Women in Film: A Conversation with Tracy Kleeman

Artistic Fuel recently put together a Clubhouse panel about women in film with Ellie Foumbi,  Pamela B. Green, Tracy Kleeman,  Aimee Long, and Sara Seligman. Each of the five talented directors are in different genres and stages of their careers and provided valuable insight on their paths and passions. The panel, Women in the Director’s Chair, inspired by the three women (Chloe Zhao, Emerald Fennell and Regina King) nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes. Since then, Chloe Zhao, won the Globe for Best Director and Best Screenplay and Best Motion Picture. Zhao and her fellow Globe Nominee Emerald Fennell are nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards. These accolades mean a lot for women in the industry, but are they an indication of a changed entertainment landscape? 

With that question in mind, Artistic Fuel sat down with up and coming writer/director Tracy Kleeman (represented by CAA and Stride Management). Tracy is a powerhouse director with notable success with horror short films. 

Tracy Kleeman is the first in our series, Women in Film.

Below is a transcript of the conversation between Katie C’etta and Tracy Kleeman

Women in Film: Tracy Kleeman, a unique career path to directing

AF: First off, thank you for sitting down with me. I am so excited to sit and chat with you one on one about your really unique career path. Tell me about the moment you said, Okay, yes, I’m a director? What was that moment like for you? Did you embrace that immediately or did you hesitate?

Tracy Kleeman: Yeah the moment was something that I ignored. It happened in college when I was doing a short film for my senior thesis. It was the first night of shooting. I remember calling action and seeing for the first time, this thing that only ever existed in my brain coming to life in front of me. And I was soaring.

I don’t do drugs, but I could imagine what drugs felt like at that moment. 

Playing with the actors and positioning them and finding the right moment, finding the right beat and tweaking the performances. I felt like I was floating above my body. It felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be in that moment. And there’s a piece of me that feels so heartbroken that I didn’t listen and immediately do something with that. 

Uncertainty and taking the leap

I think (the uncertainty) is the thing that’s so scary about taking this journey to become a director. Everybody says that there is no roadmap to being a director. With directing, there’s absolutely no guarantees. People ask all the time, “How do I do it?” It’s different for every person. And so much of it has to do with the people that you meet along the way and the circumstances of life coming together. 

And in that moment, I had zero female role models to really look up to, to even say, “Oh, she’s a woman and she’s a director. That’s what that looks like.” I didn’t even know what that looked like at the time. So, it didn’t even feel like a possibility. It (the first short) was this fleeting moment of just absolute euphoria that I did nothing with. And in a way, that’s heartbreaking to me. But in another way, where I am right now was so dependent on me taking the path that I did. Because when I came to LA, I had already had a career in production.

I’d been a production manager. I’ve been a stage manager. I had developed a certain level of confidence and competence in production that allowed me to come out to LA and really impress people immediately in a way that allowed me to make connections very early and allowed me to move up very quickly. Which is a very Cinderella story.

So, I think that it happened the way that it was supposed to happen, but it’s very interesting looking back at that short film and I can so clearly feel that moment of being like this is what it feels like to love what you do and for it to not feel like a job. And, now I’m chasing that every single day of my life. And hopefully, you know, the dream that I get to do that for the rest of my life.

AF: You spoke a little bit about moving to LA. At a certain point, I had to make the decision of where I would need to live if I was going to pursue a career in filmmaking. There’s a few big choices that can help define your career. There’s New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. How did you make the choice between them and come to LA? And how does being in LA affect your filmmaking? 

Tracy Kleeman: So I lived in New York for five years. I went to New York straight out of college and lived there for five years. And I got to the level of production manager and lived in a really great apartment on the lower East side. I was comfortable and didn’t have to worry about money. But I wasn’t happy with what I was doing.

I have two very different sides of my brain. There’s this very creative side, but also a type A, very organized side. And I realized that in the job that I was doing, the production manager job, I was only fulfilling the type A, organized side of me. And I knew ever since I was a child that I needed to be in some sort of industry where I was playing in a sandbox and painting on a canvas, and getting to create things on a daily basis by making creative decisions. 

