Oscar winners Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine of Chevy Chase tell WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley about their movie dates in D.C., documentary quests and what it was like to stand on stage to accept their golden statues.
Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic
WASHINGTON – The Academy Awards had just gone to commercial break, and inside Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre, a couple from Chevy Chase, Md. knew their category was next.
Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine turned to their 19-year-old guest, the namesake of their 40-minute film “Inocente” (2012), and saw she was nervous about the prospect of winning for Best Documentary Short.
“I don’t know if I really want to go on stage,” Inocente Izucar said.
“You don’t have to say anything, but I think it’ll be great if you came up,” the married filmmakers replied.
When Kerry Washington called their names, they took the stage in shock. Andrea tried thanking a list of people before the “Jaws” cutoff music. Sean donned a pair of RG3 socks, nimbly evading the shark’s fin by getting to the heart of their gratitude.
“Most of all, we want to thank this young lady, who was homeless just a year ago, and now she’s standing in front of all of you,” he said, drawing cheers from the Hollywood crowd.
“She’s an artist, and all of you are artists, and we feel like we need to start supporting the arts. They’re dying in our communities and all of us are artists, and we need to stand up and help girls like her be seen and heard. It’s so important.”
Four days later, the Fines brought their Oscars to WTOP.
“I think these Oscars mean so much to us because this film was really hard,” Sean said. “It took three years. We almost didn’t make it a few times. We almost got funding pulled. It was just hard scraping everything together for this one. They’re all hard, but this one was really hard, so it means a lot to us to be recognized for all the hard work.”
Awards are in Sean Fine’s burgundy and gold blood. His parents, Paul and Holly Fine, met at WJLA and won four Peabody Awards while collaborating on pieces for “60 Minutes” and “Primetime.”
“I grew up tying action figures to editing equipment,” Sean said.
He spent summers on the Chesapeake Bay, gaining appreciation for wildlife, and looked up to his grandfather, the late Nate Fine, a photographer for the Redskins for 51 years. He applied both passions to a double major in Zoology and Filmmaking at Connecticut College.
The clincher was a summer filmmaking class at NYU.
“I never worked so hard and enjoyed myself so much,” he said. “I think I worked 72 hours straight on something without sleeping, and I remember leaving the editing room when it was done, feeling so fantastic, and I was like, ‘I have to do this.'”
Meanwhile, Andrea grew up in Rochester, New York, where the last semester of senior year, she took a documentary course and was inspired to work at a PBS station in Rochester.
“I realized that (with documentaries) you could do a different subject on just about anything, so you kind of learn the rest of your life,” she said.
The two eventually made their way to National Geographic in D.C., where Andrea was asked to retrieve him from the lobby on his first day.
Their brief encounter was no “thunderbolt” moment, a la “The Godfather” (1972), but after hanging out with the same group of people, they hit it off talking about movies.
“We were out having drinks with people and I went on some kind of rant about film. I was going on and on about the idea that National Geographic was transitioning at the time out of using film and I was upset about it. I was saying we need to not lose sight that what we do is an art form,” Sean said.
“He was so quiet all the time and then finally I saw him get really passionate,” Andrea said. “I remember thinking, ‘There you are.'”
Before long, the two were going on constant movie dates just so they could hang out in a movie theater. These movies ranged from embarrassing romances like “Message in a Bottle” to serious documentaries like “Hoop Dreams” (1994) and “Microcosmos” (1996) at the since-closed Key Theater in Georgetown. Eventually, it became hard to juggle work and play.
“We worked at National Geographic long enough that we were making our own films independently there and we were traveling so much to far-flung crazy places,” Andrea said. “We would just be like ships passing in the night, and it was great professionally, but it wasn’t great for us. So, we sooner or later said, ‘Let’s get married.'”
In a gesture straight out of a movie, Sean proposed to Andrea with the same engagement ring his maternal grandfather had used to propose to his grandmother, which he bought from Tiny Jewel Box in D.C. She said yes, and the two were hitched in 2003.
Marriage is one thing. Being married to your co-director is another.
While an individual filmmaker might wake up in the middle of the night to jot down an idea, Sean and Andrea can simply elbow the person on the other pillow.
“I think it’s great we can always talk about an idea. I think we’ve also learned there are times not to talk about ideas,” Sean said.
“There are times we have to be a family, or there are times we have to be husband and wife, and we have to turn it off. But for me, my biggest critic and my biggest fan is the person I’m married to, so it pushes me to work even harder,” he said.
Both co-direct their films, while Andrea focuses on writing, and Sean focuses on cinematography.
“Sean’s an incredible cinematographer,” Andrea said. “I’m always so lucky, because the footage I sit down to work with is some of the most incredible footage anybody could ever bring home.”
