With 28 Academy Awards, 44 Peabody Awards, and 34 personal Primetime Emmy Awards for her projects during nearly four decades leading documentary films at HBO, Sheila Nevins is one of the most influential people in the biz. Now, at 80, she’s got a new gig launching MTV’s documentary films division. Features and shorts on MTV's slate, like 17 Blocks, St. Louis Superman, and Gay Chorus Deep South, that touch on issues ranging from activism and politics to sexual identity have already debuted on the festival circuit to much praise.
Here, Nevins chats with Nina L. Diaz, president of entertainment for MTV, VH1, CMT, and Logo Group, who developed signature reality series like Cribs and My Super Sweet 16 and helped bring unprecedented growth to the youth-centric platform.
Nina Diaz: What makes a badass woman?
Sheila Nevins: I spent a long time wanting to be liked. When I decided I don't care whether you like me or not, then I became a badass.
NLD: You’ve always shattered glass ceilings throughout your life. Where did you get that confidence?
SN: If I had confidence, I wouldn't be wearing false eyelashes. [laughs] Look, I was always interested in the product. And if people got in my way, I became aggressive. I became rude. I mean, I am impossible. Because I thought if the product was good enough, people could accept the impossibility. And I went from product success to thinking if I can do that, then I can say, “No.” Then I can say, "What about…” then I can say, “Next time…" They told you not to call the big boss so-and-so? You fucking call them to make it happen. You just do it.
NLD: You've taught us to be firmer in our convictions. And the power of knowing what you want and going for it.
SN: I have a very selfish impulse for what I want to do, not what people want.
NLD: I feel like reality TV, especially the MTV version of it, is an offshoot of documentary. I started in the MTV news and documentary unit. Before there was this big reality TV gold rush, if you were interested in telling real life stories about people, which to me was always the most compelling, you had to be part of a news organization.
SN: I’ve always thought when people say, “You made documentaries,” I don’t know if that’s true. I think, you’re right, we may have spawned reality TV. Taxicab Confessions [a hidden camera documentary series on HBO in the mid-‘90s] was the closest I ever got to reality TV. And it was my favorite. To me, tragic is more interesting than happy because anyone can be tickled, but not everyone can cry. I like sad stories and I think that became what docus were when I worked on them in the beginning. They were all sad stories. Taxicab was the first one where sometimes someone would come in, get laid, tickle someone, do something silly, show their tattoos to each other, giggle. I saw a version of the lighter side of the tragedy of life.
NLD: I want to move people with great stories like that, which is why we wanted to hire the greatest storyteller of all time.
SN: Oh my God! I feel like Shakespeare or Chaucer. Nina, you're too nice to me. I think the attraction of MTV for me was I thought they have that 18-to-34 audience. I would like to energize them because it’s a great time to give a shit about the world. You just have to think of how you’re going to do it without boring them — you know how not to bore them. I know how to bore them into making a difference. The point is, how do you energize the creative force that’s in everybody to push forward? I don’t know. But I’ll try.
NLD: Personally, I also want to mentor young creatives, particularly women. I’ve always been a champion of women and diversity. You have to have a strong voice to get a literal seat at the table and inspire a whole new generation of badasses out there to tell stories that matter, that change the world, and that have an impact.
SN: And you have to be supportive of other people's successes. Because you learn from their successes. I mean, I'm a competitive person with the product but I tend not to be so competitive among my peers. I need them to help me do better. Are you hard on yourself?
NLD: Yes. But I don’t always win. I think you are victorious when you strive for excellence along the way.
SN: I don’t like to fail.
NLD: None of us do, but you've overcome so many obstacles…
SN: Yeah, but I’ve been around for a hundred years! I’m fuckin’ old. For instance, I can bring all the seniors and people in assisted living to MTV. I mean, that’s really a gift. [laughs]