Interview Date: Tuesday July 31, 2001
Interview Location: New York, NY
Interviewer: Steve Nelson
Collection: Hauser Collection
NELSON: Sheila, we're going to talk about your career, primarily at HBO. You've been here for many years, but I really want to start and ask you the following question. You've talked a lot about, in some of your documentaries, your approach in terms of getting the audience involved, giving them the context, like the whole question of Holocaust footage to open up your survivor story – the torso washing up on the beach, showing things like the dead children – so I want to ask you, just to get started, to give us something that puts you in context, so when we go through your career we have a sense of who you are, who we're talking to.
NEVINS: You mean why do I open provocatively?
NELSON: Yeah, right, who are you, what drives you?
NEVINS: Well, I mean, if people wear two bracelets, I wear five.
NELSON: Do they have labels?
NEVINS: No, I think that if you don't notice what's about to happen that probably it won't happen for you, and I think I've always felt that a television program has to open in a very arresting way so that you can grab an audience that has a refrigerator and a washing machine and a telephone. It's not like the theater where you're sitting in darkness and you're captive, or like a theatrical movie. You have to demand attention and you have to be different and you have to be out there and direct and affronting and honest and brash, otherwise it's very easy to go to any of those other things in someone's home, because after all you are a somewhat uninvited guest in a home, or at least you're auditioning all the time. So I always try to make the opening of all shows arresting so that you won't leave.
NELSON: Now I know you have a somewhat theatrical background. You went to High School of Performing Arts in New York, Yale Theater School. Talk a little bit about your background.
NEVINS: Well, it's interesting because it's the differences that make me feel differently about television. When you go to theater you have a captive audience. They've paid and they're in the dark, and they have only one place to look. When you do television you really are in a sort of whirling dervish business. You have to stop it, stop the turning dial, stop the surfing, somehow. So it's the differences that make me approach television in a different way. The things that are similar, I think, are that the television is a theater, it is a stage, but it's a stage with a lot of competition, and so I approach it differently, although I approach it in a way that stresses the performance of the people, no matter how real they are and no matter what they're going through. I look at people almost as actors in their own life, and I'm most moved by people who play the part of their life with bravado – negative, positive, heroic, dangerous, sexual. So I think the theater has been very, very influential. On the other hand, I think it has both made plusses – things that I've carried with me – and things that I have known I couldn't carry with me. The people that go to the theater in the main, other than musicals or whatever, it's the top percentage of people, or people on holiday. Television is everyday. It's like cereal and milk, and you have to make that every day occurrence spectacular, and yet at the same time you have to keep that humanity going. So I think theater, but I live in television, and I try to make the marriage as compatible as possible.
NELSON: But unlike most of your television audience, you say you grew up practically without television.
NEVINS: I never watched television. I mean I didn't really. I sort of looked down on television because I was an intellectual, although I did watch the Milton Berle Show at my friend Elaine's house, and my mother wouldn't allow us to have a television because she thought I wouldn't get good grades in school if I watched television, but on Sunday nights I used to watch the Show of Shows and the Milton Berle Show on a tiny little television set. I thought it was magical and I was sorry I didn't have one, but I did get better grades than Elaine, so my mother must have known.
NELSON: So she was right.
NEVINS: Well, I didn't watch it weekdays; I wasn't allowed to watch it weekdays. I don't even know what was on weekdays. I used to listen to the radio.
NELSON: Okay, so you're a kid, you're growing up without TV; you're getting good grades...
NEVINS: Very good grades.
NELSON: Okay, anything else about your childhood we should enter on the record?
NEVINS: I liked dinosaurs, I read the dictionary because I thought then I would be smart. That was all.
NELSON: And then home life? Anything noteworthy?
NEVINS: Home life? Secrets – home life are secrets.
NELSON: Home life are secrets, okay. So you go off to college, Barnard, studying English. Obviously at this point no notion whatsoever of either being in television or filmmaking.
NEVINS: No notion of television, but very interested in films. We didn't watch television; we just studied all the time. We read books and it wasn't until years later that not everybody read every page of every book. I thought that was what you were supposed to do. So like if somebody read Thackeray, they would have finished it over the weekend and I would still be reading it on Monday and I thought that I was especially slow until someone told me that you skim. I still don't skim. I can't skim tapes, either, because I think somewhere there might be something that I want. So if I take home four hours of screening, I tend to screen four hours even if it's pretty horrible.
NELSON: And sometimes I'm sure it is.
NEVINS: Sometimes it's horrible, but even in horrible you learn.
NELSON: You're looking for things.
NEVINS: Yesterday I watched an entire documentary about two Russian Siamese twins in Russian.
NEVINS: No! Just in Russian. But I thought I was supposed to watch only ten minutes of it, but then I thought maybe I'd learn something about language if I watched the whole things without knowing what they were saying – not the language, but the language of the pictures – so I watched the whole thing. So I guess I haven't changed much since the days of Thackeray. I'm very thorough.
NELSON: And was that true of your stint at studying theater at Yale, post Barnard?
NEVINS: Yeah, I was a directing major, and that was a very different experience because all the directors except for one other woman, who was about 400 pounds, were men, and it was in the '60s and it was very hard to be a female director. It was different. I skimmed more there because I really had to puff my feathers to get through that, and it was hard reading Greek tragedy – Aeschylus and Euripides – it was hard to be a theater intellectual. So I must say, I used to skim plays because I got the characters quickly, but it was very hard for me to skim novels, and it's still hard for me to skim tapes. I rarely fast forward.
NELSON: So just moving forward a little bit here...
NEVINS: Fast forward.
NELSON: Well, maybe not too fast, maybe normal speed. You finished up theater school and now you're ready to go out? You didn't become a director after finishing theater school. Was it just that nobody was going to hire you?
NEVINS: No one was going to hire me. I was actually a very good theater director but no one was going to hire me, partly because I married, at the time, I married a man from the Yale Law School, and he told me that there were certain requirements to be married then. One was that I could not work on weekends, and I couldn't work nights. I thought you had to be married and maybe that was what you had to do to be married, so if I couldn't evenings and I couldn't work weekends, then I couldn't work in theater.
NELSON: What year was this, just to set the social context?
NEVINS: '63, that's the context. It was 1963, and so I made that compromise. I didn't know what to do with my life because all I knew was theater and English Lit, which is what I had majored in at Barnard. Before he left I had been a dancer and also an actress, I had switched from one to the other. So I really didn't know what to do, but I was married and I thought that was something you do until I found out it was so boring.
NELSON: And all the things you did primarily take place at night and on weekends.
NEVINS: Everything I did was nights and weekends. So I tried to find a job – we lived in Washington – and I tried to find a job and I thought maybe I should look in television, and maybe I should work for the government and television because I had read – this was pre-computer – but I had read all these job descriptions about doing film research and things for the USIA, which was the United States Information Agency and they provided video information on how great America was to foreign countries, and then there was Voice of America that did audio information. I thought video – that's sort of close – so I looked at all the job descriptions and I was on my way to a job interview for archival research and downstairs in the lobby of the old post office building I saw a sign, which is where my interview was, and it said, "Auditions" and it had an arrow.
NELSON: And you knew what auditions were.
NEVINS: I knew what an audition was more than I knew...
NELSON: What an interview was, maybe.
NEVINS: ...a film archive. It said Nitrate Film, you know, anyway that was the job I went for, but when I saw the thing that said "Auditions" I figured I'll go to that arrow. So I went to the arrow and it turned out that they were auditioning for someone to teach English on camera.
NELSON: And you were an English major?
NEVINS: I was an English major, but I was certainly not an actress. There were women my age auditioning and so I asked how you get an audition and I filled out an application, and I auditioned for this part, which was to play "Jean" in a tape called Adventures in English, and there was a man called "Professor Richards" and it was based on maybe a 1,200 word, or something word, vocabulary that the U.S. government was teaching in foreign countries. I got the job! It was like a joke, and it was very well paying at the time.
NELSON: Was this a leading role?
NEVINS: It was a leading role because this was the role – "What is an adverb? An adverb is..." and then there would be three vocabulary words, or two, each half hour show, and you would use them again and again. So you would have to say them "Do you see the cow, Jean?" "Yes, Professor Richards, I see the cow." "Where is the cow, Jean?" "The cow is there, Professor Richards." "Do you like the cow?" "Yes, I like the cow." So you would repeat that word that was the important word maybe 30 times. I don't remember the details, but it was all done in a very specific way, and I did that for two years.
NELSON: So a lot of cows, right?
NEVINS: (Laughter) We made like 150 shows, and it was insane. We did insane things. We just talked nonsense, like Pinter. I would tell my friends in the theater, you're not going to believe what I did today. Today we put out a fire, and we said the word "fire" maybe 61 times. "Did you put out the fire? There is a fire. Put out the fire..." and the graphics were these old fashioned kind of things, but in the process I got very involved in television because they were making this on 2 inch video and then they were sending it overseas. It just seemed like theater. I mean, it just seemed so interesting.
NELSON: Did you have any sense of the production side of it other than being the lead role?
NEVINS: Well, yeah, there was a director there named Don Mischer, who later on became a very well-known television director, and Don was... I don't know if he was the director of Adventures in English, but I eventually would work with him and for him at USIA. I switched from in front of the camera – I think I was a PA and a floor manager, and AD, and I worked with Don a lot at that point. And then he became my contact...
