Jim Cliffe Talks with Dread Central About His Award-Winning Donovan's Echo
Jim Cliffe, director and co-writer of Donovan's Echo, was given quite a thrilling assignment for his first feature film. He was tasked with bringing his supernatural tale to life and given Danny Glover and Bruce Greenwood to work with. Not bad.
With Donovan's Echo making a successful festival run and now available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD, Cliffe sat down with Dread Central to discuss his experiences with the film.
Dread Central: Why the supernatural genre for your first feature?
Jim Cliffe: It’s a genre that I love. Growing up, I was into comic books, superheroes, Star Wars, Steven Spielberg films, and I’ve just always been fascinated by the unknown and extraordinary. While I like a wide range of cinema, I’ve always enjoyed movies that offer something out of the unordinary, particularly if it’s set within a reality that feels very authentic with grounded characters and everyday problems. I think the more genuine your characters are within a supernatural setting, the easier it is for the audience to get on board with the phenomenon. Also, supernatural elements allow you to imagine unusual possibilities, occasionally representing hope, which is sort of a theme within Donovan’s Echo.
DC: Danny Glover and Bruce Greenwood are big genre names; how did you entice them to do your film?
JC: This is my first feature, so I didn’t have high expectations on casting. But we had a casting agent in LA put some names together for ‘Donovan’. Danny was one of them, and he just had an essence about him that seemed incredibly ideal, although it felt impossible because we were such a small movie. We put it out, thinking it was a long shot, and he got back relatively quickly and said he wanted to do it, which was unbelievable. Danny enjoyed the script, and said that he connected with the character of ‘Donovan’ as he also has a background in mathematics and struggles with dyslexia. Pretty soon, Bruce came up as a possible ‘Finnley’. He also seemed like someone who would be a great fit. Bruce responded to the material, and wanted to work with Danny. Bruce is also from Vancouver, where we’d be shooting. With these two guys attached, the movie took a tremendous leap forward. It was now a real movie. As first-time filmmaker, it’s just so rare to get talent like that attached. I was very honored that they were willing to take a chance.
DC: The film has a very moody, dark almost "Twin Peaks" look about it...was that intentional? Would the story have worked if it was set in a sun-drenched, lively city like LA?
JC: You’re very correct in that analogy. There’s a distinctive overall feel within the palette that suggested moodiness, loneliness, which is really a result of shooting in the Canadian west coast in November. It really worked for "The X-Files" as well, before they took the series to sun-drenched LA.
DC: How did you gain your distribution deal for the film?
JC: We shot in Canada and were able to secure funding through Telefilm, which is a government program that helps finance Canadian productions. In order to qualify, you need to have Canadian distribution attached. We had challenges there because of the climate of film at the time. There was no one willing to get behind a film shot under $10M, let alone a first-time filmmaker. We finally lucked out with Union Pictures in Toronto. We also obtained additional funding through other film avenues, as well as independent financing through a former co-worker and friend, Lance Priebe. Lance created Club Penguin, which is a virtual world for kids that Disney purchased. Lance had followed my successes and fully believed in my ability. He and his wife Kim came on as executive producers and really helped make the film happen.
After the release of the film in Canada, we eventually secured distribution in other countries, including the US, where it is distributed by Naidomi.
DC: What changes did the script undergo before the film went before the cameras?
JC: A month or two before production, the distributor insisted on a major change to the story, which was pretty tough as it was an idea that was really the spark of inspiration for the story. The original script included bookends that revealed why Donovan was going through this experience. Essentially, Donovan realizes that all of his déjà vu experiences were a result of him living the same life over and over again, a concept known as eternal recurrence. He is continually thrown back into this cycle until he figures out what he needs to do, which involves Maggie. Between the two of them, there’s a greater good for the rest of the world. The original script ended with Donovan dying, realizing what had been happening. With his dying breath he tells himself to remember next time. We showed Donovan’s rebirth, which we had been given a glimpse at during his near-death experience after his heart-attack earlier in the film. We then had a quick montage of different choices he made throughout his life, leading to an alternate timeline in the present. Everything we’d seen during the movie suddenly makes sense. But the distributor, as supportive as they were, felt that audiences wouldn’t get it. We had no choice but to remove the “new life” bookends, and come up with an alternate ending, or else we wouldn’t move forward.
