Sheila Nevins on Age, Sex, Love, Life, and Everything Else

Sheila Nevins
I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.

For 35 years I had a job in which I could make films that I wanted to make. What I like to do are micro cosmic stories about one person, because one person is more interesting than a million people to me. I mean, a million people may be suffering, but I get that suffering from one person.

Sheila Nevins has explored the human condition in the thousand or so documentaries she produced for HBO. From more than 30 years of telling us stories about ourselves, to her experience as a woman in the workplace, Sheila has plenty to say about communicating. And she never holds back.
Alan: 00:00 Sheila, I’m so glad to be talking to you because, you know, we talk a lot about communicating and relating on this show and what I love is that you can talk about it from so many different directions. So many different ways of relating and communicating. You may not even realize that right now.
Sheila: 00:17 No. I’m not sure I do. I know that I talk too much, is that part of it?
Alan: 00:23 I had to learn not to talk so much.
Sheila: 00:23 You did?
Alan: 00:25 I loved, Oh God.
Sheila: 00:26 How did you learn it?
Alan: 00:28 By noticing people’s half lidded eyes.
Sheila: 00:31 Me too. Me too, but, you know, when I had a job job and I had power, I couldn’t notice it, but as soon as I lost the power, I noticed them blinking.
Alan: 00:39 Wow. Isn’t that interesting?
Sheila: 00:40 Yeah it is interesting.
Alan: 00:41 See there’s an area that I wanted to ask you about is-
Sheila: 00:45 Blinking? You want to talk about blinking.
Alan: 00:45 No, no. I wanna talk about when you have power, how do you lead people and get the best out of them? How do you do that?
Sheila: 00:54 By being careful not to take the power too seriously, but the point is it exists. For 35 years I had a job in which I could give films away, I could make films that I wanted to make, I could hire people I wanted to hire and then it ended and I think I did talk too much. I think I do talk too much. I think that I didn’t notice it until I had no power anymore because I could see people looking away or thinking I was wacky or nuts. Or, you know, saying, “I got to go. I think I got to go now.” When someone says that to you, you know that you’ve lost your power. Don’t you think?
Alan: 01:38 I think so. Yeah.
Sheila: 01:39 I mean, more people have said to me, I’ve been out of HBO now for like six months. I was there for almost 38 years. So for 38 years years-
Alan: 01:47 So for 38 years people listened to you.
Sheila: 01:48 Yeah. Well maybe not the first five years. I had to claim my fame, but once I got my area and once I got my salary, people started listening to me, I thought, and then when I didn’t have my area, and I didn’t really have my salary in the same way, and I couldn’t give out projects, I noticed that I must be much more boring than I think I am. I really do think this. I’m not just saying it because it’s cute. I actually, more people have to go. They wanna leave. I hope they don’t leave your podcast.
Alan: 02:25 Well, one of the things I’ve found that helps me not talk so much because I do love to hear the ideas that come out of my head. I didn’t know they-
Sheila: 02:34 Well can you think the ideas without saying them?
Alan: 02:37 I’m learning to do that.
Sheila: 02:38 See, I don’t know how to do it. I’m just learning that now, which is to, I once had a boss who said to me, “Do you ever have an idea that you don’t express?”
Alan: 02:46 Oh, that’s great.
Sheila: 02:47 Yeah, but he didn’t like me.
Alan: 02:49 I know but it’s an interesting question.
Sheila: 02:49 It is an interesting-
Alan: 02:51 But I remember working with Larry Gelbart, who was a great writer, who could think up funny things at the speed of light, and one of the things I noticed about him and admired was that he didn’t say every funny thing he thought of.
Sheila: 03:05 Oh see I have to learn that. Maybe we should do the rest of this podcast in silence and then at the end I’ll write a list of what I thought.
Alan: 03:14 All the things you could have said, but, you know, you get ideas. I mean, you and I are probably both similar in that regard. We get ideas and they sound interesting to us and we never heard them before so we wanted to share that with people.
Sheila: 03:26 Yeah and I need to hear them to hear them. I mean maybe that’s a kind of learning disability in a way, which is that I need to have the auditory part of the idea for it to register as a possibility.
Alan: 03:39 Well, the thing that I have found that helps the most is actually listening to the other person.
