It’s a rainy Monday morning in mid-town Toronto, and I’m sitting down with Akash Sherman, the writer/director of the feature film Clara. “I just want to share my enthusiasm for space with people,” Sherman tells me. Clara, his second film, is a heady sci-fi drama that’s also wistful, probing, and unapologetically sentimental.
Sherman describes Clara as, “A sci-fi drama about an obsessive astronomer and a curious artist who collaborate together and find a connection with each other.” His goal was to create a story about two very different people finding common ground. “I think their questions about the universe is what is bonding,” he told me. “It’s just emotionally grounding, these two and having these conversations feel real was most important to me. All the science and all of the visual and artistic elements just kind of followed.”
The concept for Clara struck Sherman like a lightning bolt and forced him to change his creative process. “When I wrote the first iteration of this film, I sat down for 7 hours straight after being bored in class.” After that, he wrote whatever came to mind, something he usually doesn’t do. “I figured out the ending while I was writing it, I don’t generally work that way. I usually start with the ending, find a framework, and I find an ending that caps off the story that I feel will be impactful. This story in particular, though, came step by step. I just kind of felt my way through it.”
Clara deals with difficult to grasp concepts that would make Neil deGrasse Tyson’s head spin. Sherman didn’t study science in school, but he does consider himself a science guy, or to put it in his own words, he’s “A science enthusiast.” The beauty of Clara is that it takes mind-bending concepts like entanglement and makes them easy to understand. “It was definitely a goal of mine to introduce these concepts to audiences who might not be familiar with them and kind of let that sink into their subconscious.” Sherman also noted, “There are elements of this film that experts will love.”
Sherman sites sci-fi staples Contact and Interstellar as inspirations for his work. “I really love that film [Interstellar] and how it combined a relationship between a father and a daughter and space and all that stuff in between,” he told me. “I love that film. I loved Contact when I saw it. Those definitely give me the confidence that telling heady space material but infusing them with human love is something that will resonate, and I really hope that Clara can do the same.”
“I really wanted this movie to feel like a science drama, not a sci-fi drama,” he said. “But I couldn’t allow myself not to go sci-fi by the end. I just think these concepts are so rich, these scientific concepts are so rich that I wanted to let my imagination go wild by the end. I would say that this is a scientific human story and then the last 5%, will hopefully, knock your sci-fi socks off.”
Clara’s poignant themes lingered with me long after I left the theatre. The picture conveys a palpable sense of longing and you feel the filmmaker’s earnest sensibilities. “I think the thematic material of this film was very important to me while I was writing it as kind of a healing process,” Sherman said. “Knowing I had big questions about life and death. I thought, taking a larger perspective on it, thinking about space, the universe, atoms, how we all came to be was a really cool way for me to frame what I was kind of thinking about at the time. I wanted to really tell a story like this, so I can hopefully speak to the hearts of people who feel a little lost in a universe that is really big.”
Sherman tells me that he grew up in a home without religious labels. “We’re just human beings living on a planet. I never had any kind of school of thought growing up, I just figured out what I want to believe in.” But Clara also champions its own a scientific brand of spiritualism. He tells me, “I think the film is very respectful of people of faith because it validates that believing beyond what you can just see with data is totally fine. What I’m trying to do with this film is bridge both. Showing a lot of respect for the connectivity that people get from belief while also showing the value of science.”
“There is a climactic discovery in the film and the science around how that discovery is made has not yet been talked about before.” Sherman’s eyes widen, and he leans in as he tells me more. “And because of that, the science advisors on the film wrote a research paper based on that part of the film, and it’s been published in The American Astronomical Society. So, it’s one of those unique cases where fiction actually inspired real science.”
Let’s see J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson top that!
Clara arrives in theatres across Canada on November 30.