“Andrea’s an amazing writer,” Sean said. “A lot of people don’t realize how much writing is involved, even in documentaries. Everything from treatments to proposals … and being able to go through hundreds of pages of transcripts and find the nuggets, the best bytes, and string them together.”
The two dabbled in documentary shorts and TV documentaries from 2002 to 2006, before co-directing their Oscar-nominated feature documentary “War Dance” (2007) about three displaced Ugandan kids competing in a national music and dance festival.
Then came the Oscar-winning idea: a documentary on child homelessness and the arts.
“We read that one in 45 kids in American experience homelessness, which is insane,” Andrea said.
The two thought making a film would help bring attention to the crisis. They decided to find a kid who was not only homeless but was also a talented artist; a sort of diamond in the rough.
“It was a way to give them a voice and a face and express themselves,” she said.
Finding that kid was a three-month process, as Sean and Andrea called schools, shelters and social programs across the country, including D.C. and Baltimore.
The search brought them to Inocente, a 15-year-old undocumented immigrant from San Diego who had been homeless for nine years after fleeing abusive parents.
She takes refuge in her painting, aided by San Diego’s ARTS program, which chooses her among thousands of young artists to host her first art show. Every painting sells, except a special painting she keeps for herself. In the end, we learn ARTS helped Inocente obtain legal status in 2011.
Like the great documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”), Sean and Andrea allow young Inocente to speak directly into the camera. Nothing she says is scripted; it’s all from the heart, with tears flowing from the colorful swirls of face paint around her eyes.
“I think it’s a very intimate way for them to share their stories; especially for kids,” Sean said. “I always think, ‘Man, this is gonna be very hard,’ but people really open up this way. I feel like they’re not talking to us; they’re talking to the lens and it really opens up and it becomes personal.”
“Are documentary filmmakers filmmakers first or are they activists?” Sean said. “We see ourselves as filmmakers. We love film, the art of it, the language of it.”
Here, the substance of child homelessness is beautifully layered with cinematic style. While Andrea fell for Sean’s rant on film versus digital, “Inocente” was ironically shot digitally with a Panasonic Varicam and a Canon 5D for interviews. The filmmakers use fast motion to see Inocente create a piece of art in time lapse, and slow motion to focus on tiny details, like glitter falling from her hand.
“We love playing around with the different film speeds,” Andrea said. “The speed of the shot sends a different message. When things are slowed down, you tend to focus on it and pay attention to it in a different way, and I think sometimes there’s a different weight and it has a totally different emotion.”
“With your normal eyes, you don’t pay attention to details, but with the camera, you string together a bunch of details,” Sean said. “Those details are the things that I find the most interesting, because they’re things we pass by in our normal, quick-paced lives. That’s cinematic. That’s the language of film … And you put that with the right music and the right voiceover, and you have a whole scene that just moves you. I don’t know any other medium you can do that with.”
Shooting the film was only half of the battle, as post-production labored on for months. The film was edited in the basement of their Chevy Chase home with the help of go-to editor Jeff Consiglio. Here, they carefully worked out the film’s structure, pacing, plot points and how to present a devastating scene, only to pick the audience back up and carry them into the next scene.
“It just twists you up for so long and you never feel like you’re gonna get it,” Andrea said. “The first few minutes is always the part you rip up 10,000 times, because that’s the ‘who, what, why, when’ that you gotta get right on the money.”
The hard work paid off, as the film breathes life with every brush stroke and every tiny detail.
“I always thought Sean would make a great cop,” Andrea said, “He always notices all the details about people all the time.”
Now they don’t need no stinkin’ badges. They have Oscar statues.
The limo ride to the Oscars allowed Sean and Andrea to watch young Inocente take in the life-changing moment. She played with the electric windows, talked to people outside the limo and looked the part, thanks to a stylist who offered to do her hair and makeup for free. When her high heels began hurting her feet, she pulled a Shoeless Joe and went barefoot most of the night.
“It was a no-brainer to bring her,” Sean said. “Oscar tickets are hard to come by and we had a lot of people who worked on this film, but everybody rallied and was like ‘That’s the right thing to do.’ The whole thing was just amazing with her, to see it through her eyes and see her embrace it, because you never know if this is gonna make somebody turn into a little cocoon, especially a kid.”
When the big moment came, Sean and Andrea were glad to have Inocente on stage with them.
“Being up on stage with Inocente herself, she’s been through so much, and to have her up there, it meant the world to us, and it meant the world to her,” Andrea said. “Here you are looking at each other’s faces like, ‘I can’t believe this is really happening.'”
“I remember looking down in front of us and there’s Ben Affleck and Jack Nicholson, all these famous people, and I remember bringing her up and I remember their faces looking like, ‘Who’s this?'” Sean said. “Then I remember saying the words, ‘A year ago she was homeless,’ and I remember many of their mouths opened. … I felt them feel her, so it was a big moment.”
