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Telling Real People's Stories: Shelia Nevins Reflects on Her HBO's Tenure

By Kathy McDonald

A look back at the documentary genre with Shelia Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films, is an illuminating history lesson as well as a textbook example of how to succeed in television: Basically, ignore the textbook and go with your instincts by featuring emotionally compelling stories of ordinary people. The 1998 IDA Career Achievement Award honoree and a George Foster Peabody Award winner, Nevins began her career at HBO in 1979, when the cable channel was known for movies and sports, not as a dominant force in original programming. Nevins talked to Documentary about the genesis of her philosophy of documentary, discovering stories and her "miracle of survival."


How has the documentary evolved since your early years at HBO?

Shelia Nevins: Documentaries were always part of the news department of every network. It was very clear what was a documentary and what was entertainment. A documentary was an extended news story, usually hosted by a correspondent who made a lot of money. That's the world I grew up in. Occasionally, there were theatrical documentaries like Salesman or Grey Gardens or a film about the Rolling Stones. Generally, the word "documentary," when I began in this business, meant a correspondent, standing in front of microphone and talking about government policies or poverty or a news story.


When did that change?

When I saw Barbara Kopple's film on coal miners (Harlan County USA), I thought, "Holy shit! A documentary doesn't have only to be a news story!" My background was totally theater; I got my masters in directing at Yale, and I had majored in English at Barnard. I had no interest in documentaries or in TV. I was an off-Broadway person looking to be a director. I had fallen in love with these films that I knew were out there, but I didn't see my connection to them.


You came to HBO in 1979 as director of documentaries?

I had no idea what I was in for; I came to HBO and it was a 13-week job. They had no money for a correspondent, so we had to make documentaries without on-camera people. A form circled around that I grew very fond of: an almost theatrical documentary. I don't mean in a theater, but as if it were a play. It was about people. What they said to each other was important--and they were involved in critical issues.


So you shifted away from news and into the drama of documentary?

I decided I should look at movies that are successful and I should find real people's stories that are based on those movies. That's really the genesis of "my philosophy" of documentaries--which really is real people's stories and the kind of subjects that you would discuss at dinner. The kind of things that you don't have to read about in a history book or go to college for. The kind of things that relate to the uniqueness of human suffering, survival, humor, sexuality. But they don't have to be tied to that day's newspaper. I'm not a good newspaper reader.

If I did anything here that was interesting and that was interesting to me, it was people performing the story of their lives--mostly unknown or insignificant people who had done heroic or wicked things, like in The Ice Man, or heroic things, like in King Gimp. They somehow meandered through this morass of humanity or life or living, and they had a story to tell: sometimes barbaric, sometimes humane, but not necessarily tied to politics


You've found subjects by eavesdropping on daily occurrences?

That's what I really do for a living. That's where plays come from. At Yale I remember learning about kitchen dramas--plays that took place around a kitchen table--and I always found them to be very fascinating. They could be abstract or profound or anything, but they were human as opposed to intellectual. I don't read the books that you're supposed to read. I'm a good listener; I hear people. I like to tell the stories that people tell me, and usually they are unknown. I'm best with people that are unknown.


There are two different strains of HBO documentaries: commercial vs. non-commercial. Is that how you make programming choices?

 I know that sex sells. And I know that I work for a company that needs to make money. I don't delude myself into thinking that if I do a show about cerebral palsy, as many people are going to watch it as if I did a show about a whorehouse. But I would say I put the same effort in both; I'm equally as interested in both. The characters are as heroic and as malevolent in both places. You can find an evil doctor just like you can find an evil whore. You can find a beneficent doctor and a beneficent whore. I'm just interested that in any location where you can find extremes of human predicaments and behavior.


How do you anticipate the zeitgeist?

I always ask, "Is this going to have legs 18 months from now?" I don't really know the answer to that, but I assume we're going to do it in a slightly different way. Even if it misses the zeitgeist of the moment, it's still going to be a good documentary and you'll be holding onto something.


What are you most proud of to date?

I'm proud that I'm still here. I'm proud that I've survived generations of civilizations at HBO that have risen and fallen. I feel that I'm a miracle of survival in this place. Been through many falls and had many bosses and I've survived them all and I think that's interesting.


But what film makes you most proud?

How could I pick? I'm proud that I've fought back enough and I've succeeded enough to carry the load of HBO's documentary department; that's what I'm proudest of. There are talented, gifted people out there, but I've survived. I've had lunch with many ex-bosses and I've picked up the check.

I'm proud that I've been able to work with some of the most talented documentary filmmakers, that I've been able to take a piece of their credit. I'm happy that there's a workshop here for the best documentary producers in America to work. That is a great privilege; I don't think I've abused it, and I've always let the door be open to new people.

We rule with something of an iron hand, but it's an iron hand that can melt. It's a rigorous, repertory company here. We have an on-staff editor, we have three editing rooms going all the time. We are essentially the production center and funder of some of the major TV documentaries, sometimes theatrical. But I think that war is over between TV and theatrical docs.


Why do you say that?

This year proved that. Spellbound, Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, Winged Migration--they all fell into the laps of theatrical, within an 18-month period. Everyone said, "Documentaries, they're so hot, they make money." And every producer wanted his documentary to be theatrical and everyone thought his documentary could make money. And look at last year: you had An Inconvenient Truth. Period. 

Maybe the happy home for documentaries is the very short theatrical releases with no expectations, then nestled into people's living rooms by one of the means of transmission, whether Internet or downloading or HBO.


It seems that your choices have been more right than wrong.

I love documentaries; they are a form that never wearies because they are really truth-tellers. When they're good, they say it like it is--maybe a little boring sometimes, or almost always too long. You don't have a script or an actor; you usually don't have a star. You don't know how it's going to end and you can't fix the dialogue. You can only have faith that the pick--the story and the casting and the telling of that story--will play out in a way that's dramatically compelling. That's the thing that interests me the most. When a real person gets up there and tells a story, I get goose bumps. It's as good as any actor, or the line they say is better than anyone could ever write.


Kathy A. McDonald is a writer based in Los Angeles