Tracey Thomas proves that age is just a number with ‘My First and Last Film’

When I started the film, I don’t think I had any wisdom to offer about being in your sixties. That’s why I started this film. I feel it’s hard because a lot of people have a different approach to being sixty. Everyone is going to do what they’re going to do anyway. But what I’ve learned from making this film for over the past five years is that age really is just a number. If you continually think about the number of your age, and where you’re supposed to be at that number, you’re going to be too afraid to move ahead, to move forward. I feel that’s going to hold you back. I feel now I can do anything. I don’t want to do anything or everything, but I feel, ‘Shit I just made a movie, that’s kind of a big deal.’

Tracey Thomas, filmmaker

Tracey Thomas’ film “My First and Last Film” starts with her looking at a kite flying in the wind. It’s a perfect opening to the journey she takes us on. This “multi-faceted story” follows Tracey’s journey in her sixties, while grappling with the loss of her boyfriend Dennis, who passed away from ALS. We accompany her on this five-year journey that’s broken in chapters. I had the honor of interviewing Tracey about her journey as a first-time filmmaker, and her transformation over the five years she made this film. Her story inspires me in my thirties to just go for it and not let your age define you. Earlier this week “My First and Last Film” had its world premiere in Arizona and will premiere at the Milwaukee Film Festival tonight at 7 PM. See details here: https://mkefilm.org/events/mff2019/my-first-and-last-film

Tracey Thomas looking up at kite in film “My First and Last Film”

REBECCA MARTIN: Where did you grow up?

TRACEY THOMAS: I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin. I live in Milwaukee now. It’s about 30 miles south of here. It’s a smaller city. We moved to Milwaukee in 1973 about a year after I graduated from high school, so I’ve lived in Milwaukee ever since. 

MARTIN: Were there any films that stayed with you that influenced your choice in being a filmmaker later in life?

THOMAS: I don’t think I’m that girl. There was no film that influenced me in wanting to be a filmmaker. I did enjoy films, I would go to films with my parents. But I didn’t go to like twenty films a week, you know.

MARTIN: That’s completely normal.

Tracey Thomas working on “My First and Last Film” with Dennis

THOMAS: But yeah, when I turned sixty, I was dating a filmmaker, and my girlfriend said, ‘You should make a film about women, older women in the workforce, in disparity, and why they can’t get jobs.” And I didn’t think anything of it, because it wasn’t in my wheelhouse. A year later, my boyfriend Dennis and I had been apart, and I wanted to get back together with him. I was like, ‘Maybe I should revisit that film thing.’ But then the idea was interviewing women and men and how they feel about reaching sixty, etc, etc. So I called Dennis, and I told him I have this idea. And he said, ‘that’s a great idea, actually’. So we did our research to see if there were any films like ours, and there wasn’t, so that’s how it got started. With his experience with filmmaking, I thought he’d be a good person to have on my team.

MARTIN: How did your team come together? I know you started with Dennis, and then you eventually got an all-female crew.

THOMAS: After Dennis passed away I did my grieving, and tried to get my life back to normal, that kind of thing. The film was still at the back of my mind, and I wanted to finish it. So it was kind of like baby steps. I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment, but I thought, ‘I’ve got to get this going again.’ I guess I felt healthy enough emotionally that I was ready to get going again. It had been really just nagging at me. My therapist said I had two choices, you could not finish the film, and feel bad about not doing it and always wonder how it would have gone, or you can do it, and have an amazing experience, and make it yourself.

Tracey Thomas movie still.

So baby steps, I went to the Milwaukee film office, which is our local film company here, they put on various events. I went to them, and I said this is my budget, and told them the whole story about Dennis and his passing, and asked how do I get started? They helped me and they told me the steps I needed to take, which is awesome. I met with Kristin (Kristin Peterson Kaszubowski), who was my first producer, and she helped with putting a team of awesome women together. I owe a lot of the momentum to Kristin, because she knows a lot of amazing women in the city. The women angle is, I just feel like women need a little more help with getting recognized in any industry, as you know. I always wanted to have an all woman crew. Even when we traveled to Arizona, we made sure that the people we hired were women. 

