by Nancy Mills
All photos by Steve Wilkie, courtesy of CBC except as noted
Seven years ago, LM Geoffrey Smither/LMGI got a phone call from producer Colin Brunton asking if he would be available to work on a new series with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara?
“I said, ‘Yep,’” Smither remembers. “What’s it called?”
That’s when he first heard the name, a name that would go on to get a string of Emmy Award nominations in Season 5 and increase tourism in southern Ontario. It was a name that people still enjoy saying for the shock value—Schitt’s Creek.
Smither responded the way most people naturally would, with a bit of giggling. But he was ready to jump onboard. “Good title,” he said to the producer. “I love it. What am I looking for?”
“Small town and a motel,” Brunton told him.
“What about a creek?” Smither recalls asking. “We must want a creek running through the town, right?”
“OK. When do I start?”
Schitt’s Creek, an 80-episode comedy series created by Eugene Levy and his son Dan, is about the Roses, a wealthy family whose business manager stole all their money. While regrouping, they are forced to move to the only property they own—the tiny town of Schitt’s Creek—a place they once bought as a joke. The parents (Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy) and their two adult children (Dan Levy and Annie Murphy) move into two adjacent rooms in a rundown motel and try to readjust their lives. The sitcom, which ran for six seasons and is now available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Pop TV, brought a new comic force to television: Dan Levy, who served as showrunner for this Canadian sitcom, also co-created, wrote, directed, produced and starred in it.
In the beginning, Smither had no idea what a huge success Schitt’s Creek would become. Now he says, “In the last year, I have met ‘Schittheads,’ as they are called, from Australia and Boston in Goodwood (the Ontario town eventually chosen to be Schitt’s Creek) and at the motel, as set-jetting becomes more popular.”
During the winter of 2013-2014, Smither started searching for locations. “I spent a few months traveling the back roads around the countryside outside of Toronto in my little black rented Fiat 500,” he says. “It was not my first choice for a winter, country-lane car, but we survived a lot of kilometers and some heavy weather.
“Once the new year rolled around and I had to take folks out to scout, I swapped the Fiat for the Soccer Mom vehicle. I submitted just under 30 towns for consideration, and Eugene and Dan, the show’s creators and shepherds, expressed interest in about six or seven. I kept trying to steer them to towns that didn’t have a highway running through them, so we would be able to control traffic throughout the day while we filmed there.”
DEALING WITH TRAFFIC
Eventually, the team stopped in Goodwood, a hamlet with a regional highway running through the middle of it and surrounded by gravel quarries. “Huge tandem trucks use that highway to take gravel to a lot of different places,” Smither says, “so I was skeptical. We slid open the van doors and stepped out into a cold and snowy village. Eugene, Dan, Colin, production designer Brendan Smith, first assistant director David Manion and I took our first common look at what was to be most of Schitt’s Creek.
“The historic main intersection (two stop signs for north and south local traffic) had an old industrial shop that was once a gas station on one corner. Another corner had a false-front building across the highway that turned out to be a residence. It played our café exterior. On the third corner was a store attached to a house (the general store in the early seasons which eventually became the Rose Apothecary). The fourth corner is occupied by Annina’s, a busy bake shop and restaurant with, for us, an unsuitable modern exterior that was fortunately surrounded by pine trees. We didn’t film it, but we patronized it—a lot. Their butter tarts (a Canadian taste treat) are the best in the region.
“Eugene and Dan both stated that they really liked this location. Since I was representing the production and was still trying to be practical, I continued to promote the towns off the highway. We visited a few more, but both Eugene and Dan were steadfast and preferred Goodwood to anything else I showed them. The solution to our traffic problem was to shift the workweek from Sunday to Thursday for the location-filming portion of the season and spend Sundays at or near the intersection.”
Once Goodwood, which is 36 miles northeast of Toronto, was selected, Smither went back and photographed the rest of the town. “I got into the Lions Club Town Hall building next to the railway tracks and shot several house exteriors,” he says. “The west side of Front Street has houses that are virtually right on the sidewalk with minimal setback.
“The east side had several newer houses and big setbacks. As a result, we concentrated on the west side and found the mayor’s house and Ray Bhutani’s house there. They were the smallest and second smallest houses on that side because smaller is funnier. Next to Ray’s house, we placed the motel sign with the big arrow on it. We never revealed that you would be driving up someone’s driveway if you turned where the sign indicated. Most roadside scenes were shot nearby.”
How Smither Became a Location Manager
“My mother was a dance teacher and choreographer, and she worked at the CBC in the mid-’50s, in the early years of television. I danced as a kid and guested on TV shows and Christmas specials and acted in commercials (including the voice of Tony the Tiger Junior in three Frosted Flakes commercials). I went through high school and university with an eye toward drama. In the middle of my university studies, I switched to fine arts. Photography was my focus.
