Making the Leap

Blood, Sweat and Cheer’s Traci Hays on her daunting transition from production designer to full-time director.

Have you ever woken up one day and realized you’ve been working for over a decade doing a job you weren’t passionate about and lost sight of your dream?

Well, that was me on March 20, 2020. The feature film I was in the middle of art directing had been shut down (due to COVID) and I was standing in my Studio City apartment with a mess to clean up, wondering when things would return to “normal.” Then it hit me … hard. I had been working back-to-back jobs as a union production designer on features, television series and commercials for 10 years straight and, both mentally and physically, I was completely burnt out. There wasn’t an ounce of work-life balance in my life. This grind had taken a toll on my health, resulting in frequent trips to the doctor’s from colds, weight gain from eating poorly, and skin irritation from stress. It was time to make some changes.

Traci Hays, then a production designer, with set decorator Mindy Smith, with whom she collaborated on the 2020 Passionflix series Gabriel’s Inferno.

To begin with, I wanted to now focus 100 percent of my efforts on making the transition from production designer to director. While I had directed numerous projects up to that point in my career, I hadn’t given myself permission to fully commit to only directing. No film school, masterclass, podcast or book could prepare me for this pivot. Truthfully, I was scared … scared that people wouldn’t take me seriously, scared I wouldn’t be able to support myself (financially), scared I would fail. For the longest time, I believed these lies – until, as the world was falling apart around me, I came face to face with thoughts of my own mortality. Once I found the courage, determination and drive to push through my fears, everything changed.

Over the course of the lockdown, I started going on daily walks, cooking healthier meals, listening to podcasts and watching loads of movies and television series. I felt like I went back to film school, learning new things about my craft and myself. This was my opportunity to focus on what fulfilled me spiritually, mentally and, most importantly, creatively. I began working with a career coach, who helped me set deadlines, stay accountable and craft query letters to agents (among many other very useful things). Six months later, I signed with a new agent. And then came the offer to direct the short rom-com, Hooked, which became the most watched film on the streaming service Passionflix on its opening weekend release. I had previously designed six features for the company over the years prior, and so after the success of Hooked, I was offered the opportunity to direct my first feature, Tangled, a rom-com based on the New York Times bestselling novel by Emma Chase.

Traci Hays (center) with actors Jamison Jones and Nicola Bertram on the set of the Passionflix short Hooked.

The offer came while eating cheese and drinking a glass of wine with the CEO of Passionflix, Tosca Musk, and the next thing I knew I was in pre-production in New York! As is often the case with movies, things didn’t quite go to plan. I spent a month scouting NYC, but the film was then relocated to Atlanta, due to production needs. The night before we began principal photography, I was informed that the costume designer had quit and we’d lost a key location for the second day of filming. Thankfully, a costume designer friend of mine happened to be in town on vacation and offered to help fill in while we found a replacement. And things fell into place by the end of the first week, when we found an even better location (with a dock overlooking a lake!) for our second day of filming.

When Tangled was released in February 2022, it was named a “must-see movie to watch on Valentine’s Day” by The Hollywood Reporter and was met with an overwhelmingly positive response from avid readers of the novel, who felt it was just like reading the book again. I felt very proud of the way the film came together with only 15 days to shoot a 108-page screenplay. The cast and crew’s efforts helped to elevate the material far beyond my expectations!

Traci Hays during the making of her debut feature, Tangled.

Building on the success of Tangled, my agent set dozens of general meetings for me with production companies, studios, and networks. It was during one of these meetings that I met with MarVista Entertainment and we got to talking about my favorite hobby, soccer, which I’d played on a club team through high school. Lo and behold, they also loved soccer and invited me to play on their women’s rec league team!

After six months of playing with them, the folks at MarVista recommended me for a job … which brings me to my second feature film, Blood, Sweat and Cheer, which is now streaming on Tubi. I was drawn to this campy, over-the-top, self-aware, dark comedy because of its twists and turns that follow a flawed and fierce female lead with something to prove. It’s a nostalgic classic high school tale, reminiscent of films like Heathers, Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club and Clueless. It’s a story of second chances, fulfilling crushed dreams and self-acceptance in which a mother poses as her teen daughter in order to join a high school dance team. The film speaks to the traumatic experience that high school can be for teen girls and how when we have a chance at a do-over as an adult, our choices tend to be drastically different.

Traci Hays (right) with lead actresss Tammin Sursok on the set of Blood, Sweat and Cheer. (Photo by Erik Scherb.)

No one could have brought the main character to life better than Tammin Sursok (Pretty Little Liars). She’s a powerhouse and a force to be reckoned with. With a little over a week to prep, she showed up fully prepared and ready to work. I was amazed at her dedication to her craft and her willingness to take risks. She brought a sense of humor to her character that wasn’t written on the page which elevated the project to a whole new level of camp … in the best way possible! It’s crazy to think that this film is coming out less than a year after completing principal photography in Atlanta.

While I only had two weeks to prep Blood, Sweat and Cheer, I was blown away by the overwhelming support and trust of my vision for the film by MarVista and my producers. They enabled me to make bold choices, surrounded me with a stellar crew and gave insightful story notes. Even though I hadn’t worked with anyone on the crew prior to making this film, I felt an immediate sense of family and connection, like I had known them for years. I knew this film was going to be special based on the positive creative energy I felt on the first day of principal photography.

Traci Hays, director, in 2023. (Photo by Jackie Rangel.)

At the start of 2022, I met up for coffee with lots of people I’ve collaborated with over the years. After sharing the news about my pivot to directing, I received overwhelming support, excitement and praise from my colleagues. All the years of hard work had finally begun to pay off … and it was happening faster than I could process. I realized there was no one right way to make the pivot in my career – I just had to make sure my own self-doubts didn’t get in the way. My gut was whispering to me the whole time and I finally slowed down enough to hear what it was saying: “You’re enough, you’re talented, and you have a unique point of view to share.” It wasn’t until I was ready to take a risk on myself that I was able to bring about a drastic shift in my reality. There are still so many unanswered questions and doubts I have, but every day I choose to put one foot in front of the other … it’s go time!

Featured image, showing Traci Hays with Tammin Sursok on the set of Blood, Sweat and Tears, by Erik Scherb. All photos courtesy Traci Hays.

DGA Award-nominated director Traci Hays new feature, the dark comedy Blood, Sweat and Cheer, is now streaming on Tubi. The film follows a suburban divorcée (Pretty Little Liars’ Tammin Sursok) masquerading as her teenage daughter (Monroe Cline) in a twisted attempt to make the dance squad at a local high school. Traci’s directorial debut, Tangled, a romantic comedy based on the series by New York Times best-selling author Emma Chase, premiered in 2022 and was named a “must-see movie to watch on Valentine’s Day” by The Hollywood Reporter. An alumna of Chapman University’s film program, Traci was awarded an apprenticeship with Randal Kleiser, who continues to be an active mentor in her career. When she’s not directing, you’ll find Traci hiking in the Glendale mountains, listening to classic jazz and making mouth-watering cheeseboards.