Frank Stiefel is the producer, writer, director, and cinematographer of Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, a nominee for Best Documentary, Short Subject at the 2018 Academy Awards. Heaven features Mindy Alper, a gifted sculptor and artist working with mental illness in Los Angeles, California. The film had its World Premiere at the 2016 Austin Film Festival, where it was the recipient of an Audience Award, the Hiscox Courage Award, and the Jury Award for Documentary Short.
Ahead of the final Oscar vote, Frank Stiefel spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about the excitement of awards season, living through “Carmageddon”, and his relationship with Mindy Alper.
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 is available to watch now, and currently in theaters along with the other four nominees in its category.
Sean Malin: I was at the Austin Film Festival working for the Austin Chronicle when Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 premiered there in 2016.
Frank Stiefel: That was a pretty exciting moment. That was the first festival that accepted the film, and it sort of swept it. It’s funny, I just wrote an e-mail to Harrison [Glaser, AFF’s Film Program Director] because when I got home last night, there was a card from everybody at the festival congratulating me and wishing me well. So I sent him one back asking him to distribute it to everybody.
As I described it to Harrison, we all have these self-imposed bubbles where we make these films; and you need somebody, or some entity, to tell you that it is worth something, that it’s got some value. I remember very clearly [senior film programmer] Liz [Mims] calling me one night at about 7 o’clock to say that they wanted to show it in Austin. Up until then, it had been passed on by a number of festivals. That was its very first moment: being accepted. Then when it went on to win the Audience Award and the critics prize and the Hiscox Courage Award…you know, that was nuts!
SM: And that was your World Premiere, too, wasn’t it?
FS: That was it.
SM: That is amazing. I write for the Chronicle as a freelancer, and spent several years going to festivals like SXSW and AFF for them. It is remarkable what being discovered at one of these events can do to set a film on its path. These films that, while they might fly under the radar culturally for most people, can find an opening to many of these people by playing for the first time in Austin.
FS: That festival was the only one that Mindy went to. Traveling with Mindy is difficult. I think my wife put about eight hours into helping her pack a bag that we could travel with. She’s got all kinds of things going on, so her inclination is to take everything she owns with her.
SM: That is completely understandable to me because, in the film, you can see that her creature comforts are so universal, if you’ll excuse the obviousness of that trope. There is something so human about the fact that she loves the Beatles. You see her wearing Beatles memorabilia and you think, “That’s exactly what my dad likes to wear.” The only thing I can’t relate to her on, as an Angeleno – and I don’t know how long you’ve lived here – but the 405 is my idea of a nightmare. It’s something that I’ve never considered friendly or happy until seeing the film.
FS: Of course you hate it. On the other hand – and I’ve spoken to a lot of people who say the same thing – what you come to realize is that it’s about point-of-view. [The freeway] is neutral, it is what it is. There are no surprises. The only thing you’re fighting with is…you. The 405 doesn’t give a shit about you. So are you going to get really fucked up over it, are you going to get a little fucked up over it, or are you going to enjoy it? Those are your choices.
That is what the title is about, for me: somebody who sees the world differently from how you and I do. The next time you’re sitting in traffic on the 405, if you go, “Okay, I knew it was going to be like this,” then you have a choice of listening to music or, as she says in the film, “listening to my thoughts.” Or are you just going to grind your teeth?
SM: I was just remembering Carmaggedon a few years ago, remember that?
FS: Yeah, sure.
SM: There were all these financial projections as to how it would impact the city, and there were all these Californians saying, “It’s going to be a total nightmare, how is anyone going to get home? What are we gonna do?!” But if you recall, it was much ado about nothing.
FS: It was a breeze.
SM: Yeah, they finished construction in two hours. Sometimes it takes a film like yours to help refashion and reframe the way that we see things. I’m talking about how, physically, we as people are able to see space, and color, and human faces. One of the things you accomplish in the film is to do that with traffic. I don’t know if it has become a meditative practice for you to get on the freeway nowadays…
FS: It has not *Laughs*. But I do catch myself now and realize, “This is silly.”
SM: Like getting tense is silly, getting stressed?
FS: Yeah, getting tense over this is just silly!
SM: I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times what Mindy thinks of the film, but I’d like to know what you think of the sculpture that Mindy made of you. Are you happy with it? I can’t remember if it’s in the film.
FS: It’s not. It was a curious time. Around the time that I finished shooting about 90% of [the film], I was diagnosed with lung cancer. Everything ground to a halt. I was pretty much out of commission for six months. There were complications, there was surgery, on and on and on. Then there was about a thirty-pound weight loss. Right now, I’m six feet tall, 156 pounds. Imagine when 30 lbs. comes off of 156 lbs.
It was around then that she did that sculpture. I don’t know exactly why she wanted to do it. My hair had just started to come back, I was very drawn and my face was very thin. But she asked for me to sit for her, and I said sure. I’ve seen the sculpture, but I don’t even know where it is. I think it’s in storage somewhere in the studio. Anyway, it’s not a sculpture that I feel good about looking at.
SM: Of course not.
FS: And I don’t think she felt good about doing it. That was a moment where she was scared, I was scared. I’m fine now, by the way. I haven’t looked like that before or since. It worked out.
SM: Okay, good, I’m very glad to hear that you are doing better. I don’t want to project too much onto her as an artist, but you can see that Mindy’s subjects are people she relates to. Relating, for her, must be such an intense struggle based on what she says in the film: that attaching herself to another person is a challenge if she doesn’t have the friendships built into her life, that getting connection is so hard.
