Summit ’18: Sheila Nevins on being comfortable with discomfort

The inimitable Sheila Nevins took the stage at the Marriot Marquis Washington on Monday afternoon (Jan. 29) to participate in a keynote conversation at the 20th anniversary edition at the Realscreen ...
January 30, 2018

The inimitable Sheila Nevins took the stage at the Marriot Marquis Washington on Monday afternoon (Jan. 29) to participate in a keynote conversation at the 20th anniversary edition at the Realscreen Summit.

Nevins was honored with a special Realscreen Legacy Award for her contribution to the documentary and television industries. Nevins, who will be exiting her post as president of HBO Documentary Films on March 31 (“My first free day will be April Fool’s Day,” she quipped), has an incomparable portfolio.

She’s produced over 1,000 documentaries for HBO, and has won 32 Primetime Emmy Awards — more than any other person.

During her keynote conversation with Hank Stuever, television critic with The Washington Post, Nevins candidly chatted about her career at HBO, her future, and her penchant for the uncomfortable.

Get comfortable

As someone who has frequently reviewed Nevins’ work, Stuever was quick to point out how she frequently gravitates towards subjects that are unsettling.

“I’m comfortable with discomfort,” Nevins admitted. “I like to be uneasy.”

There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane proved to be an example of one instance where Nevins was compelled to show audiences a disturbing story. The 2011 doc explored the mystery surrounding the tragic 2009 wrong-way crash that killed a mother and seven others.

“I couldn’t get the story out of my head,” said Nevins.

She said feeling troubled or confused is a gateway to becoming closer to people, as it’s a universal experience. It provokes empathy, which in turn leads to compassion, which Nevins said often motivates people to create change.

Hurting to help

When Nevins first began to work in documentary for HBO, she said she was given the liberty to explore a variety of subject matter, and used Freud’s interpretation of dreams as her inspiration.

She compares her motivation for doc choices to that of a mild wound. “When you get burned, you want it to heal,” she explained. “I don’t want to scald you… just burn you enough to want to heal the world a bit.”

She said that although she’s not much of an activist, she likes to make films that motivate people to change. “If you don’t hurt them, how do you do it?”

On process and criticism

Nevins wasn’t able to pinpoint her process when it comes to producing a doc, but said that she intrinsically knows in the editing room when a story has veered from the truth.

“I will miss that more than anything else,” she said, reflecting on her exit from HBO. “The idea that you don’t have to censor [the story] and you don’t know the ending. If you don’t know the ending, then it’s an adventure.”

She believes so strongly in the docs that she produces that she’s willing to fight against reviewers if she thinks their opinions are unfair.

“There’s nothing worse than talking to reviewers and they haven’t digested the work which has taken months and hours in the editing room — directors have bled over it, and they’re criticized it for what was ‘left out.’”

But for those thinking her departure at HBO automatically means “retirement,” it might be best to think again. Her insatiable curiosity remains, and when asked what makes her curious now, she said: “”Mendacity. I’m curious about bias. I’m curious about prejudice. I’m curious about what makes us human and the capacity for evil.”

And odds are she will want to keep exploring that curiosity through documentary storytelling. Her parting words to the audience perhaps spoke volumes: “Don’t you worry about me… I’m in the f***ng New York phone book and I’m available.”

About The Author
Senior staff writer Frederick Blichert comes to realscreen with a background as a journalist and freelance film critic. He has previously written for VICE, Paste Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Xtra, Canadian Cinematographer and elsewhere. He holds a Master of Arts in film studies from Carleton University and a Master of Journalism from the University of British Columbia.