Inquisitive. Intelligent. Supportive. Enthusiastic. Talk to the creators of some of Showtime’s original documentaries, and it sounds like they’re describing a dream spouse. But that’s how they feel about the perfect partner — the perfect producing partner, that is.
With David Nevins at the helm, Showtime has made a greater push to fund original documentaries, offering in-depth looks at challenging subjects.
“Documentaries have a lot of currency in our culture right now,” Nevins says. “People want to watch them, they’re very well-consumed (and) highly rated. And they felt like an area where there was opportunity to do the kind of things that other people aren’t doing, the kind of things that would make news, and that people would want to write about.”
Last year’s environmental docuseries “Years of Living Dangerously” proved him right. Executive produced by James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the project featured Harrison Ford, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle, among many other A-listers, asking hard-hitting questions about global warming. “‘Years of Living Dangerously’ had real impact in terms of driving conversation about the subject matter,” Nevins says. It also won the network its second Emmy for outstanding documentary or nonfiction series.
With docs in the pipeline about Kobe Bryant’s comeback year with the Lakers, the life of Marlon Brando from the actor’s own audio tapes, as well as the music current artists are creating for lyrics Bob Dylan wrote during his “Basement Tapes” era, Nevins clearly is interested in shows that get people talking. “We’re making documentaries largely about the same kind of subversive personalities that tend to drive our series,” he says.
That’s why RJ Cutler (“The World According to Dick Cheney”) pitched a look at the life of Brando. “I said to David, ‘We should see what’s in the (actor’s estate’s) archives,’ ” Cutler recalls. “Because it’s about time somebody makes a definitive film that examines his career in the context of who he was. Not the tabloid perspective on him, but the perspective that recognizes him as one of the greatest American artists who’s ever lived.”
For filmmakers, working with Showtime comes with a sense of trust, especially when dealing with unpredictable stories. “David is a rare breed in that way,” says Gotham Chopra, the director of “Kobe Bryant’s Muse.” “He’s totally comfortable with uncertainty, because that is what is required in this case.”
The collaboration with Showtime came about when Chopra showed some footage of an off-the-clock Bryant to Nevins. “He was like, ‘OK. What else do you have?’ ” Chopra says. “And I showed him this really raw footage of me in a car with Kobe just talking. He was like, ‘That’s what we want to see.’ So that’s what Showtime bought.”
Nevins wants to bring not just eyeballs to his network, but talent as well. “There’s a whole world of filmmakers who want to be making documentaries,” he says. “I want our documentaries to be filmmaker-driven. It’s all part of making (us) a hub for cutting-edge, creative work.”
Having a premium cabler in your corner before filming even begins makes a great difference to those involved. “There’s no question when you’re putting together a project, everybody needs a sense that the work is going to go somewhere,” Cutler says. “When, for instance, you’re approaching Dick Cheney to say, ‘Here’s a project I would like to do with you,’ to be able to say, ‘and this project will air on Showtime’ — that’s a huge advantage.”
But the biggest edge for nonfiction creatives seems to be in working for a network that truly is fond of the genre. “The great thing about Showtime is that David loves these films. He loves them on his air,” Cutler notes. “And that’s a big deal. That makes all the difference in the world to filmmakers.”