HBO’s Sheila Nevins has been president of documentary programming at the network for more than three decades. She recently spoke with Christy Grosz about the state of documentaries, what she looks for in a compelling story and the one thing she learned from “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt that still informs her job every day.
CG: Has reality television made it harder to be provocative, or are you not as concerned with that these days?
SN: It’s harder to be fresh, but it’s not harder to be provocative, because if you can’t provoke someone’s attention, you shouldn’t be making this thing in the first place.
CG: You spent an early part of your career working with Don Hewitt before he launched “60 Minutes.” Is there anything you learned from that experience in terms of investigative journalism that has stayed with you?
SN: I only worked there for a very small period of time. I was a little bit fearful of giants like Mike (Wallace) and Don, but I would listen very hard because I thought maybe they had a magic bullet that I could take with me to my next job. They used to talk about stories being sexy. Once I walked by, and I heard Don saying about (Henry) Kissinger, “Isn’t he sexy? This is a sexy piece.” He meant heated, hot, now, attractive. If it walks into a television set, everybody will look at it. Sometimes I’ll look at a film that has nothing to do with anything sexy, but it’s got heat behind it.
CG: Where do you usually find the stories that you want to tell?
SN: Conversations, cafeterias, in the middle of a pedicure, reading newspapers — I’m always looking for stories, but mostly they come from experience, ordinary experience, oddly. If you’re looking for a special kind of story, the way you get it has to be somewhat surprising. It’s very odd how ideas come. They come because that’s what people are talking about. Then the day it’s on the nightly news, and it’s still in your gut, you can’t stop thinking about, then you talk to your colleagues and see if there’s a story to tell.
CG: Have the kinds of stories that interest you changed over the years?
SN: As the competitive landscape changes, and there are more docus out there, it’s less whimsical and more pointed. We’re not the main reason people subscribe to HBO. In the documentary department, I like to think of us as off-off Broadway in way. In order to get on Broadway, you have to be really careful with your steps — you have to make sure they want to transfer you from Bleecker Street to 42nd Street. You just feel your own ground and get your footing more carefully.
CG: Why do you think documentaries don’t usually fare as well at the box office?
SN: People are living in life. They go to the theater mostly for entertainment to get away from life, and documentaries are life, so it’s never been a mystery to me that 99% of them don’t perform well at the box office unless they carry with them some star appeal. Who wants to suffer any more than they have to in a normal 24-hour-day? I mean, let’s be real. Documentaries mostly are about what’s wrong.
CG: What compels people to watch them on television?
SN: They’re free. They’re shorter. They’re part of an entire menu of product. You may be sort of drawn in by someone else’s story, which usually makes you feel pretty good about yourself. Certain human stories that are intimate and very often about human suffering, human frailty, human needs — they seem to be the people that you invite into your home.
CG: You’ve said in the past that you can talk to anyone about anything. Is there anyone interesting who’s refused the conversation?
SN: I don’t think so. I go where I’m wanted. I go because people need to tell their story, or I send people where people need to tell a story. Now in the process of that story, let’s say you’re doing “Baghdad ER,” and there are nine soldiers without limbs lying in beds in Baghdad. Is every soldier going to want to be on television? Probably not, but there’s a feeling in the room that you should be there. You can’t make a good documentary unless you’re a welcome guest in that person’s life. In a sense, these docus are emotional travelogues, and those are the docus that interest me most.