Keeping up the quality of HBO documentaries is the work of Sheila Nevins, the network’s much-lauded docu chief, who’s racked up yet another impressive year
Documentaries are hot now, but it wasn’t always that way. When Sheila Nevins arrived at HBO 27 year ago, the fledgling cable network was looking to expand from eight to twelve hours of programming a day and needed a new documentary chief. Despite having scant television experience, Nevins landed the job, but only after going to the library to research this network she had never heard of.
Today, were she so inclined (she’s not), every available surface of Nevins’s midtown office could be covered with the awards she’s won as president of HBO Documentary Films. The award count includes 17 Primetime Emmys, 24 News and Documentary Emmys and 25 George Foster Peabody Awards. Of the projects that Nevins has assigned and supervised, 17 have gone on to win Oscars. Under Nevins’s obsessive watch, documentary filmmaking has become something it never was before: a financially viable profession. Recently Nevins sat down with Nancy Matsumoto to talk about her storied career, her satisfying last season and the state of documentaries today.
Q: How do you feel about your last season?
A: I had a great year. It was a year where everything worked. For instance, we had wanted to do something about gay Americans for a long time, but we didn’t want to do it in a way that would offend the viewer. We needed something that was authentically about gay families. Rosie [O’Donnell] had this cruise [for gay and lesbian families], so we went on the ship and did All Aboard: Rosie’s Family Cruise. It turned out to be what we wanted, which was a film about the American family—they just happened to be a gay family.
Baghdad ER showed the constant penalty of war. I didn’t think we could do that, but we had a genius filmmaker [Jon Alpert, with Matthew O’Neill] who had the trust of this hospital in Baghdad and who changed the game plan while shooting. Originally we were going to follow soldiers from Baghdad to the [U.S. Army] hospital in Wuerzburg, Germany, to Walter Reed [Hospital in Washington, D.C.] to home. We were going to show that journey of leaving one way and coming home another way. But [Jon] called me after two weeks in Baghdad and said, “They’re going to let me stay here, and the story is really here.” I don’t know if it was a pro- or anti-war film. It was about young boys who were risking their lives, it was about what was happening.
And then there was Spike [Lee, who directed When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina]. Spike really did us proud. It was certainly one of the strongest films we ever made in terms of breaking through the clutter.
Q: The documentary world is so much more crowded than when you started. There are more films, not to mention reality TV.
A: I consider reality TV to be quiz shows or game shows. What we do is still the good old-fashioned verité documentary. [Documentaries] have to be theatrical, and because they’re on HBO, they have to be worth paying for. If I work on something that I think is worth paying for, like Spike or Rosie, then I think I’m worth the price of admission. I want to be worth my weight, and the more crowded the universe, the more you have to be careful about how you weigh in. You can be a great home-run hitter, and you can still strike out.
Q: How many of the films that you develop end up on air?
A: Almost everything. There are some films we don’t acquire, but the three films I mentioned to you, we produced from scratch. There’s a lesson in that, which is that the acquisition films are kind of like our off-Broadway way of looking at product, while the stuff we originate seems to have the most life, seems to break through. Thin [about women being treated for eating disorders in a South Florida facility] is an interesting film that originated here.
Q: You gave photographer Lauren Greenfield the chance to direct her first film with that project.
A: Every film is a chance. I really don’t think any film is a first film, because I don’t know what experience counts for. Last night I watched two films we worked really hard on. Both those filmmakers have made films before, [but] they’re like first films. Docus are very hard—maybe all film is hard. You start with nothing. With [Thin], you have to get access to a hospital, you don’t know who the patients are going to be, you don’t know if they’re going to sign the releases, you don’t know if their stories are going to be compelling. There’s no script development. You get a week, and you shoot and shoot.
Q: Where does talent come in? You make it sounds like a matter of luck.
A: You’re pointing the camera and you’re shooting fifty times the reality that you’re going to screen, if not 100 times. The talent comes in the selection. The best films are truest to who the person really is. It’s about how you extract that out of so much material. Digital technology has made more work than ever before, because film stock used to be expensive, you’d turn the camera off. Now you can just keep on shooting. Baghdad ER had hundreds and hundreds of hours of surgery footage. By the time you got through that, you felt like you were covered in blood.