Sheila: 03:44 Oh, I have to learn that. Do I have to listen to you?
Alan: 03:47 Yeah. I’m afraid you’re going to have to listen to me a little bit.
Sheila: 03:49 I talk over people. I talk while they’re talking. I used to. I can’t anymore because I don’t have any power anymore.
Alan: 03:57 No, they say they gotta go.
Sheila: 03:57 They gotta go.
Alan: 03:59 They gotta go.
Sheila: 03:59 I think if I write another book, I’ll call it I got to go.
Alan: 04:01 That’s a good title. That’s a good title. So here’s the thing that you talked about HBO, I was shocked when I heard a claim you’ve got, because I’m a personal fan of your documentaries.
Sheila: 04:16 I know. I know, I need all the fans I can get.
Alan: 04:18 But you’ve been making documentaries now for, you made how many for HBO? Over a thousand.
Sheila: 04:23 Oh, over 1500 in truth.
Alan: 04:24 Oh wow, and are these numbers, right? You’ve worked on shows that got 35 news and documentary Emmy Awards.
Sheila: 04:34 Yeah. Yeah, but wait before you do the list and blah, blah, Academy Awards and blah, blah …
Alan: 04:35 No, I want to say it. You got 42 Peabodys and 26 Academy Awards. What the hell?
Sheila: 04:44 I mean my shows did. I mean I happen to have been present.
Alan: 04:46 Well you worked on them.
Sheila: 04:47 I bled them, I bled them into being. I didn’t just work them.
Alan: 04:51 Yeah. I mean you’d say, “Yes. Make that,” and then you’d complain a lot about how it was [inaudible 00:04:56].
Sheila: 04:56 Complain and sometimes people brought me ideas that I, you know, I tried not to take credit for what I didn’t do, but I deserve a lot of credit for what I did do, but when I stopped doing it, it was as if I’d walked into a stop sign.
Alan: 05:11 I told you when you were-
Sheila: 05:12 You told me. You told me I would be depressed and you were right.
Alan: 05:16 I know.
Sheila: 05:17 How did you know that?
Alan: 05:18 I knew because it happened to me. I was mainly responsible for stopping MASH when we did get out.
Sheila: 05:23 Why did you stop it?
Alan: 05:24 I wanted to stop at the top, at the top of our ability to make the show.
Sheila: 05:28 I never wanted to stop.
Alan: 05:29 Well, I just thought I want us all to be proud of this and not bleed it dry.
Sheila: 05:35 Good for you. You’re a much nicer person than I am.
Alan: 05:37 No, I’m not.
Sheila: 05:37 Yes you are. If there is a heaven, which there isn’t, you will go to it, but there isn’t. Don’t worry. Don’t worry.
Alan: 05:43 So you have no prospects for me at all.
Sheila: 05:45 None at all, but I’m just saying if there was a probability or even a possibility or the slightest chance, then you would be first in line.
Alan: 05:52 Thank you, but-
Sheila: 05:53 I would certainly be behind.
Alan: 05:54 Now you’re talking over me. So here’s what I, even though I was largely responsible for stopping it, I got depressed for a year because as I said to you, it’s like stepping off a speeding train.
Sheila: 06:09 You said that and you were right. It really is.
Alan: 06:10 So are you better off now?
Sheila: 06:11 I’m happy today because you let me be on your show.
Alan: 06:15 But let me say the most amazing-
Sheila: 06:17 I feel a nonentity persona was walking around with me and becoming me.
Alan: 06:23 Do you have that thing that they call imposter syndrome?
Sheila: 06:26 What is it? I probably have it.
Alan: 06:28 As long as it’s a syndrome.
Sheila: 06:32 Is a syndrome different from a disease?
Alan: 06:33 I don’t even know, but the idea is that if you have this imposter syndrome, you believe inwardly that you’re an imposter. That you aren’t really up to the work you’ve been assigned to and-
Sheila: 06:48 I think I do have it.
Alan: 06:49 … that someday they’ll catch you out at it.
Sheila: 06:51 No. I think I haven’t been caught in so long I must be good at the imposter game, but I don’t think I really had it until I walked into the stop sign. Which is, did I really do this? Did I really earn this? Am I really good at what I did? Was I really as good as the next person or better than the next person?
