The Pink Lady
Kalie Acheson is a Los Angeles based film maker and the founding owner of Art Mafia. Her career, at only 33, is exceptional—with a long list of accolades in the worlds of film, fine art, and production design. I met Kalie on her vacation—off the upper peninsula of Wisconsin on Washington Island in lake Michigan—to discuss the film industry, her career, and her art.
“How’s this?” Kalie Acheson said, positioning the severed limb of a dead deer into the background of a collaborative sculpture we were constructing. She flashed me a devious and delighted smile. We had found ourselves, along with several members of her family, in a magically decrepit rock quarry—a place that had served as the backdrop to her earliest endeavors into film. As a group, we sifted through piles of discarded ceramic, porcelain dolls, car parts, and bones before arranging them into a still life. The active gravel quarry, cut into white rock, doubles as a junk yard—housing rusted antique cars and military vehicles. Bullet shell casings litter the ground amongst exploded oxygen tanks. Large circular holes freckle the high cliffs where swallows nest, swarming and darting in and out from their caves.
In the summer heat, the scene was apocalyptic and beautiful. “When I was a kid my family and I came here and made a movie, which became a yearly tradition.” Wrangling younger cousins, securing props, shooting everything on flimsy Handycams, and then editing the shorts on iMovie gave Kalie a glimpse into every major aspect of the film-making process. Juggling personalities, new technologies, and ideas; she’d turn these family activities into strange and arresting pieces of art.
“Oh, this is cute!” she said, wrapping a small doll’s arm in a plastic bag and placing it in her purse to save for a later art project. She then brushed her hands off on the legs of the blue denim coveralls she was wearing.
Kalie’s look is always playful and iconic; vibrant colors and patterns, with a penchant for onesies, and perpetually half-tamed curly blond hair. Bright tattoos, both tasteful and delightfully tacky, swirl around her whole body; including a pink unicorn that when positioned next to the forearm of her high school best friend appears to defecate sprinkles onto a cute pink cupcake. She looks a bit like a hot art teacher who got casted into a Kim Petras music video.
We snapped a few photos of our work and headed back her cabin, a double-wide trailer facing a rocky Lake Michigan cove. We situated ourselves on an old wooden picnic table. The sun was close to setting and the small freshwater waves crashed in the distance as I turned on my recorder.
When she was 21 in 2010, she got her first professional job as a PA on Transformers: Dark of the Moon. “That was my first experience getting to see in detail what each department did. I used to want to be a director of photography, but I didn’t realize there was a thing called art department until that film. I got to see how they created all these incredible sets. It was the most expensive film that had been made up until that time. I got to see everything: explosions, there were 150 of us PAs, it was a spectacle.” She traveled with the film around the country, falling more and more in love with movie magic. She gained a reputation as diligent, creative, and extremely hard working. Hiding her disability (chronic pain and a spinal fusion), in a mostly male world, she kept getting called back to continue with the project. “Standing for hours in the sun, lifting giant barricades… [but] I think being a woman was a greater disability than my actual physical disability… it was very competitive… Lifting more and running harder than any of the guys… you got hired more when you didn’t complain.” By the time filming had ended, despite the hardships, she had decided to move to Los Angeles and fully pursue this dream.
She began clawing her way up the film industry ladder on sheer hard work and unbridled creativity, learning all she could through trial and error. “I was PAing large extravagant films and simultaneously production designing smaller independent ones.”
I tHiNk tHe fIlM iNdUsTrY iS pUrE eXpLoItAtIoN. ThErE aRe hOrReNdOuS tHiNgS tHaT hApPeN iN [tHiS] cUlTuRe… [PeOpLe] cHaIn-sMoKiNg aNd sLaMmInG ReD BuLlS tO tRy aNd sTaY aWaKe fOr 36 hOuRs sO tHeY cAn sLeEp fOr 4 aNd gO bAcK aGaIn… I gOt iNtO a cAr aCcIdEnT aFtEr bEiNg oN sEt fOr 48 hOuRs… As tHe mAiN iNdUsTrY iN LoS AnGeLeS, iT iS rEaLlY iMpOrTaNt fOr uS tO hAvE sAfE wOrK pRaCtIcEs.
While she loves her chosen medium, she recognizes that the culture surrounding it and the film industry’s relationship with those at the bottom is toxic and unhealthy. “I think the film industry is pure exploitation.” With little emphasis on employee wellbeing, be it physical or mental, the industry is constantly promising to change and then not moving fast enough. “There are horrendous things that happen in [this] culture… [People] chain-smoking and slamming Redbulls to try and stay awake for 36 hours so they can sleep for 4 and go back again… I got into a car accident after being on set for 48 hours… As the main industry in Los Angeles, it is really important for us to have safe work practices.”
