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Filmmaker Jim Cliffe on making a Superman movie

‘Man of Steel’ fan and filmmaker talks about the character that inspired his acclaimed short film “Tomorrow’s Memoir”

Guest Columnist : Jim Cliffe

So there I was, my red cape tucked awkwardly inside my pants. My buttoned-up plaid shirt concealing the bright blue top underneath – one that bore a strange red ‘S’ symbol that the world has come to know.

As I walked through the crowd, I wondered if and when I may need to make a sudden change. And where would that be? The far side of the building? A bathroom stall? Or the clothes closet inside my grade two classroom? It would be empty right now anyway, as every kid was outside playing on the monkey bars, swing sets, and other displays of youthful exuberance in the warm sun.

Did I mention it was warm? And that the blue top bearing the ‘S’ symbol, worn underneath my buttoned plaid shirt, was actually a Superman sweater. A very thick winter sweater.

Needless to say, there were no emergencies that recess requiring the assistance of a 7-year old superhero. But if there were, I was ready! Although in retrospect, I’m grateful that I didn’t need to reveal the cape my grandmother had made for me, because the truth was this – I wasn’t really Superman. Although I felt that maybe, just maybe, like young Clark Kent, my parents hadn’t yet told me that they’d found me outside of a crashed rocket ship that landed somewhere in British Columbia, Canada a few years earlier. I really hoped that was the case.

So how did this all start for me? The details are a little foggy now, but I do remember the lead up the summer before. The pictures that were popping up in the magazine stands – Christopher Reeves posing with his reaching fist, about to take off in flight before a New York city (er, Metropolis)backdrop. I’ll also never forget the TV spot of Clark Kent running towards the camera, pulling open his dress shirt to reveal the super outfit he wore underneath. That image blew my mind, as well as the concept – an every day person who had an incredible secret that he needed to keep from the world in order to protect it.

Superman was my introduction to superheroes. And I needed to see this movie. Fortunately, my parents wanted to see it as well. So one cold evening, my brother and I, both wearing our PJs, sat anxiously in the backseat of the family car at the local drive-in. While listening to the now-iconic theme song through a crackly speaker mounted on my father’s window, we watched a man in a blue suit fly.

I’m certain a lot of the plot was beyond me (Lex Luthor’s wacky real estate scheme, the politics of Krypton), but there was enough story there for me to follow. And to also believe. At that age, it was hard for me to distinguish between a make-believe movie and something that was possibly true unfolding before my eyes. I didn’t know that movie-making was a business. A movie was just this thing that sucked you into its world for a couple of hours, where you sometimes completely forget your surroundings. And boy, did Richard Donner know how to do that – the ethereal opening on Krypton, the very Americana scenes depicting Smallville, and the action thrilled climatic ending. In 1978, you really did believe a man could fly.

That movie, and another little film about a war in the stars the year before, captivated my young imagination beyond anything else, and inspired a creative fuel that’s been burning inside ever since. It wasn’t enough to wear the cape, collect the trading cards, and read the Mad Magazine adaptations (which was as close to reliving the movies as you could in an era of pre-home video rentals – especially with Mort Drucker’s amazing art depicting what was on the screen so well) – I needed to somehow bring my imagination to life.

I would draw obsessively as a kid, trying to recreate my favorite movies in comic format. I’d also animate little scenes on the corner of notebook pages – hundreds of pages. By my teens, I was making goofy short videos with my friends. Still, the notion of making a real movie, particularly while living so far outside Hollywood, seemed as impossible as the idea of flying. Then again, Superman and his ability to fly represents both hope and possibilities. Eventually, with the indie film movement of the 90’s, and the accessibility of digital technology, that notion of making a real film (or digital one anyway), seemed more possible. I only needed one thing. An idea.

The inspiration came to me in an unexpected way, through The Far Side. The brilliant Gary Larson depicted an old Clark Kent with his cape and old man pants, about to fly out of his apartment window. Standing on the ledge, he turns to old Lois, trying to remember what he was going out for. The concept stuck in my head and I thought this was possibly something to explore. While Superman and his colleagues continue to stay the same age in the comics as the years roll past, where is that guy from 1938 today?

I started drafting out an idea that would be a subtle exploration of a retired, bitter superhero looking back on his life, while a new crisis builds that requires his help. Pulling together limited resources, ‘Tomorrow’s Memoir’ was shot on the weekends and a few evenings over the course of a month in Kelowna, British Columbia with some Vancouver pickups. Friends and family helped while local actors and crew volunteered their time. It was a fun experience and I was certainly grateful for everyone’s enthusiasm.

Writer/director Jim Cliffe with Stephen Jefferys in ‘Tomorrow’s Memoir’

Actor Stephen Jefferys stars in Jim Cliffe’s award-winning short film, ‘Tomorrow’s Memoir’

‘Tomorrow’s Memoir’ went on to win at the San Diego Comic Con in 2005, and found an audience online. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to make my first feature, which, like ‘Tomorrow’s Memoir’, also explores loss, reflection, the supernatural, and the theme of hope – which is an important tool for survival. Hope allows us to hold on a little longer when we’re in our darkest places and push beyond barriers. I had to smile during the ’Man of Steel’ trailer when Supes tells Lois that his ‘S’ is actually not an ‘S’, but a symbol for ‘hope’ on his planet of Krypton.

As MOS quickly approaches, I can’t help but feel nostalgic towards my childhood. I’m no longer that little boy in the backseat of a drive-in movie, but Superman still resonates with me, as it does for millions of others. The concept of a superhero, someone who’ll look out for humanity, is a soothing idea. Particularly during difficult times. That’s why these stories have lasted for so many decades. Besides the pure escapism they offer, the heroes alsorepresent our own alter-egos – the best of who we’d like to be and the things we’d like to be able to stand for.

I look forward to MOS, and the future incarnations.

For more on Jim Cliffe visit :

Jim Cliffe on Facebook

Jim Cliffe – Official Site

Donovan’s Echo – Official Site

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