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“I think I would have been successful no matter what I did because I’m ruthless and because I’m determined and because I’m good,” Sheila Nevins, the longtime president of HBO Documentary Films and one of the most influential people in the history of documentary filmmaking, says as we sit down in her corner office at HBO’s midtown-Manhattan headquarters to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “But I don’t think I would have had the career I’ve had if I hadn’t been here,” she says of the cable network, which requires constant new and diverse programming and does not need to generate ratings, sell commercials or adhere to censors in the way that broadcast networks do. “The fact that I have been able to read through the zeitgeist, I think, is my strength, and the fact that they have allowed me to go on a hunch has been a great gift.”
Nevins, 73, has been at HBO since 1979 — apart from a brief exploration of independent producing from 1983 through 1985 — and she has guided its docs to an unparalleled 26 Academy Awards, 65 Emmy Awards and 46 Peabody Awards, while personally winning 32 Primetime Emmys, more than any other person in history, as well as a personal Peabody in 1999 for being “one of the true independent spirits in television today.”
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 100+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Sally Field, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Kate Winslet, Michael Moore, Helen Mirren, J.J. Abrams, Taraji P. Henson, Warren Beatty, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Eisner, Brie Larson, RuPaul, Natalie Portman and Sting.)
Nevins was born in New York to a postal worker/bookie and a homemaker who died young. She grew up without a TV in her home because her parents feared it would interfere with her studies. “I lusted after television,” she recalls. The first documentary she ever saw was on a big screen years later: Salesman, the 1969 film directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles, which she thought “was the greatest film I’d ever seen.” She ultimately graduated from Barnard and got her MFA at the Yale School of Drama, with the goal of becoming a theater director. But she married, for the first time, at a young age, and her husband forbid her from working nights and on weekends. So she pursued a career in television, which would allow her to work more conventional hours.
For three years, she taught English on TV in Washington, D.C., for the United States Information Agency under the direction of Don Mischer. Eventually, she grew tired of the nation’s capital, ended her marriage and moved to Mexico to make a different sort of self-help video, educating peasants about how to earn a living by shipping goods to the U.S. Then Mischer hired her to join him at WNET, a precursor to PBS, on the show The Great American Dream Machine (1971-1972), where one of her main contributions was coming up with an inexpensive device to bridge together segments: man-on-the-street interviews about the American dream. Even then, she was curious about regular people’s thoughts. She later went to Bob Shanks‘ 20/20 to work as a field producer, but lost her job after expressing displeasure that she was forbidden from editing her own pieces.
Her subsequent jobs also were in TV and dealt with nonfiction subject matter: For two years she wrote for Joan Cooney‘s Children’s Television Workshop, which required researching a wide variety of topics; then she returned to ABC to oversee closing segments for The Reasoner Report; and then she did pre-interviews for CBS’s Who’s Who, a celebrity profile show that Don Hewitt produced while also producing 60 Minutes. Hewitt was impressed by her work and asked her to become an on-camera correspondent for the famous news magazine, but she begged off, citing another job offer she had received: a 13-week gig at Home Box Office — a new cable network seeking to expand from eight to 12 hours of programming per day — to be “director of documentaries,” which would be a cheap way to fill time. She had not previously heard of the network (“not a f—ing idea in the world”), did not know what cable was and still did not own a TV, and, until she arrived on the job, she thought she’d literally be directing docs.
Back then, most documentary films were talking-head-centric, usually made with government grants and then airing on PBS, perhaps with a theatrical awards-qualifying run, as well. But Nevins soon began commercially funding docs, many of which were more imaginative and edgier than anything else out there. She recalls, “I thought, ‘I want to keep this job. They need stuff. Why do I have to do Churchill and Hitler? Why can’t I do people getting divorced and taking their clothes off?” When she returned to HBO from her brief stint as an independent producer — during which she made the highly rated sex docuseries Eros America (later called Real Sex) and the Peabody-winning educational docuseries Braingames — she began taking credit for her work as an “executive producer” on films and entered her Golden Age.
Nevins-overseen docs have dealt with all sorts of subjects: AIDS (1990’s Oscar-winning feature Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt and 1993’s Oscar-nominated feature The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter), a former Nazi (1991’s Heil Hitler!: Confessions of a Hitler Youth), a Holocaust survivor (1995’s Oscar-winning short One Survivor Remembers), a boy with Down syndrome (1992’s Oscar-winning short Educating Peter), a man with cerebral palsy (1999’s Oscar-winning short King Gimp), inner-city schoolchildren (1993’s Oscar-winning feature I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School), accused murderers (1996’s feature Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill), serial killers (2001’s feature The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hitman), fracking (2010’s Oscar-nominated feature GasLand) and even a pelican (2011’s short Saving Pelican 895, her personal favorite). Some of the most successful revolved around sex, most famously Taxicab Confessions, which she regards as “one of the great shows of television.” She emphasizes, “It was never Peter-Paul. I liked the sex shows just as much as the ones that changed the world.”
Is there anything that all — or most — of them share in common? “The elevation of the common man and the elevation of the storytelling capacity of ordinary people,” she says. “I’m a great believer in asking people questions and find out out how they have survived. I just like people. I’m curious about how you make it through.”
Over the years, Nevins‘ job has evolved. These days, HBO Documentaries puts out more product than it used to (between 25 and 35 docs a year). It doesn’t only deal in original docs — its current slate is made up of one-third original, one-third films it helps complete and one-third acquisitions. And it is open to airing a doc after a theatrical release — something Nevins never permitted before 2000. Because of cheaper equipment, more distribution outlets and greater interest in the Oscars, her docs — which, in some years past, accounted for three or four of the five slots in the doc feature and doc short Oscar categories — now face far greater competition than ever. (None were among the 15 features shortlisted for the doc feature Oscar earlier this month.)
She also has had a front-row seat to the blurring line between film docs and TV docs, most famously embodied in the current example of ESPN’s 7.5-hour O.J.: Made in America, which she calls “a grand documentary” and “the best film of the year … It is hypnotic, it is brilliant, it is a first-time filmmaker who used to work here. I mean, it is extraordinary.” But, she adds, “My instinct is — and I could be wrong — that [the Academy’s doc branch] will not bring it forth [as an Oscar nominee] because I think within the documaker’s heart there is a definition of what a docu is,” and a 7½-hour production that aired in five parts on TV doesn’t meet that definition. Of this year’s shortlisted films, Nevins calls I Am Not Your Negro “one of the great documentaries of all time,” but suspects that 13th or Life, Animated will beat it in the end.
When talk turns to the future, Nevins, who generally is very upbeat, turns surprisingly somber. HBO Documentary Films faces greater competition than ever before, both externally (“You have places like Netflix, who have Monopoly money, and I can’t compete with Monopoly money”) and internally (she says of Vice, which became available on HBO in 2013, “I appreciate it and I watch it and I’m envious and I think it’s right for HBO, so I watch the changing environment and I think I’m not as necessary to the rainbow of HBO, and I have to do some serious thinking”). She is grateful for her journey thus far (“I have never been asked to perform numbers — ever — and that has been the gift of adventure and invention”), takes pride in her accomplishments (“I think the HBO docu started reality TV”) and looks forward to the publication of a book in 2017 that touches upon key moments in her life (and will be narrated on tape by famous friends). But she is increasingly aware that nobody lives — and nothing lasts — forever. “I’m learning to smell roses, but I don’t like them,” she cracks. “I haven’t really figured out what to do with what’s left, but I know, because I’m a pragmatist, that there’s much more that was than will be.”
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