After nearly four decades behind the camera, Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, has turned the spotlight on herself.
In her New York Times bestseller, “You Don’t Look Your Age and Other Fairy Tales,” Nevins writes insightful, humorous and often poignant short stories, essays and poems about her personal experiences with plastic surgery, raising a son with Tourette syndrome, an illegal abortion, office affairs and aging — gracefully and otherwise.
Having produced more than 1,000 documentaries on topics ranging from Alzheimer’s to Syria to Scientology, Nevins has spent most of her career behind the scenes, winning 32 Primetime Emmy Awards, 34 news and documentary Emmys and 42 George Foster Peabody awards. During her tenure, HBO’s documentaries that she has worked on have garnered 26 Academy Awards, including ones for “A Girl in the River,” “The Price of Forgiveness,” “Citizenfour,” “Born Into Brothels,” “Chernobyl Heart” and “King Gimp.” (There’s a room at HBO called The Holy Shrine of Sheila that houses all the trophies.)
But that wasn’t enough for Nevins. She decided to write a book to give readers a peek into who she is, how she changed from “bad girl” to “feminist,” what it was like to be a woman in a man’s world, and the extremes she’ll go to look younger. At 78, Nevins wants to continue to be taken seriously in a media industry obsessed with youth. That’s why she underwent two facelifts, had her eyes done, has had Botox treatments (“I have enough Botox in me to detonate Iran,” she writes) and suffered dental pain in pursuit of a “million dollar” smile. While she may be embarrassed to admit it, she couldn’t see living any other way. She also writes about how she fears death and doesn’t want her life to be over, having worked so hard and devoted so much time to her job.
Some of her essays are personal and others are clearly about people she knows. A few of them may be about her own experiences, disguised in different characters. In that way, she can take some liberties. In the audio version, she enlisted celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Diane von Furstenberg, Judith Light, Whoopi Goldberg, Audra McDonald, Martha Stewart, Gloria Vanderbilt, Lena Dunham and Marlo Thomas to read the chapters aloud with a live orchestra.
WWD sat down with Nevins at her East 86th Street office, where she edits HBO’s documentaries, to talk about advice she would give young women, what types of documentaries she likes to produce and the impulses behind her tell-all.
WWD: Why did you decide to write the book now?
Sheila Nevins: I was spending so much of my life asking other people questions. I did it for myself in some way to separate myself from my work. I would not write about my particular work. HBO is like a tattoo that’s been emblazoned on me for three decades. People would say, “Oh, you’re Sheila Nevins from HBO,” it was true, I was but I really wanted a separation. I’m a person who has stories. I wasn’t a film, or a documentary, or a stage show. I wasn’t privileged. People thought because I went to so many good schools (Barnard College for her bachelor’s and Yale School of Drama for her master’s in directing), I was a child of privilege. (Her rich great-uncle helped pay a little, but she was mostly on scholarships and work scholarships.)
WWD: As a woman climbing the ladder in the industry, did you find that you had to keep your personal life to yourself?
S.N.: At HBO, I never had a life, I just had HBO. I never told anybody anything. I wanted to play equal ball. I didn’t want to say I was going trick or treating [with my son]. I said I had an appointment. I would never make it child-oriented, or mommy-oriented or female-oriented. If I was going to the gynecologist, I would say I was going to the dentist.
WWD: Tell me about the writing process.
S.N.: I did it all on my iPad. I can’t write sitting up, I have to lie down. I can’t even sit at dinner. I’m a sloucher. Then I was introduced to Word, and then I was introduced to young people who are technologically more capable, who exacted a price. It started with wowowow.com, the web site. I did four or five stories with them. I was getting a lot of responses from it. And [book publisher] Joni Evans found some agents. I had no idea that I would write a book. I did not go after it. They came to me. Joni Evans and Mel Berger from William Morris sat over there and they offered me a book. I said, “Jesus, I’ll do this, even though it’s no money, I’ll go for it.” They gave me an advance, but her lipsticks (pointing to her publicist) cost more.
WWD: You wrote these essays at night?