Alan: 07:08 Well let me just-
Sheila: 07:08 I think I had it.
Alan: 07:10 Let me just remind you of the last number that I was going to say. 32 individual Primetime Emmy Awards. Individual to you.
Sheila: 07:18 So? So?
Alan: 07:19 So that’s more than anybody’s ever, that’s more than I got.
Sheila: 07:22 Well you just weren’t good enough. I can’t-
Alan: 07:24 No, I know. It’s clear now I have to develop this imposter thing.
Sheila: 07:27 You know why, but I lasted longer. How long was your show? I can’t compare myself to MASH. I can’t compare anything I did to that show, but how long, I mean how many shows I worked on, I would have had to have gotten all those awards, because for one show you can only get one award, but if you’re doing 1500 shows the chances are you’re going to get a lot of awards. It’s just like the needle in the haystack thing. I had more needles in the haystack.
Alan: 07:54 So you’re bound to find one.
Sheila: 07:56 Yeah and then that one becomes an award and then everybody says you got more than somebody else, but I worked on different titles. Not my fault you worked on the same title for so long. That’s your problem.
Alan: 08:11 So having done so much work that received so many accolades, my guess is, and maybe I’m wrong about this, but my guess is you have some theory about how to tell a story. Which is the essence of communication to me. Part of the essence, and I’m wondering if over the years you did develop a theory or do you just keep building a new theory with every show?
Sheila: 08:38 Are you asking the imposter?
Alan: 08:39 No, I’m asking about how you tell a story. Do you have some ideas about how to tell a story?
Sheila: 08:45 I’ve had to think about that recently because I’ve seen so many boring stories. I think how to tell a story is to make sure you’re not boring the person that you’re telling the story to. I really do think that, and I think that how to tell a story is to know who you’re telling the story to.
Alan: 09:00 That sounds important too.
Sheila: 09:00 It’s not the same story to everybody, it depends. I mean I was at the Museum of Natural History yesterday and I was discussing the ocean exhibit with a woman who was sitting next to me and she didn’t speak English very well, and we talked about being scared to be in the dark, in the water. Those were the words that we could talk about.
If I was sitting next to a scientist, I would have had a different question, which was how do you go down so deep to the bottom of the ocean? What happens to your anxiety and your fear and what do you see down there? Then if I was talking to a fish, I would probably ask the fish about the different levels of the ocean, which is, for instance, if you move out of your level in the ocean, you might die. So the different-
Alan: 09:48 You mean if you’re a fish.
Sheila: 09:49 If you’re a fish. So I might want to know how he stays on his or her level. In other words, what keeps a fish or a turtle or whatever that strange stuff is that’s deeper and deeper and deeper from going to the next level. I guess they know if they go there, they’ll die or they’ll stop breathing in some way.
Alan: 10:08 You know, you’re showing such a wonderful sense of curiosity and my guess is that that leads to making good documentaries because if you apply curiosity to the people you’re making the documentary about, you’ll find out things that most of us never learn.
Sheila: 10:24 I am curious. Wasn’t that a dirty movie? I am curious yellow. Is that a movie?
Alan: 10:30 I don’t remember if I saw it.
Sheila: 10:31 You wouldn’t know because you’re such a good boy.
Alan: 10:33 No, I saw all the, you would go to a movie theater, a nice respectable movie theater on Second Avenue where they had just played Hamlet and you’d look at a movie about somebody’s private parts.
Sheila: 10:45 At 1:00 in the morning.
Alan: 10:47 No, they were playing them at regular times.
Sheila: 10:49 Really? They must have done very well.
Alan: 10:51 Psychiatrists and people with ties and things like were standing in line.
Sheila: 10:54 And raincoats, a lot of raincoats.
Alan: 10:55 No, the raincoat, they were coming with their wives.
Sheila: 10:58 Really?
Alan: 10:58 Yeah. It was a period in our-
Sheila: 11:00 Who was it? Did you dream this?
Alan: 11:01 No. It was a period in our culture when that was a popular everyday thing.
Sheila: 11:06 Yeah, there was a, I know. It’s interesting how it moves, so pornog- No, I shouldn’t say pornography. R rated material moves so slowly into mainstream that it could be in literature. Like D.H. Lawrence or-
Alan: 11:18 I didn’t understand that statement.
