Filmmaker op-ed: Frank Stiefel on directing Oscar-shortlisted doc 'Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405'
Director writes of searching for 'central truth' of story about artist Mindy Alper, and confronting his own unexpected illness
Editor's note: this piece marks our first filmmaker op-ed for Nonfictionfilm.com, a new feature where directors write in the first-person about making their work. Frank Stiefel's Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405 -- one of 10 films to make the Oscar documentary short subject shortlist this year -- focuses on Mindy Alper a woman who despite long struggles with mental illness has created exceptional art.
Each night as I packed my gear after another day of shooting I would ask myself whether there was a shot or a line of dialogue that I picked up today that could end the film… whether I had found an attractive bow that I could tie around this package that in some way summarized what had come before.
What I was actually asking was what is the central truth, the spine of this story.
I had begun after meeting Mindy a few times, seeing her art and being curious about who she was, how had she become this person. I knew nothing of her family, her history, her illness. I knew absolutely nothing.
I began the filming thinking of myself as a collagist…collecting snap shots, her archive of drawings and sculpture, shooting footage of her working. After a few months I shot the first interview, which led to five other interviews with Mindy and three with her mother.
At some point I thought the film was in her relationships with the other artists in the studio and I interviewed them as well.
As I was cataloguing the footage in order to begin the edit I was diagnosed with lung cancer. Surgery took a piece of my right lung and a few ribs, chemo left me 30 pounds lighter and a reaction to the chemo landed me back in the OR for emergency stomach surgery.
Needless to say, active work on the film stopped. What did happen was that I slowly watched myself get a bit stronger each day. Being able to walk to the living room one day then out the front door, down the driveway. I could see that physical illness was linear, almost predictable and as strength returned, I could picture myself once again on my bike or at the gym. This very process of evidencing strength and fantasizing greater strength plugs you into the strongest of all drugs…hope.
When I returned to the film six months later Mindy’s doctors were searching for a new medication to replace one that had ceased to be effective. As I visited one afternoon I could see her hands, arms and legs pumping and pulsing. These shaking movements prevented her from driving and I put down the camera to be one of the friends that drove her to doctor, therapist and neuro-feedback appointments.
The footage was different to me now. As opposed to the military movement of cancer, Mindy’s mind was subject to the ever-shifting sands of past events, brain chemistry, and tolerances to medications. Every day she might pour the same cocktail and everyday it would produce an unreliable result.
As the edit went from 84 to 62 to ultimately a 40 minute cut I could see that the film would have no bow, no grand phrase, no simple all encompassing end shot. Mindy’s story was uncertain. The film could only end obliquely in a small gesture...a comma rather than an exclamation point.
The film takes us on a trip through a lifetime of extraordinary art that brilliantly describes her life with great psychological precision. We end on a shot of her sculpting at home. All that she hopes for is that she’ll always want to make art.
Frank Stiefel, producer, director, writer and cinematographer of Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405, was born and raised in New York City.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.