Jim Cliffe refers to it as the “miracle of miracles”. There he was, preparing to shoot his film, Donovan’s Echo, when somebody suggested pitching the lead to Danny Glover.
“We thought that was a long shot, to say the least, but we put it out to him and he really responded to it,” the Vancouver-based filmmaker says in a call to the Georgia Straight, adding that Glover’s eventual involvement precipitated the arrival of another heavyweight: the mighty Bruce Greenwood. “I think having Danny attached, it was a little easier to get Bruce,” Cliffe reckons. “It just had all the right ingredients for him to wanna be involved.” How’s that for front-loading your microbudgeted feature debut as director?
Those ingredients referred to by Cliffe, by the way, include an award-winning screenplay about an alcoholic mathematician’s traumatic encounter with the supernatural, a role that Glover feasts on as Donovan, a veteran of the Manhattan Project whose personal life is atomized by the deaths of his wife and child in a car accident. Returning to his hometown 30 years later (Fort Langley, in this case), Donovan finds himself in an increasingly spooky nexus of visions, signs, and coincidences reaching all the way back to that event—and suggesting more tragedy to come. In the end, the film plays like a moody cross between The Mothman Prophecies and Donnie Darko, with an admirably atypical hero at its core.
“We liked the idea of Donovan being an older protagonist,” Cliffe says, meaning himself and coscreenwriter (and partner) Melodie Krieger, “but it was a tough sell. We had a lot of encouragement from producers to rewrite it for a younger character. When we set out to write the story, just everything in our hearts was telling us this was about a person with some life experience, and it didn’t really occur to us that we gotta think box office, we gotta think youthful.”
Cliffe and Krieger deserve credit for beating the system, not to mention getting the film completed at all. “What I learned the most is just time management,” he says. “We’re a $3-million film and we had an ambitious 20-day shoot. Most films our size would just keep it to a couple of locations, where we’re here, there, in flashback, in a hospital, in school, in car accidents, and it was just go, go, go.”
Equally, in the spirit of the film itself, it seems that the director and his partners let providence guide their efforts. It was a series of small coincidences that led Krieger—an aspiring novelist but not a screenwriter at the time—to move to Kelowna and take a job at the same company as Cliffe. And it was an episode of déjà vu that gave Cliffe the idea for the film in the first place.
He describes the two of them “putting our heads down for a year” and hammering out their script. When they finally felt ready to enter Donovan’s Echo into an L.A.–based screenplay competition, it promptly came third out of 3,000 entries. “That told us that we seemed to be on the right track,” Cliffe notes of a project that, the more you look at it, seems to have been preordained. “Felt really good,” he says.
Watch the trailer for Donovan's Echo.