Look to the stars
When you look up at the stars, what do you see? Or, perhaps more importantly, what do you dream?
The search for signs of extraterrestrial life is at the epicentre of Toronto director Akash Sherman’s new film Clara. But, it’s not simply that search for signs of life that’s so grippingly examined in this film. It’s also the reason why we’re each looking for it in the first place.
“It is a sci- fi drama about an astronomer who is searching for signs of life up there, but his own life is kind of falling apart around him,” Sherman said during a media day at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
“He meets a very curious artist named Clara who doesn’t know too much about astronomy but is so fascinated by the cosmos and what might be out there. So, the two form a very close bond and they start searching together. And might even make a big discovery.”
For Sherman, who also wrote the film, approaching the idea of life beyond Earth from a scientific perspective and coming from a place of spirituality didn’t require two, mutually exclusive perspectives.
“For me, it’s not controversial at all, though I realize it might be to some,” Sherman says of the belief that there’s life beyond Earth.
“Me personally, as the writer of the film, I love science. I really do. But, there also is that kind of, spirituality in thinking that there might be something out there. And that we’re not alone.
“Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is one of my favourite scientists, talks about looking up at the sky and feeling a type of connectivity that’s almost spiritual. And I really wanted to touch on that.”
The title character of Clara, played by Troian Bellisario of Pretty Little Liars fame, views the search not from a perspective of faith but open curiosity. Meanwhile, Issac Bruno, played by Suits star ( and Bellisario’s real- life partner) Patrick J. Adams, comes from a purely scientific mindset.
“I thought it would be really interesting to have that conversation between someone like her and someone like Isaac’s character, who is very much closed off because of a recent trauma,” Sherman explains.
“And he’s a slave to rationality,” Adams says. “He’s a character who’s like, if you can’t prove it to me, then I can’t believe that it exists. Every day we experience things, mostly in our relationships to other people, where you can’t explain it. You can’t explain what love is. You can’t explain what the relationship between a mother and son or a father and a daughter. You can’t explain these things rationally. And I think that’s what Clara is there to service.”
So where do Adams and Sherman skew on the scale of science- versus spirituality in real life? Somewhere a little in the middle.
“I think I’ve always been more of a realist, but as I get older and I see things happen that I can’t fully explain, or things that happen in my life or show in my life exactly when I need them. There are things that I can’t explain why they happen or how,” Adams says.
“Science explains what it explains now, but there are things that we don’t understand. And we know there are things that we don’t understand. But we are always learning new rules, new patterns and new laws for how things work.
“For us to think we get it all now is real hubris.”
“I’m someone who loves science, but is also very optimistic that there is a little extra layer of something magic to the universe,” he says.
In addition to exploring the idea of life beyond Earth, the film, which was shot in less than 20 days in Toronto, provides a raw view of both love and loss; two themes that are much easier to wrap one’s head around than extraterrestrial life.
“As I was writing this film, I went through a very personal loss. I lost my grandfather, who was one of my best friends and a very good teacher to me. He taught me how to ride a bike,” Sherman says.
“That created a big hole in my universe. And I thought this might be a good place for Isaac’s character to start from.”
That immense sense of loss and the resulting sense of “giving up on the universe,” is where viewers first find Isaac. Adams pushed Sherman to allow him and Belissario to explore it to its limits.
“Akash had done such a good job of setting the framework in the initial script I had read, but then the depths of how far these characters had gone and could go wasn’t quite there yet,” Adams says.
“A big part of that was me saying, you’ve built this. Let’s get in there and go deep. We discussed some of the ways and how deep that could go and how bad it could get,” Adams says. “And hopefully we, as actors, could fill that.”
Troian Bellisario in Clara.