Director Traci Hays Talks Blood, Sweat, And Cheer

Director Traci Hays joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about Blood, Sweat, and Cheer.

The film follows a suburban divorcée (Tammin Sursok, Pretty Little Liars) masquerading as her teenage daughter (Monroe Cline, Teardrop) in a twisted attempt to make the dance squad at a local high school.

Hi Traci, welcome to Close-Up Culture. I understand Blood, Sweat, and Cheer is inspired by true events. What drew you to this story?

I was drawn to this campy, over-the-top, self-aware, dark comedy because of its twists and turns that follow a flawed female lead with something to prove. It’s a nostalgic classic high school tale, reminiscent of films like HeathersMean Girls, and The Breakfast Club. 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.

As a product of the late 80s /early 90s, I’m a huge JawbreakersCluelessPretty In Pink, and Heathers fan. This film offered the perfect opportunity to set the visual style dripping in bubblegum pink because our heroine, Renee (played by Tammin Sursok) is stuck in her past. 

What kind of experience can audiences expect from Blood, Sweat, and Cheer?

For all those John Hughes fans out there, you’re in for a treat! The film has all the fun of cheerleading and high school wrapped up in a dark comedy. It’s a popcorn flick full of laugh-out-loud, cringe-worthy moments that follows an empathetic anti-hero down the rabbit hole who spirals out of control and into chaos, stopping at nothing to fulfill her lost dream. 

What was your biggest challenge while making this film?

The timeline from pre-production through principal photography on this film was short. Since we were filming in the middle of the school year, we had limited access to the various schools we stitched together to form “Lincoln High.” One day in particular stands out, because we had to shoot eight pages, including the opening title dance sequence with one camera, and Renee had six hair and makeup changes. Given the complexity of each look, I knew we wouldn’t have enough shooting time in between each change to make our day. So, I simplified the shot list and how much of Renee we were seeing in each scene, cutting down the look changes in half. In addition, the dancers had never rehearsed together so in between setups I would rush over to the gym where they were practicing to work through the dance moves with the choreographer and the camera moves with the director of photography. I could not have made my day without the entire support and talent of my cast and crew who worked relentlessly to bring my vision to life. 

What was your collaboration like with Tammin Sursok? 

Tammin is a powerhouse and an underrated actor. We cast her less than a week out from the start of principal photography and she showed up prepared for anything (including bleaching her hair blonde!). Her comedic timing and character choices are truly first-class. She brought levity to the overall film that wasn’t necessarily on the page and was collaborative with everyone. Even after she was covered in bruises from dancing for six hours straight, she had a smile on her face. Her positive, warm energy is infectious and we immediately formed a wonderful working relationship and friendship.  

What will be your biggest takeaway or standout memory from working on Blood, Sweat, and Cheer?

On the last day of principal photography, the producers, James Suttles and Jason Winn surprised me with a framed custom poster (of a pop-art style Renee blowing bubble gum) signed by the entire cast and crew. I was so touched by their thoughtfulness that it brought me to tears. I felt that we had all come together and formed a supportive family in a relatively short amount of time. The poster is currently hanging in my office and brings a smile to my face every time I see it. 

Can you tell us more about your style and approach to storytelling?

My creative process is fully immersive, always serving the story first and foremost, finding inspiration through listening to music, visiting museums, watching film/theater, etc. in order to discover my authentic response to the material. My directing style is hands-on, creating a collaborative working environment. Because of my background as a production designer on over 30 feature films such as A LITTLE WHITE LIE starring Michael Shannon and Kate Hudson, I’m always looking for ways to tell the story through the design and world within the frame. 

What are your plans and ambitions for the future?

I have a number of feature films I’ll be taking out (once the writer’s strike is over) to various production companies with the help of my agent, Karen Kirkland at Culture Creative Entertainment and producing partners. I’m looking to elevate my craft with higher-budget feature films, working year-round on the projects I’m passionate about, while also expanding into episodic television directing. 

I’m actively looking to connect with new creative producers and writers who share similar interests in genre-blending stories with complex women at the center of the narrative.

Photo credit: Jackie Rangel

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