I had the opportunity to to speak with Jim Cliffe, the director of Donovan’s Echo. Vancouver native, who is mainly known for animation directs his first live action feature. The film, now available on Amazon which can purchase here, stars Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon) and Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek (2009)). Donovan’s Echo tells the story of a former Manhattan Project mathematician and physicist (Glover) returning to his former hometown after a 30 year alcoholic bender for reasons he doesn’t even quite understand. While poring over old notebooks, the man realizes similarities between the past and present that make Donovan start to believe in the power of deja vu despite everyone around him thinking he’s crazy.
PG: Why “Donovan’s Echo” as your first film?
JC: I was seacrching for a story. I’d wanted to try and make the leap from a short film to a feature film, and knew I’d have to write something myself. My goal was to become a director, more so than a writer, as I’m very visual. I’ve built a career as an artist and illustrator, with a bit of animation. I’m also a huge film geek, ever since I was a kid. But I knew I wouldn’t get hired as a director unless I had something people were willing to get behind; the same approach Stallone took with Rocky, or Matt Damon and Ben Affleck with Good Will Hunting.
The idea of exploring a story with a déjà vu theme presented itself after I had experienced a moment of déjà vu, as I had many times before, and for whatever reason, just started thinking about what that meant — what if I had somehow lived this same life before? I’m not saying I believe that, but I got excited about exploring that idea as a story. My then-girlfriend/now-wife, Melodie, was an aspiring writer, so I asked if she wanted to get involved. We started breaking down ideas and characters, and took it from there. To our delight, it became an award-winning screenplay in some Hollywood competitions, which told me we might be doing something right. It’s a fun movie with some nice twists, turns, and a bit of heart.
PG: How hard was it to lure Glover and Greenwood?
JC: It was somehow easier than I would have thought. I knew we were going to be a very small film (just under $3M), so I kept my expectations small.
Once we had producers and some financing in place, a casting agent in LA put a list together for potential ‘Donovan’s. Danny’s name jumped off the page and just felt so incredibly right, even though it seemed like a tremendous long shot. He ended up getting back in just a couple of weeks and said he wanted to do it, which was amazing. Danny said he connected with the character, including aspects of the character’s background in mathematics and dyslexia.
Soon we started talking about ‘Finnley’, and how high we might be able to reach. Bruce’s name came up, and also seemed very ideal, but another long shot. He responded relatively quickly as well. He liked the script, wanted to work with Danny, and has a home in Vancouver, where we’d be shooting.
With these two guys attached, our little movie just entered a whole new category. For a first-time filmmaker, to attach talent like that, it’s just so incredibly rare. I was very grateful that they were willing to take a chance on me.
PG: Were they collaborative and easy to work with?
JC: They were extremely collaborative. There were things they wanted to try, and things I wanted them to try in return. They both work in different ways. Danny would often give me the benefit of the doubt if there was something I wanted him to explore as an option; whereas Bruce had a real concentrated interest, and wanted to understand an exact logical breakdown behind an idea. But the truth is both these guys are such pros, they really breath more life into these characters than what I could ever write or suggest.
PG: Did you find many noticeable differences directing a feature to a short?
JC: We treated the short (Tomorrow’s Memoir) as professionally as we could – auditions, schedules, craft services, etc. Even though we shot on weekends and a couple of evenings, with a volunteer crew and a budget of $2000, in many ways it felt like a feature set. Going into DE, a lot of that felt the same, but just amplified. The biggest difference was mostly time. We had a tight 20-day shoot with DE, and had written a story with multiple locations, flashbacks, stunts, etc, so it means you not only have to hustle, but you’re not going to get as much creative range as you’d like. Because I have a background in the arts, I had storyboarded the movie and even made some animatics in pre-production, which were all very elaborate and stylized. It became apparent very early into production however, that I just didn’t have the luxury to be as creative as I’d hoped. You can only do so many setups and so many takes before you have to move on. Having said that, I’m very pleased with what we pulled off. I had a great team.
PG: Was it shot on any particular cameras? What else did you use to achieve its distinct look?
JC: We shot on a RED One camera, which I was very impressed with. I’d wanted to shoot on film, but considering our budget, it wasn’t practical. I had a lot of dialogue with our cinematographer, Bob Aschmann, about the esthetic I was after, and Bob really nailed it. I also discussed the look a lot with production designer Grant Pearse, who did an amazing job and helped create a nice palate. A lot of the film’s look is also a result of shooting in the Canadian west coast in November, which complimented the overall mood and Donovan’s loneliness.
PG: Did you fund the film yourself?
JC: We shot in Canada and acquired funding through Telefilm, which is a government program that helps finance Canadian productions. We also obtained additional funding through other film avenues and distribution, as well as independent financing through a former co-worker and friend, Lance Priebe who was the creator of Disney’s Club Penguin, which is a virtual online world for kids. Lance and his wife Kim came on as executive producers and really helped make the film happen. It’s very tough getting any film off the ground, particularly as a first-time filmmaker. But Lance had followed my successes, and believed in my talents. I’m incredibly grateful for that.
PG: Did TM open a lot of doors for you?
JC: It opened doors in the sense that it demonstrated an ability to direct a film, which was my goal. Its awards and online interest helped support that notion, but it didn’t lead to any feature offers, nor would I necessarily expect it to have. I sort of knew I’d have to continue creating my own opportunities. When DE became an award-winning screenplay, I thought that may lead to something as we were hearing from producers and companies in LA, but no one wanted to take that chance on me directing, which was tough. As one director of development told me, “you could have fifty award-winning shorts, but financiers only see first-time feature filmmaker”. It’s a very hard industry to break into.
PG: Was your actor in Tomorrow’s Memoir ever in line to play one oftheleads in Donovan’s Echo?
JC: Stephen Jeffreys who played the lead in Tomorrow’s Memoir, is a Shakespearean actor in Kelowna, BC, where I was living at the time when we shot TM. In order to get funding for DE, we needed to attach recognizable names, but I managed to get Stephen a small role that comes up a couple times. He plays the man on stage who is speaking to an audience during a dream sequence that Donovan has. It’s subtle, but it was fun getting him involved.
PG: It’s a love letter to comics. Were you a fan of any particular comic, which influenced it?
JC: I’ve always loved Superman since I was a kid. I think that’s pretty clear with TM. I saw Donner’s film when it came out. I was a small boy and it definitely captured my imagination. Growing up, I read a bunch of comics, mostly Superman, Batman and Spider-man. As far as direct influences for the idea of TM, I was actually inspired by a Far Side cartoon which depicted a senior-aged Superman wearing his cape, old man slacks and fedora, standing in his high-rise window trying to remember what he was going out for. Milk or something. Somehow that sparked an idea about what happens when these characters get old. The Dark Knight Returns also came to mind in that regard.
PG: Any plans to release Tomorrow’s Memoir on DVD?
JC: I get asked that time to time. There’s really no plan unfortunately. It was originally on IFILM around the time of Comic-Con (2005), which was pre-Youtube. It became a bit of an online hit, and grabbed some great reviews along the way. Since then it’s been buried on Spike which purchased IFILM, but we’ve recently resurrected it and put it on Youtube like the rest of the world (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jY8VWDW-_dc).
PG: Finally.. Where can fans pick up the new movie, Donovan’s Echo?
JC:On demand, digital download, Amazon, Redbox, Walmart, and similar outlets.
DE OFFICIAL WEBSITE: http://www.donovansecho.com/index.html
DE FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/DonovansEcho