The stark concrete architecture, the ominous fog, the spotty WiFi — if you ever wanted to recreate the feeling of North Korea in the greater Vancouver area, SFU would be a prime candidate.
Though for obvious reasons, transforming our mountaintop campus into a totalitarian, extremist republic will never be a popular idea, the possibility of turning SFU into North Korea has been talked about. . . for a movie, at least.
When Vancouver natives Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg came back to their hometown to film their new North Korea-based comedy movie The Interview in 2013, they had their hearts set on filming at SFU.
While the dispute that eventually led Rogen and Goldberg to recreate North Korea elsewhere in Vancouver certainly wasn’t the biggest struggle the duo faced in releasing their highly controversial movie, even when it came to shooting scenes at our school, their refusal to play by the rules caused problems for the film.
“We wanted to film more at the SFU main campus and they wouldn’t let us.” This was the message that Evan Goldberg wrote in reply to a fan during a live tweet of The Interview on December 28.
The comment was in response to a follower named ‘Judy Geek’ (@thepopcultural), who commented that “the grey expanse of stairs perfectly encapsulate the totalitarian regime of NK & SFU’s design.”
Even after all that happened with the movie — the reported threats of “merciless” retaliation against the United States if the film was released, allegedly from the North Korean government; the Sony Pictures hack which legitimized the possibility of violence; the cancellation of the film’s theatrical release which had relegated it to streaming services like YouTube and Google Play — The Interview filmmakers were still upset about not getting to film at SFU.
From an outsider’s perspective, Goldberg’s complaint seems reasonable. SFU is rarely featured in any big movies. Instead, the campus only shows up in episodes of sci-fi television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and low-rent CW shows like Hellcats. How could SFU possibly refuse the call of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars?
The answer, according to SFU, is quite simple: they didn’t refuse anyone.
“We never did say they couldn’t film here,” John Briggs, Supervisor of Client Services at SFU’s Facility Services told The Peak in response to Goldberg’s tweet. “The door is open. They were perfectly welcome to film here. It was their choice not to come here.”
Anything that has to do with filming at SFU, whether it be feature films, television shows, or student projects, goes through John Briggs’ office. According to Briggs, who has been in his position for the past seven years, a member of The Interview’s team first contacted his office in late July 2013 to inquire about filming on campus.
The initial inquiry came when Briggs was off on sick leave, and a now-retired building technologist took the first phone call. Although he was not coming into work, Briggs followed the early conversations through email.
“There was a whole lot of back and forth, and it’s very confusing,” Briggs explained concerning The Interview’s request to film at SFU. While he did not go into specific details, Briggs made it clear that the problem came down to the filmmakers’ refusal to sign SFU’s film location license agreement.
“SFU’s policy is that this is our licensing agreement for you to come on our property and film here. It protects our interests. We make no changes to the agreement,” Briggs stated. He explained that this situation happens occasionally with requests from feature films.
“We wanted to film more at the SFU main campus and they wouldn’t let us.”
Evan Goldberg on Twitter
“I tell them that up front, in the initial phone call. I make that very clear. And they say, ‘okay, I understand,’” Briggs continued, explaining the routine process. “Nevertheless, when it [goes to their] lawyers, the lawyers often will say, ‘I want to change all these things,’ and we’ll get a copy back with a bunch of red pen marks with things they want changed. And we just say, ‘no, we don’t do that.’
“In this case, they decided to make a big issue out of it,” stated Briggs.
“[They] essentially refused to come here unless t hey could make changes to the agreement. It’s that simple,” he explained. “And SFU’s policy is that we don’t make the changes. We can’t be making changes for everybody that wants to film here.”
While Briggs could not recall any of the specific changes that were requested by The Interview filmmakers, he said that they were “such minor, insignificant things” that he couldn’t understand why they would be an issue. He explained that it is not worth SFU’s time or effort to make a different agreement for every film, and it’s rare that anyone ever has a problem with.
