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Why small-town Alberta was perfect for filming Jason Reitman's Ghostbusters: Afterlife

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For a short period in the summer of 2019, a tiny coffee shop in the small Alberta town of Crossfield became a key meeting place between Hollywood and the locals.

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Early in the morning, members of the crew who were in town shooting Ghostbusters: Afterlife would descend on The Side Street Cafe on Nanton Avenue to meet with the town folk. The cafe does appear briefly in the film. But more importantly for those shooting the mega-budgeted production, it became a place for reliable intel.

“We’d go there at 7 o’clock in the morning and meet all the local farmers who would come,” says Bruce Brownstein, supervising location manager for Ghostbusters: Afterlife. “There would be 10 guys at one table and their wives at another. We’d have our list of questions: ‘Who owns this property?’ ‘What do you think of this or that?’ ‘Would this crop grow in this place do you think, or should we grow something else?’ ”

Crossfield is just one of many Alberta small towns, hamlets and rural areas that can be seen in the film, which opened this week. Shot in the summer and fall of 2019, the production used sound stages at the Calgary Film Centre for some interior shots and a Wal-Mart in the city’s northeast. But, for the most part, the look of the film is defined by some of the province’s most distinct, non-mountainous and non-urban settings: the vast canyons in the Badlands near Drumheller, the rolling foothills near Turner Valley, massive blue skies and the quaint small-town streetscapes of Fort Macleod and Crossfield.

Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman with crew and the Ecto-1 on the set of Columbia Pictures’ Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Photo by Kimberley French
Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman with crew and the Ecto-1 on the set of Columbia Pictures’ Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Photo by Kimberley French Photo by Kimberley French /jpg

Afterlife is writer-director Jason Reitman’s continuation of the franchise his father Ivan started with the 1984 classic. The film is meant to be a love letter to the original. But one of the ways the younger Reitman makes it his own is by flipping the setting from New York City to small-town Oklahoma. The story involves Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon), the daughter of departed ghostbuster Dr. Egon Spengler (played by the late Harold Ramis), dragging her kids Phoebe and Trevor (McKenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard) to Summerville, Okla. That’s the dead-end town where Egon lived out his post-ghostbusting life as an eccentric recluse in a creepy farmhouse. After his death, the family spends the summer in the small Oklahoma town and his grandkids uncover his past adventures hunting ghouls and how it relates to the strange happenings that seem to be overtaking Summerville. While the look and feel of the original was defined by iconic locales in the Big Apple and the chaos those otherworldly menaces caused in a crowded modern metropolis, Reitman’s look is defined by wide open spaces, winding country roads, lonely grain elevators, rickety bridges and small towns that seem from another era. These were all things Alberta could offer.

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“(Production designer Francois Audouy) and Jason wanted everything to be of an indeterminate period,” says Brownstein. “We wanted it to look like a timepiece that is not rooted in a particular year. We didn’t want any vehicles or background that was too new. We wanted it to look like it had a life that could span 30 years, (where the) grandfather as a ghostbuster could have walked down the same street and it wouldn’t have looked any different.”

Reitman apparently scouted New Mexico and Oklahoma among other locations before his father, who was also a producer on Afterlife, suggested he try Alberta. It was Reitman’s first time shooting here and he was quickly won over by its charms.

Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Podcast (Logan Kim) in Columbia Pictures’ Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment
Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Podcast (Logan Kim) in Columbia Pictures’ Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment Photo by Courtesy Sony Pictures Entertain /jpg

“It’s a movie that is rural,” he said during a talk in September 2019 at the Calgary International Film Festival. “It takes place on a farm and it’s absolutely stunning here.”

Of course, filming in small towns and rural areas has its challenges. Location scouts covered 320 square kilometres of Foothills County, driving up and down dusty roads looking for the right spot to build that creepy farmhouse. The movie also calls for a throw-back drive-in diner with roller-skating waitresses. Brownstein said production eventually transformed a “weird old cafe/garage on the corner” in the village of Beiseker into the set, but he initially had a hard time finding out who owned the property. Scouts “doggedly went after this property, finding out who owned it and how we get to could rent it” before cleaning out 30 years’ worth of debris and turning it into the set-piece.

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“It was a huge effort,” Brownstein says.

But other locations were perfect just the way they were. Brownstein recalls scouting for the film’s high school with Reitman when they came across W.G. Murdoch in Crossfield.

“We stood outside waiting for school to end and the kids to leave so we could go inside and look,” Brownstein says. “Jason says ‘Look at the parking lot.’ It’s a gravel parking lot and it was full of old beaters and pickup trucks and hand-me-down farm vehicles that these kids drive back and forth to school. He said ‘This is perfect. This is it. These are the people that are in this movie.’ ”

“The funny thing is, after we filmed, they paved over the parking lot and thereby changed the character altogether,” he adds.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is now in theatres.

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