It’s a Friday afternoon, and HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins stares at a pile of 21 DVDs containing docus that she’ll divvy up among her five colleagues to watch over the weekend.
“Five wounded pairs of eyes,” she says. “We need five good optometrists.”
But don’t mistake that for a complaint. In the same breath, Nevins says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I don’t consider it work, it’s more like my lifeblood,” she says. “I do feel the number of hours required now is more and more, and there’s more stuff coming in, but you don’t want someone to bring it somewhere else. You want to be the first stop, and you don’t want (a filmmaker) to wait three to four weeks for a response. They get impatient. It’s their life’s work.”
Screening, commissioning and selecting documentaries for HBO has been Nevins’ life’s work since she joined the pay cabler in 1985, when she says HBO was the only game in town for “reality as a form of entertainment.”
Back before Discovery Channel and other niche networks made much of an impact, HBO was a home to health, history and nature documentaries, including “How to Prevent a Heart Attack With Walter Cronkite.” When other cablers came along to tell stories with real people and events, Nevins says HBO had to change. Now documentaries on Hitler youth are left to History and other competitors.
In their place, Nevins takes a pragmatic approach to programming: Put on shows viewers would not expect to see anywhere else.
“The brand is directly related to creativity, a kind of uniqueness. People know this is an HBO documentary,” she says. “It’s instinct. It’s like falling in love.”
Those instincts have served Nevins well. As an exec producer — a title she carries on most HBO docs — Nevins has received 23 Primetime Emmy, 26 News and Documentary Emmys and 31 George Foster Peabody Awards.
“You can’t really explain the heartbeat of the show that tells you it belongs on HBO,” Nevins says. “But somewhere in that pile of 21 DVDs, there may be that extra heartbeat show.”
Docus make their way onto HBO in multiple ways. Sometimes network executives will see a doc — or a piece of a future full-length film — at a festival. Other times Nevins will see something and wonder how it might figure into a real-life story.
For the 2011 film “Redemption,” Nevins was driving on New York’s Major Deegan Expressway and spotted a guy “who looked pretty educated” pushing a cart full of bottles to be recycled.
“I thought, ‘Who are these people?’ ” Nevins recalls. “This guy didn’t look stereotypical. He had two carts tied together with rope and there must have been 300 bottles in there. I was just curious.”
Nevins has a knack for pairing a subject with a filmmaker. For “Redemption,” she chose Jon Alpert, the documentarian responsible for such gritty works as 2003’s “Latin Kings: A Gang Story” and 2006’s “Baghdad ER.”
On other occasions, Nevins will get ideas for programs from Broadway shows, which was the case for 2004’s Emmy-winning “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty” and December’s “Wishful Drinking,” the autobiographical one-woman show that stars Carrie Fisher and is produced and directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey.
“You make 23 films with HBO, and that’s quite a number of years,” Bailey says. “The relationship with Sheila has never been anything other than intense and fantastic. When I say, ‘intense,’ it’s had its ups and downs, but it is the most fantastic relationship. Having the longevity of working with someone, we’ve learned so much from her. Also, we’ve cried with her and howled with laughter for hours. Sheila is one of the funniest people alive.”
Nevins says she has a sense of which projects best fit with a particular director.
“When it came to Carrie, I didn’t want a theater director,” she says. “I wanted someone flamboyant in terms of how they presented television. A one-woman show needs a lot of rainbows and color to make it 90 minutes you could watch.”
Working with the same producers and directors allows Nevins and the filmmakers to develop a common language. She’s made several films with Alexandra Pelosi, including “The Trials of Ted Haggard” and “Right America: Feeling Wronged — Some Voices From the Campaign Trail.”
“Alexandra and I spar, but we make better films,” Nevins says. “I think we do better together than either of us would do with anybody else or alone.”
Upcoming HBO docs include “Wartorn: 1861-2010,” premiering on Veterans Day with an exploration of the emotional toll of combat through case studies spanning six wars and 150 years. It’s produced by Alpert and executive produced by “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, who previously collaborated on HBO’s 2007 program “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq.”
Future projects include a doc on citizenship and one on legendary Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, both due in 2012.
“In many ways, this job is a gift,” Nevins says. “I get to do things and meet people I’d never meet on my own because I’m reclusive. I wouldn’t go to a Sondheim party. I’m not going to find out who those people are who push carts around. I snuggle up to talented people who want to do that and whose passion is to do that. I’m forever curious but not half as brave as they are. I get to go there without leaving the office.”
Nevins says HBO receives about 100 documentary submissions per week. When the DVDs pile up, she says she admits to hoping most of the documentaries in the pile run 25 minutes as opposed to an hour or more. Because of the high level of competition, she cautions, “If you’re thinking of making a documentary, please don’t.” But she hastens to add, “If you do, absolutely, positively send it to me.”