For over three decades, Sheila Nevins has been at the forefront of delivering documentary films into our living rooms as the head of HBO Documentary Films.
Whether it be a hot-button issue like the fight to get the West Memphis Three off death row (as the “Paradise Lost” films help made possible), or a risqué look into our primal instincts (the late 1990s series “Taxicab Confessions“), Nevins has spent her career making audiences realise that nonfiction programming can be just as fulfilling than any scripted show on television.
Nothing better solidifies that notion than the recent success seen by HBO documentaries greenlit by Nevins.
In March, the Alex Gibney-directed documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” became the second most-watched HBO doc in the past decade with its look at the antics that allegedly occur within the controversial church.
That was on the heels of director Andrew Jarecki’s investigation of reclusive millionaire Robert Durst in the docu mini-series, “The Jinx.”
The series grabbed headlines when it concluded with Durst, who’s linked to three killings spanning four decades, supposedly admitted to committing the murders following his final interview with Jarecki when talking to himself while using the bathroom.
Then in May, the documentary by Brett Morgen (“The Kid Stays In The Picture”), “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” wowed audiences with its animation-infused look at the troubled life of the Nirvana frontman.
But Nevins isn’t getting too excited about all of the recent attention on her HBO documentaries.
“Stick around three or four months and tell me if docus are still hot,” Nevins recently told Business Insider in her corner office in midtown Manhattan.
Despite the whopping 27 Primetime Emmy Awards Nevins has received at HBO, she still can’t forget the documentaries that were ratings duds.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Nevins received her MFA at the Yale School of Drama with aspirations to have a career in theatre. But after getting married and having a family, she began work behind the camera producing man on the street interviews in the early ’70s. That led to her having stints as a producer at ABC and CBS. Then, in 1979, she became the director of documentaries at HBO. In 2004, she earned the title as president of HBO Documentary Films.
When Nevins first started her career, the type of documentaries being made were primarily in the talking head style you’d find on PBS, or played in schools.
The breakthrough for Nevins came when she realised that regular people had the potential to be showcased in astonishing ways.
“I’m a great believer in the anonymity of the documentary subject,” she explained. “I think the stories of ordinary people are much more interesting because they are extraordinary. Fame tends to repeat itself. Someone’s famous because they wear certain clothing or are famous because they have been in something or famous because of their political views. They just kind of regurgitate the same philosophy. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t require discovery in the same way that anonymity does.”
So she began green-lighting films that had a movie-like feel and looked at the human condition and social issues, like the 1996 Emmy-winning “One Survivor Remembers,” a short that recounts a Holocaust survivor’s six-year survival of Nazi abuse.
She also took stories ripped from the headlines, like getting then-unknown filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to travel to Arkansas and look into a story she read about the alleged murders of three children at the hands of three teens. From that, the seminal doc “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” was born, showing that in all likelihood the teens did not commit the crime. This launched the 11-year crusade to free the teen murder suspects (which inevitably happened in 2007), from then on to be known as the West Memphis Three.
The blueprint of the stories Nevins wants to tell hasn’t changed much over the years. She still searches through The New York Times for stories that need deeper exploration, her team brings her ideas, and filmmakers with a relationship at HBO pitch her.
She says what makes the best films are the ones “you’re just busting with a desire to tell a story and find out more about it.”
When we talked to Nevins a few weeks ago, it was the day after the crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia. It was the lead story on all the morning news shows, but she didn’t see a story there to tell as an HBO doc. However, something like law enforcement’s handling of the capture of those responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing still fascinates her.
“That’s what makes the job so interesting,” Nevins said. “It’s always different.”
What has changed drastically is the prestige a film has by including the HBO Documentary Films logo, and Nevins name, attached to it. It’s something Nevins takes very seriously.
“I don’t take unless there’s some sort of authorship because I would be embarrassed to ask for it,” she said.
In fact, it took some time after being at HBO for Nevins to realise that her name should be on the works she develops there. It was a chance encounter with “60 Minutes” creator and her mentor Don Hewitt at a department store that made her realise how important it was.
“He said, ‘What do you do at [HBO]?'” Nevins recalls. “I said, ‘Well, people pitch to us and sometimes we have the ideas.’ He said, ‘Like an executive producer?’ He then said, ‘You should get credit, what if they go out of business?’ So the next time it came to renewing my contract I said ‘I want credit on my shows.'”
Nevins sees her contribution as telling the filmmaker when she doesn’t understand something.
Gibney’s narration on “Going Clear” happened because Nevins couldn’t understand what was happening when watching portions of the film he sent her to look at, so she suggested he narrate it.
“For a change, I was going to go without narration,” Gibney told BI via email. “Sheila was right. Narrating allowed me to be more efficient.”
“I’ve been doing this for a long time and what I’m good at is not understanding something,” said Nevins with a laugh.
To find that clarity, Nevins has to be fully engrossed in watching what the filmmakers send her. And in an era when everyone is on their phones or multi-tasking on three different screens at once, it’s shocking to walk into Nevins’ office to find no desk or computer in sight. Just couches and a small coffee table in the center of the room.
Nevins says she owes HBO subscribers works that have had her full attention.
“They are paying to watch,” she said. “I think on their behalf.”
To accomplish that, Nevins doesn’t even take notes when looking at the rough cuts filmmakers send her.
“I’ve never taken a note about films,” she said. “I can’t watch, think, and write at the same time. I can watch, think, and remember.”
It’s a process that director Shari Cookson knows very well. She came up in the business by producing and directing HBO docs for Nevins in the ’90s.
“Sometimes she’ll watch the film ahead of time so she’ll have a sense of it when the filmmakers are there,” Cookson told BI about Nevins’ feedback sans notes. “She just stops [the film] and says how she feels. By the end she knows the film pretty intimately.”
On June 22, HBO will air Cookson’s latest doc, “Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014,” which looks at the lives affected by gun-related deaths that occurred last spring. It was a project that Nevins sent out to Cookson and co-director Nick Doob to make. But the filmmakers wanted to tell it a different way, using only what the victims left behind on their social media to tell their stories. It was an unorthodox method, but Nevins instantly responded.
It’s that kind of trust Nevins has in her filmmakers that Cookson says sets her apart from other executives in the business.
“She really has her whole heart and soul into the stories that are being told on her network,” Cookson said. “She really lives it and she lives it with you and gives you the freedom to do your best work.”
That commitment to her projects has also brought a streak of competitiveness in Nevins as more networks have created documentary programming over the years.
“I mean, everybody wants to be HBO,” she said. “I’m deeply competitive. I want it if it’s good and I want it on HBO. Even if nobody recognises it. If it’s good, if it’s excellent, if it’s quality, I don’t want it somewhere else.”
One project that Nevins still regrets slipped through her fingers is the 2011 Oscar-nominated “Restrepo,” which looked at a year in the life of a platoon stationed in one of the most deadly locations in Afghanistan.
“‘Restrepo’ eats away at me,” Nevins said. “It pissed me off that I didn’t see it as being successful. I was more careful the next time about choosing a war story.”
That next time would be her executive producing the documentary short “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” which looks at a trauma hotline for military veterans.
The film won Best Documentary — Short Subject at this year’s Academy Awards.
“Crisis Hotline” may have settled her frustration in missing out on “Restrepo,” but she’s certain there are dozens of other things she can use as motivation to stay on top of the documentary mountain.
“I’m the victim of my own philosophy,” she said. “I always think tomorrow is going to be worse or better but never the same. And these stories are about worse or better. I like that storytelling, and I believe it.”
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