NELSON: Assistant director?
NEVINS: Yeah, I did anything, everything, anything, everything. We worked for Bob Squire too, who was a guy who went on to do – he's now dead – but he went on to do political commercials for various candidates, but Don...
NELSON: Very, very upstanding political commercials.
NEVINS: Yes, Bob Squire and Don Mischer and I sort of worked together at USIA during that period, and it was in the middle '60s, late '60s.
NELSON: That's an amazing breeding ground for...
NEVINS: It was a GREAT breeding ground, because Don, you know, is so brilliant and so technically capable, and I learned a lot from him even though he was a contemporary and had gone to University of Texas, and I was this sort of New York theater person. I really learned a lot. And then I, of course, very quickly left my first husband and then decided... we worked in Mexico on a film together – I mean USIA did a film about how good it was to be an American, you know, or something, but we did it in Mexico for people so that they would know how great America was, and I got a little fed up with USIA, and I decided not to go back to Washington. So I went to New York.
NELSON: From Mexico?
NEVINS: From Mexico.
NELSON: And your husband was in the past at this point?
NEVINS: Oh, gone, gone, long gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.
NELSON: So you could just... off to New York.
NEVINS: In the '60s what was a husband, in the '80s was an affair, or in the '70s maybe that was an affair. No, no, that was long gone. I don't even remember. But then Don knew Al Perlmutter, and Al Perlmutter was producing some stuff at Channel 13 in New York.
NELSON: Which is the PBS station.
NEVINS: Yes, and then I started to work for him and then I wound up working on the Dream Machine, which was probably the seminal experience in my life because it was television without a narrator. See, we made these pieces about various subjects about America and we were waiting to find who would be the narrator, and we decided we didn't have enough money to find a narrator, and I had seen a film that was the History of the United States in Three Minutes by Chuck Braverman. It was real fast. At the end we'd spent so much money we couldn't afford a narrator so I said to Al one day, "Why don't we just do that ttt, ttt, ttt, ttt, ttt in between the pieces?" And he said, "Okay, let's do it." I said, "I'll go out on the street and I'll interview people about what they think about the American dream." And so I did the American dream interviews and then we did these quick cuts about American history, or whatever the subject was of the story that was following.
NELSON: Just to bridge?
NEVINS: Just because we didn't have a narrator. It wasn't like a lot of ideas, it's not like somebody said, "Oooh, I have a great idea." It's usually this doesn't work, and this doesn't work, and this doesn't work, and that seems to work, and then it really works well. I don't know if that's how they discovered penicillin. Well, they did! It was an accident. It was in the mold.
NELSON: Well, a lot of discoveries are accidents.
NEVINS: And all the critics talked about this brilliant bridging device that we had on the Great American Dream Machine, and it was an accidental, last minute, ditch effort to bridge pieces because we couldn't afford, at that time, the likes of a Walter Cronkite or a Dan Rather, so rather than compromise with a narrator, we wound up visually and with ordinary people on the street. And I think that's when my love affair began with ordinary people, because I would go out and ask them all kinds of questions. I would go up and down 72nd Street with a film crew and just ask them questions, and I hired the Maysles because I thought the greatest film I'd ever seen was The Salesman, so Al Maysles and David Maysles was then alive, I mean I think they thought I didn't know what I was doing because it wasn't real verite but I would just talk to people on the street.
NELSON: And you hired the Maysles to do "man on the street" interviews.
NEVINS: Yes, yes. I asked Al Perlmutter if he would let me hire them because that was the only name I knew in the real people business. I didn't know really very much at that point. I still don't know very much, but I really didn't know very much then. So we went back and forth and we went to Washington and we went to California and we just talked to people about their dreams, and it was phenomenally interesting because if you really wanted to know the answer they told you some amazing stories, and I think that was probably the most important experience.
NELSON: The Great American Dream Machine, you had a lot of experience doing these so-called "man in the street" interviews – you would find people would open up under those circumstances?
NEVINS: Yes, people want to tell you something. Everybody has a story and everybody has a struggle, and life is very, very difficult, even for people who laugh all the time, and I think that you know, the fascination with reality programming for me, or at least the kind of reality programming that we like to do here, is that the way people live their lives is worth telling and retelling, and all kinds of people are interested in how people live their lives. You don't have to be... we never do the lives of celebrities, not because they're not interesting, but because the man next door has an equally interesting life. The trouble is how do you make the audience interested in the man next door? I mean that's the challenge because once he starts telling the truth about what he's had to live through, or what he's lost or gained, or laughed at or cried at, you can hook somebody. But that's the thing – getting them in there, getting them to watch it.
NELSON: But you left PBS, just keeping the narrative going...
NEVINS: I didn't leave, the show ended.
NELSON: The show ended. So you just, were you just...?
NEVINS: I never left anywhere. Things just ended wherever I went. I only left one job. I left – what was it called? Who's Who.
NELSON: Well, we'll get to that.
NEVINS: Okay. I was going to leap to that!
NELSON: Well it's not that big of a leap because there's just one stop in between, and that was ABC. You actually worked on 20/20.
NEVINS: Yes, I worked on 20/20, but I left.
NELSON: But you did leave that?
NEVINS: I left because Bob Shanks told me that I couldn't edit my own pieces. He wanted me to go out on the road... I couldn't believe that I left because I needed the job so badly, but it was really... He wanted me to make pieces on the road and then send them back to New York, and the way that show would work – it doesn't work that way now, but this was at the very beginning...
NELSON: What year was this?
NEVINS: I don't remember. Whenever 20/20 began – it must have been 25 years ago, or 30 years ago, maybe. '70s?
NELSON: Early '70s?
NEVINS: Yeah, probably early '70s. And I was very excited that I got the job and I had worked with Bob Shanks on The Dream Machine and when he called me I thought I was a Rockette, I was so excited. I thought this was really the big time – a network – and he explained the procedure and I acted okay about it. I thought, "Okay, I'll do these pieces and then I'll send them in, and then somebody else will edit them." But I didn't want to do that.
NELSON: But you had that edit control when you were at Dream Machine?
NEVINS: Well, I mean, the whole process of putting it together, it's like someone... I can't explain how horrible it was. First of all, it was very horrible to leave the job because I needed the job and it was the most money I'd ever made, having come from PBS, but I'd just spent so many sleepless nights that I just couldn't imagine getting involved in a story and then sending it to somebody else to finish.
NELSON: Were there any stories you worked on you remember in particular?
NEVINS: You know, I think the first one was on some... it was just a... I shouldn't say "just" a musician... Elvis Costello, and I didn't even know anything about Elvis Costello, but I got to know him and he was just beginning in the business, and I just did the pre-interview and the correspondent was about to come and I thought, "I can't let go of this. I can't send it in for somebody else to edit." And I remember the day – it was Washington's Birthday because there was no work that day – and I called Bob and I said, "Are you in?" And he said, "Yes." And I said, "I have to talk to you." I thought when I tell him that I can't send the pieces in he'll let me edit my own pieces. So I went in and I said, "Bob, I can't do this. I have to edit my own pieces." And he said, "Well, then, leave."
NELSON: Not what you were expecting.
NEVINS: Now, this is of course remembering something from x number of years ago, but it's pretty close to the truth because I was so devastated it must have been close to the truth. He didn't make any compromise. In other words, he was the kind of person who used to write letters of rejection... like, we tried to write letters that said thank you for your thing, your idea is a good one, but it's not right for HBO at this time, and we wish you the best of luck with your project, and you know, thanks for thinking of HBO. You know, we just had euphemisms. But this guy, he'd say "We're not interested in your proposal. Sincerely..."
NELSON: Boom. And he wasn't interested in your proposal either.
NEVINS: But I didn't think he would treat me that way, and he el dumpo'd me. I mean, within ten minutes I didn't have a job. I was devastated. To this day I'm devastated. I have a friend who still works there and she says they still talk about that day that I walked out. But I didn't walk out; I mean, they've made it like a Pentimento Joan of Arc story. I walked out like a bag lady. I didn't feel at all heroic. I was devastated because I didn't have a job, and it was hard to get jobs then. There was not that influx of magazine shows, reality television had not... I mean now it's a very competitive business, but at that time it was not at all a competitive business.
NELSON: And there were very few openings.
NEVINS: There were none. There were just none, and I was desperately miserable and I didn't have a job.
NELSON: So how did you wind up working at CBS, and Don Hewitt, of all people?
NEVINS: Well, then I went to CTW, and worked on children's shows and wrote children's shows for them. I joined the Writers' Guild and I wrote stuff for children's shows, and did research – we did research and research and have meetings and bagels and experts and meetings and meetings, and I like to do things so I didn't last there very long. I mean I didn't leave, I never left, but the show was funded by the National Science Foundation and I remember thinking when I bought furniture for this little house we had in the country that it had been funded by the National Science Foundation. It was like two years of research before the show happened. This show actually did happen when I was gone – maybe it happened because I left, and it was called 3-2-1 Contact. But I went from that, CTW, I heard about a job at CBS, and I had to get out of there, I couldn't go to anymore meetings, and so I left 3-2-1 Contact right after this kid that I was filming found a dinosaur fossil, which is very bad timing because I think it was a real fossil, but I did leave and I went to CBS to work on Who's Who with Don Hewitt.
NELSON: So you got hired there, obviously.
