Long-time director Michael Cross will see the world premiere this week of his feature debut with the gender-swapping political comedy Second Nature. The film stars Collette Wolfe (Hot Tub Time Machine) and Sam Huntington (Superman Returns, Detroit Rock City) as small-town mayoral campaign rivals whose lives are turned upside down after they’re magically transported to a mirrored reality where gender roles are reversed and women are in power. It’s not your typical body-swap comedy, but it definitely deserves an honored place in the subgenre.
We got a chance to talk to Cross about his inspiration for the long-gestating movie, a project funded through Kickstarter; what it was like to film it in his hometown, and to direct his famous photographer cat; how he pulled off such a well-crafted comedy on a limited budget and schedule; what the world would be like if women ruled, and much more.
The director has also given us an exclusive first-look at a pertinent clip from Second Nature, which you can watch here below at the end of the interview.
Geeks Of Doom: Second Nature marks your feature film directorial debut, and you also co-wrote and produced it. What inspired you to write this gender-swap storyline?
Michael Cross: Gender behavior has fascinated me for a long time. You know — why do I as a man behave differently than you do? Is it all hard wired nature, or the nurture of countless generations passed down to us? With this in mind, my team of female and male co-writers, J.C. Ford, Edi Zanidache, and I, wanted to explore what the world might look like if the entire world flipped.
Geeks Of Doom: There’s been body-swap movies like Freaky Friday and gender-related ones like Switch and The Hot Chick, but you did something unique in Second Nature. Instead of swapping the male and female lead roles, you swapped everyone else around them, while keeping the leads the same. How did you come up with that idea?
Michael Cross: You’re right — there have been a lot of films that essentially take a man and put him in a dress. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tootsie and Some Like it Hot. It was 7 years ago that I originally came up with the idea of flipping the entire world (I still have the coaster with my drunk scribbled handwriting) which opened a lot of doors to thinking about gender behavior in a whole new light.
Geeks Of Doom: Your election subplot where a man and woman run against one another for office is perfect timing for what’s happening in the U.S. Presidential race right now. Wouldn’t it be great if real life was like your movie script? (I was really thankful that your male lead didn’t grab anyone in the pussy.)
Michael Cross: Yeah, the timing of Second Nature’s world premiere with the current election here in the United States is kind of uncanny. Especially considering we started writing the script about 7 years ago.
Geeks Of Doom: Speaking of the leads, the casting for the film was great, and there’s some nice chemistry. I love Sam Huntington from his KISS-obsessed character in Detroit Rock City, and in Second Nature, Collette Wolfe really transcends her role from the raunchy comedy Hot Tub Time Machine. What were you looking for in your leads, and how did you select these performers?
Michael Cross: Collette and Sam were a dream come true for me as a director. Going into the casting phase I was initially focused on actors who could really do comedy well — and they both certainly do. But I was blown away by the earnestness that Collette brought to her character, and the nuance Sam brought to his. It was interesting how different their approaches were for this film, with Sam always looking for the comedy in each scene, and Collette searching for the honesty and truth for the character. This resulted in each scene playing out really naturally. It was also fun to see them become friends during the film shoot — on one of their days off they went fishing on the Yakima River.
Geeks Of Doom: I particularly enjoyed Carollani Sandberg’s performance as Amanda’s (Collette Wolfe) best friend Nat, and felt that she was a standout. She was great in both worlds. Tell me a bit about the actress and her role in the film.
Michael Cross: Thanks for mentioning her — Carollani is a gem. Like several members of the cast, she was involved early on in public script readings for Second Nature. Over a few years, Carollani read the part of Nat in three very different iterations of the script. And her role in the final version of the script was essentially written for Carollani because she was such a natural fit.
Geeks Of Doom: Originally Lee Majors, of Six Million Dollar Man fame, was cast as Mayor Gleeson. Was the character supposed to play a more substantial role initially?
