Washingtonian Sean Fine Talks Winning an Oscar, the Redskins, RG3, and Komi
Fine and his wife, Andrea Nix Fine, won for Best Documentary Short at Sunday’s award ceremony.
Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, the directing team who won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, couldn’t be more inside Washington. A DC native, Sean is practically a blood relation to the Washington Redskins—his grandfather was the team photographer for 50 years. As a couple, Sean and Andrea can score that hardest-to-get DC perk, a reservation at Komi, with relative ease; one of the owners was in their crew. Add to that Sean’s notable Robert Griffin III moment after he got his gold statue Sunday night. He tweeted a photo of his RG3 socks—emblazoned with the quote, “No pressure, no diamonds”—to the star Skins quarterback and got an immediate reply: “Awesome.” Does it get any better—first an Oscar, then an RG3 tweet? Apparently so: Sean says the sweetest and most memorable Oscar moment happened the morning after the awards ceremony.
In a phone conversation Monday evening, Sean was still in Los Angeles and on a high. How many hours of sleep did he and Andrea get? “About one,” he said. He said they were about to bring themselves and their prizes home to Chevy Chase. We talked about the Oscar experience, of course, but also about his growing up in the Palisades section of DC, the son of documentary filmmakers Paul and Holly Fine; about discovering his love of film; about meeting his wife in 1998, when they both worked at National Geographic; and about breaking away from those jobs to become their own documentary team. While their latest project, Inocente, won the Oscar this week, their earlier documentary, War/Dance, received an Oscar nomination in 2007. In 2011 they made a documentary about skier Lindsey Vonn, In the Moment, which Fine points to as a prelude to what he wants to do next: tell the story of another world-class athlete. Who? Of course, Mr. “No pressure, no diamonds.”
Here’s our conversation:
You grew up among filmmakers, your grandfather and your parents. Did you always know that’s what you would do?
I didn’t. I actually went to school for zoology. One summer I ended up taking a filmmaking course at NYU. I never enjoyed anything so much in my life. I stayed up 72 hours straight working on a film, and it felt so good to work so hard.
When you and Andrea were at National Geographic did you work together?
We valued each other too much to work together. We knew that when you have a relationship with someone and you work with them it can get pretty intense. Filmmaking is all-consuming. It can destroy a relationship. We wanted our relationship to flourish before our careers. Once we got married we decided we should try it. Our first film together was War/Dance.
Do you have different skill sets?
We’re directors 50/50. Everything is decided by both of us. I am the cinematographer/director and she is the writer/director.
Did your parents provide counsel on how to be married filmmakers?
Through experience; I never knew any different. They have an amazing relationship. They were very good about not bringing work home and instead paying attention to us kids. They infused us with a love of filmmaking and meeting people.
Is there a common thread between War/Dance and Inocente?
They are very similar. The common thread that runs through them is they are about teenagers, about kids, and they are films that let kids have their own voice, kids who are usually statistics. One in 45 kids will experience homelessness at some point in their lives in our country. Inocente started out with that statistic.
How did you meet her?
We started looking into the story of homeless children, but we needed a face. We wanted to find a real kid. We called a lot of organizations. The head of A Reason to Survive (ARTS) in San Diego said, “I’ve got this girl you guys have to come meet.” She was an amazing artist and had been homeless for a while. We flew out, met her, and knew we had to tell her story. We started filming when she was 15. She’s 19 now.
What was the difference in your emotions between sitting in the audience as an Oscar nominee for War/Dance and not winning and sitting in the audience as a nominee for Inocente and winning?
It’s an honor just to be nominated. But there’s that five minutes before, when your heart starts pounding and you think, “I could be up on that stage.” Then [when you don’t win] there’s a bit of a letdown. You have to take a deep breath. Now that I know what it feels like to win, not winning is a lot different. For what we do, to win is really honorable. There are not many awards that honor the craft of art. Documentary filmmakers are not often looked at as artists, but as journalists. We love the art form of telling a story.
What is your standout memory of walking the red carpet, being in the theater, and watching the program unfold?
That we walked down the red carpet and went on stage in front of a billion people with a girl who was homeless a year ago. I don’t think a young girl who is homeless had ever stood on a stage like that before.
What was the reaction in the theater when First Lady Michelle Obama appeared?
Everybody was really excited. When she spoke she echoed the sentiments of our speech. She was there to remind us that art is important in our country, not just the Oscars. Her message was, “You are here because you are artists. You’re at the top of your game. Let’s not forget the kids who look up to you and who want to be you when they grow up.”
On another Washington topic, would you say the Redskins are a big part of your life?
Oh, yeah. I went to every Redskins home game from age four until college. I grew up in the locker room, running around on the field, in the hallways, helping my grandfather, watching my dad shoot on the field. It wasn’t only a football game, it was something my family did. With the team we were a very close-knit group of people.
Who were your favorite players?
Darrell Green, Art Monk, John Riggins, and Dave Butz.
Do you go to games now?
So when and where and why did you get your RG3 socks?
I got my socks because the day he was drafted I saw he had special socks on, and I thought, “This is cool.” He had that saying, “No pressure, no diamonds.” We have two sons from natural childbirth and a son we’re guardians of who is from Uganda. He’s 19 and in college, and he has all these sayings, similar to RG3. For Christmas I bought the whole family these socks. I got my red ones and my green ones. It’s a superstition. I wear them if it’s a Redskins game or an important filming job.
Are you a big fan of Griffin?
He’s a great guy. He’s a role model. I’ve been waiting forever for someone my kids can look up to, who is a leader, like I had as a kid with the Redskins. My youngest is at the same age [as I was] when I went to my first game. He’s watching RG3 and has a hero. [To people outside of Washington] you can’t explain what it means when the Washington football team is doing well. RG3 has made it exciting to have the team again. It goes much deeper than football.
At what point did you decide you would wear the socks to the Oscars?
I didn’t make the decision until I got in the limousine with our [production] team. I had them with me. My buddy said, “Oh my gosh, those are perfect.”
What will you do with them now—put them on the shelf next to your Oscar?
I will keep them for the next time I need them, or the next Redskins game, the first of the season.
Have you met Griffin?
I actually want to meet him really badly. I want to make a film about him. I want to have a cup of coffee and talk about making a film, but without all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds him. He seems to be his own guy and to embody the heart and soul of a great athlete.
What will you do when you get home to Washington? Will there be a celebration somewhere?
We’re good friends with the owners of Komi; it’s our favorite restaurant. Anne Marler [chef Johnny Monis’s wife] worked on the film with us. She went to the theater with us, and he met us later at the Vanity Fair party.
So maybe with the Oscar you can get a reservation?
I think we have an inside track.
What’s the best thing about winning the Oscar?
Peter Fonda—Easy Rider himself—remembered what I said onstage and said, “Thank you for talking about art.” Daniel Day-Lewis talked to us and to Inocente.
We’ll have the opportunity to tell more stories. But you know what’s the best part of winning? We got only an hour’s sleep, and I woke up this morning next to my wife and I looked over on my side of the bed and there was a statue, and I looked over on her side of the bed and there was a statue. There was something about that moment that just hit us. I’ll remember that for a long time.