NEVINS: Yes! And I was so excited to be hired by Don Hewitt. It was exciting!
NELSON: But you weren't working on 60 Minutes at the time.
NEVINS: No, but he says I'm the only person who ever turned him down because when Who's Who was over he asked me to work on 60 Minutes and I said no. He said I was the only person who'd ever done that.
NELSON: What were you doing at Who's Who?
NEVINS: I was doing personality pieces. I would go and chase stars like Richard Burton and Diane Von Furstenberg and Lily Tomlin. Isn't that funny? They're both my friends now. Huh! And Richards Burton was... I was so nervous. It was the first piece I'd ever done for Don and we shot with 16 millimeter film and there was light leak in the camera, and I brought back the film that was no good and I thought it was horrible, and I had to call Richard Burton directly – I knew his pseudonym at the hotel – and I called him. He was in Toronto shooting Equis and I had just done this piece with him, and I called him and I said, "Richard, this is Sheila Nevins. I'm the woman..." "Oh, yes," he said, "I remember you." I said, "I ruined the interview. There was light leak in the camera." He said, "You poor darling, you must do it again." And he was the sweetest, sweetest man. So without telling John Springer, who was his PR guy – because he had told me when I called him first that I could never interview Richard Burton again, so of course I had to do what I had to do. I re-filmed him in New York, and John Springer dug his nails into my arm and he said, "Don't you ever do it again – call Richard directly."
NELSON: You went right around him, right?
NEVINS: Well, you know, but I got the interview and I got him to sing "How to Marry a Woman" again.
NELSON: Was there a lesson in that in terms of really going for what you're after?
NEVINS: You've got to do what you've got to do, especially when you're not hurting anybody. Just because someone's mean doesn't mean they're right.
NELSON: But you said that you turned Don Hewitt down to work on 60 Minutes. You were the only person to ever do that, he said. What happened?
NEVINS: Well, maybe that's like my apocryphal memory, but that's how I remember it. I would never turn Don Hewitt down; he and Mike are probably my mentors in this business, and they're certainly my mentors in aging, but I couldn't go around with a correspondent. There are certain things you can't do. You've go to do what you've go to do, and then there's certain things you can't do. It was very difficult for me to go around with a correspondent; to do all the research, to do all the pre-questioning, and then have someone come and ask the questions off what was then TelePrompTer, because your heart would go out of you. I mean, like, I had this very close relationship with Lily and then Barbara Hower would come in and ask my questions of Lily. I didn't want to be on camera, but I began to think you didn't need to have a correspondent, just like we learned on The Dream Machine – that's why I asked if you were going to ask me questions – that the person being questioned is the star of the show.
NELSON: You are, you are.
NEVINS: No, but I mean the star of a story does not have to be interpreted by a correspondent. You know, you don't have to have somebody say, "And then we went to find Jenny Smith and she was sitting by the fire mourning the loss of her son in the Gulf War." You don't have to do that, you just simply have to have Jenny tell her story, and the 60 Minutes style, which was so brilliant and was based on those great super stars – at the time it was Mike, and it was Dan, and I can't remember who the other ones were – Morley Safer and Harry Reasoner, and these people were super stars, and the television audience wanted them. But I wanted the stories, I didn't want the correspondents, and that was why I thought that wasn't right for me. The model of The Dream Machine – the accidental model and purpose of The Dream Machine, which was stories told without interpretation began to be what I really wanted to do, and then I knew what I wanted to do.
NELSON: So now we're at the point in the narrative, finally...
NEVINS: Unemployed again.
NELSON: Unemployed again, but finally we're about to get to HBO, so tell me how that happened. You knew what you wanted to do; you wanted to do this particular kind of program.
NEVINS: I'll tell you exactly what happened. Who's Who was in the process of being canceled and Don was looking for people for 60 Minutes, and he'd interviewed a few people of which I was one of them, and I was afraid to turn him down although I ultimately did. Simultaneously I heard that there was something called Home Box Office, which I didn't know what it was, and they were looking for a Director of Documentaries, and the truth is that I thought – this is very honest but I'll go for it – I thought... I was a member of the Writers' Guild and I thought that if I could be a member of the Directors' Guild then I could get total psychiatric coverage. Instead of 50% I could get 50% and 50%. So I thought, well, why am I going to stay at 60 Minutes? I don't really want to do that; I like these correspondents, I love them, but I don't want to make a story and then turn it over and then interpret it. I'm not the right producer for Don. So I interviewed at HBO with Michael Fuchs, and he was sort of brash and interesting and I found out what HBO was and they wanted a Director of Documentaries. I thought that meant – because I'd never been in a corporation – that I was going to direct them and then I'd be a member of the Directors' Guild and the Writers' Guild and then maybe I could get more jobs, I'd get great health coverage and all that stuff. So I left CBS, and I bought very, very comfortable shoes for walking because I figured I'm going to be directing documentaries.
NELSON: So you're going to be out on the street...
NEVINS: Yes! I'm going to be directing documentaries for this cable thing that I read about. I didn't really understand what a cable was, but I knew it was clear...
NELSON: You didn't have one of those things.
NEVINS: I mean, it was eight hours a day and it was something called cable. I'd seen a lot of public access stuff, but I didn't know it was the future. I'd love to say I read about it and I knew this was the future and I thought I'll start anywhere because it will be the... I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I would be a member of the Directors' Guild and that would be a good thing. So I came to HBO and we were at the Time... it was in the Time Life building and I was there about two hours and this man came in and he said, "We'd like 40 documentaries at the end of the year, and you can pick any subjects you want." And I said, "Oh, you mean I hire the people?" This was Austin Furst, who was then the head of HBO. I think Jerry Levin at that time was the president of HBO. I said, "You mean I'm the one who hires the people to make the documentaries? I thought I was directing them." "No, no," he said, "you're the Director OF Documentaries." So that was how I knew what kind of job I had. So it started at 13 weeks, and I started calling all the people I ever worked for, you know, "Can you make 13 parts on war?" I didn't know... I knew nothing about how to make a whole one. I'd only made a few magazine pieces on The Dream Machine and I'd done a lot of the man on the street stuff, and so I started to hire people. We had no business affairs department; they needed 40 shows because they were going to go from eight hours to twelve hours. They thought documentaries were a cheap form of programming, and I thought they wanted documentaries like Winston Churchill and Hitler, and World War II we did, we did a show with Consumer Reports. We did very pedantic, dry documentaries, and that's how I began at HBO. I had no idea what I was doing. I would call people up and they'd think I was calling them for a job and I was calling to give them a job, but I'd just been their associate producer or their line producer on some little project somewhere. And then, we didn't have Neilsons then, but I being a very competitive person – as everyone who knows me will tell you – I noticed that the movies were doing better than my documentaries, and I thought why should what I'm doing not be doing as well as something else.
NELSON: From a ratings standpoint?
NEVINS: Yeah, I mean we had different ratings then. They were called, I forgot what they were called... TSS, they were called, Total Subscriber Satisfaction. I saw what they liked, they liked the R rated movies and they liked the adventure movies, and they certainly didn't like the historical thing, and I thought, you know, I like real people, they like stuff that's in the movies, why don't I drop Winston Churchill and put those two things together and make stories about real people that are like movies. And so again, almost accidentally on purpose, you know, I took A and Z and got together the middle... what's the middle of A and Z? I guess it's the 13th letter.
NELSON: M? N?
NEVINS: M, N, whatever. So I decided to make a marriage between reality and the excitement of movies or theater and forget Winston Churchill and Hitler. I did so many of those, and they were fascinating and I was so well-read, I read books – it was like Barnard had come to HBO, but maybe I should put theater and film together with reality and see if we could be more successful, and we were. I started to do R rated documentaries, I started to do documentaries that were about things that were volatile, about drugs, about teenage pregnancy, but not in the way the networks were doing them. Not with correspondents, but you know, the story of a 16 year old girl, or the story of a murderer, or a show called Coupling about unusual sexual practices among various couples. I started to use the R of HBO to the reality advantage and create sort of limitless boundaries for what reality could do, and that meant we could do everything from a program about the Second World War and the woman who had survived it to something about hookers and prostitution. So I've kept that going.
NELSON: But when you started this, you came into HBO to do the documentaries on Churchill and the...
NEVINS: No, they didn't tell me what to do. No one ever told me. They just told me 40 – I remember the number 40.
NELSON: So they just said, "Do them." Whatever it is we need to fill time.
NEVINS: "We need to fill time, we don't want to spend a lot of money, just do it."
NELSON: What kind of money did you have per production?
NEVINS: We didn't have budgets. We didn't even have an original programming business affairs. They were doing the polka festival somewhere and a few standup comics. It was really the beginning, beginning of HBO. It was so exciting. It was like just anything could happen. I mean it was scary exciting because maybe some people knew what they were doing, but I can tell you, I did not know what I was doing.
NELSON: But that didn't either inhibit you nor did anybody else at HBO inhibit you.
NEVINS: Well, I had at this point begun to believe that the truth of all things was probably that nobody really knew what they were doing.
NELSON: Not just you.
NEVINS: I'm sure there were some people that know what they're doing, but at least I thought people knew as much, maybe sometimes more, but not much less than I knew about what they were doing. I thought that I had the right background to make something of real people and that I could do it as well as anybody else could do it, and I certainly had been trained by very good people – Al, Don Mischer, the experience at CBS – just watching the stories that worked. I once heard Don Hewitt say, he was in an editing room, it was very, very late at night, and I heard him say to someone, "That isn't sexy enough." And it was an interview with Kissinger.
