George C. Scott in The Changeling, 1980. Photo © Associated Film Distribution, courtesy of Everett Collection.

The Horror Classic That Ushered In a New Era in B.C. Filmmaking

Asked to name his favourite horror movies, Martin Scorsese chose classics like Psycho and The Shining, but also a lesser-known 1980 film called The Changeling. Shot in Vancouver, directed by Peter Medak, and starring Oscar-winner George C. Scott, The Changeling helped usher in a new period of Hollywood filmmaking using British Columbia locations. The story of the Genie Award-winning film is also the story of how Vancouver became Hollywood North.

In The Changeling, Scott plays John Russell, a famous New York composer whose wife and child are killed in a traffic accident in upstate New York. Grief-stricken, Russell relocates to Seattle, where he rents an old manor house from Claire Norman, a woman who works for a historical society (played by Trish Van Devere, Scott’s wife and frequent co-star). At first Russell thinks the noises he hears are the pipes, but soon he suspects they have a supernatural origin. A seance involving a psychic (Helen Burns) confirms that the house is haunted by the ghost of a child. Russell digs into the mystery of what happened in the house and how it connects to wealthy Senator Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas). When Russell confronts the senator with the truth—that Carmichael’s father murdered his own son, and that Carmichael is an orphan (or “changeling”) who replaced the dead boy—the ghost takes its revenge.

What made this moment in film groundbreaking wasn’t death, however⁠—it was taxes. In 1974, Canada’s tax code was altered to allow foreign producers to deduct all investment in Canadian films from their taxable income. This resulted in the “tax shelter era,” when feature film production in Canada increased from three films in 1974 to a peak of 77 in 1979, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia. While Ontario and Quebec were the chief beneficiaries, in the late ’70s, B.C.’s Social Credit government offered incentives to foreign productions as well. In 1978 and ’79, nine films were shot in B.C., including Bear Island, Klondike Fever, and The Changeling, which was produced by film exhibitor and Cineplex Odeon co-founder Garth Drabinsky, along with future Stargate producer Joel B. Michaels.

The Changeling’s screenplay is credited to William Gray and Diana Maddox, though the story was based on events that musician Russell Hunter claimed happened to him when he rented a house in Denver, Colorado. Hunter allegedly heard a series of strange banging noises, discovered a hidden bedroom in the house along with a child’s journal, and, during a seance, learned the truth behind the terrible crime. The screenplay moved the setting to Seattle. Peter Medak was the third director attached to the film. “I read the script and it petrified me,” Medak recalled in an interview in 2018. The Changeling began shooting in December 1978.

Establishing shots were filmed in New York, a few scenes were shot in Seattle, and Victoria’s Hatley Castle stood in for Senator Carmichael’s mansion, but the majority of filming took place in Vancouver. Gastown’s Hotel Europe served as the historical society’s office: Russell and Norman share a key scene on the flatiron building’s terrace. An access road around Cypress Bowl stood in for the highway in upstate New York where the accident kills Russell’s wife and child (Jean Marsh and Michelle Martin). In a particularly haunting scene, Russell throws a rubber ball belonging to his daughter off the Granville Bridge, only for it to menacingly bounce down the staircase of the house the moment he returns. Robson Square, Vancouver International Airport, and a waterfront house in West Vancouver also make appearances.

Two Vancouver celebrities appear briefly in the film. Russell and Norman attend a concert at the Orpheum Theatre, which includes footage of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kazuyoshi Akiyama, the VSO’s Music Director from 1972 to 1985. Akiyama garnered numerous accolades during his career, including the title of Conductor Laureate from the Vancouver Symphony and the Emperor’s Purple Ribbon Medal from the Japanese government. Later in the film, when Russell ambushes Carmichael as the senator boards a private plane, he’s held back by a security guard played by broadcaster Fred Latremouille. Before beginning a five-decade career as a morning DJ for CFUN and KISS FM, Latremouille was a host of the CBC television show Let’s Go! Both Latremouille and Akiyama have stars on the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame’s StarWalk.

As for The Changeling’s haunted house, it never existed. Art director Reuben Freed claimed the design team “looked for an exterior we could possibly use without too much alteration and we didn’t find anything that had the gothic quality we wanted.” The exterior was built on the lot of an existing home in the Oakridge neighborhood. Care was taken to construct a facade with working lights and doors, to create the illusion of depth, with overgrown shrubs dotting the yard. “We brought in a lot of greenery to create the ambiance,” Freed says. The interiors were filmed at Panorama Studios in West Vancouver, the crew matching the interior to the exterior of the house to create what Freed calls “the feeling of a decayed antique.” For the film’s climax, the exterior of the house was burned down.

At the 1980 Genie Awards (later renamed the Canadian Screen Awards), The Changeling swept most of the top categories, including motion picture, performance by a foreign actor and actress (for Scott and Van Devere, respectively), cinematography, art direction/production design, sound, sound editing, and adapted screenplay. The film brought in roughly $12 million (U.S.), making a tidy profit on its $6.6 million budget. Critical opinion was positive yet reserved: Roger Ebert praised the film’s atmosphere and craft but took issue with Scott’s “declining to indulge the tradition of overacting in ghost movies.” Others saw Scott’s subdued realism as a strength: on an episode of The Video Archives Podcast, Quentin Tarantino cited Scott’s performance as “one of the most powerful demonstrations of mourning and pain that I’ve ever seen in a movie.”

In the book Dreaming in the Rain: How Vancouver Became Hollywood North by Northwest, David Spaner calls The Changeling “the best known of the made-in-Vancouver films produced as a result of the tax shelter initiative.” While that tax incentive was later removed, Spaner credits the film with ushering in the age of Vancouver playing cities other than itself: “Hollywood cameras depicting Vancouver landmarks as places elsewhere would become annoyingly commonplace as the service industry grew.” The Changeling, in a way, marks the transition between the “tax shelter era” and the era of Hollywood North. Fitting that a film about one person substituting for another would help build an industry in which Vancouver stands in for the rest of the world.

Read more stories about the arts.


Post Date:

October 30, 2023