“When I finished university, I immediately started soldering electronics because I needed a job. While I was doing that, a university friend asked me to do some work on a show he was working on. I started in front of the camera and then migrated behind it. When that small company laid off most of its employees, I landed a job in a production office as PA for four or five shows.
“Someone asked if I could take some photos of a location that the location manager wanted. I went out with my camera and tripod and I made very careful panorama photographs. This was in the days of film and prints and physical file folders. The location manager said, ‘These are really good. You could make money doing this.’ For a while, I worked as both an assistant director and assistant location manager and found I was getting more work in the locations end, so I just slid into locations. The first feature I managed was Canadian Bacon (1995) with John Candy, Rhea Perlman and Alan Alda.”
Geoff Smither’s other projects include The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio; The Handmaid’s Tale; Impulse; Becoming Erica; Little Mosque on the Prairie and The Whistleblower. He is currently scouting on the upcoming Y: The Last Man.
APPROVALS COME WITH A DOSE OF LAUGHTER
The next step involved approaching the Uxbridge Town Council for approval to shoot there. “I contacted Bev Northeast, the town councilor who lived in Goodwood,” Smither says, “and we got placed onto the agenda at the next Council meeting.”
Executive producer Andrew Barnsley, who attended the meeting with Smither, remembers the evening well. “Today, everyone knows the name of the show and it’s very familiar,” he says, “but when I first started talking about it, I had many conversations with all sorts of people, and a lot of them got a real kick out of the name. When Geoff and I went to the Council meeting to talk about it, they really laughed. But they got onboard with us. We were never embarrassed about the name of the show, but before the level of awareness was high enough, we’d brace ourselves for reactions.”
One unexpected reaction occurred in Barnsley’s own home. “We’ve been saying the word schitt in my house for six or seven years,” he says, “and it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. I have young kids, and my daughter got such a kick out of having the freedom to say it, and we couldn’t do anything about it. She got us on a technicality.”
Uxbridge Town Council members got used to the provocative name much quicker, according to Smither. “When Bev brought forward the motion to allow a TV series to film in Goodwood,” he says, “one of the other councilors leaned into his microphone and slyly asked Bev to state, for-the-record, the name Schitt’s Creek. The entire Council broke up laughing, and some heavy hubbub ensued with comments about being ‘extras’ on the show emerging from the racket.
“Bev calmly leaned in, keyed the button on her microphone and said, ‘I’d like to bring it to the attention of our esteemed Council that two representatives of the series are attending this meeting.’ The mayor scooped up her gavel and banged it repeatedly, calling, ‘ORDER! ORDER!’ A lot of papers got shuffled, and several smirks were suppressed. I got up to speak for a few minutes and outlined our worked-on strategy to the Council. We were granted approval and were on our way for six seasons.”
Production designer Brendan Smith has high praise for Smither, with whom he worked on Little Mosque on the Prairie before reuniting on Schitt’s Creek. “Geoff is an experienced LM, and he has a huge inventory of locations that he has already used,” Smith says. “That’s a good start, particularly when trying to find something as specific as our town or our motel. Geoff also had a good conceptual idea of what we were looking for—this is not as easy as it sounds—so there is not so much time wasted in looking at locations that will clearly not work.”
“Geoff is a hard worker,” Barnsley adds. “He knows Ontario, and he knows how to manage locations and is just such a professional. We were in the same office, so we had conversations pretty much daily, tracking how things were going. I’d look at the location boards and see what was scheduled. I’d sign all the location agreements for him. Geoff was so good as a representative of the production. We had to go back to many of the locations season after season, and he was a master at keeping relationships with owners positive. That makes production a lot easier.”
Both Smither and Smith worked closely with Dan Levy. “Dan was the arbiter,” Smither says. “Eugene stepped back and let Dan take over. Dan’s fingers were in every little piece of the show, so sometimes it was tough to get him to respond. I worked through his assistant quite a bit.”
“Dan had a very clear view of the show and a clear understanding of the characters within it—their tastes, their style, their history,” Smith adds. “The locations simply had to cater for this and work along with it. The motel was a good example. It just felt like the right one, almost as if it had the right ‘character.’
“For me, the biggest challenge to bringing Schitt’s Creek to the screen was making it interesting, a little quirky. Even though the Roses initially hate the town and can’t wait to get out of it, it still had to have some charm. We knew it would grow on the family so we wanted it to be likeable. The recurring locations—the store, the motel, even the street in the town—should make you want to go back to them. There’s a kind of coziness to old locations. You feel at home in them.”
THE RIGHT MOTEL
Finding the right motel was a worry for everyone, although Smither had some good ideas. “I knew exactly where to look,” he says. “The Hockley Valley is a picturesque valley near Orangeville, Ontario. The Nottawasaga River runs through it and part of the Bruce Trail in the Caledon Region of Ontario.
