How I Made Summer Night — Even Though the Money Fell Through a Week Into Shooting

Actor Joseph Cross on how he fulfilled a childhood ambition by directing his first movie, thanks to a crew who went above and beyond.

I grew up in a small East Coast town where we made our own mischief and excitement. It was in this tiny suburb of New York City that I first became interested in movies, and by the time I was eight years old, I was shooting “films” with friends using their parents’ video cameras. My ever-supportive parents recognized this passion early on, and when I told them I wanted to become an actor, they did all they could to turn that fantasy into a reality. With their love and support, I began a child acting career that would go on for the next 25 years. Over the course of that time, I was fortunate enough to work with some of the most talented filmmakers, but it wasn’t until I was approaching my 30th birthday that I reconnected with my own filmmaking ambitions.

Joseph Cross with Rosie O’Donnell in Wide Awake (1998)

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Jordan Jolliff’s script for Summer Night was the piece of material I had been waiting for. It was a music-themed, romance-driven, small-town story of American ennui that I felt a real personal connection to. I had lived these characters’ lives, struggled with their dilemmas, and felt I could accurately portray their existence on screen. I told Jordan I wanted to direct his script, he was supportive of that idea and, with the help of James Ponsoldt, we set out to make it happen.

Early in the process, I realized that I was in the fortunate position of having a lifetime of contacts and connections that I could call upon to try and bring this film to fruition. Actors responded positively and were eager to attach to the project, but financing proved evasive. It was “too domestic” of a product, didn’t feature a traditional “hero’s journey story engine,” and was very “execution dependent.” Despite having put together an exceptional cast, the project lay dormant for about 18 months. During that time, my wife got pregnant and gave birth to our first child, Amelia. As newborn Amelia and I strolled up and down our street, I would daydream about Summer Night. Parenthood have given me a deeper connection to the film’s Seth/Mel storyline, which deals with an unexpected pregnancy, and the more time I spent in my role of new dad, the more frustrated I became with the film’s stagnation. It was right around this time that, through a series of people, I was introduced to a would-be financier who said he wanted to fund the movie. We paired this person with another funder who came in for the initial costs of pre-production, and suddenly we were off to Newnan, Georgia, to shoot Summer Night.

Joseph Cross and his wife Audrey Tommassini with their daughter Amelia during the filming of Summer Night

But all was not as it seemed.

CUT TO: Six weeks later, eight days into shooting … the financier responsible for the lion’s share of the budget had not made good on his promised investment. He had continually reassured me that the money was coming, while in the same breath giving increasingly unlikely excuses for why it had not yet arrived. The wheels started to come off — we missed payroll for week one. Petty cash had dried up. In order to keep production running, I began to put everything possible on an American Express card. After five days, the balance hovered close to six figures. I wasn’t worried at first, because I had been reassured that the financier would pay it back, but as time went on, I started to get a sinking feeling in my stomach. What if something was seriously wrong? What if this person had been lying and stringing us along this entire time? I couldn’t figure out why someone in their right mind would do that, but what if he was? I was desperately trying to get a read on what was really going on, while continuing to shoot 13-hour days, and falling deeper and deeper into credit card debt.

Joseph Cross on the set of Summer Night

Then, the other shoe dropped — the Screen Actors Guild issued a stop work order to the actors. The SAG deposit had not been paid. The bottom had fallen out. I was sick to my stomach. As a member of SAG for more than 20 years, this was deeply humiliating and it was the final nail in the coffin. We couldn’t go any further. After one last conversation with our “investor,” it became clear to me that this person did not actually have any money at all. He’d concocted this image of himself as a wealthy film investor, which turned out to be pure fiction. With no path forward, and nearly $100,000 in person credit card debt, we had no choice but to shut down production. I set a meeting with the crew for early the next day, then went back to the place I was staying and Googled, “how to file for bankruptcy.”

The next morning, I gathered the crew to let them know what had happened. It was one of the most difficult moments of my life, as I had become very close with these people and had seen them put an extraordinary amount of work into this film. I promised to take the footage we had back to Los Angeles, edit it, and try to cobble together the rest of the financing. I knew this was an unlikely route to success, but it was the only thing I could imagine doing at the time. We sat in silence, defeated, when the most miraculous thing happened — members of the crew starting putting their hands up to become investors. Our cinematographer, costumer designer, stunt coordinator, locations manager — they believed in the film so much that they wanted to put in their own money and become executive producers. Right then and there, we got back up on our feet.

Actors Ellar Coltrane, Victoria Justice and Nazarena Nobile with Joseph Cross’ daughter Amelia

At this point, my wife, Audrey Tommassini, who had no prior filmmaking experience, became a producer on the film and she was extraordinary. Audrey and I spent our days working the phones, fundraising to bring in the rest of what was needed, and spent our nights shooting the movie. Friends and relatives became investors, our moms came down to Newnan to help with Amelia while we were filming. It was nothing short of miraculous. Michael Fitzmaurice, our cinematographer, told me at the start of the shoot, “Every movie has its Hearts of Darkness moment,” referring to the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. I don’t think he realized how prophetic his words would be in the case of Summer Night. The film became a true labor of love and a group effort. I am eternally grateful to the financiers who understood the vision for this film, and saved it from collapse.

Ellar Coltrane, Hayden Szeto and Bill Milner in Summer Night

Our movie was as arduous a journey as one could imagine, but I grew far more as a filmmaker – particularly as a producer – than I would have if it had been smooth sailing. I believe that the creation of any piece of art must be fueled by passion, whether that’s the passion of a 200-person crew on a major studio movie, or two kids fumbling around with a video camera in their parents’ backyard. For me, making Summer Night was a dream come true, and whatever setbacks the film encountered, we overcame with the love and passion of our cast and crew. I am thrilled to be on the cusp of sharing that hard work and dedication with the rest of the world.

Joseph Cross started acting at a young age and has appeared in numerous films and TV series including Netflix’s Mindhunter, HBO’s Big Little Lies, Lincoln, Milk, and more. Cross’ directorial debut Summer Night, a coming-of-age movie about a young, tight-knit group of friends fall in and out of love over the course of one intoxicating, music-filled summer night, is in select theaters from July 12 through Samuel Goldwyn Films.