NELSON: And what did he mean by that?
NEVINS: I don't know. I was too afraid to... at that point those names like Don and Mike were scary to me. I would never say what did you mean by sexy, but I think I know what he means now. It wasn't hot. It wasn't anything that people were really going to watch. It wasn't different. 60 Minutes is a cowboy show. It was three cowboys who go out to right wrongs, or four, now they have a girl cowboy. Those were boy cowboys when I was there. And everything that works has a theatrical or a movie or a plot association with something that has been successful before, there probably aren't that many stories anyway.
NELSON: Was there something, when you started this change in direction, a particular documentary that you did that stood out, as you felt that you were starting to do that?
NEVINS: You know, I'll tell you something interesting that happened. It happened with Winston Churchill. You wouldn't think that that would have been the one, but it was around Winston Churchill, because Winston Churchill, I read somewhere and we had it in our half hour, which was not an exceptional half hour, when he was asked what his deepest regrets were he said that his father had not been able to see him be a success, and when you see a great man have such a small human request it's sort of the key to what matters and you don't have to chase down Winston Churchills or superstars to find those kinds of lines. So I think... I always remembered that because to me it was the high point of his life, just like it was the high point when I found out that Hitler had one testicle. You know, when you try to imagine... and that he was a mediocre architect. The things about famous people that made them crazy or interesting were the things that happened to real people, the deficits of character, the imperfections of their physical selves, the need to be loved by their parents, all these things seem to be things that would happen to everybody, if I could just get them and tell stories about them. And to me the most exciting stories and the best documentaries are really the ones that are about people that do extraordinary things, and by extraordinary I don't mean climbing Everest. It may be murder, and it may be dying nobly, but it's not necessarily what you think it is. But I learned from those shows that we worked on. I learned mostly from the movies and how well they did. I learned a lot from theater, and I learned from really my three mentors, Mike and Al and certainly Don Hewitt. And Don, because of the vigor, the incredible vigor and spirit that he would infuse in people... when I did the Richard Burton piece that finally came through he called me that night to tell me that it was the best piece he'd ever seen on a personality, and the next day I said to Andy Lack, who's now the head of NBC, I said, "Andy, Don called me last night and told me that my piece was the best piece he'd ever seen!" He said, "He told me that about my Lillian Hellman piece." Don has a childlike (I can't explain it) energy – I don't know if he has it now, I haven't worked for him for a number of years, but occasionally we've been on the phone about things – for what he does. He has a vigor for the experience of life, and for the way people live it and do it. And although they do do celebrities, they do all kinds of people on 60 Minutes. And you know what else is great about Don and Mike? They were my super heroes, but they're just guys, you know? And you really can't in this business, because you're relying on real people to make your living, you can't become arrogant in what you achieve and those men are not arrogant. There are people in our business who become very, very arrogant. They leave aside the person who sweeps the office at night, but the fact is that that person could be the source of their next story, and also jobs are very fragile. I mean I've had this job for a long time, but it's very hard for me to take it for granted. I still think, although I'm not afraid, I still think I could lose it, and I know when you don't have the job you don't have the power. That they day you leave HBO, your phone doesn't ring anymore, and so many people mistake the power of their organization for their own power, when in fact – and I've seen it here – the next day they're out of work and nobody calls them anymore. So I've been a great survivor here. I've watched many empires fall and known people topple, so you can't really be arrogant. One thing about Al and Don and Mike, they're not arrogant people. They still call people that worked for them on the phone and tell them they did a great job. When we did the depression show, Mike called me at 6:00 in the morning to tell me something he didn't like about that show with the ferocity of a 25 year old man who had just made his first documentary. "I think this is too long, and I think this is too short..." I mean he was 80 at the time when he called.
NELSON: This is just the passion for what they're doing?
NEVINS: For the truth – as they see it, as they believe it.
NELSON: And doesn't that motivate you too, the passion for the truth?
NEVINS: I guess, as close as you can get to it. Maybe if we all told the truth we'd all shoot each other.
NELSON: Well, the truth can be...
NEVINS: I think the passion to get as close to what motivates behavior as possible and not bore people. Remember, all this stuff sounds real good if I was teaching a course in psychology, but I'm not, I'm in a business, in a corporation, and I have to make money for them and I have to make people watch. What is that term – there are no atheists in a foxhole? There are no boring people in a hospice. No one dying is boring. I mean I've done so many shows about dying. There is no Alzheimer's person who isn't fascinating. There's no young person dying of cancer who isn't Joan of Arc. Even in fear, you know, there are certain situations that bring out in people the most extraordinary qualities. Psychopaths are interesting. People with a missing limb...
NELSON: You have to be open to see it.
NEVINS: You have to be willing to listen.
NELSON: Just coming back to something you said a moment or two ago about if for some reason you left nobody would call you. Here are a few reasons why they call you: productions you've worked on – I have to get this in here – 39 Emmys (I think these numbers are right), 17 Peabody's, including one for you personally as a career recognition, and 10 Academy Awards. So I think that's kind of...
NEVINS: They still don't call.
NELSON: They still wouldn't call?
NEVINS: Yeah, they still wouldn't call.
NELSON: And not so you can rest on those laurels, but that's...
NEVINS: You can't rest on anything.
NELSON: ...an impressive achievement, I mean for you as well as for HBO, because obviously...
NEVINS: Hey, listen, I'm happy! I'm glad to have those things. I shine 'em and I leave 'em and I like them, but I'm just telling you, nobody calls you when you don't have a job. When you don't have the money to pay for that person's project, nobody courts you. As a matter of fact... no, no. I left HBO for three years to be an independent producer and the phone did not ring.
NELSON: What time period was that in?
NEVINS: My son was small, '79, '80? '80 ½ to about '84, and I didn't make a living because I poured over my subjects too much, and I did two shows. I did Eros America, which was a sex show, and I did Braingames, which won a Peabody, which I got the idea from a placemat. My son is very hyper and the placemat was the only thing that would keep him in place, you know, complete the dots and do all that. I was doing Eros America for Cinemax then; it was the first sex reality show and I knew it would be a success and I didn't want to give it away.
NELSON: This was as an independent?
NEVINS: Independent producer, and I had my own little office and everything was very charming except that I wasn't making a living that was the only problem. I mean I REALLY wasn't making a living. I wasn't smart enough; I didn't know enough about finance. HBO owned everything and I was really a producer for hire. I liked the work so much I wasn't smart about the deal.
NELSON: And why was Eros America on Cinemax versus HBO?
NEVINS: Because HBO was tentative about sex programming at that time, but I wanted to do it so badly and Michael let me do it on Cinemax. I had gathered these books from the '60s that had been banned, Eros, and it was a very successful show on Cinemax, so when I came back I transferred that to Real Sex on HBO. And then Braingames I did really for David, for my son, because I felt that I spent so much time at work and I wasn't really... and it seemed to be the only thing that interested him was the placemat, and so I brought the placemat in to Michael, I think, I can't remember who was my boss then.
NELSON: You mean literally the placemat?
NEVINS: Oh, yeah. Literally the placemat. And I made a show out of that placemat. I went out and got Victorian rainy day books and I did "Do you know what's wrong with this picture" and an airplane would fly over or something... I mean it was all kinds of things. I did sounds and you'd try to figure out what the sound was just by listening and seeing the sound go up and down. I did "Whatchamicallits", which were things where you'd see little pieces of a picture like the Statue of Liberty and as the picture was filling up the kid would try to yell out at the television what it would be. It was a great gift to be able to make that show because it involved me, sort of two worlds combines, personal and work, and then it won a Peabody and when it won a Peabody – I couldn't get back to HBO in those four years. The phone never rang, I didn't make any money, Eros was a successful show, they wanted me to keep making Eros America but I wasn't making any money on it, and my world was pimps and whores and hookers and strippers and they would call all the time, and I knew everybody's name, and I thought this is ridiculous and that's why I said you'd better let me do Braingames because I'll never work again. I'd meet somebody on the street and they'd say, "What are you doing?" "I'm doing a show about ho's and pimps." So then I did Braingames and when Braingames won a Peabody...
NELSON: Was that your first, by the way?
NEVINS: My first?
NEVINS: No, the first Peabody I won for HBO, but this was... HBO had not submitted the show; they didn't think it was good enough. I submitted it myself, just out of spite, and it won. So the day that it won, I didn't know it had won, Michael called me to tell me it won, and it hadn't been announced yet but he always would hear things before anybody else would hear them, and he called me in my office and I hadn't heard from him in a long time. I said, "Michael, please let me come back to HBO." And he said, "Okay."
NELSON: We'll take you back.
NEVINS: We'll take you back, but you'll do family and you'll do docus, and so I came back. And then the phone rang! And I got flowers, and people called me, and I was popular! I was popular! People liked me. I was different on Wednesday then I was on Tuesday because I had a job, and HBO was a big machine, and still is a big machine.
NELSON: So you said you came back here doing documentaries as well as family stuff.
