Four people running from an explosion on the side of a prison

Ontario On Film: Kingston

February 10, 2021

By: Dave Dyment

The Tragically Hip’s debut album opens with the line “They shot a movie once, in my hometown”. The song, Blow at High Dough, became the Kingston band’s first number one hit, and the line has since become somewhat iconic. My nine year old nephew wears a t-shirt bearing only those eight words.

There’s something both noteworthy and instantly relatable about the impact a film shoot can have on a town. In cities where filmmaking is commonplace, it means frustrating road closures and parking spaces lost to film trailers. Elsewhere, it means that the rest of the world might be watching.

More often than not – particularly in Canada – what’s being watched is your town stand in for another.

Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 gothic romance Crimson Peak takes place in Buffalo, New York, in the year 1901, and was primarily filmed in Toronto, less than two hours away. The bulk of the film is shot on the Pinewood Studios’ soundstage, but some location filming was also done in the nearby cities of Hamilton and Kingston.

To transform downtown Kingston into turn-of-the-century Buffalo, crews constructed a road of real dirt (image), faux railway tracks and enormous green screens to accommodate later CGI work. Three-hundred locals were hired as extras.

“We scouted all over Ontario, and Kingston’s Market Square is the perfect location for us to re-create an early, thriving, exciting 1900s streetscape,” producer Callum Greene is quoted as saying, on the call sheet for extras, who were advised that they could not have piercings, tattoos, unnatural hair colour, or over-tweezed eyebrows. According to a city of Kingston website, the Market Square – situated adjacent to City Hall – has been operating continuously since 1801, the oldest market in North America.

The historic site was dressed with rustic market stalls, barrels, horse and carriages, vegetable wagons, apple carts and prop pig carcasses that could be left out for the 16 hour shoot. Wanted posters and cigar ads were pasted onto temporary utility poles.

The Google Earth view inadvertently captured the post-filming clean up, as well as some curious locals taking pictures. Two years prior, the WB series Nikita transformed the same area into present day South Ossetia, Georgia, for a prisoner exchange scene.

“We needed somewhere that looked kind of eastern European,” executive producer Albert Kim told The Kingston Whig Standard. “We normally produce the show out of Toronto and our locations manager suggested coming to Kingston because there is a great old historic European feel. We took one look around and thought this was perfect for what we needed.”

Kingston’s Christmas decorations had to be removed, and the bleachers hauled away, to be replaced with vendor stalls selling nesting dolls, shish kabobs, cabbage and corn. Bags of trash and old cardboard boxes were strewn about the sidewalk.

The Market Square also features prominently in the 1999 TV-movie Vendetta, starring Christopher Walken. The HBO film, about one of the largest mass lynchings in American history, takes place in New Orleans, in 1891.

The same production company returned two years later for an adaptation of Anne Rice’s novel The Feast of All Saints (2001), also set in New Orleans, also in the 19th century.

Kingston is the sixth oldest city in Canada, and the first capital of the country (a short-lived distinction). Its well preserved historical architecture and proximity to “Hollywood North” Toronto make it a logical choice for period-piece film-making. The Kingston Film Office launched in 2018 to attract further media production, offering tax incentives to help offset travel and accommodations for visiting productions.

Perhaps the biggest draw for film makers is the Kingston Penitentiary.

Once home to Canada’s most notorious criminals (such as the serial killers Paul Bernardo and Clifford Olson), the prison closed in the fall of 2013 and is now a summer tourist attraction, making it available for film shoots the rest of the year.

It is featured heavily in the second season of the recent Turner Network DC Comics superhero series Titans. The penitentiary plays the fictional Kane County Correctional Facility, where Dick Grayson (Robin of Batman &, and later, Nightwing) is sentenced to seven years for the death of Jericho. Note the low mountain range in the background, added in post-production.

The most celebrated sequence filmed at the prison features another DC superhero, in the 1978 version of Superman. In the film’s finale, the caped crusader (played by Christopher Reeves) delivers super-villain Lex Luther (Gene Hackman) and his henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) to the warden, by flying them into the yard of the penitentiary.

Except that the oft-told story isn’t true. Curator David St. Onge of the Penitentiary Museum recently informed the Kingston Herald (which had also perpetuated the legend) that the scene was actually filmed in the UK.

