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VIFF ’11 Interview – Donovan’s Echo director Jim Cliffe

Donovan's Echo - At VIFF!
by Jason Whyte

“Donovan Matheson (Danny Glover) is a brilliant mathematician who, as a young man, helped to develop the atomic bomb. Plagued by regret in the years that followed, Donovan grew obsessed with making a positive contribution to the scientific community, neglecting family and friends in favour of personal and professional redemption. His neglect results in the accidental death of his wife and daughter. Overcome with guilt, Donovan withdraws from life and relationships for decades. Thirty 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.” Director Jim Cliffe on “Donovan’s Echo” which screens at this year’s Vancouver Film Festival.

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you plan to attend Vancouver for the screenings?

It is. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Could you give me a little look into your background and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

My professional background has primarily been in illustration and animation, although my love of movies has always been a creative driving force. Growing up, I loved making video shorts for fun, mimicking stunts and sequences from movies like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, but the idea of becoming a movie director didn’t really seem like a tangible goal.

Through my artistic work, I was hired on a local production in Kelowna as a storyboard artist for a sci-fi pilot. Parts of the production were shot at the Kelowna airport. Being on set, and finding myself somehow doing second-unit direction was exhilarating. I started to think making a movie of my own may be possible. I went back to school, taking the Film Studies program at UBC Kelowna, got involved with the Okanagan Film Festival Society, as well as the Okanagan Society of Independent Filmmaking, where I got involved on other people’s short films.

When I felt ready, I wrote and directed a short of my own. It was a 27-minute film noir called ‘Tomorrow’s Memoir’. I didn’t have much luck with the film festivals, partly because of its length, but it found a big audience on the internet. It was selected to screen at the 2005 San Diego Comic-Con where it won ‘Best Comics Oriented Film’, and received glowing reviews from Film Threat, DC Comics and Moviehole. It felt pretty good as a first attempt.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”

Superman, Indiana Jones, Han Solo… Knowing those weren’t possible options, I knew I wanted to be doing something creative. Cartoonist, comic artist, animator, possibly an actor.

How did this project come together?

After ‘Tomorrow’s Memoir’, my goal was to make the leap from a short film to a feature. I knew the best way of getting a project off the ground was to write something of my own. I had an idea that was inspired from a moment of déjà vu.

My wife, Melodie Krieger, is also a writer, and I asked her to get involved. We spent about a year fleshing out the story and writing a couple of drafts. We decided to submit it to a few screenwriting competitions as I’ve heard it’s a great way to get noticed. To our delight, it won third place in the 2007 Page International Screenwriting Awards. We started hearing from production companies who were curious about our script. However, attaching myself as director was an incredible challenge. As one company executive told me, I could have fifty award-winning short films, but all financial backers see is ‘first-time filmmaker’.

I brought the project to Trent Carlson of Vancouver’s Anagram Pictures (‘Fido’, ‘The Thaw’, ‘The Delicate Art of Parking’). I had known Trent for a few years when Anagram came to Kelowna with their first film, and had done some graphic work for them in the years that followed. Trent liked the script and brought on producers Andria Spring and Mary Anne Waterhouse. We went into a phase of development and wrote a few drafts, refining the story and making it more production ready. By last summer, Telefilm came on board and we were ready to go out to cast. Through some magic, Danny Glover agreed to sign on as our lead. Shortly there after, we got Bruce Greenwood. It was pretty amazing. For a first-time feature director to get established actors like that, is extremely rare. Melodie and I felt incredibly blessed with what our producers were able to pull together.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?

Production was probably the most grueling. Most scripts of our size try to limit their locations, stunts, etc. We wrote a very ambitious story with multiple locations, flashbacks, and stunts. We only had twenty days to shoot so it was pretty tight. While most studio films shoot about a page a day, we were shooting between four to seven.

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

I definitely had a certain aesthetic that I was after, which I discussed thoroughly with the team and our talented DOP Bob Aschmann. I wanted specific lighting, gentle movements, and as many dolly setups as we could handle. I also created some animatics and storyboards for much of the movie which was a helpful tool in communicating.

We had some shots that called for 48 and 96fps, and after doing some tests, we chose to shoot on the RED One camera which is used in more and more studio films. The camera really delivered and Bob brought forth his own talents and creativity, which also went beyond my expectations.

After colour-correcting at Technicolor, we transferred to 35MM for theatrical. I have to say I’m very pleased with the end result. For a film of our size, it really looks great.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

I grew up in the 80’s, so ‘Star Wars’ and the films of Steven Spielberg have had a major impact on me. In the years that followed, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and others, also showed that it was possible to break in via the indie circuit which I found very initrguing.

I didn’t have a specific overall inspiration for ‘Donovan’s Echo’, but I certainly thought about various films and filmmakers in some scenes.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

Something creative. I’d probably continue on as an illustrator, all the while pining about how to break into movies.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

Too many to mention… Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Kate Winslet, Johnny Depp , Amy Adams, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone…

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

It definitely has its importance; however, films are so subjective. Some of the best, most respected movies have received their share of bad reviews.

The fact is, making a movie is hard work. It’s a team effort and it really becomes a very organic thing. The end result is never exactly what you originally conceived. No one sets out to make a bad movie. Nor will anyone know if something’s going to be a hit beforehand, otherwise every movie green-lit by a studio would be a hit. It’s really up to the audience in many ways.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

I suppose playing in Hollywood’s famous Grauman’s Chinese theatre would be an honour.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start, and especially for those with films in the festival circuit?

I’d advise just getting your feet wet first. Meet other filmmakers; get involved in other people’s projects. Learn what works, what doesn’t, before you try something of your own. I’d also advise finding a story that speaks to you. Don’t try to recreate the current hot trend. Knock-offs are usually obvious, and don’t come from the heart. Make the movie you’d want to see.

How can people keep in touch with the film at this point in the festival circuit?

There’s the official site at, Facebook page as well as Twitter.

And finally, what is your all time favorite movie and why?

I have several, but ‘Forrest Gump’ holds a special place with me. I think that’s a movie that does so many things. It’s a wonderful story, beautiful cinematography, terrific performances, it’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s a nostalgic look at thirty years of Americana and the changing times. It also has a powerful score and fantastic soundtrack. Lots of adjectives.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF ’11 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #viff11 is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 09/30/11 01:05:14
last updated: 10/04/11 02:59:12
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