NEVINS: Right. And the documentary, by that point, had been liberated because of Eros America on Cinemax the R rated documentary now could take full swing and I went for it. I mean I did Real Sex, and I did Taxicab Confessions, and I did Shock Video, I did Private Dicks, and I did... I mean I just let the human body just have a good time. I just thought, you know, the first sex show we ever did here we had a sex consultant and her name was Shirley Zowsner.
NELSON: So you could get it straight?
NEVINS: To make sure we weren't being prurient, and slowly I began to believe that sexual freedom and First Amendment issues are very tied because the more I read about sex and the more I read sex in literature, I realized the freedom of literature and the restrictions of television, and then since HBO, you could select when you wanted... a kid didn't have to watch sex. I mean they had burning bodies at 7:00 on network news but you couldn't have two people, especially if they were black and white, hugging each other at night or being naked, so I came to be sort of a sexual zealot. Michael always said that I was the least likely person to do sex programming, but once I started doing it I became the most likely person to do it because I thought it was fun, I thought it was great. I thought how great that society is so repressed or they wouldn't be very successful.
NELSON: And of course a lot of this involves real people, not just...
NEVINS: It all involved real people and it involves behaviors of real people, and people who are sexually free, interestingly enough, are some of the most honest, nicest people in the world. Sexual repression seems to be at the core of so many peculiar behaviors. The wonderful thing about the show was we'd go out and test it and everybody would say they didn't see it, and yet the ratings were sky high. "Oh yeah, I think I caught it once." "It's not for me. I think I watched it and..." But times have changed now. People say "I watch it and I like it." There's a whole new... I guess Sex and the City has had a lot to do with that, but maybe Real Sex has had a lot to do with it too, G-String Divas, all this stuff. I mean what's the big deal for Christ's sake. Do you know what the networks do? Like if it's sweeps they suddenly get very interested in date rape. They do all these programs on date rape and sex killers, but really what they're doing is they're trying to get ratings because we're seeing women in bikinis running around. Here I worked at a place where we could have women in bikinis and they could take them off, and I didn't have to pretend it was a piece about date rape. It didn't mean I couldn't do a serious documentary about date rape, but...
NELSON: And you could do it besides just doing it in May and November, too.
NEVINS: Yes, I could do it besides May and November.
NELSON: Well, really, one of your signature reality sex confession – and I've already given away what we're talking about – is Taxicab Confessions. Talk about the genesis of that and where that came from.
NEVINS: Taxicab was another one of those accidents. TelePictures had a syndicated show that they were trying to sell on taxicabs, and it was a daytime show in which taxicabs would pick up people, and they brought it to us. It was really boring. I mean it was little girls going to school, maids going to work, people going to school.
NELSON: And they'd talk about their lives?
NEVINS: Yeah, and the cameras were kind of... It was, you know... but the concept to me of hiding a camera in a taxicab, having this R rated thing that we had, I thought was very interesting, and on the original Taxicab that they brought us there was one ride which could not be in the show because it was about a transsexual and they were looking for a daytime show. That one transsexual who talked about her parents rejecting her and she really had a dick – I would say that she was the blueprint for Taxicab. It was a fluke that she would be out in the daytime and so I thought, why don't we send them out at night on a pilot and see what happens. Go out around 9:00 and keep filming until like 5:00 in the morning in New York, and that's what we did, and it was unbelievable what came back. Not all of it, and certainly not every ride, but it was the nightlife of New York, it was the sad people who worked through the night, the sex workers, the cops. It was interesting. I mean it may be tired now, I don't know, but for at least three years it was a really good show, very surprising. We got kicked out of New York by the Taxi and Limousine Commission under Giuliani. The original Taxi and Limousine Commission was very sympathetic to the show, but we went and pleaded our case in front of the Taxi Commissioner and she was – I guess I could say she was vile. She didn't think it was befitting the image of New York.
NELSON: Of their very high class cabs in New York, right?
NEVINS: And she said it wasn't safe for the taxi drivers, or whatever. So we were kicked out of New York, which was a tremendous blow to me because the New York taxi driver is like the Statue of Liberty, you know, he's a really important thing. But nonetheless maybe we'll be able to get back to New York. So the last three years we've been doing it in Las Vegas, which is okay.
NELSON: Why Vegas?
NEVINS: It's a one-party consent state, and they like us there.
NELSON: Which means?
NEVINS: Oh, we're good for tourism, I guess.
NELSON: No, I mean one-party consent.
NEVINS: Oh, it means that a person can be taped without giving their permission, but you can't use it without their consent. If it's a two-party consent state and you have to tell them beforehand that you're taping then you can't do Taxicab, and there are only four states in the United States, New York being one of the most liberal, where it's one-party consent.
NELSON: So, New York, Nevada, and some others.
NEVINS: New York, Nevada, New Orleans, and Washington D.C., and I think one other, but they don't take taxis there so it didn't matter.
NELSON: And in Washington nobody's going to confess to anything.
NEVINS: We did a Washington show. It's on the shelf. It's so sad because the people who take taxis in Washington are really down and out and poor. I mean I think when we finish with the series we'll run it because it's more of an archeological, sociological study of people who don't have cars in Washington, although now I think there's more public transportation but we did it about three years ago and we've just saved it because it's so sad.
NELSON: Now when you started you said you would tape them from 9:00 at night until 5:00 in the morning.
NEVINS: 7:00, somewhere in there.
NELSON: That's a lot of material for somebody as thorough as you in terms of looking at it.
NEVINS: That was the beginning. Now the guys can pretty much do it. We probably narrow it down from 20 or 25 rides to eight. I mean we know what we're looking for, and a good ride, you know, we have the vocabulary now. In the beginning that wasn't true.
NELSON: Did people ever suspect? Were the cabbies kind of cuing them a little bit?
NEVINS: Sometimes. Sometimes they recognize the driver. Yeah, sometimes, we don't use them.
NELSON: Yeah, because you can see that they're performing.
NEVINS: It's interesting because people don't trust that show and yet it's one of the most honest verite shows. I always hear Howard Stern saying "They know. They couldn't get in the car without knowing." But they don't know. All you have to do is ride around in a car behind it, which is really interesting. They don't really know.
NELSON: And just see. So beyond Taxicab, we've talked about Real Sex. How about some of your other...
NEVINS: The serious ones? Because I wouldn't be on this tape if I just did that, right?
NELSON: But we want to keep it balanced because there's quite a bit of other work that you've done.
NEVINS: What would you like to talk about?
NELSON: The one that I remember from, I guess about ten years ago, which was Abortion: Desperate Choices. Talk about that.
NEVINS: That was the Maysles, and that was... the trouble with doing a show about abortion is that people know what they think, so no show is going to change their mind. That may be true of a lot of issues, but some things you don't know anything about, like you might not know anything about global AIDS and you might see a show about AIDS and it might change what you think about AIDS in the world at large, or make the world closer. But people know what they think about abortion, so it was really... because I thought that there weren't enough classic documentaries about the issue. I thought that Al Maysles and Susan Fromke were the right people to make it, and I think it has some great scenes in it. In a strange way it's historic because it's not really about the issue, it's about the people.
NELSON: In this situation.
NEVINS: It's about how hard it is to have an abortion and survive it for some women. It's about the people who really want to save lives and see this as a life, and it doesn't have any spokespeople or experts; it's just the life of an abortion clinic and you just watch the people coming in and going out, the protestors, but nobody's interpreting it, you just experience it.
NELSON: But jumping ahead because you then later did Soldiers in the Army of the Lord.
NEVINS: Soldiers in the Army of God, but the difference is I think Soldiers in the Army of God, you know, when you get very close to evil, like when we did Confessions of a Hitler Youth or The Iceman or Paradise Lost, if you want to say evil, although you don't know who committed the evil, you see evil done, it's so banal, so familiar. That's the scariest part. If the person who did these terrible things was so unlike you it would be easy, just like if the person dying from Alzheimer's was so unlike you, or the person who had lymphoma was so unlike you, you know. But it's a very thin line between what makes somebody hate and love. Like dogs, you know, they can be your pet and they can chew somebody to death that comes down the hallway, mostly they love you, but how people turn out is just a source of great... And going back to Soldiers in the Army of God – I'm just rambling – but Soldiers in the Army of God, the central characters in that are hateful for what they stand for, to me, but they're not hateful people, per se. Their philosophy is not mine, but their motivations are possibly insane, but nonetheless pure to them. It shows you how complicated it is to rectify something like the abortion issue because these people are firm believers and what they believe is life. How, if somebody believes that God wants this, can you tell them they're wrong? If they hear God – I mean the worst people are those who hear him directly, but nonetheless – these people hear him telling them what to do.
NELSON: I suppose for Soldiers... what you do is you go...
