Science and Serendipity: Akash Sherman Talks 'Clara'

Patrick J. Adams and Troian Bellisario star in Akash Sherman's Clara
Courtesy D Films
Clara will make audiences gaze up at the stars with wonder. It’s science fiction done right with big, thoughtful questions about the great beyond. The film intertwines questions of love and loss as melancholy scientist Dr. Isaac Bruno (Patrick J. Adams) feverishly dives into a search for life beyond our galaxy. His research gets a boost when an ethereal stranger named Clara (Troian Bellisario) comes into his life and shifts the cosmos, putting unquantifiable variables like love into the equation and deepening his quest. Isaac’s sense of the universe expands as his longing to know more about the galaxy, life, the afterlife, and that grey zone between scientific evidence and heartfelt belief all become intimately connected the deeper he probes the cosmos.

There are many big ideas in Clara, but their entanglement works remarkably well in the hands of writer/director Akash Sherman. It has a firm grasp of the sense of scale a project needs to make audiences both think and feel about the questions it asks. Rooted in science and a genuine passion thoughtful storytelling, the film uses the basic elements of the genre—deep questions and considerations of our place in the universe—and builds upwards, blending realism and fantasy as smartly composed yet sparsely used visual effects keep the production well within its range of possibilities. 

Clara is an impressive sophomore feature by any measure— and it’s doubly so given that Sherman was only 22 when the film finished production. (His DIY debut The Rocket List debuted in 2015.) Ask Sherman how he got to be sitting in the offices of Canadian film royalty with producer Ari Lantos (Stage Fright, Remember) and his road to making the film is about as lucky as finding a planet in a galaxy far, far away. In the offices of Serendipity Point Films, the company built by Lantos’s father Robert where posters for Canadian films like eXistenZ, Black Robe, and Barney’s Version adorn the walls, Sherman offers a tale of science and serendipity—chance encounters, stars aligning, and good storytelling.

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PM: Pat Mullen
AS: Akash Sherman
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

PM: What were your favorite sci-fi films growing up?

AS: I’m probably more inspired by fantasy, but I love Star Wars. Also The Prestige for how it plays with time. Going further back, I do love 2001: A Space Odyssey. I see it once every few years and it always smacks me in the face.

PM: Have you had a chance to 2001 on the big screen? I've only watched VHS a few times – widescreen VHS, but still.

AS: I actually saw it on 70mm at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Pretty amazing.

PM: I bet. You've accomplished a lot for someone who finished this feature only at the age of 22, so I’m curious, when did you start making movies? Did you do things like those 48 Hour Film Challenge events during high school?
production shoot man woman
Troian Bellisario and Akash Sherman on the shoot for Clara
Courtesy D Films

AS: In terms of picking up a camera, I started when I was around 10. When I was 16, I really took writing and short films seriously. I made my first short film then and we managed to get it into a couple of festivals. I kept doing the short film festival route and then I ended up doing a competition [Cine Coup]. It wasn't a 48-hour challenge, but it was like a grueling competition of seven weeks or so. I came runner-up in the national competition. We didn't win, but I'm glad we didn't. It was a good humble pill at that age. I was 18.

PM: The experience alone must have helped with this.

AS: I actually met someone there and got a business card. His name was Ari Lantos. Two years later, I moved to Toronto and I pitched him Clara. Now we're working together.

PM: I read about the pitch and was impressed. In university, whenever we'd have guests, they’d get a lot of pitches and business cards—you could just see them roll their eyes sometimes or, you know, make conversation and offer encouragement. But you did it and it worked. It went the whole way through. Can you tell me about what that pitch was?

AS: Our meeting was very serendipitous. It's funny because… [Waves arm around in the office of Lantos’s Serendipity Films.] Ari and I want to make the same kinds of films—high concept films with a lot of heart. He was just in the right frame of mind and it was the right time. He had just seen Interstellar, which he really loved. I loved that movie too. He was looking for something in space that involved lots of emotion.

I actually didn't plan to pitch Clara to be honest. I had another project I was trying to pitch, which he thought was a bit too big budget-wise. I had written Clara as a passion project and I spoke about it honestly without any prepared elevator pitch. He really connected with it, so I went home, tweaked the 18-page treatment I had, and sent it over to him. He loved it.
man writing on white board
Patrick J. Adams stars as Isaac in Clara
Courtesy D Films

PM: Clara is so interesting because it is rooted in science, and I understand it has been well received by the scientific community. What was your research process? How did you balance it with your schoolwork?

AS: I did about four months of research after my first year of school and I didn't end up going back because I got to write the script. That became my full time gig. I did a lot of good old-fashioned Google research with my co-story writer James Wozniak. We learned about telescopes, like the Kepler Telescope and the TESS Telescope, and I infused that research into the story. The finer details came along with our science advisors closer to production.