Sheila: 11:19 Well I mean inn other words, movies didn’t have sex in them until I’d say the last 10 or 15 years. It started with television. Then it moved around television and then it moved into narrative film movies where you could have more explicit sexual encounters between men and women. I mean there were no fades to the sunset and all that kind of stuff.
Alan: 11:39 Right. Horse rearing.
Sheila: 11:40 No, none of that. None of that.
Alan: 11:41 But the thing is, you get the same shots over and over again. For a long time, the French movies gave you the-
Sheila: 11:49 Do you realize you’re talking about pornography now?
Alan: 11:51 Yeah, that’s fine.
Sheila: 11:52 Oh, is there anything I say-
Alan: 11:54 [crosstalk 00:11:54]. It’s all communication.
Sheila: 11:54 Oh, okay. Well that is communication.
Alan: 11:57 But look how they communicated sex or what you could call the-
Sheila: 12:01 Oh, they were ashamed.
Alan: 12:03 No, but there’d be the stock shot over the woman’s shoulder, or over the man’s shoulder of the woman’s face in some kind of ecstasy. Which would occur-
Sheila: 12:11 Which was probably faked.
Alan: 12:14 Well it had to be because it occurred with the first kiss.
Sheila: 12:18 Well how do you know how good the kiss was? You weren’t there.
Alan: 12:21 In most cases I wasn’t there, but-
Sheila: 12:27 I don’t know if you’re going to be able to do these kinds of PG13 things anymore after this conversation, but it’s going to be edited, right?
Alan: 12:33 Yes.
Sheila: 12:34 [inaudible 00:12:34] will get rid of this part.
Alan: 12:34 We’ll leave these parts in, take the other stuff out. I mean, you said just now that what keeps a story interesting is not boring to people. What makes it worth watching. So what do you do to not bore them? How do you know you’re not boring them?
Sheila: 12:54 You feel their presence as a living, breathing person who may not be where you are or be interested in what you are. The worst thing about the area that I worked in is that people would come and pitch me ideas that meant something to them alone. Them alone isn’t enough for me.
Alan: 13:12 So you imagine somebody else watching this story?
Sheila: 13:16 Always. Maybe because my background was always theater and when I got into television, because I needed a job, there’s no audience. So you have to bring the audience with you to television. Documentaries, when I started in, you know, the 18 hundreds were really political documents. They were about economics. They were about politics. You know, they were not about human beings struggling with the daily parts of life. Unless it was-
Alan: 13:44 Issues. Issues instead of people.
Sheila: 13:45 Issues instead of people and so what I like to do are micro cosmic stories about one person, because one person is more interesting than a million people to me. I mean, a million people may be suffering, but I get that suffering from one person. I mean, I don’t know why this just popped in my mind, but I was given an assignment many years ago at the end of the 50th anniversary of the second world war to do a World War II story. So I started reading about planes and I mean, I couldn’t get into it. It was just horrible and, you know, it was about the end of the war. The celebrations and I went to the Holocaust museum. It seems like I only go to museums, but I don’t. I did go to that one and I saw this woman named Gerda Weissmann Klein and she was talking on, you know, there was like benches. All museums should have benches especially as you get older. Yeah, so you can sit. Yeah, so it had a bench and I sat-
Alan: 14:46 I could write for the bench.
Sheila: 14:47 Oh, you write for the bench?
Alan: 14:47 Yeah.
Sheila: 14:47 That’s another good title for a book, write for the bench, but it’ll sound legal. Yeah, that’s not so good.
Alan: 14:53 So what? You saw this movie about the woman.
Sheila: 14:55 Okay. So I saw this movie about this one woman who had survived a death camp march and also who had survived a concentration camp in Poland and her name was Gerda Weissmann Klein. When I came back to work that week, and I actually went with my son and my husband, but I was captivated by this woman. I couldn’t get her out of my mind because she weighed like 65 pounds, went on a death march in the ice of Poland in the winter, wound up in a kind of warehouse. Her friends died on this walk and she was rescued by a German American soldier, an American who was of German ancestry and married him. He picked her up.
Alan: 15:37 Whoa, what a story.
