As the president of HBO Documentary Films, Sheila Nevins has always been interested in one person stories.
“When you look at the great documentaries, they focus on one person. It’s one person’s struggle and you say ‘hey, you know, I’m not so different from that person,’” Nevins said.
On an episode of ABC Radio’s “No Limits with Rebecca Jarvis,” Nevins opens up about her career and the steps she took that led her to become a veteran documentarian. During her tenure at HBO, the network’s documentaries have won 26 Academy Awards, while Nevins herself has earned 34 News and Documentary Emmys, and 42 George Foster Peabody Awards among others.
From the Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” to “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief” and “Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the films she’s brought to the network have received widespread acclaim.
Reflecting on the different projects that she’s overseen at HBO, the Barnard and Yale University graduate told Jarvis that she attributes her success to her background in theater and directing.
“I think if I’ve made any contribution at all, I think it’s oddly because of my theater background. I think we cast our documentaries the way you would cast narrative,” she said. “So that, if I’m going to tell the story about the minimum wage, I’m not going to just pick a person. I’m going to pick someone who I think has the charisma and the dramatic appeal to tell the story in a way that will evoke empathy and reactions from people who may be on the other side.”
Nevins’ belief in the power of one person’s story prompted her to begin recounting her own story in her recently released book, “You Don’t Look Your Age…and Other Fairy Tales.” The New York Times bestseller is a compilation of essays and poems that draw from the memorable moments of Nevins’ life. In one chapter entitled “From Cosmo to Ms.,” Nevins remembers the fraught beginnings of her career as a young woman in the 1960s.
“I wasn’t interpreting anything but the need to succeed,” she recalled. “And it seemed as if being flirtatious, and at the time, being pretty, and you know, kind of wiggling around the workplace, it got me what I wanted. It’s horrifying to say that, but it was true.”
Yet Nevins tells Jarvis that when she began to believe in the value of her own ideas, she was able to conquer her environment.
“There’s a moment at which you realize that other people don’t necessarily know the answer," she said. “And at that moment -- when you realize that your insecurities are no greater than others, and that you may know as much, if not more, than the person you’re working with or working for -- you change.
“It’s like falling in love with your ideas and saying, ‘hey you know what -- he said it, but I thought that too,’” she added.
Nevins has made her career by documenting the unknown, and turning “evil and distance into good and comfort,” like with 1993’s “The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter” and 1989’s Oscar-winning “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.” Like the personal stories that appear in her book, Nevins’ life and career has always been about believing in the universality of the human experience.
“The purpose of documentaries at their highest form is to really champion the people that don’t have it…That don’t have the access,” she said. “And that somehow by giving them access, you’ve made them visible, valuable and you’ve created empathy. Which is probably the greatest human emotion, next to love.”