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When Sean Fine interviewed race-car driver Kerry Earnhardt this past summer, he had some rather personal questions: Do you feel burdened by your father’s success? he asked the son of perhaps the greatest driver in NASCAR history. Isn’t it kind of weird to know you’ll probably always be standing in his shadow?
The 31-year-old filmmaker fleshed out the question by relating his own story: His father, Paul Fine, is one of the most celebrated TV documentarians in the country, recipient of 75 local and 10 national Emmy Awards and a George Foster Peabody Lifetime Achievement Award, among other honors. For most of his three-decade career, Paul has worked side by side with his wife and Sean’s mother, Holly Fine. Sean, in other words, sometimes feels a little burdened.
“There’s kind of a fight to be known as a separate entity than just their son, and I think I’ve been going through that,” he says. For nearly a decade now, Sean has worked as a documentary director and freelance producer. He won his own Emmy in 2001, for a National Geographic Explorer segment titled “The Pigeon Murders.”
Sean interviewed Earnhardt and other fathers and sons famous and not for True Dads With Bruce Willis, a documentary set to air later this month on Spike TV. It’s also a project that was originally proposed to Paul and Holly. After signing on as executive producers, they enlisted Sean in part because Paul is no longer able to shoot: Two years ago, he was diagnosed with a degenerative motor-neuron disease.
“We’re a very close family,” says Sean, whose wife, Andrea Nix, also worked on True Dads. “I think that made me not hesitate.” In fact, in 1997, the younger Fine had recruited his dad to help him shoot his first documentary for National Geographic—back when Sean was fresh out of college and “low man on the totem pole” at the media empire. Sean was working on The Idolmakers: Inside NFL Films, a profile of the documentarians who, he says, “are to football what Geographic is to natural history and animals.”
And where there are documentarians, it seems, there are Fines: Sean’s grandfather Nate was the first head of photography for the Washington Redskins. Both Paul and Sean also shot the team, as part-time weekend work in the early days of their careers.
“The guy that runs NFL Films, his father used to know my father because his father used to shoot the New York Giants,” explains Paul. “It’s all kinda, like, a little tied together.”
Nate Fine, who died in 1988 at the age of 68, had turned away from the original Fine family business: a grocery store and Jewish butcher shop in Silver Spring. He made his first camera out of a shipping box he took from his father’s store, and advanced from there to work as a photographer at the old Washington Times-Herald before embarking on his 50-year career with the Redskins.
“We grew up with cameras and everything around us all the time, and I didn’t like it because it was forced on me a lot,” recalls Paul, 59. “But it was at one game, and [my father] gave me his camera, and he said, ‘Do you wanna go to the sidelines and make some pictures?’ Well, I didn’t care about the pictures—I just cared that I was gonna be on the sidelines with the team.”
Still, the ego boost Paul got from seeing his photo credit in print compelled him to keep at it. In 1969, he became a news cameraman at Washington ABC affiliate WMAL, where he met Holly. They collaborated at the station for 13 years before moving on to work together for the national news divisions of both CBS and ABC. In 1995, their three-hour special In the Killing Fields of America won the Fines not only their Peabody Award, but also a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and another Emmy.
From their re-creation of the medical attention given to Ronald Reagan after he was shot in 1981 to a profile of victims of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and their families, the Fines are especially celebrated for their respectful approach to their subject matter. It’s an approach that has influenced more than one generation of documentary makers.
“People will talk about Ken Burns,” says the 35-year-old Nix. “And they’ll talk about Paul and Holly Fine. They’re incredibly well-known in the documentary community, not just in D.C. but nationally.”
Sean says his parents “taught me that filmmaking is about people, about treating people the right way.” “People just open up for them,” he adds, citing as an example footage that his father took of Ray Charles in his underwear during a morning shave. “You can ask them to do anything.”
Though Sean spent many of his elementary-school afternoons playing with the editing machines at the TV station, he went to college to become a marine biologist, not a next-generation Fine filmmaker. “This stuff has just always been around me,” he says, “but it was not until I was in college…and took a summer film course that I was like, This is what I want to do. I was so obsessed with this film that I was making, I think it made me want to do this so badly—made me want to give it a try.”
