Milwaukee-native Tracey Thomas didn’t want to be a filmmaker and never dreamed about having her name in lights. But about five years ago, she was about to turn 60 and was feeling at loose ends. So she started interviewing other people who were about to turn 60 (or who already had) about what it felt like. And the idea of turning those interviews into The 60 Project was born.
"I was kind of looking for answers, I guess," says Thomas.
She started working with her boyfriend, Dennis, who was a professional filmmaker. Initially, things were going really well, until Dennis got sick and then died very suddenly about a year in. As everything in her life profoundly changed, Thomas found that The 60 Project was changing too.
The finished film, now called My First and Last Film, premiered in Wisconsin last week at the Rivoli Theatre — part of this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival. The film has two more showings during the festival, and looks into themes of love, loss and other seemingly unanswerable questions we face as we get older through Thomas' intimate retrospective.
Thomas says she took a hiatus from the film after Dennis died. After two years, she was ready to look back into the material they were creating together and use it as a healing process.
"You kind of stop and take stock of your life and do some reflecting," she notes. "I think maybe the film helped me to do some healing and more looking inward — pretty cathartic if you will."
Now that the film is complete, Thomas is ready for wherever it takes her. She says that she doesn't fear much now and encourages people to be open — something Thomas never would have thought about five years ago. "There was transformation happening without me even being aware of it," she says.
Throughout the process of making My First and Last Film, Thomas says she is filled with gratitude and has learned that your attitude toward life is not defined by a number.
"If you are constantly thinking about the number, whatever age you are, you’re going to be locked into that," says Thomas. "And we tend to think 60, 70 — we’re old and life’s over. Well, you can certainly think that. I think it’s what you do with that time. And if you make the most of that time, I don’t know, I think you’ll be OK."