Michael Cross: We had originally written the mayor as a larger role. But when it came down to it, we realized the story was taking too long to get going, and didn’t really start until his character dies. Sorry — spoiler alert! So with the reduced role in the final script, it didn’t work out to get Lee for it. But he promised to be in my next film as long as he doesn’t get killed off in the first scene!
Geeks Of Doom: When the present-day portion of the movie starts, it’s a little tiny bit raunchy, which I didn’t expect from you, Michael! But it did fit into the story without being gratuitous, so kudos for that. What made you decide to go that route early on in the story, and what did your mother think of you doing that, young man?
Michael Cross: It was important to set up a little raunchiness early on so that when you see it “flipped” in the other world it doesn’t come out of left field. My mother loves a good laugh, so I think she’s willing to overlook it…
Geeks Of Doom: The original music by The Filthy Hypocrites in Second Nature is very catchy, especially the song “Fight Like A Girl.” How did you go about getting the music created for the film? Being from the Seattle area, I’m guessing you just called Pearl Jam first, but they were busy?
Michael Cross: So glad you liked the music. I totally lucked out with the music in two big ways. First was my composer, Mateo Messina. A good friend of my brother’s who has become a good friend of mine over the years. He won a Grammy for scoring the music for Juno, and I absolutely love the life that he breathed into “Second Nature.” Between the Hollywood films he scores and the symphonies he composes, it’s pretty damn cool he made time for my little indie comedy. And the songs by The Filthy Hypocrites. OMG — so perfect. Was introduced to them by an old high school buddy. When I asked them to first come up with a ‘theme song’ for the movie, they said they’d come up with something and let me know when it’s done. A leap of faith and a month later they presented “Fight Like a Girl,” which fits the films theme. A bit of trivia for when you’re watching the film again: Any time Amanda’s (Collette Wolfe’s character) phone rings, her ringtone is the midi version of that theme song. It’s also been my personal ringtone for the past few months, and I get goosebumps every time I hear it!
Geeks Of Doom: One of my favorite parts in the film is when in the flipped world a heterosexual Brett is pressured by a group of women to kiss another man for their enjoyment. I think that moment really captured what women go through, yet it made me laugh so hard. How did you find the balance between the humor and the sad reality of the plight of women?
Michael Cross: In our script readings we got some really helpful feedback in this department. It was important to me to have a balance between serious moments and comedy. There were scenes in previous versions of the script which we found out came across as too preachy. So I’m really glad you were able to laugh at what’s happening on screen while appreciating the social commentary at the same time.
Geeks Of Doom: In the film, Amanda experiences female privilege for the first time, which is elating. I would imagine it’d be very tempting for her to stay in that world. Without giving anything away, did you always know you’d end the film the way you did?
Michael Cross: In so many ways the world would be a better place if women ruled the world. It has been proven that gender equality improves national productivity and competitiveness, just as companies with gender equality perform better. So you hit on one of the toughest challenges my co-writers and I faced — coming up with enough reasons for Amanda to want to return to the “real world.”
Geeks Of Doom: I’m a woman, so I know what it is to live in a male-privileged world, but when I saw it so plainly put in front of me in the film, it really blew my mind. It’s one of those “it’s funny because it’s true” scenarios. Is that what you and your co-writers were going for?
Michael Cross: Male privilege is so built into society — in the vast majority of countries — that it can be difficult to even identify. It’s systematic. So by flipping gender stereotypes in the entire world, I want people to see themselves and their own behavior more clearly. Toward the end of the movie the audience finally get into Bret’s mind as he shares his frustrations about being trapped and marginalized in the flipped world. “All this is a complete exaggeration,” he complains. And instead of delivering a lecture, Amanda simply replies, “Trust me – it’s not.”
Geeks Of Doom: Who do you think this movie will appeal to? I watched it with my college-educated 23-year-old, and she laughed out loud many times throughout, as did I.
Michael Cross: As you mentioned, the movie is a little raunchy at times, so Second Nature will likely get a PG-13 or R rating. I think both women and men will find humor, something meaningful to them, and characters they relate to.
