Young adults are often confronted with a series of fast-approaching life decisions that will either leave them stuck in the comfort of adolescence or immediately catapult them into adulthood. That’s certainly the case for the new ensemble-driven comedy-drama, ‘Summer Night,’ which marks the directorial debut of actor Joseph Cross. The movie, which the filmmaker also produced, and was written by Jordan Jolliff, powerfully explores how spontaneous interactions can lead to life-altering choices, which ultimately compromise, or benefit, the teens’ futures. Audiences can now watch those actions, and ultimate consequences, unfold on screen, as the comedy-drama is being released in theaters and on VOD today by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
‘Summer Night’ is set on the last days of summer. Best friends Seth (Ian Nelson) and Jameson (Ellar Coltrane) are getting ready to perform—and party—at local rock venue The Alamo. But before the night begins, both young men come face-to-face with serious reality checks: Seth receives life-changing news from his girlfriend, Mel (Analeigh Tipton), and Jameson has to choose between his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Corin (Elena Kampouris), and a new girl he’s just met, the outspoken Harmony (Victoria Justice).
At the show, Seth and Jameson’s friends are too caught up in their own lives to be much help. Young rocker Taylor (Callan McAuliffe) romances his new crush, Dana (Ella Hunt), and awkward Jack “Rabbit” (Bill Milner) avoids his childhood friend Lexi (Lana Condor) after learning what she did at her sister’s wedding. These intertwining friend-dramas, which are fueled by a lot of drinking, unfold against a backdrop of live music performed by the best bands in town.
Cross generously took the time recently to talk about directing and producing ‘Summer Night’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the helmer discussed that he was drawn to make his feature film directorial debut on the movie because he felt that Jolliff’s script featured a fascinating, interweaving arc of the characters’ journeys, so he was interested in working with him. Cross also mentioned that he mainly cast the actors himself, along with the help of his fellow producers, without a lengthy audition process, because he spent so much time with the screenplay that he instantly knew what type of performers he wanted for each role.
The conversation began with Cross explaining why he decided to make his feature film directorial debut with ‘Summer Night,’ and describing his overall helming style. “The writer, Jordan Jolliff, and I had a mutual friend, Lucas Evans, who’s also an executive producer” on the coming-of-age comedy-drama, the filmmaker shared. “Lucas and Jordan were both working on the movie ‘The Circle,’ which James Ponsoldt was directing. At the time, I was working on a screenplay of my own that wasn’t very good,” he humbly admitted. “So Lucas sent it to Jordan, and Jordan was kind enough to give me some notes and help with it. But ultimately, it wasn’t working, so I said to him, ‘Send me anything you want, if you want me to read anything.'”
So Jolliff sent Cross the screenplay for ‘Summer Night,’ and the actor thought, “‘This is a wonderful script; I love it. Let’s see what we can do to try to make it into a movie.’ So Jordan and I started working on the script, and talking back and forth. Then about six months after that, I said, ‘I think I’d like to direct this.’ Jordan was on board with that idea,” the helmer divulged. “So we reached out to James, who was Jordan’s boss at the time, and asked him if he would be an executive producer, and lend his weight to the project. He was kind enough to say yes, and the project got started from there.”
With the movie following the group of young best friends as they’re confronted with a series of important life decisions, Cross cherished the process of setting the story in reality, and showing the change the teens are experiencing throughout the night. The filmmaker noted that he “grew up in a small town, and had aspirations of becoming a musician. So the movie was very personal for me, and all of the storylines rang true. So my job was interweaving them, which was part of the reason why we came up with the opening of the film. We used the geography of the town to tease every different storyline and the dilemmas the characters go through, right off the bat.”
Having the ensemble cast was something that Cross also appreciated, but the comedy-drama didn’t have a casting director. So he mainly cast the actors himself, along with “the help of my producers. I basically was watching films and TV shows that I thought were similar, and had a cast that I might be interested in. We then scoured the lists of people who might be part for the roles. We also had agents and managers approach us and pitch their clients. Through all that, I would shift through” which actors could potentially play each role.
Since the director spent so much time with the screenplay, once he found who he thought was right for each role, he knew he had to cast them. “I just knew they were right in my gut, so we didn’t have an extensive audition process. When I found someone who I knew was right, I would get on a call with them and their team, and go from there,” Cross further shared. “There were a couple of instances where people auditioned, but just to showcase one or two little things that I needed to knew that they could do and pull off. After I saw that, I would offer (the role) to them. So it was a pretty natural, organic process; I wasn’t looking to do big searches and auditions,” he further admitted. “When somebody was right, I just knew it, and I went after them.
Once the actors, were cast, the filmmaker had a lot of conversations with them, in order to build their characters’ relationships. “We had a lot of phone calls, as well as in-person conversations. I had a lot of one-on-one time with each cast member, and talked through their parts in the film. But we didn’t have a lot of actual rehearsal time. Instead, we went through the script and talked about individual scenes and lines, and sometimes changed things.” Once Cross and the cast arrived on the set for ‘Summer Night,’ they “didn’t have a lot of time for rehearsal, but in between takes, we’d come up with different ways to say or do things, to make them better, and switch things right there.”
