Jim Cliffe: The Voice Behind the “Echo” PDF Print E-mail
Written by Adam Donaldson   
Wednesday, 22 February 2012 00:00

Jim-Cliffe-Donovans-EchoFirst-time feature filmmaker Jim Cliffe discusses his new movie, Donovan’s Echo

Written By Adam A. Donaldson

In his debut feature, Jim Cliffe tackles the heady technical and psychological material that flows from one man’s journey as a key member of the pre-eminent science project of its time, to becoming a bitter and repressed old man struggling with either prophetic visions of doom, or delusions of his own fractured psyche.

And to think that it all flowed from a simple case of déjà vu.

In Donovan’s Echo, the title character played by Danny Glover is a former scientist on the Manhattan Project, who throws himself into a regret-fuelled pursuit of cold fusion before becoming discredited and then losing his family in a car accident. Now returning to the small town where his family died, Donovan struggles with the little things, like holding down a job at the local grocery store, as he becomes more and more convinced that some kind of doom is about to befall the little girl who lives next door.

“I thought it might be interesting to have a character with a set of tools to try and dissect what is happening around him, and I thought a mathematician would make an interesting character,” explains Cliffe.Jim-Cliffe-Danny-Glover-Donovans-Echo

An incident of déjà vu gave him the idea, which he later transformed into a story and then a full script with the assistance of this co-writer and wife Melodie Krieger. Together they fleshed out Donovan’s tragic background, including the idea that he worked on the U.S. atomic bomb development program.

“That was a pretty momentous moment in our history that hasn’t really been covered a lot in contemporary film,” says Cliffe. “I thought with that as a background to our protagonist it would really add a bit of a weight, as it did for a lot of people who were involved in that project.”

The fictional character of Donovan follows in the path of real-life Manhattan Project scientists who spent their years after the development of the atomic bomb working to regulate and contain the work they pioneered. “That’s the whole arc of Donovan,” Cliffe explains, “A new regret replaces an old one because in the end he feels bad that he helped bring this horror into the world. He spent the next 20 years trying to redeem himself by using his skills to come up with something positive for the world, and it consumed him so much that he put his family to the side.”

Cliffe was also conscious of getting the math right, as it were. Along with Donovan’s complex psychological motivations, he wanted to make sure the on-screen science looked plausible too. “I have a physicist friend who’s actually quite skilled in his field,” says Cliffe. “He was actually able to spot the problems in both Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind and told me that they were not that complicated.

“So knowing that there are people like him out there who can spot those things, though not many, I asked him to get involved so that [the problems] would seem plausible, even if you only see them for a split moment,” he adds. “I didn’t just want the art department to whip something together; I wanted it to have a basis in some sort of reality.”

But playing with reality was another goal that Cliffe tried to achieve with the script. “One of the things Melodie and I tried to do was design the story to put the audience in [Donovan’s] shoes so that the audience is experience things as he’s experiencing them,” he says. “Donovan believes something is happening, and the audience will tend to believe that too until Bruce Greenwood would debunk something, and he’s presented with a counter argument. So we tried to continually flip-flop; is he crazy or are these things happening and what do they really mean?”

donovans echoCliffe admits that he lucked out securing two quality actors like Danny Glover and Bruce Greenwood to lead the film. “We certainly wanted someone with the chops to pull that off,” says Cliffe. “When we had a casting agent put together a list of names, and we saw Danny’s name on that list, we thought if he’s interested, we didn’t need to look any further.”

As for Greenwood, “We wanted someone who could be a good counterpoint to Donovan and not just display a bit of compassion, but a bit of humour occasionally, and Bruce just had all those qualities as well,” Cliffe adds. “So as a first time director it was just an absolute dream to have these two gentlemen involved.”

Cliffe himself has wide-ranging background as an artist, animator and filmmaker. He developed his first comic strip with his brother Jason at the age of 11, and in 2005 his first film, a short called Tomorrow's Memoir, won Best Comics-Oriented Film at the 2005 San Diego Comic-Con.

“I think the ultimate goal has been to break into film,” says Cliffe. “I think growing up it seemed like a long shot, and I really just fuelled that creative energy into my art skills and built a career as an artist and animator. But ultimately it was just to satisfy the urge to create something visually.”

Coming up next, Cliffe is developing two scripts, one about a contemporary story influenced by Greek mythology and another one that deals with the history of UFOs.

In the meantime, Donovan’s Echo opens in Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Kelowna, Langley and Vancouver this weekend.