So I had all the pieces of this perfect New York City life in my mid twenties. But I wanted to make movies. New York to me felt like the very corporatized version of artistry in the industry. When I was working on a daytime talk show, and I was like, “This is not the fruit that feeds my soul.” This is not what drives me as a creative. It felt like picking some corporatized version of entertainment and fitting myself in that box.

I want to make my own box, you know? 

And it was scary. I knew that moving to LA meant that there were no guarantees and I was going to have to completely start over. And I started out applying for executive and production jobs. I think everybody comes out to LA a little naive. And the funny thing was, I wasn’t even necessarily coming out here immediately to be a director. But I always said, at least I’m not like moving to LA to be like an actress. But what I learned was that trying to become a director in Hollywood is just as much of a long shot. 

When I first came out (to Los Angeles), I didn’t know anybody. And all I had was my skill set, my experience, and my confidence. That served me so well coming out here. The first set that I got onto was an unpaid PA gig on like a comedy central web series and almost immediately on day one, (crew members) were like, “You don’t belong here! What are you doing? Why are you PAing?” I was able to show enough of my competence and confidence that they were like, “Wait, we need to do more with you.” And the production supervisor on that job, got me the job at the VIP post production facility and the first movie that I was working on was JOY, with David O’Russell. 

There’s something to be said for coming into this industry, and working your ass off, but also knowing your worth. 

I knew my worth the second that I stepped (on set) and I came out here knowing I’m going to impress these people, and I’m going to show people that I’m worth more. But I’m not going to do it with an ego or any bitterness or jadedness or anything like that. I’m just going to show up and hope that people recognize that. And they did. And I mean, that served me very, very well, coming out to LA luckily. 

AF: That is wildly impressive. You ended up working as an assistant to James Wan for two years which I’m sure was a huge learning opportunity. What is the story behind how you landed that gig?

Tracy Kleeman: So, I was working at the post production facility as an assistant there. I had developed a really strong relationship with John and Nancy Ross, who owned the facility, and they kind of became like parents to me. They knew that the job I was doing was not what I wanted to do and ultimately that I was capable of more. So I asked John Ross at one point, you know, I really feel like the way for me to break into the industry is to get a producer’s assistant or a director’s assistant job on a movie and then work my way up internally. 

And so I asked him if he would feel comfortable introducing me to anyone he knew. So he introduced me to Rob Cowan who  produced conjuring movies and worked with James a bunch. And he was working on Aquaman and it was really more of just a general where he was just looking to give me advice. And I mentioned to him that I was looking for a job as an assistant.  He didn’t have a job for me at that point.

Maybe two or three months later, I get an email from Rob Cowan saying, “How do you feel about a director’s assistant position?” And he’s like, “It’s nothing glamorous. It’s mostly getting food and coffee and stuff like that. But if you’re interested, I will get you an interview.” 

He didn’t even say what or who it was for. He just said a director’s assistant position. So I showed up to the interview at Warner Brothers lot and he put me in an office. And I just look at this wall across from me and its just concept art of under the sea stuff. And I’m just like, “where am I right now? What is happening?” And then James (Wan) comes in and he’s just this spitball, fire energy, super enthusiastic about the fact that he gets to make movies for a living. He and I just hit it off right away. And he’s like, almost pitching me on the job.

I’m like, “You don’t have to convince me, where do I sign?” 

I remember I was at dinner for one of my friend’s birthdays and I got the email saying the job is yours. I literally leapt up from the table! It completely changed my life. I learned so much from that movie. I called it my Block Buster boot camp and anything I could have dreamed of learning in film school, I learned working on that movie.  

AF: What would you say was like the most valuable takeaway from your time on Aquaman and with James (Wan) in general? 

Tracy Kleeman and James Wan. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tracy Kleeman: It was so remarkable and so amazing that James let me be part of the process. He let me have an active role in the making of that film. And let me be part of the conversation, have a voice and input. My director’s chair was right next to his at the monitor. And he would listen to me. He would give me space to contribute in a meaningful way and take me seriously. And that alone, and even getting the opportunity, not only just to have my voice heard in that moment, but have my voice considered and validated was invaluable to me as a director because it showed me that at the top level, my instincts were good. 

