March 1, 2018
Oscars 2018

How a Commercial Exec Became an Oscar-Nominated Director…at 70

Frank Stiefel's 'Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405' documents an artist who won't let her disability slow her down.

Don’t let the title fool you: Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 isn’t a film about traffic in Los Angeles. Instead, the title is derived from the musings of the film’s subject, L.A. artist Mindy Alper, whose creativity is intertwined with her lifelong struggle with mental illness.

You could call it a character portrait, but it’s more of a character immersion. Frank Stiefel’s 40-minute short documentary plunges viewers into Alper’s creative process as she crafts an eight-and-a-half-foot papier-mache bust of her beloved psychiatrist Shoshana. Using a mix of interviews, dramatic re-enactments, and animation, the film conveys Alper’s unique perspective.

Stiefel, who also serves as producer, writer, and cinematographer, came to filmmaking late in life, spending most of his career as an executive in the commercial production industry. As an executive producer at Stiefel & Company (and later at RadicalMedia), Stiefel oversaw the production of thousands of TV commercials. 

In 2009, Stiefel made his first short documentary, Ingelore, about his mother, a deaf Holocaust survivor, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2010 and aired on HBO in 2011. At that point, he retired to concentrate on non-fiction filmmaking full-time.

"The issue of being open and humble enough to admit what you don't know is a wonderful tool while making a documentary."

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, his second film, won both the 2017 Full Frame Audience Award & Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject soon after Stiefel turned 70. 

In advance of the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony this Sunday, we recently asked Stiefel about how his career in commercials prepared him for making short documentaries, what drew him to Mindy, and how growing older has liberated him creatively.

No Film School: How did you first get connected to Mindy and how did you get the idea to make a film about her?

Frank Stiefel:  My wife, BJ, is in the same class at the same studio as Mindy and she would come home and talk about this woman who sat by herself in the back of the studio and made this amazing art. Over time, BJ would invite her out for coffee at the end of the day and they struck up a friendship.

At some point, there was a group show and I saw some of Mindy's sculptures and was just knocked out. We found ourselves sort of in the same social circle—I would see her at art openings—and there was an undeniable warmth between us. You know, we get the same jokes and, at some point, I became curious as to why she was the way she was. And where did this art come from?

I asked whether I might shoot her while she was making that “Shoshana” sculpture. I probably started filming her about halfway through the making of that sculpture. I would show up every week to film her as the sculpture progressed and over time, there was enough trust so that the first of six interviews could happen. And that was it.    

NFS: Was she always comfortable with the idea of being filmed or did she take some convincing?

Stiefel: When I broached the idea, Mindy couldn't figure out why I would be interested, which is a very reasonable question because I didn't know why I was interested either. I just was. I had no idea what her story was at all.

There's not a moment in the film that I knew at the point that I began. I knew nothing about her family and I knew nothing of her history. The motivating propulsion here was curiosity. And so my asking whether I could film her working was a pretty low threshold in terms of trust but it allowed for us to be together more and more. That created trust and  allowed for the first interview to be as open as it was. It didn't take much convincing. I think intuitively we trusted each other.

"The one thing I never asked Mindy in 20 hours of interview was for a diagnosis. I didn't want that to be part of the film."

NFS: Do you think there are any special considerations a director should keep in mind when filming a subject who suffers from mental illness?

Stiefel: I think the film's success is due to the fact that I'm not filming an illness and I'm not filming a diagnosis. I'm filming a person. The one thing I never asked Mindy in 20 hours of interview was for a diagnosis. I didn't want that to be part of the film. I wanted you to meet the person. I didn't want you to meet the sickness.    

NFS: You had a long career as a production executive in the television commercial production industry. How did that background help you when it came to making your own film? 

Stiefel: There is a discipline to making something that's 30 seconds long. If you put the wrong prop into a room, you've lost somebody for a second or two seconds while they're wondering why that prop is there. And once you've lost them for two seconds, you've lost them.

Clarity is important whether you're making a commercial or making a documentary. Even if you're trying to be oblique, you want to be clearly oblique. You know there's an intention that you set for how you want your audience to get this and it's not casual. I think advertising was probably a good training ground for that. And I think that running an organization and being a director are similar.

Directing is this job where, aside from what you do in your other roles—in this case, I was the cinematographer and the interviewer—,you're setting a tone and that tone is consistent through the edit, through the finish, through music, and through post.

There are lots of other people that you bring into the band, sure, but they have to play the same music that you're playing. And so I think that from an organization and leadership perspective, they're similar. You've got to have some sense of where we're going and an ability to articulate that.    

NFS: What can non-fiction filmmakers learn from commercial directors?

Stiefel: It’s a separate language, it's entirely different language.

The difference is that when you're a commercial director, there's an enormous amount of money that's being spent on what you're doing. Beyond the amount that's being spent on the actual commercial, there are the many, many millions of dollars that are being spent on media in order to broadcast that. It's a business and a lot rides on it and as such, the answer you are never allowed to give is, “I don't know.”

You have to know, whatever the question is. You know that the army that's behind you is too big, the advertising agency is too frightened, the client that you're dealing with has too much riding on everything you're doing. In documentaries, I’m about strengthening the “I don't know” muscle.

I walk into every day celebrating the fact that I don't know because the only way anything is going to come out of this is to be just completely open to whatever it is that presents itself. I can't predict what somebody is going to say in an interview but I'd better be awake to hear what that person said so I can ask the follow-up question that I didn't think about when I was thinking about the questions I was going to ask. The issue of being open and humble enough to admit what you don't know is a wonderful tool while making a documentary. It's a terrible tool while making a TV commercial.

"I'm past the point of wanting a career out of this. I want nothing, actually."

NFS: You didn't become a director until you were in your sixties and then you got nominated for an Academy Award right after you turned 70. Was your age and experience an advantage when it came to directing? 

Stiefel: Yes, I could not have made this film 10 years ago, and that has nothing to do with experience or with knowledge. I'm much more emotionally available today than I once was. I also don't want anything today. I'm past the point of wanting a career out of this. I want nothing, actually. And so I went into it without an agenda and I remain without an agenda. I don't want anybody to hire me. I don't want anything from anybody about this. I just did this out of love. And I think that being able to do this that in your 60s and 70s is a tremendous advantage because your agenda is so clear. You're not split between "Will this be good for me?” or “What does my agent think?" You are doing this out of a degree of purity that you could never have in any earlier part of your life. 

The entire film can be viewed below:

https://youtu.be/09M3C4VD1Fg     

For more information on the film, please click here.

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