The adulation continued after the ceremony, as the Oscar statues served as tickets to the Vanity Fair after party. There, Sean and Andrea brushed elbows with Quentin Tarantino and Steven Tyler, while Inocente met her “Harry Potter” hero Daniel Radcliffe.
But there was no time for starstruck gawking; there were teachable moments to be had. Daniel Day-Lewis told Inocente, ‘It’s not always best to listen. It’s better to sometimes follow your own heart.” Peter Fonda said, “We gotta support the arts,” and Sean gasped, “‘Easy Rider’ just talked to us!”
“I realized at that party, she moved all these artists,” Sean said. “They remembered her on stage, and that to me showed these aren’t all self-involved people. … Sometimes I think we get lost in what people are wearing, did this person fall down. … I think sometimes it’s refreshing to have something real. Not going up there as a documentary filmmaker and preaching, ‘You gotta do this’ as an activist, but just being real. Laying it out there. And I think it did that for some of those people that night.”
The sky is the limit now for young Inocente. The day before the Oscars, she got offered a big art show in New York. The day after, a college reached out with a potential scholarship offer.
“Her phone’s lighting up right now,” Andrea said of Inocente. “She wants to be an advocate for other kids. She wants to be able to help connect people to the issues of homelessness, the need for art, immigration. She launched her own website to sell her artwork. She’s also doing speaking engagements, and they’re talking about maybe even having a day in San Diego being Inocente Day.”
As for Sean and Andrea, their filmmaking careers will never be the same. Their HBO documentary “Life According to Sam” (2013) just premiered at Sundance about a young boy with a rare disease called progeria, which causes parts of his body to age rapidly, like Robin Williams in “Jack” (1996).
“It’s meddling a little bit with the fountain of youth idea,” Andrea said. “This disease creates a crazy abnormal protein that builds up very rapidly in these kids. A baby is born with almost none of it. An old person has a good deal of it. And these kids have a ton of it. So trying to figure out the mechanism that will help them also looks at the same mechanism that makes us all age, so I’m very interested in what happens with that side of the science.”
The couple also came to the Oscars prepared to hock four fiction feature scripts, which are getting some traction. Sean loves fiction filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick; Andrea is a fan of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982).
“As directors for documentaries, we’ve witnessed birth, we’ve witnessed death, we’ve witnessed every emotion you can imagine in real time, filming it with real people,” Sean said. “So I think we’ll be able to bring that when we make something that’s fiction. We have a grab bag of emotions we can pull from.”
Tucked somewhere in that grab bag is a passion for the burgundy and gold, which they’re not afraid to share with their new Oscar-winning L.A. brethren.
“People ask, ‘Oh, Washington! You must know all about politics.’ But if you ask me the one thing I associate with Washington, it’s the Redskins,” Sean said. “I wish the stadium was still here. I miss RFK. To take the Metro to your stadium in your city, that’s where it should be, not a day’s trip out.”
His first Redskins game came against the Giants when he was 4 years old. He was in the locker room during the 1983 NFC Championship against the Cowboys, where the RFK bleachers shook with chants of ‘We want Dallas.’ Art Monk, Darrell Green and John Riggins were his heroes, and he has the jerseys to prove it. Such are the perks of being the grandson of the team’s official photographer.
When he and Andrea were nominated for “War Dance,” he wore his grandfather’s two Super Bowl rings to the Oscars. When they lost to a film called “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), their defeat brought painful memories of the Redskins 5-11 record the previous season. As the team struggled for 15 years, Sean and Andrea had their faith tested, like many ‘Skins fans.
All that changed last year with the arrival of Robert Griffin III.
“On the one hand, he’s a physical specimen and watching him play is electric,” Andrea said.
“He’s also somebody my kids can watch and I want my kids to learn from,” Sean added. “His actions speak louder than his words. And so, at the Oscars, deciding to wear RG3 socks, it was a no-brainer to me. It’s bringing Washington with me. It’s bringing part of my kids’ hero and a guy I’m a big fan of, too. You gotta bring something of your home to Hollywood.”
And so, Sean wore burgundy and gold socks with the RG3 motto: “No Pressure, No Diamonds.” Andrea wore jewelry donated by Tiny Jewel Box. Together, they’re using a camera to achieve what RG3 is doing with his playbook: inspiring a D.C. community.
When they returned home from the Oscars, they discovered their neighbors had brought them cards and flowers. Even the local grocery store Brookville Super Market brought congratulatory champagne.
“That’s what it’s about for us living in Washington,” Sean said. “We come home and there’s a community that embraces us and embraces what we do. It feels good.”
No pressure, no diamonds, and Oscar wins are a long time coming. To quote “Shawshank,” that’s all it takes sometimes: pressure and time. That and a big RG3 poster.