S.N.: I wrote them in my head. I always have my iPad with me. If I don’t have my iPad with me, it’s like I’m going out naked. I’m more dependent on my iPad than my iPhone, for reasons I don’t know why. So I wrote it in taxicabs, when I woke up in the morning, it could come from a dream, or I’d pass by a pet store and I’d see hamsters in the window and think, “I should write that story,” or I’d go to a Tourette syndrome event and see kids there that remind me of [son] David. He’s pretty much out-grown it.
WWD: Which was the hardest essay to write?
S.N.: Melissa Van Holdenvas — who slept with her boss to get a promotion — was the hardest. She was in disguise to no one but myself. But had I not used her name, I would not be able to write it. By talking about Melissa, and giving her a different kind of job and putting her in a different framework, except in the same time period, I was able to write it. I don’t think I could have written, “I slept with my boss.”
WWD: You write in your book about sleeping with bosses in the early days of your career and playing the “Cosmo card, drinks, etc. with married men” in order to get ahead. Do you think it’s very different today for young women in the media business?
S.N.: It’s against the law. We didn’t have laws against harassment and we didn’t have human resources where you could go and say something. There weren’t as many women at these jobs. There was no place to go with your lament. There was no Gloria Steinem or no human resource harassment group.
WWD: But was the boss harassing Melissa or whomever?
S.N.: No, Melissa was game. Melissa couldn’t spell her last name. Melissa thought it was par for the course.
WWD: Is this book going to be a movie?
S.N.: Nobody’s asked me. I’ll do anything. I have so little time left.
WWD: Who would you want to play you?
WWD: But who would play you in your 20s and 30s?
S.N.: I’m mad about Chloë Grace Moretz. She’s blonde and I was on a jury with her at the Tribeca Film Festival. She’s probably 20 and she was telling everybody on the jury what to do. I think Judith Light is a fabulous actress who could play me from the mid-50s to my late 70s.
WWD: Do you find young women today are so much more outspoken than you were at that age?
S.N: Yes and no. Yesterday I addressed a bunch of women at Refinery 29. The questions they asked me were the same questions that older women have asked about men in the workplace. One young woman said to me, “What do you say to a man who comes on to you that you’re working for?” I thought and thought because it’s a different generation, and I said I would say to him: “I respect you too much to think I heard what you just said.” I was a pretty hot potato in my day. She said, “That’s so great.” She came up to me and asked me, is this the right line? She wrote it down.
WWD: How many other 78-year-old women do you know working at this level today in the media business?
S.N.: They’re dead. Also remember, this book helped me come out as old. In other words, somewhere I thought what am I selling? I’m not Helen Gurley Brown, I’m not Gloria Steinem, I’m not Bella Abzug. I’m not a writer, what am I going to come out as and be commercial? I’ll come out as old. That will be different because women will latch onto it because women don’t say how old they are, they are afraid to say how old they are. Once I said it, and the sky didn’t fall, thunder didn’t come, I didn’t get struck, and my mammogram was fine, I felt comfortable with it. I felt proud that I was alive because neither my mother nor my father made it to this age. [Her mother died at 57 and her father, who smoked three packs a day, died in his early Seventies.]
WWD: Tell me about your Gloria Steinem epiphany, where you say that she changed your life and your “bad girl” ways and how you wanted to be recognized for your brains and talent, especially after noticing that a male colleague was making twice as much money as you doing the same job?
S.N.: I did have a Gloria Steinem epiphany because I didn’t think she was real. One day I was at the Beverly Wilshire, and I was walking across from the old building to the new building and I saw a woman who looked like Gloria Steinem from a distance, and it was Gloria Steinem. As I got closer, I said “Ms. Steinem, I’m such a fan of yours.” And she said, “What do you do?” At the end of the conversation, she knew more about what I did, I never knew what she was doing, why she was there. She knew where I was going, what I did. I have to say that was a very pivotal run-in. I realized part of her success was that she was interested in other people, and women especially. She’s changed in many ways the way I’ve lived my life.
WWD: How did she change your life?
S.N.: She made me think that I was as good as any guy and I could play in any man’s ballgame.
WWD: Most people don’t talk about their plastic surgery. You went back to the office after you recovered and told people.
