HBO Documentary Films czar Sheila Nevins is a force to be reckoned with. After 30 years in the entertainment industry, she knows how to adapt. I sat down with Nevins at the recent Sundance Film Festival to talk about HBO’s Sundance Docs as well as ongoing changes in the Oscar documentary branch rules and this year’s HBO Oscar nominee “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” and its relationship to newer Sundance entry “West of Memphis.” (Nevins also participated in the “Power of Story: How Docs Changed Change” panel with Sundance’s Robert Redford, here.)
Anne Thompson: So how many films do you have here this year?
Sheila Nevins: We have…five. (laughs) We are so tired. The only party that didn’t knock me out: our “Silence Is Golden” party last night.
AT: What was that?
SN: That was for Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present,” about the exhibit that had been in the Museum of Modern Art. She’s so extraordinary—how do you capture her? But the party is really incredible, because the first hour is completely silent. We wore lab coats and white ear phones. So some 200 people who would do nothing but pitch and talk and energize, we had to be silent. And then Marina, maybe an hour and twenty minutes into the party, said, “The silence is broken.” And then it came like a burst—when they turn the water off in your building and then they turn it back on. The sound just went crazy.
AT: Was she sitting in a chair?
SN: No, she’s walking around being a part of it. A friend of mine said she put her hand on her chest and blew her a kiss. She touched people’s hands. She put her arms around a couple I know. And also she dressed me. She put the lab coat on me. Knowing me, I put it on wrong and she fixed it. And then she broke the silence. But it was like we had stopped breathing for a minute. It was healthy. It was great. It’s like something you should do again. Take a Thanksgiving dinner. When you don’t talk for a while, you store up what you want to say. So when you have a chance to say it, it comes out even stronger. It was a very interesting party, because I learned something from Marina.
AT: What did you learn?
SN: I learned to keep my mouth shut.
AT: A lot of people will enjoy hearing you say that.
SN: You know what I am? I’m an instant responder. Somebody told me I’m a living Twitter. I’m quick to respond and quick to fill air. I get very nervous when it’s quiet, because I think it’s dead. What I learned in the moment was to hold back a little before you talk. Because I knew exactly what to say and exactly who to go over to when it was talk time. And I didn’t have to waste trivial talk with people I didn’t want to talk to. Because when you can finally talk and there’s seven people you want to talk to, you just went to those people. Instead of the whole, ‘how are you, how are the kids,’ and then they pitch and you talk about films and you don’t want to. You want that person on the other side of the room. I couldn’t waste time because I’d been storing it up so long.
AT: HBO Docs made a long investment in the three “Paradise Lost” films. That’s a lot of time and energy placed on one subject. How did you feel when you found out about Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Amy Berg’s new doc “West of Memphis”? Did you see it?
SN: I loved it. I thought it was the privilege of hindsight. That gave it a continuity that you didn’t have access to as it was happening. So I enjoyed the synthesis of the story in one package, without having to flashback. You were interviewing people and you knew who was guilty and who was not, you knew whose trial information was incorrect and whose was correct, so you could make something cohesive and you could point a finger. I found it a really easy, good watch.
AT: But how do you feel about celebrities investing in films like this? It’s a good cause and made an impact and the West Memphis Three are free, but there’s something that makes me uncomfortable. Peter Jackson’s paying for it and he’s in it. But he is part of the story…
SN: It’s complicated. I don’t know the motives. Celebrities are people too, so why is it OK to talk to a policeman or a reporter but not a celebrity? After all, they’re not wearing a Hobbit t-shirt, so why can’t they talk? On the other hand, when I see it, it takes me a minute to accept it. But once I accept it, I rationalize it, and I think, ‘why not?’ I just saw Jeff Bridges in “Finding North,” about hunger in America. Jeff Bridges is all over it. Sean Penn was all over our film about New Orleans. You know, documentary filmmakers, who are all over a subject, are hardly ever in the film. It’s an interesting question. I’m startled, I wish they weren’t there, and then it just washes out over me. It didn’t hurt the film for me. It made me question for a second why he wanted to be in it. But then I let it go. Because the film was so good! Having worked on these stories for almost twenty years and following it…
AT: Right! What was the first year that you got involved?
SN: I found a clipping in The New York Times in the 1980s. I read it, and it said, ‘three devil-worshipping young teenage boys arrested for the murder of three children.’ And I thought all the wrong thoughts. I would like to think I thought, ‘oh they’re innocent, let’s get them out.’ I didn’t. I thought, ‘devils! Why would three kids kill these poor children. What devil tells you to do that?’ So I called Joe Berlinger, and I said, ‘Joe, there’s a story about devil murderers in the Times.’ So he went the next day.
AT: So you’re partly responsible for their eventually being let go.
SN: Yeah, but my motives were strictly commercial. I didn’t have any notion of innocence.
AT: No, this latest film, which funded the forensic and DNA research, wouldn’t have happened without the other films, which they saw and spurred them to action.