Q: What do you have coming up this season?
A: We’re doing a big project, Addiction. That will be an hour-and-a-half show on HBO [in March], and there will be many continuations of the interviews on some of the other HBO channels. Cinemax will devote the entire month to addiction acquisitions, and HBO Online will list referral services. We used ten of the best documentary filmmakers to make the piece [including] D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Jessica Yu, Andrew Jarecki, Rory Kennedy, Liz Garbus.
Q: A lot of ink has been devoted to the sexually provocative programming you do.
A: Why not? In literature we give full credit to Chaucer and to Henry Miller. We’re putting it on late at night, and it’s pay-TV—you can choose or not choose to watch it. For years, when it was sweeps, suddenly all the networks were doing [shows about] date rape. We’ve never hidden behind some cause when we spoke openly about sexuality. The way people talk about sex now is much more open and frank, but we are still doing what we did ten or twelve years ago.
Q: How do you decide when something is too explicit for HBO?
A: It’s a very fine line. I don’t think I cross the line. Other people may think I’m crossing the line, but I’m very careful. You have to be cutting-edge without doing it for the sake of being cutting-edge. And that’s very tenuous. You can’t just say, “Nobody else is doing it, so we’re going to cut people’s heads off, or let eyeballs roll in the autopsies,” or whatever.
Q: In a way, documentaries have become more adventurous as Hollywood films seem to have become less so.
A: The docus in the theaters this year are really “talk-back” docus. Jesus Camp is talking back to evangelicals. An Inconvenient Truth is talking back to the administration about the environment. The docus about Iraq are talking back about the war. And you could argue that the sex documentaries talk back, in a way, because they’re not endorsing violence or sexual abuse or unprotected sex. They’re just talking about pleasure.
Q: Do you feel pressure from the religious right?
A: I hear it. I acknowledge it, but it doesn’t change us. Because those people aren’t subscribing! We’re evil [to them], you know. Maybe they’re secretly watching. Alexandra Pelosi is doing a film now called Friends of God: A Voter’s Guide. It’s about evangelicals embracing political doctrines and explores the connection between religion and politics.
Q: What about the fact that more documentaries are going to movie theaters?
A: Yes, but did you see how they gross? The only big [theatrically released] docu of the year was Inconvenient Truth. Nothing else made any money. I used to call it “festival frenzy.” I know it was a frenzy because I was caught up in it, too. At Sundance, they show the film, the audience stands up and applauds and you go, “I’ve got to have this film for HBO!” And then you take it back and look at it on a Sunday night and you say, “What was I thinking? What was the big deal?”
Q: Do you ever stipulate that a film can’t go theatrical?
A: I change my mind every morning. I believe that television is a great vehicle, and I have great respect for being an uninvited guest who suddenly becomes invited because of what he’s bringing as a house gift. I think television is theater, so when someone says they want their film to go theatrical, I say, “It is theatrical—it’s on television.” What could be more theatrical? You’ve got people sitting around; they’re turning the lights low, maybe. That’s the theater, right? I think everybody should have a dimmer and big screen.
Q: What trends do you see in documentaries today?
A: Well, there are more international documentaries. That’s because of 9/11. People are more interested in the world. Christiane Amanpour did very well with that Bin Laden show [CNN’s In the Footsteps of Bin Laden]. But on the other hand, if you do AIDS in Africa, no one’s interested.
Also, one-time filmmakers. Because of the technology, someone can make one film and never make another documentary again. They have no real aspiration to be a documentary filmmaker, but they needed that forum to tell one personal story. Because the technology is so reasonable, they can tell that one story. I see that more and more.
Q: How are the internet and digital downloading affecting your work?
A: Well, it affects me in that I try to look at the docu talent on it. But most of it is exploitative right now. It isn’t serious enough for me to grab from it. It seems to have found its form there, and will be a force, no question. Ultimately the television, computer—everything will be one thing. But it’s not the form that becomes dated, it’s what the form records. You have to make sure that what it’s recording is something of interest.