S.N.: I had no choice. Everybody knew, no one was surprised, and second of all, where had I been? And I had these strange marks on the side of my face. And one side was a little numb. And I thought, “they know anyway.” If you tell one person, you tell everyone in the company. I probably told one person, whispered it probably, and it’s an immediate sign it will be broadcast. [Plastic surgery] was stupid and necessary, simultaneously. What does that mean? Does that make me schizophrenic?
‘Real Sex’ is going to do better than the [documentary] on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. I promise you that.
WWD: There are very few female fashion designers who are still going great guns in their late 70s….Speaking of fashion, where do you like to shop?
S.N.: TJ Maxx. I was a Loehmann’s shopper in the day. We went to Bolton’s. I don’t buy clothes. I like Marshall’s a lot. The greatest discovery was that Marshall’s, TJ Maxx and Home Goods are owned by the same company [The TJX Cos. Inc.] Home Goods is the best.
WWD: Do you really go to Marshall’s for your wardrobe?
S.N.: I don’t have a wardrobe. I like things that cover my body, anything black, preferably large. I wear the same thing almost every day. Black pants, black shirt that’s washable and a scarf with skulls on it. I don’t like dry cleaners, you just wash it. I shop at TJ Maxx in Connecticut. This [leather tote] was $40, reduced from $49.99.
WWD: You don’t want designer clothes?
S.N.: I’m not good for the [fashion] business. I shop online. If I like this and it gets a hole in it, then I get another one. Then I’ll look on eBay if they don’t make it anymore. I won’t buy it if somebody wore it before.
WWD: Have you ever splurged on clothing or jewelry?
S.N.: I once bought a very expensive watch. I said, “If I win two Peabodys…” I went to Hermès and I bought that watch that wraps around, and it was $4,000 or $5,000. It’s the only watch that I ever bought that broke. And they charged me for fixing it. $400. I had it fixed. I loved this watch, I had the battery changed in a non-Hermès place and they blamed it on me. I was allergic to the band. I gave it to charity, and I took the deduction.
WWD: How did you like producing the “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” documentary?
S.N.: I loved it because I found my great-aunt (who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911). I knew my grandma cried about her sister. When we were working on “Schmatta” I knew she had been working in a factory. I didn’t know my aunt’s last name, and I spoke to my uncle and we put it all together. She was 17 and was in the U.S. only six or eight months. I had to prove that she was my great-aunt and I was able to do it. She [Celia Gittlin] came from Russia she was found on the street with a cracked skull.
WWD: How do you get your ideas for documentaries?
WWD: What’s the most successful documentary you’ve ever done?
S.N.: I haven’t done it yet.
WWD: Are you working on one now?
S.N.: I’m working on a lot of them. “Arthur Miller: Writer,” one about The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights called “The Words That Built America,” and one on Princess Diana made with her two sons. That should be out very soon.
WWD: Do you check the ratings all the time? Is that how you judge if a documentary is successful?
S.N.: You really can’t tell anymore. I think this is why I’m taking less tranquilizers. You can’t check the ratings anymore because of the sum total of streaming. People don’t necessarily watch you when it premieres. In the days of the premiere being the number, I was first to the board. I wanted to see my grades.
WWD: Are there certain ones that always do better than others?
S.N.: Sure, when you don’t have your clothes on. “Real Sex” is going to do better than the one on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. I promise you that.
If you think of all the people who are killing each other, they’re mostly young, in their 20s, disillusioned youth.
WWD: What percentage of the documentaries come to you already completed, and how much is original content?
S.N.: It used to be they all came from HBO. As the technology improved so that people could make their own films, it began to be 75 percent us, and 25 percent submissions. Now it’s closer to 50-50. You can buy it as it is, just put it on. You take credit for it, and you don’t do a stitch of work on it. In “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” [a documentary where acclaimed nonagenarians including Carl Reiner and Betty White challenge stereotypes about life after 90] we did the title, we didn’t do anything else. It was produced by George Shapiro.
WWD: What’s your favorite part of the documentary process, and where do you feel your strength lies?
S.N.: I can smell a rat. I can smell a false turn. I’m pretty straight so when something’s going crooked, I can pretty much put it back on line. I’m not Van Gogh.