The fact that James and to the credit of all the producers and even the high level of executives at Warner Brothers, they gave me that space to have that experience and to make that contribution. That built my confidence immensely. Then going into, pitching on a movie of my own, I could sit in that room and be like, I have ideas for this movie and they’re good ideas, and I’m going to sell you on them. I don’t know that I would have had that confidence if I had just been an assistant that was getting coffee and coordinating meals. 

AF: What was the first project that you pitched after that point? 

Tracy Kleeman: I pitched an indie film that I’m currently attached to that we’ve been trying to get made for awhile. Its a female-driven, socially conscious small budget indie film that I literally did the pitch for as soon as I finished working on Aquaman. I got this feeling of “I’m doing it. Like, Holy shit! I have a feature film. Like I’m going to make a feature film, this is going to happen!”

So then I abandoned the assisting thing at that point. I could have continued on doing that for a while, but obviously it’s hard to be pitching, developing, going to general meetings and also be somebody’s ride or die assistant, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s just not possible to do that. 

I transitioned the majority of my energy into that film and getting more films. Once I made Fear Filter, I got representation and did meetings around town. I think that’s the thing that’s so easy for young filmmakers when they get that first taste of (success) is that they forget that it is a marathon and you need to have endurance. 

Women in film: Fear Filter and listening to your gut

Director Tracy Kleeman and actress Lou Lou Safran on the set of Fear Filter. Photo courtesy of the artist

AF: You mentioned Fear Filter, your short film on YouTube that garnered over four million views by the end of last year. Do you want to talk to me a little bit about the idea for Fear Filter? And the shift into making proof of concepts and putting horror shorts or short films in general on YouTube. What was that decision like? 

Tracy Kleeman: I came up with the idea for Fear Filter when I was working on Aquaman in Australia, in 2017. I remember writing the short and it was one of those things where the beats just came to me immediately. It just came to me. What do you call that?

AF: A divine download.

Tracy Kleeman: Divine download in the purest sense of the word. The character changed within it, but the beats of it were set. Down to the message from Blake at the end. That’s what it was from day one of putting that down on the page. And I remember I showed it to a few people and they were like, this is a really good idea. You should do this. I made my short film, Housekeeping, we were on post for Aquaman and I just really wanted to break into horror. 

The thing that James taught me was that it’s about being high concept with low budget execution. I knew exactly how we were going to do Fear Filter. All I needed was a girl in a room with a phone. So I attached Lou Lou Safran. And then I got our team of friends together. It’s so funny thinking back on it, because at the time, we thought, Oh, this is a cool idea.

Maybe this could go viral.

And so we put it online and we had all the players involved promote it. And then it just did nothing really. For a year. It just sat there. It was not an overnight sensation by any means. So, I sent it to my, now agent (CAA) and said, “Hey, I made this thing.” And he immediately said, “Okay, so now I’m your agent!”

And then my agent sent it around town in 2019. It got options for a period of time. And at that point I didn’t even care if it went viral; it’d already done more for me than what I wanted. It’s launched my career as a horror filmmaker and got me into the right rooms. Then, all of a sudden, it just started taking off like 30,000 views daily.

AF: I think it’s helpful for filmmakers who are making these horror shorts and hoping for a David Sandberg-esque dream career to know that the order of those good things that happened to you wasn’t necessarily the order that one would have expected. And that if you put the short on YouTube the first year and it doesn’t really take off. It’s still okay. 

Tracy Kleeman: I mean, it helps to have people that you can send it to. It helps to have connections that can promote you and get you in the right rooms. Through the merit of my hardwork, I made well connected relationships that led me to where I got with James.

I didn’t think about whether or not these people were very well connected. That just happened organically. I’m not good at selling myself. I’m not good at forcing myself on people. It’s just not who I am.

So I do think that it helps to connect with people in Hollywood. But that’s not necessarily the only way or the best way. It just so happened to be the best way for me coming into the situation with a very specific set of circumstances. 

AF: It sounds like the seed that planted your career was taking that no-pay PA job when you first moved out here and working really hard in front of the right people. 

Tracy Kleeman: You have to have a very open mind. You don’t know anyone. The person working on any unpaid gig in this town or making something for no money or making something with your friends, whatever, any one of those people could be the next Spielberg. Unfortunately, sometimes people come out here and they do a lot of unpaid work and it leads nowhere. You’ve just got to do it for the experience of it. And just to be on set and do what you love.  

