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Sheila Nevins' long road to the top of HBO's documentary division




Sheila Nevins is the president of HBO Documentary Films and the author of
Sheila Nevins is the president of HBO Documentary Films and the author of "You Don't Look Your Age... and Other Fairy Tales."
Cindy Ord

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These days, HBO is perhaps best known for scripted series like "Game of Thrones" and "Veep" but there’s a huge part of the HBO universe that is, and always has been, devoted to nonfiction filmmaking.

And the President of HBO Documentary Films is Sheila Nevins.

She’s been in that post for 13 years, but has been with the prestige cable network consistently since the early 1980s. In that time the number of Emmy, Peabody and Academy Awards her films has won is astounding.

Now, Nevins has written a book of essays called “You Don’t Look Your Age ... and Other Fairy Tales.” She’s also put out an audiobook version that’s read by a range of people including Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep and RuPaul.

Interview highlights:

On whether "You Don't Look Your Age ... and Other Fairy Tales" could be seen as a documentary about her life:

No. It's a version of experiences in my life told both by me, myself and I — and by somewhat imaginary characters who have experienced things that I may have experienced from a distance, or may have experienced personally. But I chose to pick imaginary people since, in my work, I can never imagine anything. It has to be what's in front of me — the dark truth. So in sitting down and writing, I was able to use different colors and move into other areas with somewhat imaginary characters, which I had not been allowed to do for the thirty-some-odd years I'd been working in documentaries.

On how popular culture affects the female image:

I don't want to be deemed "old" or "useless." The two words seem to go together. I fight it in a pathetic, subservient and, I would say, rather stupid way. I don't want to walk into a room and people to feel sorry for me because I'm so elderly. I don't want that anymore. I just want to look as good as I possibly can. And to subject yourself to the kinds of things that I've subjected myself to is demoralizing, but I've done it. And I'm ashamed and both proud simultaneously — proud that I'm still working in my late-70s, and tragically depressed with myself that I had to do all this artifice to gain the confidence of talkback and achievement.

On Helen Gurley Brown's 1962 book "Sex and the Single Girl":

I got out of graduate school in 1963 and I actually read it like a bible: Be sexy, wear plunging neck lines, get a push-up bra, flirt with your bosses, sleep with your bosses if you have to, have long hair, tight skirts, look better than their wives and be a Cosmo girl. I was a Cosmo girl from '63 to '70-something, until I realized that I was really unhappy and very depressed. What happened was, I heard Gloria [Steinem] and Bella Abzug and realized that I didn't have to be this courtesan — this sexy person — to achieve, that I could somehow achieve on my own merits. I don't have to flirt with Mr. Boss. I can just tell him my ideas. Gently. Not lean too far over that I fall forward, but I can sit upright. I don't have to put lipstick and mascara on before a meeting. I can go in sort of tired because I've been in the editing room all night. Gloria allowed me to play in a man's world without becoming a girly girl and I'm very grateful to her for that.

On women in the workforce:

In my day then, I was really an anomaly. There weren't that many women in the workplace. Now there are more women in the workplace and we're all clamoring to say, What about me? It might, in many ways, be more difficult because of volume and because maybe the men are somewhat intimidated by the fact that it's a movement, not an individual. So I don't know about the gains. I look at pictures of various corporations and I see men sitting around the table. Whether it's in the the Trump White House or another corporation that I might be looking at a picture of in some business magazine. [There are] very few women at the top. I don't know what it is. I don't know what we did wrong. I don't know why, all over the world, women are suffering so much. Why are men throwing acid in their face because of some god that would never have said that? Why can't women have an abortion? It's their body. What is it you guys have against us? It's not our fault we're smarter than you and live longer. We didn't mean that.

On whether writing her book informs the kinds of documentary films she wants to make:

I think not. We've always done films about injustices, so I don't know that the books stimulated it. I think it made me a central character spiritually and emotionally in the films that we had already been doing and would continue to do. And that somehow the underdog, whether it was a woman or a person with autism or whatever — whatever the underdog was — we would be there. That was the greatest part of a documentary, always, was to champion the rights of people who don't have center stage. To back off celebrity and go to the guy who's trying to make a living, or the immigrant who doesn't want to be deported, or the person who has a disability. That is the great function of [documentaries]. It's a playing field for people who have and people who have not. But the haves have to give to the have-nots. [Documentary] is the success of the trickle-down theory in the sense that you've got the budget to make it. Well, make it about someone who can't make it by themselves. I think I always was there. I don't know if the book changed that, but it made me a player in the stories that were not about me.

To hear the full conversation click the play button at the top of this page.



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