When I greet Sheila Nevins in the lobby of Refinery29's New York office building, she’s semi-reclining in a pool of sunlight on a long couch. By way of a greeting, Nevins says to me, “Do I really have to get up? I’m very comfortable.” While I don’t want to be the one to tell Sheila Nevins she has to do anything, it is my job to steer her to the room where she’ll be filming a conversation with Amy Emmerich, Chief Content Officer of Refinery29.
If you’re familiar at all with the documentary world, you are almost certainly familiar with Sheila Nevins. As the President of Documentary Films for HBO, she’s produced over one thousand documentary films, including The Jinx, Going Clear, and When the Levees Broke. Her work has been recognized with over 65 Primetime Emmy Awards and 26 Academy Awards. In her new book, You Don’t Look Your Age...and Other Fairy Tales, Nevins looks back at her decades-long career as a female executive in show business. She’s outspoken and honest about the pitfalls of the industry and about the ways she herself has succumbed to pressure. For Nevins — a pioneer in telling the stories of others — nothing is off limits. She discusses inter-office affairs, her feminist awakening, being the mother of a son with Tourette syndrome, plastic surgery, and even death.
“Sheila Nevins was the first person to treat unscripted content like a true narrative,” says Sami Kriegstein, a digital video consultant and and creative producer. “Any person who follows a vlogger or looks up to social media influencers has Sheila to thank. She was one of the first people to believe that normal life could be a story.”
In her interview with Emmerich, Nevins is emphatic about the power of personal narrative. "I like to take anonymous people and find out what makes them very special and then tell their stories,” she says. This idea was the catalyst behind documentary shows like Real Sex and Cathouse that essentially brought sex to cable television while telling the stories of marginalized groups including sex workers.
In many ways, the world in which Nevins came up — not only the flagrant sexism, but also the practicalities and limitations of a tightly controlled system for creation and distribution (network TV, cable channels, major film studios) — can feel like the remnants of a bygone era. But the producer sees parallels between her own education and the work of young digital creators today, many of whom must promote, package, and market themselves in addition to just creating. “I didn’t know the business of it,” Nevins told Emmerich. “I left that to the men, which was stupid of me. Now I know the business of it, late in the game. You have to understand what you’re up against.”
Nevins is a woman who candidly discusses her early experiences of manipulating the men around her by being a “phony.” As she said, ”You pretend that things are funny that are not. You pretend that people have great ideas that they don’t. You behave yourself for a very long time in a man’s world. Until you feel you’ve earned the right to talk back.” She has never shied away controversial subject matter.
Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, whose documentaries, Thought Crimes and Mommy Dead and Dearest both aired on HBO and both dealt with sometimes uncomfortable questions about gender, violence, and sexuality, says that what Nevins prizes above all, despite her self-identification as a phony, is authenticity.
“She is the great detector of bullshit," Carr tells Refinery29. "Her programing is out there. It’s very out there subject matter. She doesn’t shy away from controversy. She courts it. I can’t say enough nice things about her. And i’m sure she likes it that way.”
It seems clear that while Nevins might enjoy the rare moment of comfort — lounging on a sunlit couch in the late afternoon — her ultimate pleasure comes from being a disruptor, a woman in her late seventies who has changed and shaped an entire art form and who continues to do so.
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