NEVINS: Soldiers... is a scary film because the central character, I wish he were... Confessions of a Hitler Youth is a scary film. Alfonse Hecht, the central guy there... I saw a show on A&E once about the charisma of Adolph Hitler and it was fascinating, and in it was a man who was a Hitler Youth and he was sitting on the steps of some building in, I don't know where they took it, in Germany of whatever, and talking about the banging of the drums and the uniform he wore and his eyes were glistening and all that. About a week before a bunch of kids in my son's class had asked, they wanted to be Cub Scouts, and when I said, "Why do you want to be Cub Scouts?" because mothers have to do that, and I thought, "Oh God, I'll have to leave work and be a Cub Scout mother once every six months or whatever," they said we want to beat a drum, we want to wear a uniform, we want to march in parades and do all that. I thought, "Holy Shit! These people are..." I mean I just saw that guy on television and now here I am at Allan Stevenson on 78th and these kids want to beat a drum and wear a uniform. So I thought wouldn't it be interesting to find out what went through the mind of a Hitler Youth at the time. So I tried to reach Alfonse Hecht, who was the person, and I tried to call the producer and he was in Zaire or something, and he didn't call, we didn't connect, and finally I found him and he called me back and I said, "How do I reach that guy? I was fascinated with your documentary and I'd like to just do this one person." He said, "Oh, he's a bus driver in San Diego." This was before I insisted on getting credit for my shows, because I once ran into, I think it was Don, in Gimbles' on 86th Street and he said, "What do you do at HBO?" I said, "I don't know. I'm a programmer." He said, "What's a programmer?" So I said, "This is ridiculous, I've got to put my name on the shows." So when I came back I did. But this was the last of those shows that I had sort of birthed and the credits would roll by, and I had interviewed him and I had found the idea, I just let it vanish. So I didn't do that anymore. I got a little bit more arrogant about my involvement. But Alfonse became a friend of mine, this Hitler Youth. He became a friend! He came to my son's bar mitzvah!
NELSON: Wasn't that shocking to you?
NEVINS: That he was my friend? It was more shocking to the people at the bar mitzvah.
NELSON: Well, that's for sure!
NEVINS: But the thing was that Alfonse, although I've lost contact with him, I had him speak to the little boys at Allan Stevenson because I thought it would be interesting for them to see how quickly you can go the wrong way. First of all, they wear uniforms there, so all these little boys sat in a circle and Alfonse was in the center and he started talking about the day that Hitler gave him the Iron Cross, and he started to cry in front of all the little boys. So that was a scary experience, because as everybody here said, "Once a Nazi, always a Nazi." But I don't know. Alfonse is a nice man, but he shot down American planes at the age of 15. I don't know. But these little boys, if they had grown up in Nazi Germany they might have wanted to be part of the Hitler Youth, and go on trips, and bang the drum, and wear the uniform, and go to camp and have bonfires and roast marshmallows, and hear Hitler, the Fuhrer, speak, and he would meet them, and he would come... I don't know. I don't know what makes people good and evil.
NELSON: Are you seeing in your documentaries this... you're seeing both sides of a lot of people.
NEVINS: I think it's very complex. I think that nobody knows who they are, what they are, why they're here, where they're going. So those are four great things; to leave those aside and go on and make make-believe stories seems to me to be nonsensical because after all some people think they're going to heaven and some people think they're going to hell and some people think they're going to get deathbed confessions and some people think they're going to rot into the earth and be flowers and some people think they're going to come back another time. I mean we live everyday and we don't have any idea what we're doing. We waste this whole thing called life, and then horrible things happen to people, and good things happen temporarily, and then horrible things take over, and life just keeps spinning, and then it's over. Not to try to interrupt it for these little films, not that they're historic or belong in some Smithsonian or somewhere, but that they are really of great interest to people. I mean, Hospice, if you should see that film, that was probably one of the most painful films I've ever been involved in because it was what nobody wants. It was watching people face the end because to be in a hospice you have to sign something, or your doctor does, saying you're not going to live more than six months, and that was a Maysles film too, and it was probably one of the most provocative. The other that was the most chilling was Gerda: One Survivor Remembers. I met her on a piece of film in a museum, the Holocaust Museum, and I was so...
NELSON: You were just visiting and you saw her?
NEVINS: I was just visiting and I saw a little piece of her in a Hall of Survivors and I came back and I said to Michael, "Please let me do a film on this woman. Please, please, please. I know it's not what HBO does, but..."
NELSON: Why do you say that?
NEVINS: Because we don't do historical films, really, and it was the 50th anniversary of the Second World War.
NELSON: Not since the Churchill days, anyway.
NEVINS: Yeah, we did Hitler Youth. Every so often I give myself a little present. I beg for a film because I really want to do it, and I've worked so hard on things that I know are right for HBO, I figure that will be my bonus, that I can make the Gerda film. So we made Gerda in-house, and it was very hard to get her because we did it with the Holocaust Museum. I just totally fell in love with her. I thought she was the most charismatic woman I'd ever met in my whole life, and I had to have her, I had to meet her, I had to bring her here, I had to do this film, and it won an Academy Award. Everybody was doing these big films about the Second World War, and of course I'd already done those when I came here, so I thought I'd do just one person's story, so we just did Gerda's story, and to this day Gerda haunts. I mean I think of Gerda all the time. I think of the Iceman all the time. I think of pimps and ho's and people I meet on the street.
NELSON: You've quite a cast of characters. If you lined them all up together...
NEVINS: Somebody once said if I ever had a party and invited all these people, I would have the most virtuous and the most deadly. Sort of Dante's inferno.
NELSON: That's what I was thinking. Right! But isn't a little bit of that both sides in everyone? Isn't that what you're seeing?
NEVINS: Yes, I think so, but I think that what happens to you in life is one side... well, I don't know. The Iceman was hit on the head with a broom by an abusive father. A colleague of mine, Nancy, always says that all films are about frontal lobe damage, but I don't know.
NELSON: Speaking of some of these mini characters in your productions, Dr. Peter?
NEVINS: Well, I got a fax one day that was sent to all broadcasters about a doctor who had died in Vancouver of AIDS, and they said that they had 130-something odd interviews, not interviews, newscasts of his – that he had for 2 ½ years delivered these newscasts. You know, it's amazing, I'm so close, I feel like I'm talking about, like I'm working on it now, because I really liked him so much.
NELSON: Now when you say newscast, he was on TV?
NEVINS: Yeah, he was a great man, and he had AIDS before they really had anything for it. He was a physician in Vancouver, and there was a lot of prejudice against AIDS, and I had read his obituary in the New York Times. I don't know when in relation to when this fax came, but I was curious to see some of these tapes and the documentary or whatever that they had made about him and all that. They were offering broadcasters the ability to make a documentary about Dr. Peter. It just said, "Dear Broadcaster:" I don't even think it was to me. It was the early days of the fax machine so I used to read them. Now you can't, between email and fax you just have to hide under the desk. Anyway, we sent for the tapes. He was the most extraordinary man I'd ever met. I mean I never met him, I met him on tape, and I called the producer of the news show that he was on – he'd done these five minute segments for 2 ½ years – and I said, "Do you think we could make a documentary?" And so the producer came, he was a news producer, he'd never made a documentary before, and I couldn't let Peter out of the house. He had to be made here, and so for weekends and evenings we looked at the 200 – I don't remember how many tapes there were of Dr. Peter – from the day of his diagnosis, all his broadcasts, and we made an hour documentary called the broadcast tapes of Dr. Peter. It was the most extraordinary experience because we knew as the numbers increased the Peter would have to die, and yet at the same time we knew that if we didn't get to the end Peter might not die because he would have these sort of ups and downs while he had AIDS. He skied when he was blind, he learned to play the piano, he fell in love, and his lover, I can't remember his name, built a hospital for him in Vancouver. Anyway...
NELSON: So you basically just took these on-air tapes...
NEVINS: He wore Peter's underwear to the Academy Awards. Why can't I think of his name? Because I've lost contact with him. But he was an amazing guy. At Dr. Peter's funeral – the most extraordinary piece of footage was Dr. Peter had this dog and when Dr. Peter died, and while he was so sick, the dog had terrible ulcers, and at the funeral the dog is lying at – Andrew! Andy, that's his lover, Andy is something – Andy delivers the funeral service and the dog is at his feet – Dr. Peter's dog – and when the audience stands up to sing, the dog stands up with the audience. It was so incredible. And I have Dr. Peter in my office, I have his picture, but that was one of the great... I think that's probably one of the best documentaries we ever made. Only because it was the beginning of the crisis, and I got a letter from a subscriber and it said that he was a Marine – I don't even know what I did with it; it's too bad you can't save everything in life, right? But he said that he was a subscriber and that he really didn't care about gay people and that he accidentally caught this show in the middle of the night – I mean this was not a high ratings show, nobody was going to watch this show really – and he said when he met Dr. Peter on HBO he changed his attitude towards what gay men were like, and that he would never look at them the same way again. But I think Dr. Peter was just... I can't believe I never met him because I feel like I met him. But if you see one show you should see that one. That, and One Survivor Remembers, they're the two. And The Iceman.
NELSON: Why The Iceman in that mix? Not a pleasant character. It's just another side of the human nature?
NEVINS: Because he's evil, but he's not hateful. Evil should be hateful, right? The devil should be red with a pitchfork, but I'm afraid, unfortunately, you can't always spot them. Like a cancer cell, probably, right? You don't spot it until it's so malignant that it destroys you.
NELSON: Well, so often when the murder occurs in the street and the TV news crew shows up to interview the neighbors, what do they all say? "I can't believe he did it! He's such a nice guy."
NEVINS: Well, this isn't a nice guy, the Iceman, but the audience loved him.
NELSON: Let me ask you about another guy.
NELSON: You did a documentary on Lenny Bruce.
NEVINS: Oh, Lenny Bruce.
NELSON: And I have a feeling that he's an influence on you. I can see from your reaction.
NEVINS: I didn't know much about him until I looked at Bob Weide's footage. First of all, Bob Weide, the producer, becomes an experience unto itself. We've been having this crazy email thing. He now does Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO. Lenny Bruce? I wish I knew him.