“If 98 per cent of filmmakers can come here and sign it without any question and go on and make their film, then what’s wrong with you guys? Why do you have an issue with it?” Briggs questioned. “There’s nothing in here that threatens the film. So why is there an issue?”
Recourse, Of Course
“Some people want to make it sound like SFU is, I don’t know, somehow confrontational with the film industry, and it just isn’t,” Briggs told The Peak during his interview. He said that SFU has a simple agreement which is based on 50 years of films being made on campus, and that it simply protects the university’s interests.
Based on the finished product, however, The Interview was clearly able to come to agreements to film at other public institutions in Vancouver. Scenes of the movie were filmed at both the Robson Square Court Houses and the Vancouver Art Gallery, although the details of these agreements are kept closed by the City of Vancouver, who do not disclose this sort of information.
While not used as a filming location in this particular movie, the University of British Columbia also does not seem to keep as stringent of a policy as SFU.
According to UBC’s Events and Film Liaison, Arlene Chan, although “a standard UBC Contract for Filming is required for all commercial and documentary productions,” she told The Peak that “from time to time, requests are received for minor contract changes.”
“Protocols have been established to manage the requests, and in conjunction with UBC Legal Counsel, UBC has approved changes to the Contract so long as UBC’s interests are not compromised,” Chan explained.
Briggs, on the other hand, was firm in his belief that the benefit of films using SFU as a location is not big enough to ever consider making even minor changes for Hollywood productions.
“We charge $2500 a day to be on campus,” he said, explaining that as an educational institution, SFU is not in the business of making money off movies. “That $2500 has been our charge for longer than I have been here. I think it’s the original price set back 40 some years ago.”
“[Rogen]’s got a big ego and he was willing to go an awful long way with this.”
Whether it be a toothpaste commercial or a potential Oscar-winner, everyone gets treated the same, according to Briggs. The publicity behind a movie with Seth Rogen-level star-power is not an incentive, either.
“SFU doesn’t get recognition in the movie. We don’t want that,” he explained. “The only way SFU is identifiable in the film is, people who know SFU, they might recognize it.”
While Briggs admits that social media has changed their chances of remaining undetected, this portion of the policy is the result of past mistakes.
“The reason we don’t want recognition is, it goes back years ago [to] movies made here that people misrepresented [. . .] And they turned out to be controversial issues and SFU was dragged into it, and [we] don’t want that.”
Briggs also said that while SFU asks for a script of all movies that are to be filmed on campus, there are very few unacceptable choices when it comes to the subject material.
“We’re making sure it’s not something like pornography,” he explained. “There have been pornography movies made here. They weren’t intended to be, as far as we knew . . .This goes back a long time ago. Really, that can’t happen here anymore.”
“And that’s why we have these agreements now. So that if something does happen after the fact, SFU has a recourse with the filmmaker.”
So, while Goldberg’s tweet may be interpreted as SFU being against the film because of its controversial nature, according to Briggs the only issue was the license agreement.
Since the changes that were requested were apparently so minor, for Briggs, the refusal to sign the standard license agreement was the result of one simple issue: ego.
“If you’re going to take a few words and sentences in this agreement and insist that they must be changed to suit you, that makes no sense. From a practical business point of view, it just doesn’t make any sense,” Briggs explained. “Some people in the film business [though] have really big egos, and if they don’t get what they want . . . let me tell you, in the film business, ‘no’ is not a word in many people’s vocabulary.
“They’re not easy people to deal with, in a lot of cases [. . .] they believe, probably, in their mind, that we told them that they can’t film here, and that’s just not true.”
Briggs later explained the situation more clearly.
“He really, really wanted to come here and film at SFU. But for some petty little thing that people wanted to make changes to, he wasn’t getting his way. He being Seth Rogen,” Briggs said. “He has a pretty big ego. There’s lots of newspaper articles where he was being interviewed and quoted at the time he was making the movie here.
“So he wasn’t getting his way, so like always, it was ‘what is it going to take to make this happen?’ And he kept going up higher and higher and people were being told ‘go up higher and higher and higher until you find that person who’s going to say, never mind the agreement, you can come here and make the movie.’”
