Documentary Producer Sheila Nevins on True Crime, Real Sex, and Being ‘Lowbrow’
Sheila Nevins won so many Emmys, Oscars, Peabodys, and other awards during her 30 years helming HBO’s documentary division that there’s a trophy room nicknamed for her at the network’s headquarters. Still, the 83-year-old producer, who now heads MTV’s documentary arm, has never tired of the form, never thought of decamping to glitzy Hollywood features. “I didn’t need to cast people that would demand things or that would come with agents and contracts and things that put off real storytelling,” Nevins says. “I found that I could find a star in a waitress. I could just walk up to someone on the street and find stories that were heartfelt, that were your stories, the audience’s stories.”
Where do you get ideas for projects?
I got a lot of ideas from [the game show] Supermarket Sweep, which is real people running down the aisle, grabbing stuff before other real people. There was a competition, which I found interesting. I thought, “I wonder what these people are like, that they would be so silly as to run around with a shopping cart and do all that. Are they hungry? Do they need money? Do they want to be performers?” We call documentaries so pure and holy. I’m not sure it isn’t just capturing real people in the midst of their lives, doing things that you wish you could do, that you didn’t do, that you might do. That’s all it is. Songs about self. There are docu elitists, but the form itself is about people. I’m kinda lowbrow, sorry.
When you go into a project, are there times when you know you have a hit, or are you always white-knuckling it?
In a sex show you know.
The true-crime genre has exploded in recent years. What do you make of the criticism that it’s exploitative?
I’m a realist. It’s very hard for me to talk about something that works as [exploitative] if it’s not hurting children. Is it making more people murderers? No. Murder is interesting. We’re all capable of it. People kill each other; we’re animals. To me, murder brings up the question of what is life worth and what makes someone take someone else’s life? So, no, I don’t think it cheapens the form. We try to get an audience to feel as human as they can about people they don’t know.
What recent work has stood out to you?
The best documentary right now is the [Jan. 6 House select committee] hearings. It’s very cinematic, extremely well produced. We’re asking ordinary people, mostly, presented by the kings and queens of democracy, to tell their stories of the day. What is a better documentary than that? Revealing truth. Nothing may come of all this truth — hopefully it does — but the real drama is in the telling, in the bravery, in the fear, in the allegiances, in the stupidity, in the nobility. It’s great drama. I think it’s like Shakespeare.
Is there one film or series you’ve worked on that you would do differently if you could?
Probably every one I would’ve done differently. I would’ve done better.
Really? Even though you’ve won a gazillion awards?
So what? There wasn’t much competition [earlier in my career]. Seriously, I was like in a beauty pageant with two people.
What do you think has been your best work?
I don’t know. When I think of the best, I think of the worst.
What’s been the worst?
One about sleeping with your pets. That was pretty disgusting. We never got on the air because some guy came into my office and said, “We can’t put this on.” Because there was a man in it who was asked, “What do you wish could happen between you and your donkey?” And he said, “I wish we could have had children.” Even HBO could not run that show.
Is there a current trend in documentaries that you don’t like?
Yes. I don’t like withholding information from the audience so you can make six [episodes] instead of one. When you’re playing with reality and holding back the fact that he cut his mother’s head off when he was two — you’re not going to tell me that until the fifth show? Give me a break. Time is precious. Don’t do that. If it takes the detective five hours to uncover it, OK. But they leave the good stuff out so the audience has to come back. It drives me nuts because I know it’s all about money. You’re playing with the audience and giving more cash to the producer. And listen, I love money. But that’s a racket. It bothers me.
What do you look for in a filmmaker?
Sincerity, passion, commitment, willingness to talk and talk and talk; and that the story is part of them. They’ll die if they don’t tell that story.