A Conversation with Sheila Nevins
President HBO Documentary Films
by Susan Kouguell
“Diversity is economically intelligent. And it turns out that excellence is diverse.”
— Sheila Nevins
At the 2016 Athena Film Festival held at Barnard College in New York City, Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films, presented a poignant and often funny Master Class to the audience of screenwriters and filmmakers, moderated by Athena Film Festival co-founder Melissa Silverstein.
Sheila Nevins is responsible for overseeing the development and production of all documentaries for HBO, HBO2, and Cinemax. As an executive producer or producer, she has received 28 Primetime Emmy Awards, 32 News and Documentary Emmys, and 40 George Foster Peabody Awards. During her tenure, HBO’s critically acclaimed documentaries have gone on to win 23 Academy Awards.
What Nevins Looks For in a Project
“What makes a great documentary for me is something human. It’s finding empathy for people you might never meet; it’s something in you that relates very closely to them. I sometimes look for the little stories, people you might not know. People you might forget. I’m interested in average, ordinary things. I’m not name or celebrity conscious. I’m people conscious. I’m particularly interested in original experiences. Ordinary people have extraordinary tales.”
An Unlikely Mentor
“I was constantly aware of ugliness and sadness. My mother was ill and had an arm amputation below her elbow. Many years ago we were in Chock Full o’Nuts, and it was very hot. My mother had a knot tied at the end of her sleeve and I said, ‘Let’s pull up the sleeve.’ And we did. And the woman next to us said, ‘I can’t eat if I have to look at that.’ That woman was my mentor. I’m ashamed to say I tied that knot on my mother’s sleeve back on. Maybe I’m making up for that. Nothing is too ugly or too true for me.”
“In the HBO documentary Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq we stressed survival, not the disability. It’s our job to introduce the disability after you’ve met the person. In the film Life According to Sam, Sam explains his illness Progeria so brilliantly. The opening we see a kid playing, we don’t see his face. You see his toys. You notice his hands are a bit different and you’re invited into the world you know, the Lego world. And slowly you go through Lego land, you hear his voice. This child is 28 years old.”
Getting Your Movie to HBO
“We re open to ideas. We don’t assume that experience duplicates itself just because you had a hit. You’re as good as your last film. We have a lot of first-time filmmakers. There are so many outlets for documentaries now. We are interested in ideas from the outside so no one else gets them.
The interpretation of ideas is precious and what your access to these ideas and how close you are to that experience is important.”