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.