PM: What about in terms of the visuals? How much of what we see is rooted in the NASA research and how much is your own imagination?

AS: I would say about 75-80 percent of the visual effects are real. There are actual elements, like our sun and the nebula imagery from the Hubble telescope. Those are public domain and we just needed permission and then put credits in the end. They're free and NASA is amazing for that. There's so much more that could have been used. The other 25 percent of the visuals are my creative impressions—those cosmic moments of the film.
PM: And how was it overseeing a visual team after doing your own visuals on your previous works

AS: I still did most of the visuals! There are four to six shots that we did with a company called Intelligent Creatures. I think the initial direction was very clear and so I didn't have to look over my shoulder at all. They're really good at what they do. About ninety percent of the visual effects I did in my apartment.

PM: What did you use?

AS: Mac Pro and Adobe After Effects.

PM: Really? That’s impressive. You’ve also worked on the visuals for films like WolfCop. What did that teach you about the effects process?
Troian Bellisario stars as Clara
Courtesy D Films

AS: WolfCop was great for that. That was my first professional VFX gig. It taught me about the pipeline, like the process of making effects—who something needs to go to, when they need it, and when the shots come to me. That was a great primer going into Clara so that I could deliver my shots while overseeing all aspects of the movie.

PM: What about your age? Was that a factor in terms of people taking authority from someone so young?

AS: I'm happy to say that it wasn't. There was definitely some skepticism in the earlier stages with financing. People wondered if a kid could helm this film, but with the actors, especially the two leads, I got to know them quite well months before we started shooting and we got into a very comfortable place during rehearsals, and it was fine. They trusted me and I'm really happy with what we got.

PM: I wanted to ask about that since Patrick Adams and Troian Bellisario are a couple. Could you just step back and let the magic happen for Isaac and Clara?

AS: Yes, actually. They were able to act as strangers in early scenes when the characters met, but there were moments where I would just let the camera roll, especially when Clara and Isaac really started connecting and formed their bond. I told them, "Do you right now." We would just roll for 15 minutes or so and found some really special bits where it felt Patrick and Troian like were just being real.

PM: The theme of loss is so strong in this film too. What did you draw upon, if you don’t mind me asking?

AS: I lost my grandfather when I was writing this film. That was a real crushing blow to my family. Our universe was turned upside down. We didn't have any warning. That really informed how I wrote this film and tackled some big questions about our existence. At the end of the day, even though it was tough, I found a lot of strength in telling this story because there was a purpose behind it. I want people who have suffered loss to connect with this film and have a sense of optimism, primarily my mother because it was her father. Seeing her reaction at the TIFF premier was really touching.
Clara Akash Sherman
Courtesy D Films

PM: Do you think those the questions of the search for life “out there” and the search for the afterlife complement one another?

AS: I think there's a nice optimism to both—that yearning in people, whether they’re a scientist or someone needing to heal their wounds spiritually. There’s optimism in the idea of finding life forms or in finding a bigger sense of life around people that you already know or have known. It's that searching that I really wanted to touch on. And I think in both scenarios, Isaac and Clara are searching for the same thing.

PM: Clara really reminds me of Contact with those themes, sort of in the way that Jodie Foster’s character was looking to explore space, but also searching for her father. It also reminded me of Contact with the use of audio. I really like the way the film incorporates the sonification research of Isaac’s friend Charlie (Ennis Esmer) into the soundtrack. Can you talk about that process? I haven't heard anything like that.

AS: That is all down to the composer. His name's John Kawchuk, who actually went to high school with me. He released an album called North where he baked in real sounds of the Earth with nature and wind blowing into his music. He created a soundscape in a song and I thought it was so beautiful. We brought him on board with these crazy ideas to have sonification of the data in the music. He took sounds from NASA’s Voyager probe and converted those into a synth. They're baked into almost every track of the film. An artist like that really goes far to find the texture of the ingredients that we're working with.

PM: Who is Dr. Jill Tarter? I understand she gets a shout out.

AS: Dr. Jill Tarter is from SETI, which is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. There's a scene towards the end of the film at SETI and, in the background, you can hear an intercom say, "Paging Dr. Tarter." I love her work and one of our science advisors had a lot of conversations with her about finding life. It really inspired a lot of this from so, it just felt right.
PM: And now that you’ve seen your project come full circle, what advice would you have other up and coming filmmakers?

AS: I think you need to be your own champion. If you don't believe in your idea enough then it's going to be hard to get other people to believe in it. If you know what you want to do, plant your foot and do it—and ask for help a lot. Invite other people into the process.

Clara opens in theatres Nov. 30.