Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films | MAKERS
Sheila Nevins talks about becoming the storyteller she is today, feminism and directing real films that matter.
President of HBO Documentary Films
Sheila Nevins talks about becoming the storyteller she is today, feminism and directing real films that matter.
Sheila Nevins is president, HBO Documentary Films, for Home Box Office, responsible for overseeing the development and production of all documentaries for HBO, HBO2 and Cinemax. She was named to this position in February 2004.
As an executive producer or producer, she has received 32 Primetime Emmy® Awards, 34 News and Documentary Emmys® and 42 George Foster Peabody Awards. During her tenure, HBO’s critically acclaimed documentaries have gone on to win 26 Academy Awards®, the most recently of which was "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness" in 2016. Other Oscar® winners include "Citizenfour" (2015), "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1" (2015), "Saving Face" (2012), "Strangers No More" (2011), "Music By Prudence (2010), "Smile Pinki" (2009), "The Blood of Yingzhou District" (2007), "Born Into Brothels" (2005), "Chernobyl Heart" (2004), "Murder on a Sunday Morning" (2002), "King Gimp" (2000), "One Survivor Remembers" (1996), "I Am a Promise" (1994), "Educating Peter" (1993) and "You Don’t Have To Die" (1989). The series "Cinemax Reel Life" has featured a number of award-winning documentaries including "Big Mama," winner of the 2001 Academy Award® for Best Short Subject, "The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years" (1999) and "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien," an Oscar® winner in 1997.
Nevins has been honored with several prestigious career achievement awards including, most recently, the 2009 Governors Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and was made an NYU Tisch School of the Arts Honoree. She is also the recipient of a 2008 Gotham Awards Tribute; a 2005 Emmy® Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the art of the documentary, the first time the National Television Academy awarded a Lifetime Achievement recognition to a documentarian; and a Personal Peabody in 1999 in recognition of her work and ongoing commitment to excellence. In 2003, Women in Film presented Nevins with a Lucy Award for her outstanding achievements in advancing documentary filmmaking. In 2002, the National Board of Review presented her with the Humanitarian Award for her contribution to the advancement of social reforms and the promotion of human welfare through film. In 2000, Nevins was inducted into Broadcasting & Cable’s Hall of Fame, and in 1998 she garnered the IDA Career Achievement Award and the New York Women in Film & Television Muse Award for Outstanding Vision & Achievement.
Nevins was named vice president, Documentary and Family Programming in 1985; appointed senior vice president, Original Programming, in 1995; and promoted to executive vice president, Original Programming, in 1999. She has supervised the production of more than 1,000 documentary programs for HBO, and won the first George Foster Peabody Award ever presented to a cable program for "She’s Nobody’s Baby," which was produced with Ms. Magazine.
Nevins is a member of the Writers Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Nevins holds a BA from Barnard College and an MFA from Yale University School of Drama in Directing.
Nevin's book, "You Don’t Look Your Age ... and Other Fairy Tales," is in stores now. Also available in eBook, Digital Audio Download and Audio CD Formats.
- I thought the women's movement was for other people. I was not going to fight to succeed. I was going to give what I had to give to get what I wanted to get and what I wanted to get was to be first. Some guy told me I could get this job if I went out with him. He put his hand on my thigh. I remember not removing it. I'm sorry Gloria, I didn't mean that. I always went to private schools because I had a very wealthy uncle and I was always the poor kid in class, so if I went to someone's house and they had a doorman and they had initials on their silverware, I always was ashamed to have them come back to my house because we just had forks, spoon, and knives just thrown in the drawer, so that's how I grew up, wanting to have a separator for my silverware. I was sad, I was difficult, I was insecure. I always felt that I was stopgapped by life in some way and that there was something someone wasn't telling me. I wanted to know why there were no more dinosaurs, how a tadpole changed into a frog, and I used to drive my teachers crazy with that. I don't know, is that curious or annoying? Oh, that was convenience. I hope he's not around. That was because I wanted to go to Europe and because I didn't want to go home. I worked at Bloomingdale's, I didn't know what to do, so I thought, well, I'll get married. We went all over the world, we traveled. He could order in different languages, we could climb mountains in the Yucatan, things that I would never have been able to do by myself. My first husband wanted me to be home in the evenings and be home on weekends, and that was pretty hard, because I wanted to be in the theater. I would have done anything in the theater. I remember being out of town for three days and coming back and there were three shirts, three cups of coffee, three teaspoons and it said, for you. I resented him for that, and I couldn't wait to leave him. And I did. I still love the theater the most, but I tried to make the television box the theater box and I like to think that you turn the lights out and you watch it like you do in the theater, so I made peace with television. I don't think I really knew what the women's movement was about 'till I was in my twenties. Some guy told me I could get this job if I went out with him. I think it was that time that I noticed that there was sort of a sexual play at work that you could work to your own advantage, but I didn't always abuse it. I didn't know, and I didn't like it, but I didn't have time to be a feminist. I didn't have the luxury to feel put upon. I needed a check, I needed to pay rent, I needed to pay electricity, I needed to buy clothes. You know, I needed money, I needed to live. When I first went there, I thought a documentary was Winston Churchill, Hitler's master race, and I was so bored doing that. Then I thought, well, I'll just tell the stories that are in the movies with real people. So that if it was a story about menage a trois I did a piece about menage a trois. If it was a story about divorce, I did a piece on divorce. If it was a story about a sick kid, love story, or you find out your girlfriend has cancer and she's going to die in six months I would do a story about that. It didn't have to be based on something that was, it could be based on something that is, and that was a great gift that HBO gave me because it was adventurous and there was no bureaucracy. Because of that freedom, storytelling through real people became interesting, 'cause life is hard and life is difficult and people learn from other people's struggles, one, they can get through their own, and two, what an amazing thing it is to survive. You can put on my tombstone what everybody tells me, which is that I created the genre, that I created reality television. I don't give a shit, I really don't care. I care that I gave it my best shot. There is a great satisfaction in feeling that maybe, just maybe you moved it on the scale from good to very good. But the best thing that they could say is, she should've gone on forever.