I’m pretty passionate about my ideas, and I’ll try to be as strong as I can about what I’m willing to let go of, but in this case it was either find a solution, or don’t get the movie made. At the very least, we never had options pushed on us, and they allowed Melodie (Krieger, Cliffe's partner and co-writer) and me to come up with the solution ourselves. After a couple weeks of depression over losing what I felt was the gem of the story, a new angle started to emerge. And truthfully, the bookends were really just 5% of the story – albeit a meaningful 5%. What we came up with seems to have worked, and through audiences I’ve met at some of our screenings, many people were touched, some even with tears. So, I’m glad it worked in the end. I’ve come to appreciate it, but it was definitely a hard loss.
DC: If you had to pick two or three films to compare Donovan's Echo to, what would they be?
JC: A Beautiful Mind comes to mind, as Donovan is a mathematician and his sanity comes into question with what he thinks is happening. Unbreakable is perhaps on a similar note. Our story takes its time to unfold, Donovan is trying to figure out what’s happening to him, not unlike Bruce Willis’ character. Plus, that movie had a supernatural theme with a dramatic core as we have. Lastly, Hearts in Atlantis is a fair comparison as it’s the story of an older man with a unique gift (psychic) and his relationship with a child. Like HOA, Donovan’s Echo has a lot of heart to it. We’ve unfortunately been marketed as mainly a thriller, which is pretty misleading. Our story deals with loss, regret, and redemption. It’s also occasionally funny.
DC: Is this a closed story, or is there an idea for a sequel there?
JC: It’s pretty closed. With earlier drafts where Donovan was experiencing eternal recurrence, I thought it might be interesting if we could somehow have a short film depicting a moment of déjà vu within one of his other lives, as part of a marketing campaign. That would have been fun. A little ambitious, but a fun idea regardless.
DC: What's the next film you're doing? Do you hope to work with some of the same cast?
Melodie and I have a couple of new scripts we’re working on. We just finished one that is similar in tone as DE, but with an extra-terrestrial theme. We’re drawing inspiration from the events of Roswell, but a different UFO crash in a small community, shrouded in conspiracy. It’s essentially a father and son story, where the son is trying to get the truth about his dying father’s claims of an event on the family ranch in the 1950’s. We have a bit of Project Blue Book stuff in there as well, and some fun time-bending twists and turns. We were fortunate enough to have such a talented cast with DE, it’d be a pleasure to work with any of them again.
DC: How is it working with your real-life partner when writing scripts? Many arguments or differences of opinion?
JC: We make a very great team. We occasionally have conflicting opinions, but we debate our differences by each explaining why we think something is or isn’t working. Whoever has the most compelling case wins. We have a lot of mutual respect, so we don’t take things personally or get into hateful arguments when we disagree. It’s not in the best interest for our story or our relationship. The way we write is that we’ll spend the bulk of our time just working out the story within a 3-act structure, figuring out our characters and the beats we want to hit. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that continually shifts and changes. Once we have a pretty solid foundation, we begin to write. I’ll take pages 1-5, and Melodie 6-10, and then we’ll trade off and go over each other’s work. Once you start writing, you start discovering new things, and the story begins to change. You find little moments to work into a scene that lead to something else. It’s a fun journey, but it’s exhausting. You have to be committed.
Donovan Matheson is a brilliant mathematician who, as a young man, helped to develop the atomic bomb. Obsessed with making a positive contribution to the world, Donovan neglects his family, which results in the accidental death of his wife and daughter.
30 years later, Donovan returns to his family’s home and as the anniversary of the tragic event approaches, he discovers an unsettling similarity between random events of the present and events that occurred in the past.
Convinced that history is repeating itself, Donovan risks everything to break the cycle and save an unsuspecting family from the same tragic fate.
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