WWD: Are you a tough critic?
S.N.: I’m very tough. Mostly on myself. I don’t think I’m tougher on other people than I am on myself, although you’d have to ask other people that.
WWD: How do you stay current and reach a younger audience?
S.N.: I don’t know that I do. I don’t try to stay current and reach a younger audience. I try to stay appropriate to the spirit of the particular time.
WWD: What’s the average age of the HBO documentary viewer?
S.N: Depends on the documentary. We just did “Mommy, Dead and Dearest,” and we hit 25-40. We did “Obit,” it’s a whole different story. If the goal is to get a younger audience, I might not be hitting that goal. I don’t go after the audience, I go after the idea that I think is pertinent. It’s strange what’s pertinent to people.
WWD: Do you ask your staff to come up with younger ideas?
S.N.: I ask my staff, but I’m pretty decisive of what I think might work. I don’t think they’ll have better ideas than myself. I work very hard at reading the culture. It’s my job to keep au courant. We come up with a community of what’s hot, what’s happening. For instance, after the [congressional] baseball shooting yesterday, you can’t do another gun control film, because they don’t work. But we were talking about hate all day yesterday, the desire to kill, hate to kill, it’s a very strong thing. I don’t know if it’s young or old. A 66-year-old man shot the gun. That’s really kind of weird. If you think of all the people who are killing each other, they’re mostly young, in their 20s, disillusioned youth. The whole thing is crazy. How crazy do you have to be to kill? That’s what I really don’t understand. It interests me. There’s a lot of murder. I hate murder, but I do it. I’ll do anything, people watch it.
WWD: Have any of these documentaries really surprised you whereas you didn’t expect such a huge audience, but you got it?
S.N.: I was very surprised that bios do as well as they do. As the universe gets more crowded, documentaries about celebrities do better than I thought they would. Even though I don’t know if they distinguish a service particularly, they tend to do better. But they’re not my métier. I like anonymous people who survive, that’s my piece of the apple. But I’m learning that other things work, too.
WWD: What are your favorite métiers?
S.N.: Anonymity that rises to popularity. Anonymous people who become part of the culture or part of the television culture because they have something to say. Whether it’s King Gimp who has M.S. and manages to live a life and be an artist, or Katrina who lives on minimum wage and has three kids. When those crest and do well, I’m very pleased.
WWD: How do you find them?
S.N.: Gimp wrote to me. He got a spot on the Super Bowl, and he won an Academy Award. He was so excited at the Academy Awards when they called his name, he fell off his wheelchair onto the floor. I thought, “this is docu” in the middle of the Academy Awards. When Gerda [Weissmann Klein, Holocaust survivor and subject of another documentary, “One Survivor Remembers”] was nominated, she wanted to go on the stage, but it was against the rules. She won, and she ran up ahead of Kary Antholis [the director and producer] and grabbed the mic. “Once a survivor, always a survivor.” She was some piece of work. Someone once asked her what she got out of winning an Academy Award, and she said, “When I go on an airplane they move me to first class.” I thought she was going to say, “Freedom for people of all kind.”
WWD: Do you love working and consider yourself a workaholic?
S.N.: Yes, with a capital W. I don’t know if I love it, it’s all I know.
WWD: How do you relax?
S.N.: I don’t. Ativan [a pill used to treat anxiety disorders]. I believe in pills. I believe that chemistry is everything. I believe there are imbalances in one’s chemistry and you should not be purists about balancing one’s chemistry. It doesn’t mean I believe in addiction. I certainly don’t mind being dependent on things to be able to function properly.
WWD: Do you have anxiety?
S.N.: Do I or did I? I’m a very anxious person but not with medication.
WWD: What advice would you have for your younger self?
S.N.: Talk back gently earlier, and be confident earlier, if you can. And that doesn’t mean that it’s general for all women. If you have something to say, don’t swallow it hard. Find a way, depending on the environment and who you’re with, to let it kind of creep out. Because when I finally started to say what I thought, I would bark it out because I was keeping it in so long. Now I’m actually much better at it, although I’ve never mastered the art of talk back. It’s very difficult. It’s hard to talk to bosses.