“I knew from previous visits that there is a motel on the Hockley Road, a quiet stretch running east from Orangeville, through the valley to the village of Hockley. It is frequented by motorcycle riders due to its curves and the picturesque valley, but it is out in the country and not heavily traveled.
“Pretty much every other motel in Canada is built on a highway or on a main road that used to be a highway before some big bypass was built. This one was no longer being used as a motel. It was owned by an athletic group that trained elite young basketball players, enrolling them in the local high school for their education and billeting them in the motel. The owner agreed, so I showed photos to Eugene and Dan. They liked it so we visited it in the dead of winter and locked it down.” (The athletic institute has since built a residence on its site so the motel is slated to go up for sale this spring.)
“You’d think roadside motels would be sprinkled all over the place,” Barnsley says, “but they’re really a relic of the past. In an urban center, where sprawl is a real factor, often these small motels were razed for new developments. Geoff scoured a lot of southern Ontario looking for the right location. He found it in Mono, Ontario, and it’s become iconic.
“The motel was the farthest location from the office—about 40 miles away. It was out in the country, and I really enjoyed driving there. I don’t get to drive on country roads very often. Prior to Schitt’s Creek, I was the producer on a multi-camera live sitcom (Spun Out), so I’d be on the stage every day. You make your show and you’re done. With Schitt’s Creek, I got a sense of the city and the community.”
“We looked at several—probably a dozen or so—motels,” Smith adds. “The one we chose was isolated, which was good. There were no proximate buildings that we would have had to avoid. It had a nice woody background too, and it looked right for us in terms of style and age.”
“Both Goodwood and the motel formed the backbone of the show’s locations,” Smither says. “Interiors were built to match the motel, the café, the mayor’s house, the town hall (eventually) and Mutt’s barn. Scripts were mostly written in advance of the season. At the very least, we had outlines for every episode in-hand by the time we started, so each spring the show was able to film seven weeks of interiors in the studio and then four weeks of exteriors in June because we like the green foliage and even though we are Canadian, we don’t like to be out in the cold that much.” Over the years, the series filmed at Pinewood Toronto Studios, Dufferin Gate Studios and Revival Studios in Toronto.
Once the motel was nailed down, Smither and his team began transforming Goodwood into Schitt’s Creek. “One of my concerns was shooting at the crossroads,” Smither says. “The two roads are not at 90-degree angles to each other, but it allows you to see all three facades in some shots. Then the town peters out and becomes countryside. There’s a top of a hill at one end with a big quarry entrance and a traffic light and a gas station at the other end. There was a small railroad crossing to the north and a residential street to the south. It was small enough and obviously, country enough that this could be a really tiny place, which is what they were after.”
The railroad caused a number of filming disruptions. “An historical tourist train came through once in the morning and once in the afternoon on weekends (only). It blew a horn four times every time it crossed a street, and there were three streets it crossed within three-quarters of a mile. That’s a lot of horns going in both directions. Every now and then, we’d have to stop shooting to let the train go through. They’d tour down and then tour back an hour later,” notes Smither.
Smither was concerned about the impact Schitt’s Creek might have on Goodwood. “I dealt extensively with the people there, going back to talk to them every year. When we signed the deal for the first season, we told everybody, ‘This is going to be an ongoing series. We want your commitment for each year, so we’ve structured in an increase for everyone—the amount you’d get paid on a daily basis.’ That helped, I think. We talked to everybody. A few people didn’t want us there, but most people we saw and dealt with were not disappointed to see us each year. There are not a lot of businesses there except for Annina’s Bakeshop, a kids’ daycare center, a gas station and a Subway shop in the gas station and the Goodwood branch of Toronto knitting shop Romni Wools, which we used as the general store/Rose Apothecary.
“Annina’s was my biggest concern when I went in to chat with the owner. I said, ‘Look. We’re going to be intermittently closing down the intersection every Sunday for the month of June and we should talk and work out some sort of compensation so it won’t affect your business.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. My customers will find their way here. I have a thousand people a day coming here on weekends. Let’s talk about you hiring us as caterers while you’re in town. If you do that, we’ll call it even.’ We hired them, and they never asked us for anything else.”
Schitt’s Creek filmed for about 11 weeks each spring—the first seven weeks in a studio and then four weeks on location. “Studio work included the motel rooms and office, the diner, Mayor Schitt’s house and Ted’s apartment,” Smith says. “We shot the town hall on location until Season 4, when we replicated it in the studio. And I do remember building a set for a hotel dining room at the last minute!”
Smither’s most difficult negotiations involved the two major roads coming through Goodwood. “One is a regional road and one is a municipal road,” he says. “In order to stop traffic on those two roads, we had to get permits from the municipality and the region. Each jurisdiction wanted $500 a day just for the permit. I talked to them both initially and got a response from the municipality.
