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Frank Stiefel, 74: Curiosity and Freedom in Filmmaking

Following his curiosity, Academy Award-winner Frank Stiefel made his first film at age 62 after a long career on the business side of visual media. He discusses shutting out the inner voice that says ‘it can’t be done,’ the freedom of wanting nothing, and telling his mother’s story.

The Academy Award-winner has had at least 4 careers, none of which were planned. Having worked in the business end of the visual arts, (at one time being Michael O’Neill’s agent), he made his first film, Ingelore, a documentary about his deaf Holocaust-surviving mother, when he was 62. His second film, Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405, won an Academy Award when he was 70. Both films were shot on a shoestring. With Frank, the impossible becomes the improbable which then becomes the achievable and then the extraordinary. We are often faced with questions of what we can do and what we should be doing. Frank inspires us by showing the limits we place on ourselves are really just limits of the imagination — the problem is not the resources, skills or age, but the inspiration in need of creative solutions.

When Frank was 50 he ran the NYC marathon, at 60 he was cycling centuries, then at 70 he won an Academy Award. Frank lives in the world of “why not?” What would it take, how can I do this with the resources I have, what is the path to best make this happen? He is a walking ocean of solutions and, once inspired, becomes game fully on. As he told me, “I need to be doing something I don’t know how to do.” Think about that as it compares to a mindset that says: I don’t know how, I may fail, I am afraid. Doing something we don’t understand how to do is what we call learning. It would seem if one is curious, fearless of failure, and energetically moving forward, one is growing. This may not be the only secret to living a good long, life, but the opposite will certainly leave one with a stunted life experience.

“I need to be doing something I don’t know how to do”

Your whole life has been continually pushing, doing things that you may not know how to do. Why do you think that is?
I grew up with a voice in my head that told me that every dream was too hard, too out of reach, too impossible. I found that the way to shut the voice was to try. And once I proved that I could reach further than I imagined, I kept on reaching and dreaming bigger. And every success built on the one before and these projects, these dreams, became my life.

You have made many career changes. How do you discern if a newly opened door of opportunity will be a dead-end or will take you to new fulfillment?
When I was in business I found that no matter how much research you did there was a large piece of the decision that depended on instinct. Instinct was the piece that had nothing to do with the dispassionate analysis of metrics. Does this feel right? Do I want to be with these people? Is this right for me now? I am also very forgiving of myself. I know that some of what I do will fail but the older I get the less that matters.

 

You started in the business side of visual media, first as a photographer rep, then commercial director rep, and then as an executive producer for a large commercial production company. Then you made the leap into doing your own documentary films. Finding your own point of view is so important for an artist. How did you find your own voice for these films?
I think voice is what you find AFTER you’ve made the films. You begin with curiosity rather than a strategy and you follow that curiosity to the end. My voice is less important than whether I’ve told the story so that it lands on the viewer’s heart and mind. While there is certainly a common theme in the films that I’ve chosen to make and a point of view that is common to the storytelling, it’s only after looking at that work that I can see a voice.

What did you take from the business side that has helped you succeed in the creative side of the film business?
Creativity is common to both fields. It’s also how I approach making a meal or writing a text. How can I do this so that it’s fresh, and engages my spirit? Both business and filmmaking require an amalgam of talents that include the practical and the poetic.

“Both business and filmmaking require an amalgam of talents that include the practical and poetic”

What was the experience for you of being presented with the entirety of your mom’s story of being a deaf Holocaust survivor? Why after all these years of knowing her did it move you to make a film?
My mom, who probably had 5 or 6 years of formal education, was invited to give a lecture at NTID, a large deaf university in Rochester, NY. I attended that lecture and heard her begin with the date of her birth and the story of everything that followed. While I had heard many of the pieces of that lecture before, it was the first time I heard them as a linear narrative and the first time that the whole story was told to me as an adult. Over the course of a few seconds, I decided that this could be a documentary and that it was too personal a story to put in the hands of a stranger. I was 60 years old at the time and decided that I wanted my kids to have something tangible that told my mother’s story. I thought about it for a year, took pages of notes, and went ahead with no big plan beyond making a film of her story. I think it was the sincerity of purpose that propelled everything.  Ingelore was honored by the International Documentary Association, The Museum of Modern Art, The Berlin Film Festival, and about 20 other international festivals.

Your films seem to have a commonality around resilience and perseverance. Did I get that correct, and why do these themes resonate for you?
The film about my mom was a portrait of a deaf woman but it wasn’t about deafness. Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 was about an extraordinary artist that suffers from anxiety and depression but it was about Mindy and not her illness. My point of view is to invite you to meet someone. Someone you might think at the beginning of the film is different or maybe even scary. My hope is that by the time the lights come up you’ve come to love or respect or recognize that the subject of the film is not very different than you.

You ran the NYC marathon for your 50th birthday, cycled a century for your 60th, and won an Academy Award for your 70th. What is your ambition for your 80th birthday?
A nap.

What is the film about that you are currently editing?
A famous LA graffiti artist who has been in bed with ALS for the last 23 years. It’s a risky story primarily because the subject has none of the obvious contact points that we share with other people. Tony has no body language or voice or facial expression. It remains to be seen if we have told the story so that the viewer can feel his humanity.

“Do you know how brave you can be when you want nothing? I’m not looking for a job or a career or anything else Hollywood has to offer”

You mentioned that “At a certain point age becomes irrelevant, either you are breathing or not.” You work in film, in Hollywood, which is known for its youth-centric POV, always looking for the new fresh thing. Yet you are thriving at 74. Could you help us understand why you feel that is?
Do you know how brave you can be when you want nothing? I’m not looking for a job or a career or anything else Hollywood has to offer. I want to make films that interest me in the way that I want. If they are honored or purchased, that’s wonderful, but that’s not the game for me now. I want to be challenged and to grow and to be proud of the work I do.

You could probably, if you wanted, have a career making films for some large corporate channel, but you have not gone in that direction, although many would have jumped at that chance. Why is that?
I spent over 40 years working in the filmmaking industrial complex. I loved that career and have nothing but gratitude for those years. But when you’re being hired by the “man,” he has every right to have you make his film. I decided that I wanted this part of my life to be absent those restrictions. I make these films less expensively than anyone. I’m my own cameraman, sound man, and delivery boy. I won an Academy Award using very basic equipment and for over 90% of the days that I was shooting I was shooting alone without any crew. I’ve bought myself the freedom that almost no one has.

I love your photographs from the ’70s. Looking back at that work, which you describe as the results of being a serious hobbyist, do you see a linkage to the films you are making today?
Actually, those pictures are very much the beginning of the learning curve that has brought me here. They were portraits of a community that didn’t know me. The project required that I become credible and safe enough to be invited into their homes to shoot them in their environments. I used basic equipment; I would find the beautiful light rather than produce light and work alone.

What are your top 3 non-negotiables in your life today?
To enjoy what I do, love who I’m with, and never see Trump as president.

Connect with Frank: http://www.frankstiefel.com/

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AUTHOR

David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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