- Men don't bring their children to work. Men don't say, so and so's getting out of camp today. Maybe they should, but they haven't. So I think that I resent the woman part of the responsibility. Maybe actually I am a feminist, discovering it this way. In other words, I don't want children to be an excuse. Maybe I'm a feminist by default, in the sense that you don't have to go through hard knocks if you work for me, but I don't want you to go through what I went through. I want you to just go because you're good. I want your husband to take the kid to the doctor.
- I think that HBO, because it was adventurous, there was a hierarchy but there was no bureaucracy, because you could do an idea on Monday that you thought of on Sunday night, because of that freedom, storytelling through real people became interesting, capable, and that was a great gift that HBO gave me, which was fill 40 hours with documentary.
- I turned down 60 Minutes because Don Hewitt asked me to be on camera. And I thought that was the most horrible, frightening thing I'd ever heard in my whole life, that I would actually be visible and observed and self-conscious. I just didn't want to do it. And that's why I thought this directing job would be great, because I would be directing. So I remember going to a place called Energetics shoe store in the 30's and buying directing shoes. Ugly, like old lady shoes, so that I could direct. And then I learned it was directing, meaning I was gonna call old bosses and ask them to make films. And I thought, well, I'll try that for a while. So it's like 30 years later, I'm still doing the same thing.
- I fell madly in love with this Yale lawyer who was so handsome, and we were such a pretty couple and for one year we saw each other all the time until he took me to his home to meet his mother, and she said to me, "Aren't there any "interesting Jewish men in the law school?" And first of all I thought, doesn't she know I'm in the drama school, and secondly I thought, I think that's anti-Semitism I think that's like a snotty thing. But I continued you know, through the weekend and I never heard from him again. And I remember telling my friend Roberta that night that I had experienced anti-Semitism.
- And then I heard about a job at HBO, and I thought what is HBO? So I went to the library on 42nd Street, which is ironic 'cause that's where HBO finally wound up and I looked up HBO, and it was movies, and they were looking for someone to direct documentaries, so I thought I was gonna be directing. And I thought that's good because I'm a member of the Writers Guild and now I'll be a member of the Directors Guild so I'll be able to double file my psychiatric bills, you see. But it didn't work out that way. And then I just fell in love with the possibility. And I thought I was gonna be directing and then they told me that was a corporate job, that I would be sitting. And then I thought, oh, that's good 'cause then I can wear heels.
- So I went to the Yale Drama School. I got in with an acting scholarship because there were very few women in directing. But the acting teacher said to me, "You really can't act. "You really should be in directing because you're always "observing everything." And that was a relief because that's what I wanted to do but I couldn't apply for it because there was no way I was gonna get a scholarship there because it was all men. So I switched, either in my middle year or the next year, to directing. And then I had a ball. I loved it, I just loved every bit of it. And I thought I had found my I could tell people what to do, I could have a conceit, or a concept, and I could have them feel that concept. It was sort of like painting. And I did very, very well at Yale.
- I went to a tag sale and there was a book called Eros that had been banned in the Mail, that I had read about and I thought oh, great, I'm gonna stay home and make sex shows because that's the one area that HBO hasn't done and I did this sex show that turned out to be so popular, called Eros America and they put it on Cinemax because they were afraid of it but it did so well that when I came back to HBO, it opened up a door of healthy sex programming for an audience, at that time, that was deprived of that kind of titillation and so, I went out and tested the shows and I realized that half the audience didn't know what Eros meant, they said "oh yeah, I saw that show, "it was so hot, I really liked that show, "what was it called?" So when we transferred the idea of sex reality program to HBO, we changed the name to Sex, so that was it, yes, I invented sex, you're right.
- I was always confident. I think it's 'cause I had no self esteem and I had to work so hard at feeling good about myself that I engaged in a certain kind of confidence that I felt that I had earned. I didn't feel I was given anything and therefore I was confident because anything I had I had earned. Generationally, when I look at today and my own child and young men his age I see that they have been nurtured on high self esteem. I came up with, "You could've done it better." They came up with, "That's really good what you did, "that's really fine." Which is good, I guess. You know, you feel good about yourself. But then again if you feel too good about yourself then you don't push. Somewhere between the two is the answer.
- You don't understand what it's like not to have money, this is the big problem with you, when you don't have money and you know you're getting a check, I'm gonna say a million times a day, when do we get paid? I don't need it like I used to need it but I remember needing it and it never goes away, I never miss a payday, I know that I'm going to be paid at 2am tonight, I know it, and you can check it and if I wake up to pee at three o'clock in the morning, I'm gonna dial the bank to make sure my check is in the bank. I didn't have any gifts that came other than what I might have born with, there was a certain amount of smarts, I didn't have anything.
- The most meaningful advice I ever got was when someone said to me, "Whenever you come up to bat, "always try to hit the ball out of the park." And I liked it 'cause it was a man saying it to a woman because I'm a terrible sports person and, um, it was true equality. It was like jock talk. I love jock talk, I love it, it means they don't know that you're a woman. And that was something you'd say to a man, so I liked that a lot. Maybe I am a feminist. I love that expression.