The Horror Genre and Building Your Filmmaking Chops

AF Let’s talk about genre because right now, I feel like you’re very branded as a horror director. When did you realize you wanted to make horror for the moment… or forever?

title card beneath the skin
NEXT FILM COMING SOON: Beneath the Skin (photographer Tanner Lyon)

Tracy Kleeman: When you look at a lot Hollywood filmmakers, you’ll see that many started in horror. The incredible thing about horror is the emotional response. You can have a high concept idea that elicits a specific emotional response from the audience without a lot of working parts. It’s about putting those parts together in a very specific way that makes it all scary. As a filmmaker the exciting thing about horror is that you really have to use all the tools in the toolbox of filmmaking in a very specific way.  

This is a genre that I love. And I’m able to represent what it means to be a female filmmaker in a space where those voices haven’t been heard. Unfortunately women have definitely been objectified in horror for years and years. (Despite the full final girl thing, which I respect final girls). Because the fact of the matter is, people that have been writing the stories, the people that have been greenlighting the stories and making them for years and years have been white men.

And that’s the problem.

When I first came into the industry, there were a lot of scripts circulating about the same thing. It was the same content that we’ve seen over and over again. But (now they say) this time we’re going to have a woman make it. And act like it’s somehow different. But it’s the same. It’s just a woman puppeteering. That is not necessarily a woman telling it. And not necessarily something that originated from a woman’s brain and a woman’s perspective and a woman’s worldview.

And so that’s what’s so exciting about these movies that are coming out like Promising Young Woman. All of these female filmmakers that are actually getting to step into the actual role. You’re getting to see the entire world through a voice that has been so underrepresented in cinema for so long. 

AF: And it helps a lot of people realize that their voice and their stories are important. Whenever you go to school and all of the authors and filmmakers you’re studying are white men. You then have this built in bias pounded into your brain. And it’s telling you that your voice and the way you see the world isn’t going to be considered one of the greats by default. 

Tracy Kleeman: And that becomes so deeply ingrained in all of us. I think it’s part of the reason that women in the workplace don’t ask for raises. We’re afraid to take up space or that we’re going to be labeled a bitch. We’re afraid to ask for a promotion. It’s a situation of feeling like my worth, my value, my perspective, my point of view is not the mainstream. And because of that, any step up that I get in the world, I’m lucky to have, right? Any little step forward that you get feels like a blessing. And not necessarily a guarantee or even something that you earned or deserve. 

Women in Film: When and how to make the jump?

AF: You touched on this a little bit in some of your answers to previous questions. What would be your golden ticket advice to a new filmmaker who’s considering moving to LA for the first time? 

Tracy Kleeman: I would say save up as much money as you can before you move. Find a job that allows you the flexibility to take care of your financial situation. But also gives you the flexibility to get on a set for a weekend and broaden your experience and connections. Ultimately the goal is to become so ingrained in the industry that you can then lose the side hustle. And work full time in the industry. 

Come out here with a really open mind. Because people’s careers often grow when the right opportunity branches from the unexpected. It’s about keeping yourself open to all of those experiences and opportunities. So that when divine intervention comes through for you, you’re ready to take it. 

Have a plan.

But also know that plans change. And that plans need to change for you to get where you want to go. And that’s a very scary thing to do for people like us (filmmakers), because inherently we’re control freaks.

The first thing that you need to get used to in order to be a filmmaker in this industry is that it’s not forgiving or often fair. So you need to give up on your need for control in order to learn and become comfortable with being uncomfortable. It isn’t as simple as getting attached to a movie. And then that movie gets made and then you get another movie. None of that is guaranteed. People have been attached to movies, and more often than not those movies do not get made. 

I realized very quickly, if I don’t learn to compartmentalize my life, I’m going to be miserable for the rest of my career. And I don’t want to live that way. That’s no way for anyone to live. It’s going to be far out of your control of how things happen. So, find peace in that. And understand that if you believe in your talent, you keep coming to the table, putting out new content, making new connections and challenging yourself, you will be rewarded for that. But understand that there’s no timeline. And there’s no right way to do it. In fact, the best opportunities come when you least expect it.

You can follow Tracy on Instagram @tjk_film.

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