Following up on the aforementioned ambitious opening sequence, during which parts of the entire town were shot from overhead, the helmer further explained how he captured the movie’s intriguing visual shots that showcase how the characters all relate to each other. Michael FitzMaurice served as the Director of Photography on the comedy-drama, and Cross noted that the cinematographer “is amazing and super-talented. He would take whatever I created, and make it that much more exciting. So there were things that I knew I wanted to do, like the opening credits shot over the waterfall.”
The filmmaker also wanted to include “the time lapse from the clock tower to the Alamo sign, heading down to the boys and then through the curtain…That was stuff I knew I wanted to do, and Michael was game to execute that with me. The cast was also on board. It required a lot of focus and concentration from everyone to pull off some of those longer takes. But I definitely think it’s worth it, because the audience gets to sit with the characters in real time, and experience what they’re experiencing…Wanda Morganstern also helped us find those great locations, and they turned out the way I was envisioning it.”
Following up on the locations, Cross further noted that ‘Summer Night’ was shot in Georgia, and enjoyed his experience shooting in Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs. He explained that he found the spots where he could film the comedy-drama in part through the help of producer Tara Ansley. She “grew up in Peachtree City, which is right down the road from Newnan. So she knew of Newnan, Georgia, and that it has this charming, small town feel, as well as this great music venue at the Alamo. So once we started looking at pictures of Newnan, we knew that’s where we wanted to shoot,” he shared.
“Once I got down there, I rode my bike around, and tried to find houses that looked right. Wanda would then talk to the people who lived in the houses, and see if they’d be interested in doing the movie with us,” the director further divulged.
Following up on the music venue at the Alamo, as well as the overall fact that the drama is set on the indie music scene, Cross also explained what his experience of creating the songs that are featured in the feature. “We had two great music supervisors, Rob Lowry and Rylan Soref. Rob and I started building the soundtrack really early on, and Rylan helped me find the bands in the film, including Ruby the RabbitFoot and Deep State…We looked through a lot of bands, and listened to a lot of different music, in order to find three bands who had very different sounds, and had lyrics that would mirror the emotional experience of the characters in the film,” he revealed.
In addition to directing ‘Summer Night,’ the filmmaker also served as a producer, and it was made independently. He then delved into why he decide to also produce the movie, and how he balanced directing and producing on the set. “It’s a lot of work. My wife, Audrey Tommassini, was my producing partner, and she did a fantastic job. What I was good at, in terms of producing, was helping to raise money for the movie, as well as casting and finding the crew,” he explained. “That was my focus, while Audrey was able to focus a little more on logistics and all the paperwork.”
The comedy-drama features intriguing visuals, as well as split screens, that show the characters’ journeys. Cross then explained was his process of working with the film’s editor, Raymond Wood, was like as they created the final version of the feature. “We built a lot in prep. When we then got to the edit, I loved working with Raymond; it was such a great collaborative experience for me.”
The helmer-producer added that they “took inventory of what we had, and watched every single frame that we shot. We also listened to every piece of sound that we recorded. We started piecing it together, and had to cut out a lot of stuff that we loved, and was painful to lose, but that material wasn’t serving the story and characters. There was also a lot of stuff that we didn’t initially know would be as important as it is now.”
Cross also admitted that “Any mistakes you made as a director on the set become glaring in the edits, and you have to dig to patch any holes that you might have. But the edits are a terrific part of the process. I loved being part of the editing process, as you feel more in control than you do on set. Again, I had a wonderful collaborator in Ray.”
After the editing was completed, the feature had its world premiere at this spring’s Atlanta Film Festival. The filmmaker then discuss what the experience has been like of bringing the comedy-drama on the festival circuit. “It was wonderful. We shot just outside of Atlanta, and had a terrific Atlanta-based crew. They were a passionate, hard-working group of people. So sharing it with them (at the festival) was a real joy.” Cross added that then “going to Rom Com Fest here in L.A., and winning the Audience Award for Best Feature, was spectacular, as well. You make a movie, and hope people enjoy it. People seem to be enjoying our movie, so there’s nothing more I can ask for.”
Now that Samuel Goldwyn Films has officially released ‘Summer Night’ in select theaters and on streaming platforms, the director feels that the dual distribution is beneficial for an independent movie like this one. “It’s a dream come true to have the movie be released throughout the country, as well as select territories around the world. When you make a film independently, you don’t know what your distribution is going to be, and if you’re going to receive distribution at all,” he admitted. “Thankfully, Samuel Goldwyn really felt the value in the film, and they’ve been passionate about it, so that’s who we decided to go with,” Cross said appreciatively of the distributor, and the deal he created with them for the comedy-drama’s release.