MARTIN: I think that’s great, it’s very important to give the opportunities there, and have women supporting women. 

THOMAS: Absolutely. I had strong female friends that were there for me, and I know there’s a lot of women out there who don’t have any close female friends. They are just kind of drowning and floundering, asking themselves, what do I do? After I got divorced I already knew in my head I always wanted to make sure I helped women somehow, even if it was in some small way. That’s my thing.

MARTIN: Agreed. And it’s good to find your people. It’s very important to have that support along the way. 

I’m curious about how you went about making your choices for the construction of the film. Your story interweaves your interviews with the people who are turning sixty. The interviews are the ones you did with Dennis, correct?

THOMAS: The film turned in to this multi-story project. When Dennis and I were working on it together, he looked up at me and said this is really a film about your story. And I said, yeah I know. It was going to be about people turning sixty, the film was meant to resonate with people of that age, with these interviews. That was one component. The other component was my journey of making the film in my sixties. Number one, being in my sixties, number two, a woman being in her sixties, and number three, a woman in her sixties that has no filmmaking experience. 

MARTIN: I think that’s amazing.

THOMAS: Thank you. When you’re in a project, you’re so in it, and you don’t have time to think, wow, this is incredible. I do, but just by going to Arizona this past weekend, for the world premiere, I’m really pleased by their reaction. I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ It was quite the revelation. So the story really turned into more of my story after Dennis passed. There’s that fourth component as well. 

MARTIN: I always loved the parts where you were talking to your brother, you two know each other so well. You’d go back and forth, and you kept asking each other questions. He was checking in with you, like ‘how are you doing?’ I think this was a good foundation to show the viewer where you came from. I could feel that relationship, and I thought it was pretty special

Tracey Thomas with her siblings.

THOMAS: Thank you very much. And it was fun to do. He’s older than me, he’s about to turn sixty-seven. So he’s not like 60, but we thought it would be a good addition, like you were saying, connecting with someone who really knows me. What better then a family member, you know?

MARTIN: Right. What you have here is really special because you’re exploring a niche, a specific age group that’s not represented as much on the screen.

THOMAS: Thank you.

MARTIN: In the film, it seemed that you got really deep with emotions. I appreciate you showing that part of yourself, it’s never easy to get so vulnerable on the camera. Could you share more about your experience with being vulnerable with your emotions in this film?

THOMAS: Any particular part you’re referring to?

MARTIN: Well one particular part really moved me. When you were in Arizona, in the desert, and the crew was following behind you from a distance. And they were saying to each other, ‘she’s crying’. That vulnerability, even from a distance, was powerful. I interviewed another filmmaker, Jennifer Townsend, who also made a film later in her life, and she would tell me that was the most difficult part, showing vulnerability on camera.

Tracey Thomas in Arizona in “My First and Last Film”

THOMAS: I was doing video diaries before the trip, and I was thinking like, ‘This is going to be really difficult.’ My nephew actually said to me before I went on the trip, ‘it’s going to be harder than you think it will be’. He was right. When I got to Arizona, my team, who is very professional, had to deal with me with my weird moods, my crankiness, along with the bad weather. It was just a bizarre trip. By the time we are walking in the desert, I just had it. I was just like, ‘I can’t do this anymore’. I can’t tell you how challenging that was. You can tell from seeing my face on the screen, it was just like ‘Wow.’ When I watch it now, it brings it all right up to the front. I was hoping that it wasn’t going to be that hard. There is no other way I can say it, it was just super hard and emotional being back there. After the trip I was telling my producer Kristin, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to ever go back to Arizona, I’ve got all that I can get out of it. So when I was back there for the world premiere they asked me, how does it feel to be back in Arizona. And I said ‘it feels indifferent’. 

