How I Get It Done: HBO Documentary Queen Sheila Nevins

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Sheila Nevins has been one of the most influential voices in the documentary landscape for more than three decades. As the head of HBO Documentary Films since 1979, the so-called Dominatrix of Docs has produced more than 1,000 documentaries and has won more prime-time Emmys than any other individual (32 to date). On a day-to-day basis, Nevins is in charge of developing and producing all the documentaries for HBO, HBO2, and Cinefax. Now 78, Nevins has written a book loosely based on her life, titled You Don’t Look Your Age … and Other Fairy Tales in which she shares her wisdom from a life lived on the front lines of human experience, and reflects on issues like aging, plastic surgery, and being a woman in the workplace. Here’s how she gets it all done.

On her morning routine:

I don’t do anything until I’ve had two cups of coffee. I wake up very early, at 5 or 5:30. Very often my dog wakes me up because he’s hungry; he starts pulling on my side of the bed and you know, what Bogey wants, Bogey gets.

On getting dressed for work:

I don’t believe in clothing, so I tend to wear the same thing every day. Around the time my son was in prep school I noticed how easy it was if I just wear a uniform. I thought, Why am I going through this nonsense every morning? I realized as long as my hair was blown dry well, and as long as my makeup wasn’t too askew, I could survive without having to change my clothes every single day, and be sanitary and effective, and not waste time. We once did a film with Fidel Castro, and someone, I think it was Oliver Stone said to him: “Why, sir, do you have so much hair on your face?” And he said, “Because I need to save the 25 minutes a day for shaving.” So, not that I have learned my lessons from Castro, but at some point, it just seemed like it was in the way of everything. Also, when you reach a certain age, nobody cares what you wear.

On turning down pitches:

The meetings about the shows we’re working with are energizing and fulfilling and sometimes combative. But if it’s a pitch meeting, you want to be kind because you might be asking that person for a job in a week or two, or a year or two, or a decade or two. And I think those meetings are the hardest because you don’t want to hurt the person who’s giving the idea. You don’t want to demean their creative energies in other ways. And you might be wrong! There’s always a possibility that what doesn’t please you might be next year’s big success. So you’ve gotta be careful. Listen very, very hard, and never assume you’re right.

On bringing her work home with her:

My work is always with me. I never forget it. If I stub my toe, or if I’m getting an implant or root canal, I might forget it in that moment. But I would say, almost invariably, I think about work a lot. Probably too much. I think psychologically I’m deranged. I think I have a little OCD. Something stays with me and I wrestle with it, and even if people are talking about something else I am thinking about that thing. It’s very hard for me to be social outside of the workplace. I can only be social if I think it connects in some way to work.

On how she maintains her mental health:

You go to a psychiatrist, once or twice a week, and hope your health plan pays for it. You don’t ever make peace with human suffering. I don’t know that I have managed my mental health. I have managed my anxiety with benzodiazepines — with Klonopin. One of the people that hated my book yelled at me and said that I was endorsing pharma. I’m all for not taking stuff if you don’t need it. But I am not a calm person. I am not capable of Transcendental Meditation. I have gone to those places and tried to make it work, but I’m always peeking out with one eye at the clock and wondering about this thing that everybody else is experiencing and I’m not. And what was my mantra? Where did I drop it?

On sleep:

At night I take 1 milligram of Klonopin to go to sleep. I’m sure if I tried to get off it, I’d probably try to rob a bank or do something. It’s worked for 25 years; I’ve never increased the dose.

What makes a great documentary:

Something that resonates with the enemy. Something that resonates with the person who didn’t think they cared about that person, whether the person is gay or transgender or a survivor — that somebody extends empathy to what they considered to be unimportant to them before. Many, many years ago, I got a letter — you know we used to get letters once upon a time — and it was from an Army sergeant or colonel, and he said that his whole career he had been intimidated and horrified by gay men, but that when he watched The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter — which was about a doctor who was one of the earliest victims of HIV and ultimately AIDS and died — that when he watched these broadcast tapes of him, that he changed his mind, and that he wept for his selfishness and for his inappropriate behavior toward gay men. It was like a confession.

