Joe Fineman figures he has lived seven lives and says he enjoyed every one of them. Now in his eighth 0decade and his eighth life, he’s reluctant to go to sleep at night, for fear “I might miss something.”
He achieved fame and fortune on the big screen, as a Hollywood post-production producer, but as a retiree in the eastern hills of Napa Valley he is realizing true bliss.
“I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” said Fineman, 72, who spends his days and nights playing music and stargazing from his home in Soda Canyon. “I hate going to sleep. There’s so much to do and explore.”
Throughout his film career, Fineman supervised the polishing of more than 500 films, including “Seven,” “Dumb & Dumber,” “The Mask,” “Nightmare on Elm Street 3,” “Boogie Nights,” “Shine,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “American History X” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Fineman’s favorite movie of all time is “Seconds,” directed by John Frankenheimer, “probably the most distinguished director I worked with,” he said.
Frankenheimer made that thriller, starring Rock Hudson, in 1966, and just two years later was directing political commercials for 1968 presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. Driving to the Ambassador Hotel to congratulate Kennedy for winning the California primary, he heard a radio replay of the shots that killed his best friend.
“John was in AA but headed to the liquor cabinet, tied one on, then disappeared to Europe, I believe, for 10 years,” Fineman said. Upon his return, “we became somewhat friendly over French cooking. He was a drinker, monologist, storyteller and womanizer, yet still very rough around the edges.”
Fineman met the legendary director on the set of “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” which featured “a very huge Marlon Brando. The film was given awards for being the worst movie of the year and the best movie of the year.”
But he’s getting ahead of himself.
Life #1: Motown Hippie
During the Motown era of the 1960s, Fineman was one of the few “hippie white guys” who attended African-American shows in his hometown, Detroit. His father was a dentist, and his mother a teacher. He took up political science in college but confesses, “I had no idea what I wanted to do.”
Life #2: Song writer, guitarist
Spending summers in New York, Fineman rubbed shoulders with folk performers of the era such as Bob Dylan, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. In Nashville, he worked with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys at the Grand Ol’ Opry.
Back in Detroit, he wrote songs, performed with a bluegrass band and started a mellow rock band in 1966 called The Passing Clouds. He also produced folk, bluegrass, blues and movie festivals in Detroit.
After 1967, his band played on the same stage with Janis Joplin, Vanilla Fudge and the Lovin’ Spoonful at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit.
He also played on the same bills as MC5, the band that performed eight hours for protesters outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
“Rolling Stone tried to interpret my lyrics, but they read meanings that I didn’t intend,” he said.
Two years after leaving Detroit in 1968, Fineman’s band broke up, and he turned his attention to film.
Life #3: Film critic
“I was friends with a film editor in Hollywood,” Fineman said. “I had always been a fan of movies. In Detroit, when I was 10, my sister took me to my first movie at the Studio Theater, where I spent my life. Back in the day, I used to drive from Detroit to New York on weekends so I could watch six movies for the price of one.”
Fineman wrote film reviews for The Fifth Estate, a counter-culture newspaper in Detroit, saying, “I had no idea that I would have a career in film.”
But living the single life, it was easy for Fineman to segue into film and sound editing.
Life #4: Spiritual guru
After falling in love with a spiritual woman, Fineman became fascinated with Eastern mysticism and Buddhism. He left everything behind and moved into a Zen monastery on Mt. Baldy, a ski area in the San Bernardino Mountains. There he lived a spartan life.
“I was a searcher, trying to understand where I fit in, what the world was about and why people feel and act the way they do,” he said.
Eventually, he was forced to choose between a spiritual life in the Ryo Sinji monastery in Japan, and a normal life that was spiritually guided.
“I was born Jewish, but spiritually I was a Zen Buddhist,” he said. “I learned that life is not about what you say, but how you live. So there is no objective truth. Truth is your experience. It’s all about what is happening in the moment.”
Life #5: Screenplay writer/ film company owner
Fineman began writing screenplays in 1972, which he did for the next 10 years. To finance this vocation, he resumed work as a film and sound editor.
“I realized I had an entrepreneurial nature and thus wanted to start something, not work for people,” he said. In 1978, he founded Brown Cow Filmworks, a post-production film servicing company that produced the “back end” of movies, working mainly for independent filmmakers.
Fineman was involved with financing, distribution, editing, trailer making, sound, titles, special effects and after-marketing of films, working for Roger Corman, the famed independent film producer, director and actor. He calls those tasks “the most important part of movie making.”
Post-production workers turn raw footage into a finished motion picture as editors make a coherent storyline, composers add background music and special effects teams add images and backgrounds, sound effects and re-recordings of dialogue.
Then, in 1986, he went looking for more meaning.
Life #6: Post-production exec
“I set my mind on becoming a post-production executive,” Fineman said.
He interviewed and was eventually hired part time by a tiny company called New Line Cinema, maker of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series.
“As the company grew I grew with it, hired more people and realized my dream as an executive. New Line became the most successful indie company and at one time was worth $1 billion.”
After 11 years and 500 movies, Fineman was overseeing 50 people who did post-production work, trailers and sound editing. He won the Humanitas Prize for a made-for-television movie, “The Incredible Journey of Doctor Meg Laurel,” the true story of a city nurse who opened several Appalachian nursing centers in the remote wilderness in the 1930s.
Life #7: Producer
Throughout his film career, Fineman wanted to help independent movie makers improve their craft with post-production work. So in 1997 he started his own company, Executive Post Consulting.
“After everything I had done, from working for companies, being a producer, living in a Zen monastery, I had never taken a step on my own,” Fineman said. “So I went out into the world without knowing what I was going to do, and for the next 17 years, from 1997 to 2013, supported independent filmmakers in post-production and helped turn the post industry into a digital forum for the independent filmmaker.
“My tombstone would have to be three deep to accommodate the adages I’ve accumulated.”
Life #8: Retiree
After retiring in 2014, Fineman and his wife of 32 years, Sharon Bowman, moved to Napa, living in France from May to November. They finally settled into Soda Canyon digs with their 20-year-old African Grey parrot, Nelson Oliver Quetig Fineman-Bowman; their 12-year-old Russian Blue feline, Czarina; and their cross-breed, 8-year-old foundling terra poodle, Lollie.
They grow vegetables and give much of their harvest to the local homeless shelter. They barter with neighbors, trading veggies for eggs. Fineman is active in the local Kiwanis Club and the local synagogue.
Nearly 65 years after it began, his film career may seem like a distant memory, but Fineman still remembers the day his sister took him to see “The Magnificent Matador” in Detroit.
“I carry a still photograph in my brain of the Studio Theater, the images of bullfighting on the screen and the projection light reflecting off an idealized image of my sister as her eyes gazed at the screen, too.”