NELSON: Is he, perhaps, a testament to the problem of going too far with telling the truth?
NEVINS: The problem with people not receiving the truth. The problem of hypocritical bureaucrats who don't allow people to just tell their story or sing their song. I mean Chaucer was way out there compared to Lenny Bruce. He could do it just because he was on his way to some kind of pilgrimage, you know? But repression of society when it comes to creative truth and creative freedom, and the great opportunity of television to share people that you would never know. I'm not a very social person; I don't like to go places, but I feel like I've been invited to a lot of homes and they've let me stay. Maybe that's why I'm not so social; I've been to too many homes. I mean one rating is like 200,000 people. That's enough dinner parties. But I don't have a feeling that my audience has dinner parties. I think they have more beer and pretzels, which is great.
NELSON: Is it you want to aim for a broader...?
NEVINS: People who don't know that story, who don't know who Lenny Bruce is, who don't know how he shut down so he couldn't breathe, who don't know that he probably had attention deficit disorder and they didn't have drugs for it and he used cocaine to treat it, and he really died from an overdose, but he really died from being shut and locked up because he couldn't speak. He couldn't say what he was. The only way to release his fire was to be a comedian and they wouldn't let him. I mean the police, the powers that be, wouldn't let him. All First Amendment issues are issues like Lenny Bruce. I remember, I was at Barnard at the time, and Lenny Bruce was somewhere in the Village, and I remember saying, "I don't want to see some dirty comedian." But the real thing is I was probably reading Thackeray line by line while everybody else was skimming.
NELSON: So they skimmed, and they went down to the Village while you stayed back in the dorm?
NEVINS: If I'd known that then I would have done dirty shows here the day I arrived. I wouldn't have had to go through this experience of Hitler and Winston Churchill and World War II. Well, now there are channels that do that.
NELSON: There's probably some development that benefited from that.
NEVINS: There must have been some developmental phase, right.
NELSON: So let me bring you to sort of a wrap up point, because I think the major evolution of all this was...
NEVINS: Like a boil, bring me to a boil.
NELSON: Well, perhaps something more pleasant, but sort of the major evolutions you get finally American Undercover...
NEVINS: America Undercover.
NELSON: Right, becomes a full-fledged weekly, branded documentary, which is very different from most of the stuff you've done in the past, which shows up here, shows up there, but it doesn't have an identity.
NELSON: Talk about how that affected your work.
NEVINS: Well, I owe that to Chris, because Chris said to me... you know, you have to fight for at HBO because there are big shows and there are our shows, and our shows really clamor to be noticed. We don't have a lot of marketing money, we don't have a lot of advertising. We're really on our own, which is bad and good. Good because when we're good we did it all by ourselves, practically; and when we're bad, no one notices. So it has its ups and its downs, but Chris said, "Why don't you do a series? Why don't you put the shows together? Why don't you make some noise with these shows? You read a review here, and a review there, you get an award, you get this... Put them all together." I said, "Okay! I'll do it." So we did. We followed The Sopranos, which was very, very exciting – that sounds so, "very, very exciting", it sounds like a cliché, but it was very, very exciting, but it was television and I think that although I've worked in television, I didn't know the television game of getting a thing ready every week and getting the advertising, not that we get advertising, but getting the releases out, and hacking Atlanta about calling the reviewers, and each producer being separated and wanting attention and love and attention for their show, and yet you can't get a review in the New York Times every week, and then if you got a review for this, you wouldn't get a review for that, and then how did you explain that to the producer. You know, my producers are not like other producers; this is a reparatory company of people that are mostly assigned topics, or come to us with a burgeoning idea, and then we cast them in that role. It's not like a news department or a network where one day you're doing Bosnia and then the next day you're doing Eartha Kitt. We have our Eartha Kitt producers and we have our Bosnia producers. We don't mix people. People have passions and we match the passions in reality to the subjects that they then do.
NELSON: And are these people mostly...
NEVINS: You couldn't put Bob Weide... you couldn't give him Hospice. You couldn't give Lenny Bruce to the Maysles. You couldn't give Dr. Peter to John Alpert. These people have an emotional vocabulary of communication that they translate into their reality programming that you have to feed right into. You have to cast the documentary producer just like you'd cast a movie or a play or whatever.
NELSON: And these are largely outside people, when you say cast?
NEVINS: Yes, but they've become a kind of reparatory company of recidivists, and so it's pretty hard to break through. But people break through, like Edet Belzberg, who just did Children Underground. I mean there's a first time producer who comes through. Kate Davis who did Southern Comfort – their first attempts are so extraordinary that they knock all rules away. So there is room for new producers, and then they become part of the cast. But it is a repertory company, it just is, it is. Competitive – they all want the main parts, but some parts aren't right for them. Not everybody can be Macbeth.
NELSON: And then that becomes your role to keep all these people...?
NEVINS: That's what I am – I'm a casting agent!
NELSON: Let me ask you this, one thing that really has marked the change in cable in the last few years has been the proliferation of digital channels. When you came to HBO, there was one HBO, and now there are several HBOs of various flavors. How does it affect you from a production standpoint? For example, you talked earlier about stuff you did as family programming, but then there's actually now a whole channel that's HBO Family.
NEVINS: The way it's affected me the most is there are many more submissions of material because of digital equipment. But excellence is still a needle in the haystack. Extraordinary works... just because everybody can make a documentary doesn't mean that there are more good documentaries, it just means that there are more documentaries.
NELSON: Is the barrier to do it lowered because of digital cameras and the like?
NEVINS: Yeah, there's more product, but then again there are more outlets. But the number of works that push you, that really make you gasp for air, are probably the same. I guess if you screen 200 maybe you'll find five, and maybe now you screen 250 so you find 5.2. There's more product, but not everything's very exceptional. As a matter of fact, there's so much imitation. I mean, something works and then everybody does it, and then it loses its value just by the fact that everybody's doing it. To find the niche that's HBO, to find the thing that is special, not necessarily a high watch special, but that marks you as different in some way, even if it's a subject that everybody's doing, but something that finds an access to that something that's slightly different: those are still very, very hard to come by – to conceive and to come by. You know, most of our projects are co-ventures with producers; we have a little of an idea, they have a little of an idea, or they have a big idea and we have no idea, or we have all the idea and they have no idea, but usually there is a kind of blending of what we need for HBO and what they choose to spend a year and sometimes two years of their lives making. This is a very difficult business. Nobody gets very rich in this business, everybody works very, very hard, and the best producers in documentaries are those who don't want to go into features, because they believe the best storytelling comes from the real world. I sort of stay away from people who say that they're using the documentary form as a sort of audition for features, although after documentaries on HBO, invariably, people who make movies call and want copies of the docu and all that sort of stuff, but that's okay, it's after reality. But if you're going to use this as a training ground for movies, then I'm not the right person to work with. If you believe that the best storytelling comes from real people's experiences, then this could be your playground. That's kind of how we approach it and I think we're purists in that way. Not purists in that we believe that shooting 30 to 1 is the ultimate truth, because obviously if you're shooting 30 times what you're getting, or you're not using every ride of everybody that walks into a taxi, then you are editing reality in some way, but the belief that if you stick to it and sit long enough that that session with a real person, or a real experience, will produce something very valuable is kind of our motto, and we are very patient for a very impatient medium.
NELSON: Speaking of impatient medium, you talked earlier about having to grab and hold an audience and stop that dial spinning, now is that getting harder with a lot of people trying to push the envelope?
NEVINS: Well, everybody pushes...
NELSON: More channels out there?
NEVINS: Yeah, sure, there's a lot of competition. But when people say I'm competitive, I think they don't mean that I'm competitive with all these other channels because how could I be. I mean I know what they're doing, I watch it and all that, I'm more competitive within the frame of did we do the very best that we can do with that subject. The most discouraging thing is to do something... like I thought we could do a great show on tornadoes. I don't know where I got that stupid idea. I thought it could be like grand opera, that I would quote Sophocles, because to me there was nothing more brutal than a tornado. It took poor people living in poor houses that didn't have roots, they didn't have basements really, and it blew them into pieces, it tore their cattle and their cows and their trees and their children, and I thought, "The Weather Channel can't do this, nobody can do this, only HBO can make grand opera out of God's wrath, or whoever's wrath." We made a verite Weather Channel show. No matter how I put quotes in it and no matter how I had people raging against the storm and no matter how I made the music heroic and look... well, the footage came from the Weather Channel. I mean, I could not bring it to a level of... I could not make it different. It was a regular documentary.
NELSON: It was still a tornado story?
NEVINS: It was still a tornado story, and it was sad and it was painful and it was all that, but other people had done it just as well as we had.
NELSON: So what lesson does that leave you for the future?