Sheila: 15:37 Yeah, it’s great. So I did this documentary called One Survivor Remembers and it was all mine in the sense that I, not that I discovered Gerda, but that I took her with me from the wall, went to Arizona. You can ask Gerda, you should have Gerda on the show. She’s about 94 now. She calls herself bionic, but Gerda taught me more about that war and what it was like to be there than anything I’ve ever seen. I just came back from Auschwitz and Birkenau because I had never been to a concentration camp.
You know, 50 years after we did the film, but Gerda always had bread in her pocket book and all the women I know who say, “Give me my pocket book,” usually want to put on rouge and lipstick. She said, “Give me my pocket book,” she’s like, “Give my pocket book darling, give me my pocket book.” So I gave her the pocket book and she took out a piece of bread and took a bite out of it and this was like 50 years later or 60 years later. So I understood. I understood hunger in a way that I could never understand it and I understood miracles, which was Kurt, who rescued her. This lovely, lovely man who wasn’t a good driver and nearly killed me driving me in Arizona when I went to visit her, but just, One Survivor Remembers was just keystone in my learning how to find a story and how to communicate.
I even get choked up talking about her now because coming back from Auschwitz and Birkenau two months ago, I couldn’t help but think of Gerda there. One person. I mean millions of people died in that camp. Not just Jewish people, but gypsies and professors and, you know, all kinds of people. People who hid other people from the Gestapo, but I kept seeing Gerda and I think maybe the key is to find just the kernel of the story through the heart of one person, who reaches the people or the person you’re trying to reach and with television, that’s a great mystery.
With theater it’s a little different because theater isn’t as challenging. It’s equally, it’s very challenging, but it’s not as challenging because someone has bought a ticket to an idea. Television is different. No one has bought a ticket to that idea. So you not only have to get the person to want to watch it, but you have to get the person who may have no interest in it to watch it. So it’s extremely challenging to, I mean, I would watch ratings in television for fact programming. I mean I was obsessive. I mean, now of course I always want to win, that wasn’t the real reason though. The real reason was to know if I had told the story well.
You know, do people watch it? With the second screening, HBO gave you the great gift of telling the story three or four times because they had a repeat schedule. I like to see that the second screening did better than the first, which would mean that word of mouth had pushed that story into another group of people. So it was a very, you know, it was interesting and I’ve worked very hard in television and I have learned to love that theater box, which I call it. I can’t watch, because of my theater background, I can’t watch television with the lights on. I have to turn the lights off because I like to think that when you turn it on, the curtains have opened. So …
Alan: 18:48 Right. I do that too.
Sheila: 18:48 You do?
Alan: 18:50 Yeah, it’s distracting to see the rest of the room.
Sheila: 18:53 I can’t. I can’t see people walking. I have to look at that as if I’m in the theater.
Alan: 18:58 You know, you make me think because you had such a personal connection to Gerda.
Sheila: 19:03 Oh, yeah. Gerda, Gerda.
Alan: 19:06 Gerda, pardon. You had such a personal connection to Gerda that it makes me wonder if in the rest of your life you have a lot of empathy, you can understand what other people are going through.
Sheila: 19:19 I’m not such a nice person, but I have a lot of empathy. Is that a contradiction?
Alan: 19:23 No, I don’t think so because I think empathy-
Sheila: 19:26 I can be very vicious and very vindictive and wish people ill.
Alan: 19:29 Yeah. Empathy is not, for me, for my definition of empathy-
Sheila: 19:32 But you don’t have evil thoughts. You don’t wish people badly, do you? I saw a Gore Vidal quote somewhere yesterday. I don’t know whether it was in a tweet or what it was. Not to me, but just I noticed that it said when a friend of mine, when an acquaintance of mine is successful, it is a pain in my heart.
Alan: 19:50 Oh, I hate that.
Sheila: 19:51 Isn’t that awful?
Alan: 19:54 I hate it. I love to see people succeed. People I don’t even know.
Sheila: 19:56 Because you’re such a lovely human being.
Alan: 19:56 Oh, no I’m not.
Sheila: 19:58 Yes you are. You emerged from this horrible world of theater and television and whatever. You know, I think Arlene has a lot to do with it.
Alan: 20:07 Arlene has everything to do with it.
Sheila: 20:08 Yeah, I really do because you could be a spoiled brat.