The things that still excite her about her work:

Stories where anonymity becomes celebrity. When someone is living on a minimum wage and suddenly becomes something that people talk about or know about, or someone who has suffered some horrible grief or incident, becomes known, and people care about them. When the ordinary person becomes the extraordinary television show.

What makes her good at her job:

Having curiosity and compassion for the common man. I really do have that. I’m certainly able to cry for other people’s suffering. I have a wounded mother and a wounded child and I think if you grow up with all of these people who are wounded and you’re not, you owe them something back for your luck [Nevins’s son has Tourette’s syndrome and her mother suffered from a serious form of Raynaud’s disease that caused her limbs to fall off]. And I guess I’ve always felt lucky, I’m smart, fairly good-looking, and never really sick, and I’m surrounded by illness and imperfection and various kinds of economic deprivation. So I feel for people. Also, I’ve been doing it for 35 years. I mean, even if you’re a bad surgeon, if you took out an appendix every day, you’ll probably become the best at appendectomies, right?

On being a woman in a man’s industry:

It’s tough being a woman in the workplace. It’s tough. It’s not impossible, but the admission charge is higher. Has it changed? You mean, we can parade more women around in higher places, but we don’t really know the price they pay. I mean, there are better bosses than other bosses, and there are certainly finer men than other men, but the general rule of the game is, you’re gonna have a harder time. You’re gonna be interrupted more. You’re not gonna rise as quickly and you’re gonna sacrifice more. That’s the nature of the game.

On the glass ceiling:

I didn’t make my way to the top. I’m not running Time Warner. I didn’t get to direct Wonder Woman. I’m not as successful as everybody thinks I am. I like that people think that, it’s kind of nice, but it’s also part of the problem. Nobody’s ever said to me, “Wait one second, let me ask you a question: 35 years ago you made documentaries and 35 years later you’re making documentaries. Is there something in this story? Is it because you’re so passionate about them?” Yes.Is it because nobody ever offered you anything else?Yes. “Would you have taken it if someone had offered you?Possibly. No one ever asks that. I would argue that I’m very good at what I do. I think I’m really good at what I do, but just like the doctor who performs one kind of surgery, I’ve become good at it. I’m good at real people.

Her advice for women in the workplace:

Step carefully. Don’t threaten. Have a high EQ. The IQ is a given but the EQ is more important. Be able to smell the temperature of the room. Are you gonna be allowed in or are you just there? Have you been invited or have you been allowed because of the hierarchy? I’ve never met Darwin — I don’t know where he is now when I need him — but there is something different between men and women. Women have something that threatens men. I think Gloria Steinem once said it was the womb, but I don’t really know cause I had a hysterectomy so I can’t really attribute it to that.

How it felt to write a book about her life:

I love it. It’s sort of like a taste of my own medicine. I’ve done it to people for so long it was about time I did it to myself. And I love talking about the book, and I love talking about the stories, and I love talking to people about their stories. I’ve been in a kind of ivory tower of human suffering at HBO for 35 years of my life. I haven’t engaged in public conversation — you have no sense of your audience’s compassion, or lack of compassion, or boredom, or involvement, or investment in your story. So that’s been the fun part. Maybe I should have been a sociologist.

On aging:

Aging is terrifying because it spells death. I think aging scares people because when they look at someone who is older, they see that that person has less time than maybe they do, or that there is a clock ticking, I don’t care whether you’re 25 or 85, there is a clock, there is a metronome in your life, and that scares people. That’s why older people get face-lifts and do all these crazy things to ourselves so that we don’t scare other people. I don’t want to walk in a room and look like everybody’s mother. And that’s why you get injections and you do all sorts of ridiculous things to yourself and you feel better about it and probably they feel better about you because you’re camouflaging the thing that they fear the most, which is their death, which is the great equalizer.

How I Get It Done: HBO Documentary Queen Sheila Nevins