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Sunscreen Saturday: ’12 Months’ is a new kind of romance movie

Bill DeYoung

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Clark and Ellie on a date in "12 Months." Says writer/director Clinton Cornwell: "This is a work of fiction, but it almost felt like making a documentary, in that we were going there, we were filming the circumstances, and we kind of were discovering the story as we went along." Screengrab.

Premiering Saturday at the Sunscreen Film Festival, 12 Months is unlike any pre-existing romantic movie, dramatic or comedic. It’s a hyper-realistic portrait of two young people as they navigate the ups, downs and in-betweens of a new relationship.

It’s serious, and it’s funny. It can be cute, and it can be emotionally devastating.

In short, just like real life.

12 Months was completely improvised, by the two lead actors, by those playing their friends, and by writer/director Clinton Cornwell. Once a month, they’d get together and talk about the latest goings-on in their own lives, then sketch out what would happen to lovers Clark and Ellie at that point in their on-screen relationship.

Then they’d roll the cameras.

“We’d made several totally improvised films before 12 Months, and so we really wanted to build upon that formula,” Cornwell told the Catalyst. “To ramp up the realism of a romantic film. I think we all watch romantic comedies, but they don’t necessarily portray the circumstances that we all live in the day-to-day. We really wanted to try and capture that.”

The lack of artifice, of a traditional (and predictable) rom-com story arc, breaks down a wall between Clark (Michael James Kelly), Ellie (Elizabeth Hirsch-Tauber) and the viewer. We’re taking this journey with them.

“We started with an idea: OK, this first month is going to be a first date,” said Cornwell. “There wasn’t a set beginning or end of the scene: These are our two characters, we’re putting them into this circumstance, and we’re going to see how they react to each other. And we’ll see what the result is.

“After the first month was done, THEN we started writing the second month. Throughout the whole process, we were open to wherever these characters were going to go, where the story was going to go. We filmed it over the course of a year, in little ‘month’ segments just as it happens in the film. We didn’t write all those segments out ahead of time, like you traditionally would with a script.”

So it was an experiment. The reason, Cornwell said, was simple:

“When you start a relationship with somebody, you don’t know where that’s gonna go. You don’t know what’s gonna be important, what’s not gonna be important. We didn’t want to can the whole thing because that’s not how real life works. That’s now how relationships work.”

Lucky for Cornwell, Kelly and Hirsch-Tauber understood what he was looking for. They understood that it was a risky business.

“I was anxious throughout the whole process,” Cornwell explained. “because I had to trust that Michael and Elizabeth, especially, were going to be into this whole thing, were going to be dedicated, and everybody was going to stay healthy … I feel so much gratitude and good fortune and love for Elizabeth and Michael to go on this wild journey with me. And to be open to learning and growing together as a team. I credit a lot of what the film has become to those two people.”

Over the course of a year, the romance hits peaks and it hits valleys. Appropriately, the ending may not be what the audience is expecting.

“The experience of 12 Months is about the details,” Cornwell said. “It’s about the nuances of the scene and not so much about the plot, overall. Where this relationship was gonna end up was not planned at all.”

Writer/director Clinton Cornwell, writer and star Elizabeth Hirsch-Tauber and associate producer Kelly Brandt will conduct a Q&A following Saturday’s screening of 12 Months (1:30 p.m., Green Light Cinema).

Info and tickets here.

12 Months – Official Teaser Trailer from Clinton Cornwell on Vimeo.

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