While the situation should not have been dragged out at all, according to Briggs, instead of signing the agreement or just moving along The Interview filmmakers tried to push their changes by going over his head, but to no avail.
“It even went to the President’s office and the President said, “well, is there something wrong with the agreement?’”
As a relatively new president, Briggs said that Andrew Petter had never encountered this situation before.
“[Petter] said, let’s get the legal department, the outside lawyers that they use, to take a look at it and see if there is something wrong with it. And they took a look at it and they replied back with ‘No, there’s nothing wrong with it.’”
Apparently, this was as far as Rogen and his team got. According to Briggs, they finally sent a note cancelling their plans to film at SFU on November 17, 2013.
Is this the End?
While Briggs says that all his contact with Rogen and his team was through phone calls and emails, tweets and photos posted on Twitter show that Rogen did make some visits to SFU at the time, although what he was doing here cannot be confirmed.
Twitter user Steven Hoang (@stevenvhoang) tweeted about Rogen being at SFU on July 30 2013, which coincides with their initial request time. He posted again on October 1, just prior to the start of principal photography on The Interview, with a picture of himself and Rogen near the water fountain in Convocation Mall.
Another photo of Rogen taken on that day by student-athlete Alex Iezzi created a fair amount of buzz — it was retweeted by the SFSS’s official Twitter, and a couple of local celebrity sightings websites.
Although Iezzi told The Peak via Twitter that he was too starstruck to ask why Rogen was on campus, his story implies that the comedy star was not trying to be secretive.
“One of his crew saw me and my teammate in awe of being 20 feet away from Seth Rogen, so he asked if we wanted a picture,” Iezzi remembered. “After the photo, that was the end of that. Though I heard through some friends or others, that I think he may have been looking for a location.”
Although Briggs says he was not aware that Rogen had visited campus, he told The Peak that “he may have come on campus to try and knock on somebody’s door to do a drop-in, and maybe try and talk somebody into making the change.
“He may have done that, I don’t know. I didn’t even know he was here. It doesn’t surprise me that he would show up to do that — like I say, he’s got a big ego,” Briggs speculated.
Briggs was adamant, however, that SFU stood its ground no matter what happened.
“[Rogen] was willing to go an awful long way with this. And the president of the university wasn’t enough,” he explained. “He still didn’t get his way. And so I’m not surprised that there’s comments coming out in places like Twitter saying ‘SFU refused to let us film here,’ and that is not the truth of it. It just wasn’t. But I get that that’s how they see it. People see things different ways, from whatever agenda they live by.”
The Peak also reached out to both Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg for statements regarding the situation and the tweet, but at press time have not received any replies. However, Shawn Williamson, who worked as an executive producer for The Interview, was able to provide a brief comment.
“Evan is correct, and so is the university, but the university’s contract was the problem,” Williamson explained in a phone call on Friday. “SFU made it clear in a meeting we had with them that they were going to decide whether [ . . . ]they were going to become a film destination or not. And if they were going to they would have to change their contract, and they obviously didn’t, so I don’t think you’ll see many studio movies filming there.”
While Williamson said that SFU’s film location license agreement included “a major legal issue with all film studios in Hollywood,” and that he “knew every detail [of the changes which were requested]”, at press time he stated he could not get into any further details before talking to Sony publicity.
Briggs however made no-indication that SFU was the source of the problem.
“We welcome [filmmakers] to come here and make [their] film[s]” Briggs said. “We aren’t in the business of filmmaking, we are in the business of education, so we comply with peoples’ requests to film here when we can.”
At one point, Briggs even extended SFU’s openness to the film industry even further.
“If he wants to come film a sequel here, he’s welcome to come . . . we’d be happy to work with him,” Briggs said near the end of his interview. “It’d be the same thing though, [Rogen] has to sign the agreement.”
While a sequel to The Interview is fairly unlikely, it seems as though our campus could still be featured in a Seth Rogen movie someday. It just won’t be Hollywood’s North Korea anytime soon.