Ontario on Film: Millbrook
This article is the second of the four-part series Ontario on Film written by Dave Dyment. To read the first article Substitute City click here. Upcoming articles include Kingston and Oshawa.
By Dave Dyment
David Cronenberg’s acclaimed film A History of Violence takes place in the fictional town of Millbrook, Indiana, but was filmed in Millbrook, Ontario. The 2005 film stars Cronenberg regular Viggo Mortensen as the owner of a small-town diner who deftly thwarts a robbery and draws unwanted attention to his past in the process.
Millbrook has considerable experience portraying small town America. Cronenberg describes his desire for a location that would evoke the 1940’s, the type of “perfect little town” that might feature in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. “This town is maybe too perfect,” he said, “and that’s part of the playing with the mythology of Americana, the America that America itself wants to believe”.
The director wanted to include Millbrook’s post office building in the film, despite its prominent clock (which had been broken for a decade) and town name on the exterior. He ignored the first problem, and ended up borrowing the Canadian town’s name for its fictional American counterpart. The below scene features a blue American style mailbox, a common prop used to transform Canadian locations into generic American towns.
The exterior of the diner was filmed at 34 King Street, the main road in town. “That street is very Edward Hopper-ish,” Cronenberg remarks in the DVD audio commentary to the film.
In Anton Corbijn’s film Life, the same location became a 1950’s shoe store, with cardboard signs in the window offering Saddleford Oxfords for $5.98, and fifty-cent shoe shines. The film stars another frequent Cronenberg collaborator, Robert Pattinson (best known for his role as vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight series) as Life Magazine photographer Dennis Stock. He is seen here alongside Dane DeHaan as James Dean in the 2015 biopic in which Millbrook portrays another location in the state of Indiana – James Dean’s hometown of Fairmount.
Millbrook appears as the fictional town of Laurel, Illinois in the 2019 Netflix romantic Christmas comedy Let It Snow and as River City, Iowa in The Music Man, starring Matthew Broderick.
The latter project, an Emmy-nominated made-for-television film based on the book of the 1957 stage musical by Meredith Willson, takes place in 1912. The village also played host to a made-for-tv adaptation of the 1912 book Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, by Stephen Leacock. The ‘little town’ in the title is Mariposa, a fictional place with a wikipedia entry longer than many Ontario cities.
“Mariposa is not a real town,” Leacock said, “on the contrary, it is about seventy or eighty of them. You may find them all the way from Lake Superior to the sea, with the same square streets and the same maple trees and the same churches and hotels.”
Millbrook’s ability to transform itself into bygone eras has served it well. Collin Hall, co-owner of the Pastry Peddler on the King Street strip, attributes the interest in Millbrook to the fact that the downtown area can easily become another place in time, due in part to the lack of overhead telephone lines anywhere in the village.
This ability lends itself well to historic drama and even time travel, such as in the 2013 science fiction film Rewind, which incidentally features David Cronenberg in an acting role. He plays Benjamin Rourke, a Nobel prize winning physicist who kills 9 million people in a terror attack on New York City.
Anne of Green Gables, the 1908 book by Lucy Maud Montgomery, is one of the best selling novels of all time and has been been adapted into dozens of films, radio productions and television series. The most recent of the thirteen television versions is the CBC/Netflix series Anne with an E. In the third episode of the second season Anne visits Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. To play the turn-of-the-century provincial capital, Millbrook was outfitted with dirt roads and wooden posts for horses.
The striped awning of the Kawartha Quilting and Sewing Ltd. at 40 King Street is timeless enough that it can appear in films set in the present, in the fifties, in the early 1900’s and the late 19th century.
Canada is well-accustomed to portraying “Anytown, USA” – even in our own productions – but the Hallmark TV movie The Town Christmas Forgot inadvertently comments on the practice. The 2010 film features a family trapped by bad weather in a quaint Colorado town where they – I assume – learn the true meaning of Christmas. The town is called Nowhere.
Filmed in August, the main strip of Millbrook was covered in wire-frame berms over which snow blankets were draped to simulate snowbanks. Large fans created flurries of biodegradable starchy potato flakes to mimic a blizzard. In post-production, Millbrook is outfitted with some CGI mountains in the background.
Other than the Hydro metre on the left, 21 King Street doesn’t look that much different as the Nowhere Hotel in 2010 than as the 1898 Public House in Anne in With An E. Again, the blue mailbox reminds us that we are in the USA.
The closed-down Toy Town train store most resembles the actual Millbrook location, which may stay vacant simply to accommodate film shoots (it was also Stall’s Diner in A History of Violence).
The 2012 CBC adaptation of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town opens with an image of the Millbrook main street unfolding out of nowhere in a field, like a pop-up book. The grass parts to make way for a road, street-lamps sprout like trees, the lake from the book magically appears, and a ship falls from the sky into it. When the film ends the buildings fold back into themselves, and disappear.
Dave Dyment is an artist, writer and curator from Toronto, who recently relocated to Sackville, New Brunswick. He is currently completing a feature length film called Dead Ringer, about Toronto’s depiction in cinema. He is Co-Director of Struts Gallery, with his partner Roula Partheniou, with whom he also operates The Nothing Else Press. He is represented by MKG127 and his work can be seen at www.dave-dyment.com.
Thanks to Philip Monk, Geoff Pevere, Ruth Burns, Roula Partheniou, Meaghan Froh Metcalf, David Wellington.