, dot Cullingford's lot. When the details come together (he keeps boxes of the ubiquitous cab-topping advertisements that we tend to overlook), they all serve to convince audiences that his vehicles are cruising under an authentic New York City skyline. That is, as long as those audiences don't look too closely.

"There are about ten taxicabs for every regular car," explains Cullingford. "We just loop them around the block over and over. Sometimes you'll see the same number going by again.

"Hopefully you won't notice."

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