“I said, ‘We don’t mind if you want to recover your costs for issuing permits, but I’m applying for a permit for multiple days. I don’t feel you should be charging me on a per-day basis. You’re issuing one permit, whether it’s for one day or 10 days.’ The municipality people discussed it and said, ‘We’ll cut the permit fee in half for you.’ I accepted that.
“The region didn’t respond, so we ended up paying $500 per day for the regional permit for the first few seasons. It’s something that we pursued and had a big meeting with the economic development people and the CEO of the region. They actually reviewed it and came back with a zero-dollar fee. It took a couple of months to do it, but they reviewed it and changed their whole policy, and now the region doesn’t charge anything for a permit. The Ontario Film Office worked with us on this. They collect data on how much revenue filming brings into a community, and they were able to pass that onto the regions and municipalities.”
ROCOCO VS. MOTEL STYLE
A location that was surprisingly easy to find was the house the family got thrown out of in the very first episode. “It was very over-the-top,” Smither says. “It was a new build in the beaux-arts style with some rococo elements, trompe l’oeil ceilings and gilt, and it was super ornate. I knew about it because I’d driven by it at the urging of another homeowner in the same area who found it, ummm, remarkable. Other shows had filmed there prior to my knocking on the door so the owner knew about filming. We went back there in a subsequent season for a flashback party that included (actor) Paul Shaffer in the cast.”
Less easy to find was the wedding venue in the last season. “We looked at country estates and barn wedding venues, but they were too rustic,” Smither says. We ended up shooting it in Toronto. Dan wanted something quite different from Schitt’s Creek. He wanted it to be elegant like when they were wealthy.”
Another of Smither’s location challenges on Season 6 involved locating a men’s clothing store and a bank. “We found them on the same block in Oshawa,” he says, still slightly shocked. “To find a clothing store that’s willing to play and looks like the one Dan wants and, ‘Oh, gee! There’s a closed bank on the same block!’
FINDING THE CREEK
“Some things were tougher to find. We needed a creek and a country house together for the last season. That proved harder than I thought it would. The brief was to find a house that looked like Kate Winslet’s cottage from The Holiday (which had been built for that movie), and it had to be shot on the same day as the creek, which needed to be bucolic and natural but still a place where Moira (Catherine O’Hara) could walk in her high heels. We actually found that within Toronto city limits.”
“Until Season 6, we never saw the creek,” Smither adds. “There was nothing remotely creek-y about Goodwood, and they didn’t mind that. They thought it was funny that we didn’t see the creek. There’s a river that runs right behind the motel. I think we only saw that one time in six seasons.
“Also, in a big switch for us, they plan a trip to the big city for some meetings and we had to find high-end law offices and a big-city financial district. We shot in the lobby of the sister tower to the one that Suits uses at the Bay-Adelaide Centre and in some law offices in the Mies van der Rohe-designed towers of the Toronto-Dominion Centre. That was the first time we shot anything in the financial district of Toronto, but because we were on a Sunday-to-Thursday shooting week, we were able to do that on a Sunday.”
Looking back over his years working on the series, Smither says, “There are worse ways to spend June than out in the countryside of Ontario with comedy legends and a great crew and cast.” Tipping his hat to his main ALM for Schitt’s Creek, Steve Zagrodny, he says, “Steve is often in the right place at the right time, like the day he observed a worker painting orange DayGlo paint on the asphalt in Goodwood’s intersection and asked what he was doing. The worker stated that they were re-paving the whole intersection (during June). Thanks to Steve’s observational skills, we were able to ask the region to delay the re-paving until we finished the season.”
Smither also credits assistant location managers James Blacker and Dan Matthews/LMGI and his on-set production assistant, Christopher Vargas, with keeping things running smoothly.
“Because we were outside the city, we didn’t have to fight any other productions over parking and permits,” he adds. “The sixth and final season is now in the can, and both Goodwood and the motel are stops on many a fan tour. In fact, if you type Schitt’s Creek into Google maps, it will show both the motel and Bob’s Garage.”
Barnsley was surprised how well the show has been received. “It was beyond our wildest dreams,” he says. “There’s such awareness of Schitt’s Creek, which is not always the case with a Canadian show. It’s recognized globally. I was proud to see such legends as Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy and now Dan Levy. He is a creative genius. This has been such a spectacular show. When I look back on it, I don’t know how I can ever have another experience like this.
“People love to talk about Schitt’s Creek, and they get excited when they meet people who worked on it. I can only measure this anecdotally, but tourism in the communities we filmed in has increased because people want to see these locations and take pictures with them. The show has had a really positive economic impact.”
The Location Team:
Location Manager Geoffrey Smither/LMGI
Assistant Location Managers
Steve Zagrodny, James Blacker, Dan Matthews/LMGI
Location PA Christopher Vargas