WWD: You have said that you wish you had more time. What would you do with more time?
S.N.: Talk back earlier. If I had more time, I would probably treasure it now. I’ve said this, you go to sleep at 40 and wake up and you’re 70, and you’ve only had eight hours of sleep.
WWD: Did your son appreciate the fact that you were a working mom?
S.N.: Not really. As a child, there was yearning. I couldn’t get to things. I couldn’t if I was in California. Some [stay-at-home mothers] are proud of you because they wish they could be working, and some are very resentful. They want you to be unhappy.
WWD: You wrote an essay that the president of the Mommie’s Association at your son’s private school years ago prevented him from selling the store-bought Mrs. Fields cookies you brought to the cookie sale and would only allow home-made ones to be sold. Do you think it’s gotten easier for working mothers?
S.N.: I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t easy then, it was horrible.
WWD: What is the message for young women who might read this book now?
S.N.: I don’t know if young women will read this book. I don’t think I wrote it for them. I think I’ve written it for women who have been there and survived. I think it’s for survivors. I don’t think it’s for neophytes. In retrospect, you have to have kids, you have to know what it’s like to be wounded and you have to know what it’s like to survive your wounds. And I think at 26 or 27, you haven’t been wounded enough and you haven’t survived enough to walk in there. Although these women yesterday [at Refinery 29], I felt like I was in a strange country, but I didn’t feel like I didn’t speak their language. I felt like I had gone to a country with a Z and X. They have those desks, those desks lined up one after another. How do these women have ideas when they’re right up against each other? I think ultimately that architecture has to go. I think it’s antithetical to innovation. It’s like Communist China. I don’t think you can innovate in that kind of environment. It’s like trying to get more seats in the theater. I don’t know how these women work. Maybe I’m old-fashioned. I don’t have ideas next to people. I have ideas about people when I leave them. I don’t think it’s conducive to creativity.
WWD: What’s the most interesting reaction you’ve gotten to this book?
S.N.: My own pleasure at having done it. And my own arrogant pride in coming clean. And being able to say “78,” although not without some hesitation.
Revenge is a good mentor.
WWD: What do you attribute your longevity to?
S.N.: You have to be lucky. I could easily be in a nursing home. It’s all genetics. As Dr. Michael Baden [a physician and board-certified forensic pathologist] who’s done autopsies said, “What’s with the preventive? You’re born with a certain number of heartbeats and then it stops.”
WWD: Do you mentor women at HBO?
S.N.: If they want to follow. I don’t have secrets. I can say, “you’re talented and do you want to be part of my team?” I have a very talented team.
WWD: Did anyone mentor you on the way up?
S.N.: Never. The opposite. De-mentored. I’ve been de-mentored. [They’d say] are you here? I kicked ass, a lot of times my own.
WWD: Nobody took you under his or her wing?
S.N.: I didn’t even know how to spell the word. Revenge is a good mentor.
WWD: Were men intimidated by you?
S.N.: When I was young, because I was hot. Not anymore. I think they’re more annoyed by me. I’m older than most of their mothers or the same age. I’m not wheeling in, and I’m not asking to take me to the doctor, yet.
WWD: Are you enjoying the media tour that you’re on?
S.N.: I have left no stone unturned. I have been as aggressive for myself as I have been for my projects. And I’m really worn out. I sold myself as best I can. And I refuse to put a “For Sale” sign on me. I can see when I’m doing TV, how really good I look, and think, “S–t, how come I’m not sitting in the main chair?”
WWD: Who does your highlights?
S.N.: Sparkle Beauty Studio at 2 Charles Street.
WWD: So you spend money on your hair and your looks, but not your clothes?
S.N.: I spend a lot of money on my hair. I have good hair. I do get my hair blown two or three times a week. Makeup I don’t care for. My teeth are clean. I’ve had two facelifts, one at 56 and one eight years ago.
WWD: Do you think it’s easier for a beautiful woman to make it the media business?
S.N.: Without question. When I was young, being pretty really helped. It got me in. That, and a master’s from Yale.
WWD: Do you think you might do another book someday?