Geeks Of Doom: We met through social media when social media first came into existence, so I know a bit about your family. While chronicling the making of the film, you gave your dad, David Cross, who was also one of the Associate Producers, some major props for his skillfulness as the Catering Maestro. How was it to work with your dad? Are you still his favorite child after this?
Michael Cross: Both my parents were hugely supportive of my dream in making this movie. My dad recently retired from his long career as a pharmacist, so his newly open schedule and his passion for cooking for large events was key to feeding my cast and crew. He has an amazing heart. One evening after a long day of filming, most of my team was eating soup in my parents’ kitchen, and he raised a glass, a tear in his eye, and simply said “Thank you all for helping my son make his movie.”
Geeks Of Doom: I loved how the town of Louisburg becomes Ellensburg in the flipped world. That picturesque location is your home town, right? What made you decide to shoot there? Was it so you could get Aunt Cyndi to slave away at Craft Services?
Michael Cross: Yes, while I live in Seattle now, Ellensburg, Washington is my hometown. So most people there were already used to me taking over one part of town or another to create elaborate scenes for a movie, going back to when I was 8 years old. It really is a beautiful place, perfect for the small town setting we needed for the film. The scenes that take place in the City Manager’s office were filmed in the actual City Manager’s office at Ellensburg City Hall. And you can’t beat all the support I got from friends and family there. My brother Erich is a realtor and was really helpful in finding the right locations (like the cliff we needed for the car crash). And thanks for mentioning my Aunt Cyndi — she worked around the clock. Craft services is not an easy job. She told me when we wrapped that if I was to do another film and I needed her, she’d do it again in a heartbeat. But if anyone else asked her, they could go fu#% themselves.
Geeks Of Doom: Speaking of working with family, was that Cooper the famous photographer cat I saw (co-author of and creative force behind Cat Cam: The World of Cooper the Photographer Cat? I know he’s very independent, so was he difficult to direct? Truthfully, I was hoping for some second-unit photography from Cooper.
Michael Cross: Yes — you spotted a cameo by the internet-famous Cooper the Photographer Cat. He wasn’t in a great mood that day so his part ended up a bit shorter than had been written. But we had greater feline difficulties. My producer Nicholas Gyeney’s cat was appearing in a different scene when he went berserk and 5 people (including myself) were bit or badly scratched. Indie filmmaking is not glamorous!
Geeks Of Doom: So, I spotted your cameo near the beginning of the movie, but I was hoping to also see your beautiful and talented wife Deirdre. Did I miss her? And are there any other cameos we should look out for?
Michael Cross: Most of the crew ended up filling in as ‘background’ at some point or another, given we didn’t have a budget to hire extras. Three of my aunts can be seen in the “Honkers Restaurant” scenes (and its flipped version later in the movie). You’ll see my producer Nicholas Gyeney and co-writer Edi Zanidache as the male construction workers who give Amanda and Nat a tough time near the beginning of the movie.
Geeks Of Doom: I know you financed Second Nature through Kickstarter and beat your original goal of $55k. How was your experience with crowdfunding?
Michael Cross: Crowdfunding is a great way to create awareness about your project but can be tough to execute successfully. There’s a perception that all you need to do is create a Kickstarter page and then just sit back and watch the dollars roll in. You really have to put your full ass into it every day of your campaign and get creative — which is difficult to do without all of your friends and family getting annoyed with you! Make sure your crowdfunding budget is enough to complete your film. Or, if you are using both investors and crowdfunding for your project, I highly recommend getting your investors to ante up first, and then complete the budget via crowdfunding. Otherwise you’ll be promising rewards to your crowdfunders that you can’t necessarily deliver if your investors fall through.
Geeks Of Doom: Did you cast a lot of locals, and maybe not give a role to that jerk Brad who bullied you in high school?
Michael Cross: We held auditions in Seattle and in Ellensburg — but don’t worry — I gave that jerk Brad the wrong location. Haha. A few locals were cast, and a large number of them showed up on days that we needed extras, which was great.
Geeks Of Doom: You filmed the movie in a mere 21 days. How in hell, dude? And what challenges did you face?
