Accomplished writer, director, and visual effects artist are credits not normally attributed to your average 23-year-old. At just 22, Akash Sherman wrapped his latest feature film Clara, which premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival and saw its theatrical release last Friday. The Medium sat down with Sherman to discuss his script writing process, shooting on UTM’s campus, and the significance of telling a story about finding life beyond earth.

Clara follows an astronomer, Isaac Bruno (Patrick J. Adams), consumed by his cosmic search for evidence of life. As he delves deeper into his obsessive research, he meets an artist named Clara (Troian Bellisario), who shares his same fascination of finding what more exists beyond our world. The two characters, coming from very different natures and perspectives, collaborate over their common ground curiosity to make a groundbreaking discovery.

When asked to describe what his initial writing process is like, Sherman says, “As I come up with an idea that hopefully strikes me like lightning, I’ll write out as much of that concept as I can on paper—just kind of vomit it out. Then I’ll take the story beats and go through them one by one to get a structure, and afterwards, I’ll go to scripting.”

Although fictitious in genre, Clara is largely rooted in scientific concepts and on real-world astronomical studies and instruments. Having always had a vested interest in outer space, Sherman set out to learn as much as he could about astronomy, the tool to helping understand space, prior to writing the story. He explains, “Although I didn’t get formally educated on astronomy, while writing this film, I thought it would be a great way to explore those ideas. The scripting process involved a lot of research—I did about four months of research on astronomy, NASA, and the telescopes that they’re using, by reading academic papers. So really just burying my face in lots of reading.”

In addition to writing and directing the film, Sherman created the remarkable visual effects seen on screen, all with Adobe After Effects on his Mac Pro. Coming from a background in the effects and valuing the visual experience of his film, he “wrote the script with those effects in mind and just how much I wanted to show. I didn’t want too much spectacle in this film; I wanted to use it sparingly for the right reasons and the right moments.”

Many scenes in Clara alternate locations between NASA buildings and a university setting, some of which were shot at UTM. “Isaac starts out as a professor in the film and a lot of the science in the film is academic, so there are a lot of research labs and lecture scenes. We shot on three different campuses: Ryerson for some interiors, maybe one scene around the U of T campus downtown, and then a lot at U of T Mississauga. The primary reason for that is I think it’s just such a beautiful campus—the buildings there, the architecture is stunning. Some of this film takes place at NASA, and I really thought that we could double some of those buildings at UTM.”

Recalling how he first met lead actors Patrick J. Adams and Troian Bellisario, Sherman says Adams was the very first person on his list to play the character of Isaac. “It was kind of serendipitous—he had gone to high school with my producer in Northern. So, we reached out to him first and he responded to the script with lots of great ideas.” Adams’ then-fiancée Bellisario is a writer herself, and after discussing the script together, Sherman knew “she was the perfect fit to play Clara. She had just finished her show Pretty Little Liars, and so it all kind of made sense that we would end up working together—Patrick, Troian, and I, and our cinematographer Nick Haight, who had previously shot a short film that they wrote and directed. We kind of became a family unit before we went to camera. I think one of the best things I could do as a director was to let these two very smart actors do their thing and give them space to try things. They really made the characters their own.”

When he was nineteen, Sherman was enrolled in his first year of film school at Ryerson University and would have graduated this Spring had he continued with his program. Instead, he returned to Ryerson Theatre a few months later for his TIFF premiere of Clara, describing it as a “full-circle graduation.” In regard to audience reaction, he says, “I hope that this film speaks to their minds and their hearts. On the emotional side, I hope that they find parts to connect with and take some of that with them. On the science level, I would love for them to feel like they got a bit closer to astronomy and what we’re doing in real life—what NASA’s doing with their telescopes that are really going to revolutionize our ability to find habitable planets and potentially life beyond earth. It would just be amazing to spread awareness about what’s going on.”

With so many topical issues on this planet to tackle, telling a story about finding life beyond earth has never been more essential. For Sherman, a vast part of the film is two very different people connecting, and their curiosity for the unknown is what brings them together. “I think most human beings can relate to each other in wondering what else is out there. I think we all ask big questions, whether we have different points of view or come from different backgrounds—we’re all kind of team earth.”

“You ever feel like when you’re looking at news apps, a lot of the news is just really depressing? I find that when there’s some sort of article about having discovered a potentially habitable planet or we just launched a telescope or the Cassini spacecraft says its final goodbye, just those kinds of big picture ideas to me are really positive and are something that most people can collectively say that’s cool. I think something like space exploration can really send more positive vibes out into a pretty volatile world right now.”

Watch Clara in theatres now.