HBO's Sheila Nevins Between Awards: An Interview

What an impressive record of documentaries on the subject of addiction! Then again, what an impressive record of documentaries! Last week, Phoenix House honored President of HBO's Documentary Films Sheila Nevins at Cipriani 42nd Street. With Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones by her side, Nevins had a ringside seat watching the reel of her green-lit films, from her comprehensive 9-part series, Addiction, to Wishful Drinking, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, and others from a stunning decades long career. Many film insiders were abuzz, fresh from Sundance where HBO's controversial new non-fiction film, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, premiered to a packed house. This weekend she is to be awarded at the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College, in tandem with a screening of Rosie O'Donnell: A Heartfelt Stand Up, and a panel about women and heart disease. I had the opportunity to talk to Sheila Nevins about her awards, and HBO's current documentaries. For this veteran television producer, what appears to be a crazy busy time may just be business as usual.

You've won many awards. Do these awards have special meaning for you?

I've been doing it so long I'm bound to be a success here or there. I think, who else has been around for 30 years? I'm not being modest. I am a warhorse.

In the case of Phoenix House, many HBO films do focus on addiction. We have all seen many young people succumb to peer pressure to try substances to escape reality. The need for escape seems great right now.

As to the Athena Award, I went to Barnard. Everyone was so smart. That's why I never got a swelled head. I learned, to get ahead I'd have to work hard. It takes grit to achieve anything. Nothing is easy. I am proud of succeeding.

I think of Athena too as a woman-focused festival.

That's interesting. We've done bios of Gloria Steinem, Ann Richards, Ethel Kennedy, Susan Sontag, all Athena goddesses. We've done lots of men too.

So you don't think about whether or not women have more obstacles?

Is it harder for women? I don't know I've never been a man. It is not very easy to have your voice heard. I don't know what an obstacle is.

Many credit you with expanding the nonfiction film genre, and with that the public's view of what nonfiction storytelling can be: thrilling, informative entertainment. Do you agree with that assessment?

I didn't invent penicillin. I am in the mold phase. Documentaries are cheaper to make than narrative features. They were a cheap means of telling stories that had heat. The storytelling part was something we could do at HBO. Others followed. If War of the Roses was a big success, I made a doc about divorce. After Jaws, I made a doc about sharks.

Artistically, your films reflect the vision of individual filmmakers. Do you see a common thread?

I see them as honest, forthright, and about one thing, a better understanding of the human situation. All the films reach out to other people with a message: Night Will Fall, is about what brainwashing will do. CitizenFour is about the individual striking out for truth. Rosie's film is very funny when she's talking about the penis tree, but she is aware that because she had a heart attack, she could share her experience with others, and she does that in such a great way, with a mantra for detection: HEPP, hot, exhausted, pale, puking.

CitizenFour is up for the Best Documentary Oscar. What would this Academy Award mean to you?

Winning is better than losing. Being there is better than not; you want to be at the table. It's a vote for Edward Snowden, and Laura Poitras. What a great country that someone can disagree! Isn't it wonderful. We don't have a cage and set people on fire.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.