“Do you think that intensity is part of the allure for some people?” I asked.
“Yea, I mean there’s fun drama that comes with it that’s entertaining and exciting. It’s all consuming. Especially for someone like me who likes working and wants to do a good job.”
In the face of this worker mistreatment and misogyny, Kalie founded Art Mafia, which is fem run and operated and maintains an emphasis on both labor practices and queer and BIPOC representation. Much of their work involves large scale installations and production design. These projects are cooky, funky, whimsical, and always heavy handed on the use of pink. “I can’t get away from the pink,” she joked to me. “I’ll intentionally exclude it from a pitch deck and clients will request it. I really am ‘The Pink Lady’ at this point.” Becoming her own boss has also allowed her to pursue making films that are meaningful to her on an artistic and social level. Of projects such as these, there are three main standouts: Color of Reality, Thistles and Thorns, and Love Rush X Rachel Kantu.
For Color of Reality, Kalie, “in collaboration with Alexa Meade, Jon Boogz, and Lil Buck produced this incredible visual experience. [The film] provides commentary on current political and racial injustice in America.” It “encompassed the things I really like doing, which are art and production design… It ended up getting a lot of notoriety and is still in film festivals and is even part of Stanford’s dance curriculum. It made a lot of big waves. We had it on Standard Vison’s large building facade screen in DTLA, which blurred the line between film and immersive experience curation.”
Utilizing the momentum from Color of Reality’s success, Kalie—acting as producer, director, and production designer—teamed up with actress and poet Yazmin Monet Watkins, movement artist Himerria Wortham, and steadicam artist Jessica Lopez to create Thistles and Thorns; “a fairytale for black girls.” She worked to create a “180-foot steady cam one-take set,” which followed Watkins’ character traverse a harrowing and dangerous jungle. The whole piece is out of a Jim Henson wet dream, with New York based artists like Archie Goats and Ryan Burke adding a dash of queer club kid realness. “Things that are more fantastical are more fun,” Kalie explained, alluding to her proclivity towards the bold, garish, and surreal. The making process, she says, “was as close to an art commune scenario as I can imagine… We slept at my house. There was glitter and sequins everywhere. We were building sets and props for it at my house and at the warehouse. We all dedicated our time to it for about three weeks.”
The through lines of movement and fantasy persist in Love Rush, which Kalie produced, directed, and production designed in collaboration with musician Rachel Kantu. Like her other favorites, it has “heavy art direction” and a “very handmade” aesthetic. The piece shows “two women [dancing] for each other’s love.” Kalie was a fan of Kantu’s past work. “All of her films are queer humans exploring love with each other.” Gravitating towards this particular project, however, may have been a subconscious impulse for Kalie to discover more about herself.
“It was kind of my coming out experience. I mean, I was married at the time… My marriage was not going so well, and it hadn’t been for a while. I was married to a man… While I was making that film, I started seeing more facets to my sexuality. It was a crazy awakening—I was in the editing room, and I remember looking at the footage and realizing I was way gayer than I ever knew. I looked at my friend I was working with and said, ‘my marriage is over.’ It was the first time I’d said it out loud. And then [a few months later] it was… I directed this super gay music video and was like, ‘oh, this is what I’ve been missing.’”
“It seems like a heavy through line with all of these is a focus on movement and dance, what drew you to that?” I said.
“I didn’t have a huge budget… I didn’t go to film school… Dance and movement art was easier to experiment with and was a little bit freer for error… I was a photographer first and being more [visual] and technically oriented I wasn’t as much of a writer.”
“All of your work deals a lot with identity. The black experience. The queer experience. The feminine gaze. It’s interesting that you’ve chosen such a physical medium in dance and movement-based pieces to express yourself. Do you think your physical disability plays a role in that decision?”
“I mean if we want to hit the disabled thing,” she said, laughing. “I was a dancer and a gymnast before my spinal fusion, and then my motion was really limited. At that time, I felt really disconnected from my own body, and it was nice to work with dancers to view movement in a different way than I was experiencing…. [but] I think being dyslexic and always being afraid of anything written…. was a bigger reason. It’s just a more intuitive way to direct.”
The sun descended bellow the horizon line and the water took on an illuminated purple glow, slightly brighter than the sky above it.
“A lot of the social and artistic films I’ve been a part of have not been about me… I’ve been more in the ally/ supporter role… they were a group project. I was lending my efforts to help give a voice to others. I’m so glad I did it! I was excited to make films with my friends. Now I’m kind of in a lull of film making because I want to make something personal. Closer to my own personal experience.” The air began filling with the smells of campfires being lit on the beach. “I wasn’t ready to turn the camera on myself, but I think I am now.”