Original-Cin Review/Q&A: Clara Filmmaker Shoots for the Stars (and Mostly Reaches ‘Em, Too)

By Jim Slotek

No matter how early you make your splash, there’s always some prodigy making you look like a slacker.

Case in point: 23-year-old Akash Sherman. The Edmonton-raised, Toronto-based filmmaker releases his second feature this week, the ambitiously written astronomy-themed romance Clara, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival.

A scene from Clara.

A scene from Clara.

And the film — about Isaac, a by-the-book planet-hunting astronomer with a tragic past (SuitsPatrick J. Adams) and a New Age-y young research assistant (Troian Bellisario, Adams’ real-life wife) who brings him a fresh perspective — earned Sherman a mention in a science journal for his innovative thoughts on how to search for life in other star systems.

Original-Cin’s Jim Slotek talked to Sherman about being bored in film school, writing about relationships, and nerdy science stuff. Scroll down to read Jim’s review of the film.

Original-Cin: Congratulations on accomplishing so much at a young age. I see you only did one year at Ryerson film school. I’m not sure if that makes you a role model or not.

Akash Sherman: “Film school’s great for learning basics in editing and cinematography. But I found it really tough as a writer-director because you learn by trial and error, and there wasn’t enough trial.”

OC: Is it more important who you meet at film school than what you learn?

Sherman: “That’s true. My friends I made in Ryerson are my best friends today, and they worked on this film too.”

OC: So, did the planet-hunting part of this story occur to you first or the romance?

Sherman: “The story I like to tell is, I was in art history class in my second semester, dead bored (laughs), and thinking that the people we were learning about in class were all known for creating something. I promised myself by the end of the day I’d have a story written. So, I went to my dorm room for seven hours straight writing whatever came into my mind. And I ended up with this story about space and love and it kind of came at the exact same time.”

OC: Nobody just comes up with plot devices like ‘quantum entanglement’ off the top of their head…

Sherman: “A lot of those kinds of details came later. Troian, who plays Clara, actually brought up the idea of quantum entanglement for one of my earlier drafts. I didn’t even know what it was at the time. And she really sparked that in me and I figured out how to put that in the film.”

Director Akash Sherman.

Director Akash Sherman.

OC: You’re saying she’s the nerd.

Sherman: “Everyone on this film is a nerd (laughs)! Patrick and I definitely went down the wormhole a few times with crazy ideas.”

OC: You’re very current with the science. Like Isaac using the TESS telescope (a planet-hunting survey satellite launched just this year).

Sherman: “Well, after I wrote the first version, James Ewasiuk — a close collaborator of mine who I wrote my other feature (The Rocket List) with — came in to help. And he and I did four months of research via Google. And we learned a lot about the Kepler telescope and transits and things like that.

“And the final details came from experts, astronomers like Dr. Doug Welch from McMaster, Dr. John Moores from York University and Dr. Barth Netterfeld from U of T. Almost everything was vetted by them. It’s so vetted, in fact, that the climactic discovery in the movie, which I’ll refer to vaguely, turned out to be an original idea. The advising scientists decided to take that math and it got published by the American Astronomical Society.”

(Remaining vague, in the course of the movie, Isaac comes up with a unique approach to searching for evidence of advanced civilizations. The article is called Simulating Transits at the L1 Point).

“Dr. Welch gave me full props for it. He said, ‘That is a really interesting way to think about it, and I’ve often thought that would be the way to go about it.’ They credited me as a scientist. I’m published! So, that’s really cool.”

OC: Did you ever want to be a scientist?

Sherman: “I think I would love to be a scientist, but words always made so much more sense to me than numbers. I’m Clara, in real life (laughs). I have a creative mind that’s intrigued and inspired by science.”

OC: …which is the dichotomy between Clara and Isaac.

Sherman: “He’s obsessive and she’s curious and I wanted to see the conversations that would come out of that. Both of those qualities are me, so… (laughs).”

OC: You wrote dialogue with yourself.

Sherman: “Right. My left and right brain talking to each other.”

OC: Writing a romance isn’t easy, even for people who’ve been married a few times.

Sherman: “The thing is I don’t see this as a romance. They’ll probably market it as a romance, because the lead actors are married in real life. Distributors know better about how to get butts in seats. But it’s not a romance. I really dislike referring to it as that. It is a love story in that love is a binding bond between two characters. But it’s just two people connecting for a bit.”

Clara: Canuck Sci-Fi Romance Showcases Big Concepts, Great Storytelling

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B

The question of whether science and “feelings” can be reconciled is practically a personality test. And it’s central to your appreciation of the three-hankie tragic romance Clara, about an emotionally wounded astronomer whose search for exoplanets is enriched by a vivacious and unlikely assistant.

A solidly written sophomore effort from 23-year-old filmmaker Akash Sherman, the movie debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and shows a sure-handed storytelling career that’s just getting started.

It also benefits from its cosmological theme —the mostly NASA–provided photos and effects being used cannily to give Clara the look of a much higher budgeted movie (though some of heightened galaxy mashups are uncomfortably reminiscent of the scene intros they use on The Big Bang Theory).

When we meet Isaac (Patrick J. Adams), he’s addressing an astronomy class where he goes full Vulcan on an idealistic student on the subject of love — using a chalkboard and the famous “Drake equation” to “prove” that there’s a higher chance of finding life on other planets than there is of finding love.

We’re talking damaged.

While on a forced sabbatical, with encouragement from his best friend (Ennis Esmer), Isaac decides to continue his planet-finding work from his home computer and advertises for an unpaid research assistant. Wafting into his door with her dog is Clara (Troian Bellisario), an itinerant, New Age-y young woman with no math skills or even a high school diploma. But she seems to have a knack for Isaac’s game, and soon she’s living in the guest room, and instinctively finding planets in the “dips” of light emanating from stars that have objects moving “in transit” in front of them.

The personal narrative of Clara is Isaac’s past pain, which is revealed in due course, and Clara’s own hidden issue (which is hinted at in those aforementioned Big Bang Theory “spells” she has from time to time).

Sherman’s objections notwithstanding, Clara is a romance, albeit an interrupted one — kind of what you’d get if you crossed Carl Sagan’s Contact with Erich Segal’s Love Story. But the level of sophistication in the storytelling is impressive, and Isaac’s attempts at Vulcan logic notwithstanding, it’s a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve.

Clara. Directed and co-written by Akash Sherman. Starring Patrick J. Adams, Troian Bellisario and Ennis Esmer. Opens across Canada on November 30.