“The Superman crew definitely scouted the location, and even began having staff sign waivers, from what I’m told,” he wrote, “but in the end, security concerns around 100s of cast and crew with equipment, cables, ladders & helicopters in a functioning prison housing a full population of offenders made it a security concern.” Instead the sequence was filmed on a soundstage in England, with a set based on Kingston Penitentiary.

In December of last year filming for an upcoming episode of Star Trek: Discovery discreetly took place at the prison. “We kept everything entirely confidential at the express request of the production,” Film Commissioner Alex Jansen told the Kingstonist, “but I can confirm that we hosted them for five days of pre-production, two days of shooting, and […] three days of wrap-up.”

The penitentiary has also played itself, at least twice.

In a thirteenth season episode of Murdoch Mysteries, the titular character and Doctor Julia Ogden investigate a prison suicide. The episode takes place entirely in Kingston, mostly inside the prison.

The Netflix/CBC adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel Alias Grace was filmed on location at the Kingston Penitentiary in September 2016. Alias Grace is a fictionalized biography of Grace Marks, an Irish-Canadian maid convicted of a grisly double-murder who spent almost thirty years incarcerated at the Kingston Penitentiary, before being pardoned in 1872.

Before Atwood, other famous authors also wrote about the notorious jail. A twenty-four-year old Ernest Hemingway’s first day working for the Toronto Star involved a trip to the penitentiary, to write about a prison break in 1923. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited Kingston and wrote about the city, which he disliked. “A very poor town,” he wrote in his travelogue American Notes For General Circulation, “one half of the city appears to be burnt down, and the other half not to be built up.”

However, he had only praise for the prison, which had opened seven years prior, in 1835: “There is an admiral jail here, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect.”

Dickens’ tour guides presumably sheltered him from the brutal treatment of the prisoners, in a jail designed to be “so irksome and so terrible” that the convict “should prefer death”, according to an 1831 Upper Canada report. Verbal communication among prisoners was verboten, and the penalty for infractions was severe. A ten-year-old boy with a seven year sentence was reportedly flogged on fifty-seven occasions in 1845, for winking, staring and laughing, according to Macleans magazine. An eleven-year-old received twelve strokes on Christmas Eve the year prior, for speaking French.

Other tortures the inmates endured included the water hose, the sweat box, the ball & chain, the Gardner Shackle, and being used as bow-and-arrow target-practice by the warden’s sons.

After 178 years (the prison predates the founding of Canada by several decades) the country’s oldest and most notorious maximum security prison closed its doors in September 2013. Many of the inmates were relocated to the Millhaven Institution, a maximum security prison located in nearby Bath, Ontario.

Millhaven was originally built to replace the aging Kingston Penitentiary, but the two operated concurrently for forty-two years.

The prison appears in the John Landis film Blues Brothers 2000, the dismal sequel to his 1980 hit comedy. Comedian Dan Ackroyd (whose great-grandfather was reportedly the first dentist in Kingston) reprises his role as Elwood Blues, and is seen below in the film’s opening sequence being released from prison after serving eighteen years for the events of the first film. Millhaven Penitentiary plays Convict Technologies, the fictional Illinois correctional centre where he served his time.

In a scathing review for the Chicago Sun-Times, critic Roger Ebert took the film to task for using Toronto, Hamilton and Kingston as stand-ins for Chicago. “I’ve heard Toronto called a lot of things,” he wrote, “but not the home of the blues.”

The Tragically Hip song 38 Years Old is a fictional account of an actual prison break. Fourteen inmates escaped in 1972, which is changed to “twelve men broke loose in ’73”. The former was altered for the purpose of meter, and the latter to rhyme with “from Millhaven maximum security.”

The track is featured on the same LP as Blow at High Dough.

Singer Gord Downie’s full stanza from the album opener is as follows:

They shot a movie once, in my hometown
Everybody was in it, from miles around
Out at the speedway, some kind of Elvis thing
Well, I ain’t no movie star
But I can get behind anything
Yeah, I can get behind anything

The quintessentially Canadian rock band inadvertently describing the quintessential Canadian cinematic experience – not a movie star, but content to appear in the background.

This article is the third of the four-part series Ontario on Film written by Dave Dyment. Read his article exploring Toronto on film. The second article in the series, Ontario on Film: Millbrook.

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