MARTIN: When you finished the film, what were your feelings? Did you feel some kind of closure?

THOMAS: It’s funny, because when I was in Arizona for the premiere, one of the presenters mentioned ‘closure’, I realized it really was closure. I had never thought about closure before. It was closure in a sense that I finished the film. There’s no closure to grief. But the presenter was right, finishing the film gave me some closure. There was also a sense, oddly enough, there was like a freedom. I don’t know if I’m clear on why I felt a sense of freedom. You’re done, and the hard part’s over, it felt good.

MARTIN: What kind of wisdom would you give women who are approaching their sixties or of any age group?

Tracey Thomas in “My First and Last Film”

THOMAS: When I started the film, I don’t think I had any wisdom to offer about being in your sixties. That’s why I started this film. I feel it’s hard because a lot of people have a different approach to being sixty. Everyone is going to do what they’re going to do anyway. But what I’ve learned from making this film for over the past five years is that age really is just a number. If you continually think about the number of your age, and where you’re supposed to be at that number, you’re going to be too afraid to move ahead, to move forward. I feel that’s going to hold you back. I feel now I can do anything. I don’t want to do anything or everything, but I feel, ‘Shit I just made a movie, that’s kind of a big deal.’

MARTIN: It is great, that’s an amazing achievement. It’s not easy to make a film, I can’t even imagine.

THOMAS: All that I’ve achieved is starting to sink in. There are so many women out there doing so many amazing things. And there are so many women out there that are afraid to take that step, to do some amazing things. Just be brave. Go do it.  It might not be what you want to do, it might not work out, but what’s the worst that could happen? Like, ‘I wasn’t great at it?’, then just move on. Do the next thing. That sounds so cavalier, but in a way if you approach it with cavalier, maybe that’s the way to do it. 

Just be brave. Go do it.  It might not be what you want to do, it might not work out, but what’s the worst that could happen? Like ‘I wasn’t great at it?’, then just move on. Do the next thing. That sounds so cavalier, but in a way if you approach it with cavalier, maybe that’s the way to do it. 

MARTIN: I like that.

THOMAS: There was a girl in the audience of the Arizona premiere, she was forty-three, she was like, ‘you’re so inspiring’. That’s my goal, to inspire people with this film, of any age really. Be yourself, and don’t be afraid. Time is moving forward, and we are all heading in the same direction. You don’t want to be asking yourself later, I wish I would have. 

MARTIN: Was there any other aspect of the film you’d like to discuss?

THOMAS: A couple of things I’ve learned through the process – I respect the process of filmmaking, because I had no idea what it would be like. Although I had an inkling. But I respect the process just from watching the crew, and they are total professionals, and they respect me and my journey. Maybe it’s because we’re all women, we respect each other and we nurture one another in whatever we are going through. So I respect the process and my crew. Maybe because my crew was made up of women, we all got along, and it was a collaborative effort. Yes, I am the director, but we all did this together. Isn’t that cool?

MARTIN: Yes! Was there anything you wanted to add about the film? Or anything about your transformation throughout the film?

THOMAS: Transformation is a good word. Again, when you’re in it, you don’t feel like you’re transforming. Now that I’m here and I’ve got a few film festivals going, with the accolades, and the comments people are throwing my way, it is a transformation. I’m not the same person I was five years ago. I’ve learned a lot. If you want to learn about yourself, make a film or write a book about yourself. Because you do have to be totally raw and open. A lot of people are afraid to face that stuff, but personally that’s the only way I can get through stuff and past stuff, is to just dig deep. It was cathartic. You’ve got to get through the crap to get to the good stuff. This film was the crap to get to the good stuff. It was a good experience though, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

A lot of people are afraid to face that stuff, but personally that’s the only way I can get through stuff and past stuff, is to just dig deep. It was cathartic. You’ve got to get through the crap to get to the good stuff. This film was the crap to get to the good stuff. It was a good experience though, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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