Alan: 20:10 You said it. Arlene gave me a whole life, but you keep distracting me with all this talk about me. Oh, I was asking you about-
Sheila: 20:23 I know about me. I don’t know about you. Why would I talk about me? I’m so bored with me. I’ve been with me for so many fucking years already.
Alan: 20:29 Here’s what I was trying to answer you about. To me, empathy is not the same thing as caring about the wellbeing of another person. It’s just knowing what they’re going through.
Sheila: 20:45 Oh, I have that.
Alan: 20:46 Yeah and you seem to have it really well.
Sheila: 20:49 I have that and I don’t, unless I’m really angry at them, want them to go through anything evil, but I’m capable of evil thoughts, but I-
Alan: 20:57 But there are people who are evil who use empathy against other people.
Sheila: 20:57 Of course.
Alan: 21:02 You’re not necessarily evil if you’re an interrogator, but you’re using empathy to get the answers to the questions.
Sheila: 21:08 Sure you are. Sure you are. You’re finding out what matters to them most and you’re telling them you can take that away from them. I can kill your family. Tell me.
Alan: 21:17 Yeah. Right or at this very moment-
Sheila: 21:18 I can smother your child, tell me.
Alan: 21:20 Or I agree with you about everything and I make you trust me and now I got you in a way that [inaudible 00:21:27].
Sheila: 21:26 Yeah. Empathy is not necessarily a positive human trait. It just can be used negatively, but it can also be used positively to reach.
Alan: 21:35 Yeah and I think it’s a tool for communication.
Sheila: 21:37 Yeah, I do too.
Alan: 21:37 Yeah and you seem to really use it.
Sheila: 21:39 I do use it, but I mean I could be a witch too. I could be an angel or a witch depending on my relationship with the person I’m feeling empathy for. I have witch like characters. I love Halloween.
Alan: 21:53 You kidding?
Sheila: 21:54 No, I like Halloween.
Alan: 21:55 You do? Do you dress up?
Sheila: 21:56 No. I used to until it was, you know, I was too old to dress up anymore. Just what I could fit into was dress up. I didn’t have to dress up anymore.

Alan: 22:04 Tell me about old.
Sheila: 22:06 Old is horrifying.
Alan: 22:07 Really? You-
Sheila: 22:09 I mean I’m 79 years old. I’m an old fart.
Alan: 22:12 I’m 82.
Sheila: 22:14 Well then you’re three years further into fart dome.
Alan: 22:17 No, I’m a young fart.
Sheila: 22:21 Everything stinks the same baby.
Alan: 22:23 How do you know you’re old?
Sheila: 22:25 Because I was telling you before and I’ll tell you again.
Alan: 22:28 Get a little closer to the microphone.
Sheila: 22:29 All right, all right, all right. I was telling you before that I tripped on a carpet about six months ago. Someone was cutting a carpet in a hallway and I opened the door, I didn’t take the elevator, I opened the door because somebody was being moved and opened the door and he hadn’t cut the carpet where I was entering the thing. My boot got stuck under the carpet and I fell on my knee and it was excruciating. I could not straighten my knee. I could not do anything and I didn’t even cry. I was angry that the, you see that’s why I’m not such a nice person. I should have cried for myself. It hurt, but instead I was furious at the guy who didn’t have a warning sign there that I shouldn’t have walked. “Hey, what the f,” you know, “Why didn’t you stay and cut the carpet.” Instead of, “Oh, my knee hurts,” so I don’t have empathy for my knee.
Alan: 23:15 Yah. Is that what made you know you were old?
Sheila: 23:18 Well, it’s funny you say that because this part of the story I didn’t tell you. He didn’t speak English very well and he called his boss because someone had to help me up. I’m not easy to rise from the ground. So I was lying there with my boot twisted, and my leg twisted, and all this stuff in my bag all over the place and I said, you know, “Help me up.” He was so scared that he said,” Lady, old lady fall. Old lady fall. Old lady fall,” and that made me scream at him even more. Okay. So then the construction supervisor, whatever, because they were fixing the hallway, came and helped me up and my knee was like, it looked like sort of pretzely. Then I came back to New York and I did a lot of feeling sorry for myself and I thought I’m ruined. Once you hobble you become old. In other words-
Alan: 24:05 In other people’s eyes.