SN: But that’s true for every reporter who writes a story. Something has to be based on something, so you can’t take credit for that. And had I picked up the phone and said, ‘these boys are innocent and we must fight for their freedom and all that…’ I thought, ‘flash in the pan.’ So Joe called about ten days later. He was down there, and they had been arrested, so he did interviews with their families. And he said, ‘I don’t think they did it.’ And I said, ‘wow. Really?’ And he said, ‘yeah, they were in different places.’ That was when I got hooked. And I said, ‘well, if they’re innocent and there’s not a lot of press covering the story because there’s no one down there, let’s keep following it.’ And that’s how it happened.
AT: And the story just kept going?
SN: It kept going and going and going, and we knew they were innocent. But we can’t do trial by television. We knew that these kids weren’t even there. We didn’t know that it was a false confession, but it didn’t make sense. They were in different places and no one had done a time log. What could we do, except give the information to the defense attorneys, which they knew, to try to help them make their case. They couldn’t make their case.
AT: Michael Moore and the coming Academy documentary branch rule changes will effect how you historically have run your HBO doc unit, for years.
SN: We’re very clever.
AT: So you’re going to get around this?
SN: I wouldn’t say around it, but we’re going to obey it. We will release films that we think are worthy of entering this world series called the Academy Awards. We will try to find a way to release them theatrically, correctly, appropriately and obeying the rules, but the gift to us from the news, and it is a great, great, great gift, is that some 6000 Academy members will be voting on the finalists.
AT: Why do you like that?
SN: Because the restriction of just docu people voting on docs while the narrative form gets voted on by everybody doesn’t give us creative parity. I want a documentary to crest by being voted on by 6000 people who are in the business of telling stories.
AT: So you don’t mind having to do a theatrical release, with a review in the New York Times…
SN: Well, I don’t know how people feel about the two papers. To me, I read good reviews in lots of papers and bad reviews in lots of papers. And there are good reviews online and offline—I’m not part of the selection process of those two papers.
AT: You don’t like giving them that power? Don’t you prefer going directly to television and getting all your press for your premiere? So now you’ll pick and choose a more select group and only give them a theatrical release?
SN: I don’t mind someone else’s power as long as it doesn’t take away mine. Yeah. I’ll pick three of them, say to my boss, ‘I think this has a shot for an Academy Award. Will you let me release them theatrically?’ We’ll release them in New York and LA, and we’ll lose reviews from those two papers [when they debut on HBO]. We have great respect for the thousand other papers and blogs and Indiewires of the world. You’re losing two. What are we losing? In the old theatrical release, you could be reviewed all over the country.
AT: It’s not bad in terms of branding the movie.
SN: Yes, but it’s bad for reporters. I think it’s not fair.
SN: Because the more various the papers that delve into something, the better. They’re smart enough to understand that a docu cannot be released all over the country. Unless it’s a Michael Moore documentary or an Errol Morris documentary that Sony is behind. So they pick two papers.
AT: So you won’t go for Oscar with smaller docs?
SN: I won’t take the smaller docs. We don’t know.
AT: How many do you usually try to qualify in a given year?
SN: Too many. Because we don’t want to hurt one producer in the name of another. And now we’re going to have to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ And we’ve had a discussion among ourselves about how this is going to save us a lot of money. We’re going to say in the beginning, ‘let’s go to our boss and try to release these three theatrically.’ I can’t release all 40. What about the business of HBO?
AT: Some of it will be determined by festivals, too.
SN: What we love, not what gets into a festival. In the old days, festivals qualified things for the Academy. I think it’s a question of pick and choose. Which in many ways helps us.
AT: But what if a little doc isn’t going to be eligible any more? It’ll be eligible for an Emmy then? What you’re saying is that a smaller, less identifiable—
SN: They never made it to the Oscars anyways. Not the little ones.
AT: The old way, with the little committee? Sometimes they would put some smaller films through. I wish I could come up with examples of HBO movies that are in that category.
SN: You’re talking about shorts, or less important feature films?
AT: Less important features.
SN: Very few snuck through that were ours. We could sort of say, ‘let’s do it for the producer.’ Because we don’t want producer A to think we qualified producer B because it was a ‘bigger’ documentary. So we would go through this qualifying thing. And in a sense, I’m not sure it serviced us or the producers well. This is a good thing for us. It allows us to be honest and upfront, it allows us to make choices, and it allows us to expose our work to the entire Academy, should it get nominated.
AT: Thank you for explaining this.
SN: Well, everybody thinks we’re against it.
AT: Some people think that Michael Moore is trying to do something that’s against HBO. He wants to define what’s a film and what’s not a film because one’s theatrical and the other is made for television. I’m not sure I understand that.
SN: What’s confusing about that is, when you were a troubadour, you had to sing your song, right? Now the ways to sing your song are very various. You can do it online, you can stream it, you can sell it direct to the consumer, you can put it in a movie theater, you can put it on free television or paid television, you can peddle it yourself. It’s a whole new world. So therefore, the way the person gets the story seems less important than the story itself. We’re storytellers. The award is the other end. The Academy Awards are the world series, you cannot deny that. When I was a kid, I didn’t watch the Emmys, I watched the Academy Awards. Now I watch the Emmys very closely.