FS: Right, although I have to say that she’s got a world of friendships that are close – intense – moreso than most people. She’s not lacking for friendship because she’s great at it. She inherently knows how to be a great friend. Not many people do. So in that regard, she attracts people.
SM: The film is such a diverse piece of work visually and aesthetically, with these shifts in animation styles between drawing and the almost 3D animation; or with some of the photography tricks you used, like the shot of Mindy in the Costco, which is one of the most disturbing shots I’ve ever seen. It looks like something out a Chris Marker film when those walls start coming in around her.
FS: That was really the challenge: could I get you, for a moment, to be her? Could I get you to feel that anxiety? That [shot] was me trying to illustrate those nightmares. Could I take somebody whose life experience was so different from yours, and give you the smallest hint as to what it was like to really be her?
SM: There are even changes to your documentary shooting style. At one point, you’ve got her talking to you in a studio in this totally professional setting, but then you switch to a more vérité-style, fly-on-the-wall, while you’re sitting in on her art class or the two of you are walking to her apartment. You – the filmmaker – disappear and reappear as a presence.
SM: My instinct tells me that it was entirely intentional since you worked as a professional photographer for so long. True?
FS: A lot of it is intuitive. That’s the thing I like most about making documentaries. You’ve got to think about it a lot and intellectualize what you’re doing. And you’ve got to have a plan. God knows I probably spend two-to-three hours prepping before every interview. All that is stuff that anybody should do to be professional in their work. On the other hand, the thing that I like most is that overriding that are decisions you can’t articulate. “I don’t know why I’m doing this.”
SM: For example?
FS: Why am I taking these questions in this direction? Like on that day where [Mindy] was shaking in her apartment – for weeks, I had put down the camera. You make a decision to be either a friend or a professional, and she needed somebody to drive her to doctor appointments. I wasn’t the only one, but I had put the camera down. I was shooting with a Canon, so I always had it with me. Then one day, I said, “Mindy, I need to pick up the camera now.” That day wasn’t a “planned” day at all; it’s the only time where she’s speaking to camera not against gray seamless. But I needed to see what she was doing.
FS: I didn’t know this story when I began; I didn’t know any piece of it. So I interviewed everybody in her class [with Tom Wudl.] I thought that was what the film was: her and the people in the class. Then it veers away from that and you’ve got an 84-minute cut, and you know you’re lost. Then you have a 62-minute cut, and it works. Then you let that sit for a couple of weeks, and then call the editor and go, “You know, I don’t know why, but it’s going to be better shorter. Let’s go back in.” You don’t know that! But you take the chance of upsetting your editor by going, “Let’s pull out everything that’s merely interesting. Interesting is too low a bar.”
SM: I have some notes here from when I watched the film for the first time. I actually wrote this here a couple of days ago: “Cutting this film down to forty minutes is the best decision of your career?” with a big question mark.
SM: I’m just aware of how easily you could have fallen into the trap of becoming so obsessed with your subject that everyone you interviewed gets ten minutes to spout off about it. You and your editor saved yourselves by not being afraid to take a feature which could have wound up buried on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and to instead cut it into a short film despite the financial risk that comes with saying, “This is for the art, not for the money.” By doing that, you got an Oscar nomination.
FS: As you were speaking, I was thinking of a half-dozen other intuitive decisions that were made before the fact. Then we sort of looked at it and said, “Well, that was interesting, but wrong.” As we went, we started pulling things out.
There was a shot that I loved. There is a section where she speaks about what depression is to her, and the parts that are in the film are about how she doesn’t understand how people have a good time, depression is gray…It was a longer piece than that.
I decided that the counterpoint to that would be a day at the beach. So I designed this shot, a 90-second single take where all kinds of things happen in front of the camera: a guy jumps in, catches a football, throws the football back, leaves frame; a couple gets up, walk to the ocean’s edge, passing a father who is making a sandcastle with his daughter; a jogger goes right-to-left; a Boogie Boarder goes left-to-right; then everybody clears frame, we hold for a beat or two, and then we move to Mindy, who is alone on the beach. I was just thrilled that it came off.
SM: You shot that successfully?
FS: I shot it!
SM: I’d love to see that on the DVD extras. It sounds like such a beautiful shot.
FS: *Laughs* Yeah, I got it, but at some point, you go, “That is a really nice shot…for somebody else’s film. It doesn’t belong in this one.”
SM: 40 minutes is a challenging run-time for a lot of people. It is too long for a YouTube video but too short for a theatrical release.
FS: I have to say, it’s a great time – a great length – for portraiture, a deep-dive into somebody’s life. This is the second 40-minute film I’ve made. It is exactly the amount of time where you really get to know somebody without having to glorify them.
SM: In making this film, you seem to have done a huge amount of legwork physically. You took on the brunt of producing, directing, and financing. But I wonder what kinds of favors you had to ask of others in order to get it out into the world. Did this film getting made require you to ask friends and collaborators for many I.O.U.’s?
FS: Before this, I had a production company that produced TV commercials. The thing that struck me was that you could hire a crew on the biggest-budget job, and feed them very well, and people will still bitch. If, on the other hand, you had a PSA or something that was meaningful to you, and you asked the same people who had bitched about getting five hours of overtime every day on a ten-day shoot to help you with it, they would step up in a heartbeat.
That always struck me as one of the most magical things about being in the industry. We may argue, we may see things differently; I’m a producer, somebody else is a crew guy. But we have the ability to make something important at times – rarely. And when that opportunity is there, everybody steps forward. It is fucking amazing.