TMT had the opportunity to chat with filmmaker Jim Cliffe on Donovan's Echo, his evolution from short films to his feature-length directorial debut, the origins of the project, shooting in Canada and working with stars Danny Glover and Bruce Greenwood.
1. How much did the success of your short Tomorrow's Memoir help get Donovan's Echo up?
Tomorrow’s Memoir helped in the sense that it demonstrated that I had an ability to direct. It won at the San Diego Comic-Con and caught a bit of attention online, but ultimately, it's still a short film, and there's a big difference between that and a financed feature. My goal was to try and make the leap from a short to a feature, so I knew I had to write something worthy enough for people willing to get behind it, and using the short as means of attaching myself as a director. Donovan's Echo was my first attempt at writing a feature (co-written with wife Melodie Krieger), and it became an award-winning screenplay, which was a nice boon. I thought I might be doing something right.
Because of those screenwriting competitions, we were hearing from producers and companies in LA, but no one wanted to take that chance on me directing. As one director of development told me, "You could have fifty award-winning shorts, but financiers only see first-time feature filmmaker." So we still had an uphill battle.
In the end, I brought it to a producer in Vancouver that I'd known for a few years, Trent Carlson (Fido, The Thaw). I'd worked with Trent before as an artist. I knew he and his partners were developing their own projects and probably wouldn’t be interested in producing for someone else. If anything, I thought he might be able to steer me in the right direction. But he liked it, and believed in my abilities.
2. Did you consider making a feature-length version of Tomorrow's Memoir your first film? If so, why did you decide to nix that in favour of something else...
Not really. I think the premise would be pretty tough to stretch out over a couple of hours. I was drawing inspiration from things like The Dark Knight Returns – a retired superhero returning one last time. But the approach was to disguise that fact and make the audience wonder who this man is and why he's being pursued. I think you’d have to reveal the truth much earlier in a feature than I did in the short.
3. Where did the idea for Donovan's Echo come from?
The idea was sparked by a moment of déjà vu, which I’ve experienced many times. I started thinking this could be something to explore, and discussed it with Melodie (my wife and co-writer), who was an aspiring writer, and asked if she wanted to get involved. From there, we started breaking down ideas, characters, etc. One of the things we came to early on was that our protagonist should be older with a certain amount of life experience and regret.
4. Was it hard to entice Danny Glover and Bruce Greenwood to do the film?
Somehow it was easier than I would have ever expected. We're a smaller film (just under $3M), so I didn't have big expectations as far as casting choices. But we had a casting agent in LA and she put some names together for Donovan. We saw Danny's name in there, and something just sparked. He seemed like a very ideal and interesting choice. We put it out to him, and I think he got back in just a couple of weeks and said he wanted to do it. I was stunned. The movie just took a giant leap upwards. Apparently, he connected with the character and equated a few things to his own life, like his background in mathematics and dyslexia.
From there, we started talking about Finnley, and Bruce came up. Again, he seemed like a fantastic choice. We put it out to him, and he also responded relatively quickly. He liked the script, and was keen to work with Danny. He also has a home in Vancouver, where we’d be shooting.
For a first-time filmmaker, to get guys like that, it just never really happens. I was very thrilled they responded to the material and were willing to take a chance on me. It’s a fun movie with twists and turns, some humor and heart.
5. Were you a Lethal Weapon fan? Did Glover share any stories about it or any of his other past hits with you on set?
I was a huge Lethal Weapon fan, which is mostly where I knew Danny from, even though I've seen many of his other films and knew that he was someone with a lot of talent and range, like his performances in Witness and The Colour Purple. We didn't really get into the LW series much, although we did talk about Wes Anderson and The Royal Tenenbaums. He enjoyed that experience and mentioned that he had just seen Wes the other day. I'm a big fan of Anderson’s films too.
6. Where did you shoot, and what were the positives/negatives of the locale?
We shot just outside of Vancouver in a couple of smaller communities, Fort Langley and Maple Ridge. The bridge was even further away. About a two hour drive from where our main production was. All the locations were very ideal, cinematically-speaking. The biggest challenge was that we just had so many – Donovan's house, the hospital, the Manhattan Project, the grocery store, Kit's garage, etc. We had a 20 day shooting schedule which was very tough to fit everything in. You can only do so many setups a day. Most films of our size try to condense and keep it to a handful of locations – I believe we had over 40. We were pretty ambitious, but I think we succeeded in the sense that people seem to assume that it's a bigger film than it is. A lot of that is due to Danny Glover and Bruce Greenwood being attached, but it's also a good looking film. I give a lot of credit to our fantastic production designer, Grant Pearse, and cinematographer, Bob Aschmann, who really raised the bar.
7. What are the release plans for the film?
We did a film festival run in the fall of 2011, and had a theatrical release across Canada last February. But, it's just coming to the States now on May 21, which I'm excited about. It'll be available on demand, digital download, Amazon, Redbox, Walmart, and such. We're just trying to get the word out and hope people discover it.
Donovan's Echo will be available on DVD, Blu Ray and Video On Demand in the U.S. on May 21. Check out their official site for further details.