Michael Cross: If my co-writers and I had come up with a simpler story with just a few locations, 21 days might have been reasonable. But in Second Nature, almost every scene is in a different location, or it is the “flipped world” version of a location. It wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless work of Susan LaSalle, one of my producers who has helped since this project since its conception. Our days were packed and exhausting, with the constant worry of not getting everything we needed before our last day (and our budget wouldn’t allow for additional days). The very first filming day was a disaster. Due to a camera equipment glitch, everything we shot on day one was unusable. Blarg! We figured out a way to add some extra crew on another filming day so we essentially had a second unit shooting other scenes simultaneously as we reshot day one. Phew!
Geeks Of Doom: Is your family still speaking to you after working under your tyrannical rule during filming? I kid, I kid, Michael, you’re the sweetest. But seriously, are they done with you?
Michael Cross: Yeah, I really did ask a lot of my family, and they came through big time. Because we didn’t have enough budget for a hotel rooms for cast and crew from Seattle, many of them stayed in guest rooms of friends and family in Ellensburg. As far as we know this hasn’t really been done before on a film production, but it ended up creating some nice friendships.
Geeks Of Doom: And wait, where was the rain? What kind of alternate reality Stepford Wives universe is Ellensburg’s located in?
Michael Cross: You’re thinking of Seattle. =) Ellensburg is on the other side of the Cascades, where it is mostly dry. And windy. Our hair stylist did not have fun with all the wind!
Geeks Of Doom: And where was the Moon? I have no schooling or training in filmmaking, but one thing I’ve learned from my decades of reviewing independent films is that the Moon is contractually obligated to make at least one appearance. I’m just concerned about lawsuits and what not.
Michael Cross: Ah, shit. I’m going to have to have Doug Lyons add the Moon to one of the night shots. He handled all the visual effects — and there ended up being a lot more than I originally imagined. Every time someone’s phone rings or gets a text message you’ve got to digitally add in the appropriate screen. With everything shot in Ellensburg, lots of signs in the background had to be rewritten as “Louisburg” for parts of the movie. And the VW Beetle at the end of the movie… I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but let’s just say Doug had to digitally repaint that car frame-by-frame in order to get it the color I wanted.
Geeks Of Doom: Second Nature is making its world premiere on on November 10, 2016 at the Napa Valley Film Festival – is that anything like The Fucking Catalina Wine Mixer? Where else will audiences be able to see the film? Also, will there be an Instant Video type of release?
Michael Cross: The Napa Valley Film Festival is a really great festival with a lot of Hollywood players involved. We have three different screenings there, and 25 of my Second Nature cast and crew will be there for the world premiere. We’re hoping for a wide release early in 2017 — I’ll keep you posted when we have a date!
Geeks Of Doom: Any ideas for a sequel? Maybe where we return to the town to find it’s become a dystopia after the election of President Donald J. Trump, and you use the magic mirror to show the Trump voters where they went wrong? Or, maybe just see how your ending held up, I don’t know, it’s up to you, it’s your sequel and shit.
Michael Cross: Ha! I love it. Or maybe the prequel, which we’d really have to call First Nature.
Geeks Of Doom: What other projects do you have lined up? If there’s a sequel to 13 Going On 30 or a Hot Tub Time Machine 3, I think you’re the man for the job. Also, feel free to cast me in any of your movies where Benedict Cumberbatch plays my love interest.
Michael Cross: My co-writers and I are busy working up another comedy script. Can’t share details yet (other than Benedict specifically requesting you, Eve), but I think it’s going to be amazing.
Geeks Of Doom: As always, Michael, it was a pleasure talking to you, and as an old friend, I can honestly say I’m very proud of you! I’m so glad you made a film I’m not embarrassed by, but can instead brag about how I know the director and how he’s planning on casting me in his next film as the love interest of Benedict Cumberbatch (with, I’m guessing, at least one love scene). Best of luck with Second Nature at the Fucking Napa Valley Film Festival and beyond!