NEVINS: Well, you can't always be sure that just because you think you found an angle that's slightly different it marks you as being different enough to be worth paying for. After all, this is pay television, most television is free or basic, or network and advertiser supported. Someone is paying for this reality. I mean, can you imagine if I went out to one of those groups and I looked through that one-way mirror and somebody said, "I wish they didn't have that reality stuff on HBO." I mean, my God, they'd write it down and bring it home again. So essentially I have to make reality worth paying for. I have to not compromise it, but squeeze it and somehow produce it and get my producers to understand who we work for, ultimately, which is the paying audience... In that way, HBO is like theater because people are paying for this. If I'm going to put a documentary on after The Sopranos, it sure as hell better give them something. Not the same numbers, I'll never be The Sopranos, but the people who watch it as sure as hell better like it, otherwise what am I doing here? I might as well be doing Fantasy Island, which I don't think is bad really, I just don't think it belongs here. Let me tell you what we do. We do all kinds of shows, every show has a different expectation. If I do a show on AIDS, global AIDS or whatever, and I go to foreign countries, I know that they people here are not going to watch that in large numbers, but I feel that it's a privilege to make a show like that that people can see and it can be on HBO and help the reputation of HBO and make a difference in some way. It nudges reality of the world a little bit. If I make hookers and pimps, or Shock Video or Taxicab Confessions – and I'm not demeaning these shows – or Real Sex, or Nerve.com, if I make those shows I'd better get numbers – G-String Divas – otherwise I'm a moron. I have to make those shows as hot and as sexy and as different and as jazzy and as volatile and arresting as they should be, because that's what they are. They say what they are. I don't do shows that don't say what they're about. That's why I asked you about the title of that show. If it's Real Sex, it's real sex; if it's G-String Divas it's about g-string divas. I don't like to hide behind a title. I like to give them what they think they're going to get. Shock Video – it's shocking video. It doesn't take a brain scientist. Hospice – it's hospice. Now, if I do Hospice I know I'm going to get a low rating. If I do G-String Divas I know I'm going to get a high rating. So my job is not... it doesn't take a brain scientist to figure out that Hospice can go where Hospice has to go, it doesn't ever have to try to be popular because it's never going to be popular, but the people that watch it, the couple of hundred thousand or a million, that watch that show will be deeply affected by it, and HBO will be valuable to them because of it, but they won't go into Hospice thinking they're watching another show. I'm not going to call it a Time to Remember, or Daddy Loves Me, or one of those kind of euphemistic titles. The same is true of G-String Divas. I'm going to get a rating on that show, I'm going to sell it hot, I'm going to sell it mean. I have a show on now called Size Matters, it's a Real Sex repeat. I'm not going to call it anything but what it is. If I do a show about penises I call it Private Dicks. If we do a show about breasts we call it Breasts.
NELSON: Is this a truth in packaging kind of...?
NEVINS: No, it's a truth in expectation, I guess, coming from a truth in packaging. To be really disappointed here the expectation for a show has to be not what you expected. However, if Hospice did as well as G-String Divas, I would not mind being disappointed in my expectations, however you deliver what you have to to keep the balance going. I think the first show we did, Hookers at the Point, was a very, very fine documentary. I think the music was great, I think the life of the women was interesting, I think why men were there was interesting. We're trying to get a hidden camera now into a bordello, not to show the sex, I want to call it No Sex, Please, It's a Bordello, because the irony about men that go to whorehouses is that a lot of them don't even want sex. They want to talk about sex, they want to talk about their problems, they want to feel aroused, they want to rat on their wife or their girlfriend, they want something different. So it doesn't have to be sex to get a good number, but it has to be in that area of out there-ness, and it has to say what it is. Taxicab Confessions is taxicab confessions. We have probably the most unimaginative titles in the world, but we labor and labor over these titles so that they get what they're paying for, they know what they're getting. Yes, I guess that's truth in packaging. I never try to call a show something hot so that it will fool the audience into getting something cold. I just tell them what it is. And I try with the promos too not to court them into the wrong arena because I don't want them to be disappointed. I mean you could sell some shows, like the Iceman, I'm going to sell a killer and I'm going to go to town on him and I'm going to be really... I mean the promo for that was way out there, but I'm not going to sell Hospice that way. "Be with them at the last moments before they..." I'm not going to do that. I'm going to say, "If you dare to feel what it's like in a hospice, if you have the courage..." but I won't sell it any other way. It's a very complicated and fascinating and always interesting balancing act between being in the business of television, being in the business of caring about people on some level, and being in the business of being entertaining, ultimately, which is what it all is.
NELSON: What's ahead of you as a challenge? I mean with all these accomplishments, what still fires you when you come in here in the morning? You seem pretty fired up when you come in here.
NEVINS: Listen, I'm always fired up. I don't know, I seem to forget. You know, you forget pain – I forget pleasure. Didn't Freud say you forget pain? I mean I know that we've won a lot of awards, I do, but the minute the award is done I can't tell you what it is.
NELSON: That's it for you.
NEVINS: Cooked. The goose is cooked.
NELSON: You're only interested in the upcoming project.
NEVINS: I would say so. I don't like losing – I remember everything I lost more than what I win, but when you win something... I mean we do so much, I would think we'd have to win after a while, and we spend so much, and we're so luxurious here, and we have so many perks, and we have so much money, and so much time. If it's not ready in October... well, that wasn't true with The Sopranos, but generally HBO docus, if it wasn't ready in October, I'd say, "If it's not ready in October I'll deliver it in January. Good-bye." And I'd labor over it for three more months. Who had that luxury in television? That's some kind of gourmet thing – I don't know what that is. So we couldn't afford not to be good. We really couldn't. We had a lot of breaks to be good. We had no advertising, we had the resources, we didn't have the pressure of a continuing schedule. I mean I marvel at people who make weekly schedules. These magazine show people must kill themselves – and I know a lot of them – to crank out this stuff. But they're all doing the same thing! They're all running after the same story, you know, "Woman Kills Her Six Children" everybody's got to do that story. Who's going to get the angle?
NELSON: "Congressman's Girlfriend Disappears."
NEVINS: Ohh, so sad. So sad. Monica's confusing. That's an interesting show because it combines both politics and high voltage.
NELSON: I was wondering that. It seemed like you were getting into some territory that you pretty much stay clear of, namely politics.
NEVINS: It's interesting. We just came up with the title – you know I like titles to be about... I don't know if it's a good title, but we're sort of working on Media, Mayhem, and Monica because she is truly a creation of the media and the mayhem, and she... I saw Clinton get a standing ovation somewhere... oh, opening his office in Harlem...
NELSON: Yeah, yesterday.
NEVINS: But she gets hoots and hollers when she walks down the street. Grown man, little girl, both did the same thing. Grown man gets standing ovation, little girl gets hoots and hollers. I mean it's not Auschwitz, but it's an interesting imbalance.
NELSON: Of course he didn't get an entirely a standing ovation with certain members of the opposite party.
NEVINS: Well, people have forgotten that. It's the Lewinsky affair now, not the Clinton affair.
NELSON: So she remains notorious.
NEVINS: Why has the media held on to this scarlet letter for so long? Why has the public, so unforgiving and so ordinarily forgiving of fallen heroes – not that she was a hero, but interesting. It must be something very deep in the American psyche that allows people to hate for so long, and to be so vitriolic for so long, and to forgive so quickly. It's just very interesting to me.
NELSON: Depends who's who, right? Unequal treatment.
NEVINS: Yeah, I guess, I guess. Maybe if you pick a President you can never really blame him because you picked him, but if someone is an intruder, and a woman, you can always blame them. I don't think I'll ever know the answer, really.
NELSON: HBO – I mean they've been incredibly supportive of what you've done...
NEVINS: How do you know?
NELSON: Well, you probably fought for some of it, but at least publicly they are happy to take the credit for it, and did deservedly.
NEVINS: HBO's a good place, they leave me alone. Great boss.
NELSON: And do you think that will change at all, the way the whole industry is changing?
NEVINS: Not unless they see this interview it won't. You know, this is a very strange... we're like the off-Broadway at HBO. We don't have big advertising, we build our own sets, we send out for lunch, we don't have elaborate parties and big spreads in newspapers. It's nice being off-Broadway in such a big corporation because you have the warmth and the comfort of "big daddy" all around you, and at the same time, you have this incredible freedom to be as close to yourself as you can ever be when you're trying to make things work. So it's just the right size; it's just the right thing. Nobody said to me here – nobody! Can you imagine? – "Why didn't you make a reality show like one of those shows?" Nobody said that.
NELSON: It's probably the only place in the world of television that nobody has said that.
NEVINS: Nobody said that. I keep waiting for someone to say, "How come you didn't come up with that? How come you didn't think of those shows?" Well, I didn't.
NELSON: But in relationship to what you're doing, they're not reality, they're game shows.
NEVINS: But so what? Why didn't I come up with it? It had to do with real people. I'm supposed to push the limits. Why didn't I push them in that direction? It didn't even occur to me. It didn't occur to me. When I saw Survivor the first time I thought it was a joke. I didn't think it would catch on. I am just in a very strange off-Broadway business, and yet popular, so I'm a peculiar duck, you know.
NELSON: And you expect to continue to be one?
NEVINS: Yeah, yeah, but I'm disturbed that I didn't think of it. I wouldn't have minded rejecting it if I'd thought of it and it being a success somewhere else, but it never occurred to me to put people in a make-believe place, real people, and have them go after gold. I just never thought of it. And thank God nobody proposed it to me! Can you imagine if I turned it down? Oh my God!
NELSON: You'd never hear the end of it.
NEVINS: Well, I would hear the end of it; it probably would be the end of IT.
NELSON: Well, speaking of the end, we are at the end of the interview.
NELSON: I really appreciate you taking so much time and letting us know more about what you've been doing here.
NEVINS: Thank you.