Manhattan filmmaker Alex Halpern characterizes his natural aptitude for business as a willingness to take risks. ‘Opportunities present themselves and I run with them,’ he says. It’s an approach that is working. The proof is in his prominent film editing company, Post Factory – an accidental success story that began when Halpern bought an Avid to cut his doc debut, Nine Good Teeth.
Teeth is a feature-length film, produced by Halpern’s Pickled Punk Productions, that chronicles the colorful life of Maria Mirabito Livornese Cavaliere, the filmmaker’s charismatic 103-year-old grandmother. When Halpern began the documentary in 1995, he had 8mm footage and photos to show the past. He then spent a year shooting new material, and accumulated 40 hours of videotape and five hours of film. Despite gathering lots of footage, Halpern found himself asking, ‘Do I have anything good or not?’ Cash-strapped in the extreme, Halpern decided an Avid was the best way to get through his footage.
‘I thought, ‘I am going to buy an Avid, edit through next year and rent it out during the day to pay for it,” recalls Halpern. ‘So, I borrowed money from family. At the end of the year if I couldn’t sell the film, I’d sell the Avid and have the same US$30,000.’
At first, Halpern rented the Avid to other SoHo-based filmmakers, but it wasn’t long before he was editing commercial spots. New York editor Thom Zimny and top London, U.K., slicer Jinx Godfrey eventually joined him, and Post Factory was born.
The demands of running a business soon superseded Halpern’s drive to finish Teeth. ‘I would work all day and then try to edit at night,’ recalls Halpern. ‘I was doing more business than film, and Nine Good Teeth wasn’t getting edited. Just when I thought of killing the post house, it got the [Miramax film] Studio 54.’
Working with feature directors spurred Halpern onwards, and in 2000 he set about finishing his doc. Yet the structure and technique of features and commercials left their mark on both Halpern’s film and his approach to filmmaking. ‘I’m not a doc filmmaker, so I cut the film more like a fiction feature, with story arcs and surprising aspects,’ he explains.
Editing hours of footage for Teeth while running Post Factory was hard, but after many late nights he managed a 140-minute cut of the film. To get the doc down to 80 minutes, Halpern secured the editing skills of Angelo Corrao (Klute, Primary Colors). ‘By autumn 2001 it was finally finished,’ says Halpern. ‘Then, 9/11 happened.’
As with most downtown N.Y. businesses, Post Factory suffered in the wake of the attacks. ‘I thought about closing Post Factory,’ says Halpern. ‘But it had become part of the downtown film community, more than an editing facility.’ Post Factory recovered with the rest of the city, and moved to new, 20,000-square-foot digs nearby.
As for Teeth, it hit the 2002 festival circuit, screening at (among others) the Munich DocFest, the TriBeCa Film Festival and HBO’s Frame by Frame Festival, which qualifies it for a 2003 Academy Award nomination. The BBC acquired U.K. broadcast rights for its ‘Storyville’ strand, and in the U.S., HBO/Cinemax picked up Teeth for its coveted ‘Reel Life’ slot. Both broadcasters will air the doc in 2003. Halpern is still seeking theatrical distribution, but is already planning future projects, including another doc, a fiction feature, and the launch of a new prodco with actor/director Alex Winter.
Producers thinking of following Halpern’s lead might want to reconsider. While his success allowed him to self-finance Teeth (which cost ‘less than Minority Report, more than when Maysles filmed Salesman‘), Halpern doesn’t wish to repeat the experience. ‘The second hardest thing in the world is to get financing for an indie film. The hardest thing is getting financing for an indie film about your grandmother. I will not self-finance again,’ he states. ‘I want copro funds.’ Halpern says the BBC is a co-financier for his next film project.