After graduating with a degree in zoology and filmmaking from Connecticut College in 1996, Sean immediately set his sights on a job at National Geographic, where he had interned. Only months into his entry-level position, he managed to sell his boss on the idea for The Idolmakers, for which he served as production coordinator. “The amazing thing to me…was I thought I would be helping him,” Paul says about shooting that film with Sean. “And I was totally shocked about how much he had absorbed about how to produce a documentary by watching us all those years. I just watched the way he treated people, the way he talked to people. His mannerism, all the things to make people relax and do things in front of you…I knew he had it.”
Seven years later, with True Dads, Paul can again see that Sean has it. The two-hour documentary profiles six fathers, including a single dad who lost his wife in the 2003 Columbia tragedy and a onetime heroin addict and deadbeat dad who now heads a support group in Baltimore. NBC’s Matt Lauer, Cedric the Entertainer, and New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada are also interviewed, and Willis serves as narrator.
“We show what dads are doing, what dads are doing right,” Sean says. “And it shows how important a dad is in a child’s life.”
And, of course, how important a child can be in a father’s. “When we found out [about Paul’s disease],” Holly says, “we thought, We have to do something different, because we didn’t know how long he was going to be able to shoot.” By the time a former CBS News colleague of Paul and Holly’s suggested the True Dads project about a year later, Paul was recovering from nine months of almost total immobility. Nix ended up handling a good portion of the interviewing and editing, as well as some scriptwriting, while Sean handled most of the shooting.
Nonetheless, the process was still a difficult undertaking, and not just because it was a very close family working together—it was a very close family working very closely together.
“It’s been in this house. I mean everything’s here, every day. There’s no getting away from it,” says Holly, 57, sitting in the living room of her three-story home in Palisades. It’s one of the few rooms of Sean’s childhood home that doesn’t double as workspace. Sean, in fact, has been using his parents’ bedroom as his office for the past several months—that is, when he’s not out shooting for the documentary, a task that has consumed most of his weekends since May, when the Fines began working on the project in earnest.
“I’m sure that was hard for him,” Sean says. “It’s one thing for someone to voluntarily give up something or retire. But it must be harder to see your son doing things you used to but can’t any longer. I know he’s proud of me. But at the same time, I’m sure it hurts.”
One subject of True Dads is James Madison University football coach Mickey Matthew, whose star-quarterback son became paralyzed from the neck down after a car accident. Sean recalls his own father interviewing the wheelchair-bound son, Clayton: “I know for him it was a very special interview, because he doesn’t know when he might not walk [himself],” he says. “The kid said in his interview, ‘I hope by doing this I’ll be able to help one person.’ And my dad said, ‘You’ve already helped me.’”
It was an emotionally resonant film for everyone. There were, Nix says, “men tearing up who don’t cry, who never cry in public. And you realize that this stuff is so strongly felt and it’s just below the surface.”
Sean adds, “My dad being sick, that’s pretty hard to talk about and come to grips with.” And seeing others facing similar situations “makes you think about your relationship with your father, it makes me think about my relationship with my child, how I’m going to be a father. Things I’ll do different, things I’ll do the same.
“The whole thing has been a complete head trip.”
There are no definite plans for the two surviving generations of Fine filmmakers to work together again: In the short term, Sean and Nix will be preoccupied with the birth of their first child, a son, due this month. And Paul and Holly are planning to move down to their weekend house on the Eastern Shore, a one-level home that allows Paul to move around more easily. They’ll run their Fine Films business from there. Sean will run his own business, Fine Productions, from his and Nix’s new home in Chevy Chase, Md.
But the Fines do hope to collaborate again. “We’ll probably do it again because of what’ll happen when we watch the show,” Paul says. “It’s rewarding that you know you’ve maybe made a difference or helped somebody.”
For his part, Sean suggests that by collaborating with his mother and father on True Dads, he’s discovered more about the process of filmmaking than he has working for many of his previous employers. “I learned more of what I could have done in the field,” he says, “of what works, and how to rearrange some things.”
Besides, he adds, sitting in the living room of his parents’ house, “I’m going to miss coming to work here every day.”CP
True Dads With Bruce Willis airs at 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 17, on Spike TV. For more information, visit www.spiketv.com.