He was just taking pictures and ended up with an Oscar-winning film on mental illness.
When 70-year-old filmmaker Frank Stiefel first met artist Mindy Alpert, he didn't know they'd end up making a pioneering movie about mental illness — let alone that he'd win an Oscar for it.
He really just wanted to know more about how she worked. "My wife told me there was this woman at her art studio who was making incredible things but never talked to anyone," he says. That woman was Mindy Alpert.
He introduced himself to Alpert and eventually asked if he could document her latest project, a giant papier-mâché head.
As Alpert slowly began to open up, Stiefel realized she was living with intense anxiety and depression — which she channels into her artwork. The giant head she was sculpting was that of her therapist.
The film's eye-catching title, "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405," comes from a line in the movie, when Alpert explains how much she loves being stuck in Los Angeles traffic because watching the faces of others in their cars soothes her anxiety. It's one of the most powerful moments in a deeply affecting film.
And when the documentary earned an Oscar, Stiefel's emotional acceptance speech charmed many people on social media because of the sweet way he credited his wife B.J. Dockweiler for his success (the tuxedo he wore was the same suit he wore to their wedding 40 years ago) — and for his heartfelt comments about Alpert.
"I always knew, but I always knew the only reason people would care about it is because we all care about you," Stiefel said of Alpert.
The two remain in touch almost daily.
Stiefel says he approached the movie like a reporter, keeping in mind that when addressing mental illness, listening really matters.
While making his film, Stiefel says he was self-conscious about not wanting to exploit Alpert. Instead, he saw his role more as simply chronicling her process and allowing her to be vulnerable about her experience.
Stiefel says Alpert's story has inspired others to open up about their own experiences. Though he wasn't intentionally trying to make a message movie, Stiefel says he's definitely noticed its impact.
"After screenings, people will often come up and want to talk about their own experiences with mental illness," he says. "I don't think it would have worked if I'd tried to go out and make that kind of movie."
Instead, he says "just letting Mindy tell her story" created an atmosphere of authenticity that doesn't shy away from an artist's emotional challenges (or how much joy and hope she experiences every day).
Sitting back and listening to people with powerful stories to tell was a big part of Stiefel's first film too — which he didn't make until age 63.
Stiefel's story is highly unusual in Hollywood. The 70-year-old spent decades working on the "business side" for a TV commercial company and, in his words, was "very happy" with his career, saying he was never interested in becoming a director.
Things changed when he watched a lecture his mother gave in New York about being born deaf and surviving the Holocaust. Given his mother's advancing age, Stiefel decided to film the lecture and interview her on camera as a time capsule for his two daughters.
That project eventually became the documentary "Ingelore." Stiefel was walking into a movie theater with his wife and one of his daughters when he got an email telling him the film had won a major documentary award. "I had to keep my mouth shut until the movie was over," he says, laughing. "But I decided to quit my job right then," and he took "Ingelore" to a number of film screenings where it won acclaim and eventually appeared on HBO.
Now that he's won an Oscar, Stiefel admits that opportunities are coming in for larger and more conventional projects. However, he says he'll continue his process. "My next project will probably be something like the first two, where I just accidentally stumble into it while talking to someone I find interesting."