SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Sheila Nevins has spent a long career making documentary films, hiding behind the people in documentaries, as she puts it. She's the president of HBO Documentary Films and has won over 65 Primetime Emmy Awards and 26 Academy Awards for being part of the production teams of films that include "Baghdad ER," "Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib" and "When The Levees Broke." Now Sheila Nevins has written a book of personal essays that include anecdotes and ruminations on age, death, success, strain, overeating, plastic surgery, insufferable houseguests, insomnia and the aching loss of a beloved pet. Or are the essays personal? Sheila Nevins' book - "You Don't Look Your Age And Other Fairy Tales." She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
SHEILA NEVINS: My pleasure.
SIMON: And is this you you're writing about?
NEVINS: That's for you to tell me.
SIMON: Oh, come on now.
NEVINS: Well, you know what...
SIMON: I'm in no position to say that. Yeah?
NEVINS: I would say it's a sly memoir, S-L-Y.
SIMON: Oh, OK. All right. Well, why keep out the I?
NEVINS: It's easier.
SIMON: You see yourself differently?
NEVINS: No, I think it's easier when you hide behind somebody else if that is what you're doing.
NEVINS: I think it's more fun to let that person go all the way in the way that you might not if it was an I story, whereas if it's somebody else, you're not protecting anybody. It's slightly imaginary. Can't you be slightly imaginary? Do you have - always have to be true true?
SIMON: No. No, certainly not. No. I mean, not in a literary work, no.
SIMON: But it does help me phrase the questions. I mean - and you know about that, right?
NEVINS: Yes, I do know about questions.
SIMON: Because it's the difference between, you know, being able to ask, are you the person you write about in the facelift story or is it a friend or someone else?
NEVINS: Well, if it's about me, I say me. The doctor refers to me as Sheila. If it's about a Melissa, the person in the story will refer to that person as Melissa. So when it's me it's very upfront. So I'm pretty honest to the me stories and I'm somewhat camouflaged in the Melissa-type stories.
SIMON: Well, let me ask about the facelift story, all right?
SIMON: A gentleman doesn't ask a woman - or a man, for that matter - if they've had one. But what does the woman in this story discover about cosmetic surgery?
NEVINS: She discovers, fortunately and unfortunately, that being in media it may be a necessity. And it may be one of the sad parts of wanting to be young forever, which is impossible, but which has created a business of lifting and poking and fixing. I can see two sides of it. I am the woman in that story. I did have a facelift. I am vain and somewhat superficial. But I'm also complex and deep and wide. But I fall for it. I fall for that young crap. And I'm guilty and I'm innocent in the sense that I want to stay afloat. It's hard to float with a walker.
NEVINS: Well, maybe they have walkers that float.
SIMON: I was about to say, I think they - I think they do now.
NEVINS: They - I think they have to. We're getting older and older.
SIMON: Yeah. How have you gotten people over the years to open their lives to you?
NEVINS: I'm interested in their answers. I'm truly interested in people. I'm interested in people, regular people, all people, not necessarily famous or the elite. I have this peculiar fascination with how people survive in this world, all kinds of people.
SIMON: You have had a lot to do with very admirable people. And you've also told the stories of people that are hard to like, much less admire. Do you make adjustments or bring the same kind of respect?
NEVINS: Good question. I don't think I do that many horrible people. I mean, I did have a - we did do many shows with the Iceman who had killed so many people. He was a hired killer for the Mafia. We did something called "The Iceman Stories (ph)" I had a peculiar, interesting relationship with Richard Kuklinski. I only met him once. But I wanted to know what made him work or tick.
SIMON: This was the killer. This was the assassin.
NEVINS: Yeah. I only met him once at Trenton State. And it was terrifying because he was, like, 6-foot-5 and he weighed about 350 pounds. And he was in isolation because he was such a terrifying - and I went with a producer named Gabby (ph) who's no longer alive. But we were terrified. I mean, the smell of a prison is unlike anything. You know, and then they brought out the Iceman, and he was chained, you know, hands and feet and all that kind of stuff. He was so elegant to us. He was the only one who offered us coffee and water and thought it might be too hot there for us. I mean, it was so peculiar. I mean, evil and good, they're like flip, you know?
NEVINS: And then I've done good. But, I mean, did I love Richard Kuklinski? Did I want to spend time with him? No. Was he interesting? Yes.
NEVINS: Yes, like ISIS is interesting, like horror and evil and terror is interesting. Where does it come from? We're all - I mean, ask Darwin. We all evolved into this thing called human, and yet some of us are completely inhuman. It just interests me. I can't figure it out. I don't know where we came from. I don't know where we're - well, I know I came from a fish, but I don't really know where I'm going. Do you know where you're going? I don't believe in heaven or hell. So...
SIMON: No. I know what I tell myself, but do I know that for sure?
NEVINS: What do you tell - what do you say?
SIMON: Oh, I - you know, I believe in a heaven and I'll be reunited...
NEVINS: You think that?
SIMON: I'll be reunited with my parents and with my lost sister and with, you know, every pet I've ever had and loved. And I'll be up there waiting for my wife and children. Is that for real? Of course not. But that's what I tell myself to get through the day.
NEVINS: OK. So my interest in people is how they get through the day with their evil and with their good. It's a terrifying thing to be alive and human and not know why you're here, who put you here, don't you think?
SIMON: Well, I sure feel that way now (laughter). I was OK a few minutes ago (laughter).
NEVINS: I didn't mean to scare you. But come on, you've got to face it.
NEVINS: This is a terrifying thing. It's a terrifying thing to be alive. I don't understand life. So I wrote all these stories. So what can I tell you?
SIMON: Toward the end, you've got a story about a woman who discovers her eyesight is flagging with age, but she decides it actually might improve what she can see. That's happened?
NEVINS: I want it to happen. I hope she coaxes me to let it happen and she sees for the first time, because she can't see it close up, she can see the forest for the trees. She can see the universe. She can see the sky and the stars. And so I'm looking for her. I'm really trying to find value and meaning and beauty and the universe.
SIMON: Well, let us know (laughter).
NEVINS: I'll call you, OK?
SIMON: Please, email, whatever. I'd like to find the universe. Sheila Nevins, the distinguished producer and filmmaker. Her book, "You Don't Look Your Age And Other Fairy Tales." Thanks so much for being with us.
NEVINS: Thank you. I enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.