Sheila: 24:06 In other people’s eyes. So that you then, you know, I’ve done everything not to be old. Except I still get pimples, but I mean I’ve had two face lifts. If I rush after Botox, I mean if I could bottle it, I would. I mean I hate it. I realize it, I’m honest about it, but I hate it. So then I go for this MRI, right, because before they know how to treat my meniscus and replace it with somebody else’s meniscus or whatever they do, I have to have an MRI. So I go to this place for an MRI, you know, and I wait hours, hours, you know, and sit there with people, you know, reading magazines that are old.
Finally I hobble over to the nurse and she says, “May I have your Medicare card,” and I said, “I don’t have a Medicare card. I just have this one, you know, health, whatever it is, card from work, United Health.” She says, “No darling, no deary, no sweetheart, you have a Medicare card.” I said, “I don’t. I can’t have a Medicare card while I’m still employed,” and even though I’m, you know, I’ve left HBO, I still have this big package and I still do films for them and whatever. I said, “I still work,” and she said, “Yes dear.”
She said, “Could I have your Medicare card,” and then she said, “Maybe wait, maybe it’s Medicaid.” I said, “No, I don’t have a Medicaid card. I’m not on any program where I would have that card.” Then she said, “Well,” excuse me. She said, “I can’t allow you to go in until I get your health number or your numbers off your thing.” I said, “It’s on my United Health card. She said, “No, I can’t have that. I have to have your Medicare card,” and then she said, but tie the deary, and the sweetie, and, you know, the condescension. She was probably in her fifties, forties, I have no idea. Then she had the crowning thing.
She said, “Maybe we could look through your wallet together to find your Medicare card.”
Alan: 26:04 She just-
Sheila: 26:05 And I said, “I don’t have a card. I don’t have a card. Call my doctor, I don’t have a card,” and finally they called in like, you know, help like security forces and finally she called the doctor and he explained to her that I work at Time Warner and I don’t have a card. Therefore I’m covered by this other thing and she should have that permission because, you know, they have to call and get permission from 450,000 people. So I got my MRI.
Alan: 26:33 So you go to get an MRI.
Sheila: 26:36 Yes.
Alan: 26:36 And-
Sheila: 26:37 Did you ever have an MRI?
Alan: 26:38 Many.
Sheila: 26:39 It’s rehearsal for death. The dress rehearsal.
Alan: 26:41 You get into this little tube-
Sheila: 26:43 What is that? They send people to the moon without that tube. Why can’t they look at your body without it?
Alan: 26:48 I had a panic attack in an MRI machine.
Sheila: 26:50 Me too. Me too. I had to stop it. They put this news on and you’re supposed to watch the news and they play music. I pushed a button and, you know, I just took a lot of Ativan and went back in again.
Alan: 27:03 The thing that strikes me about your story about going to get an MRI and-
Sheila: 27:08 What happened? You didn’t finish your story though.
Alan: 27:10 Well I’m done telling you the one I was going to, I didn’t get to finish before the one I-
Sheila: 27:14 You mean I interrupted.
Alan: 27:14 Yeah, just a little.
Sheila: 27:16 Do you have to go now?
Alan: 27:16 No. No, but I do have to talk now.
Sheila: 27:19 You do? On top of mine speaking? Oh no.
Alan: 27:25 These are supposed to be conversations, not interviews. So that’s why you talk and then I talk, and then I talk, and then you talk.
Sheila: 27:29 Okay. Okay. All right, all right, all right. Go ahead. Yeah.
Alan: 27:33 So what interests me is you go to get an MRI and she insists that you have somewhere in your wallet a card that you don’t have, but the first thing she does is call you deary.
Sheila: 27:47 Deary. Sweetie. Sweetie, deary.
Alan: 27:49 Sweetie, deary. The experience that I have, that’s just like that is it happens to me all the time.
Sheila: 2¬7:58 They call you deary?
Alan: 27:59 No. I go to buy a newspaper at a newspaper stand or something and the guy says, “What will it be young man?” Why is he calling me young man? He knows-
Sheila: 28:08 Because he doesn’t mean it, that’s why.
Alan: 28:10 Yeah because he’s saying you don’t exist until I classify you. You know, this thing of telling us we’re old.
Sheila: 28:20 Isn’t it horrible?
Alan: 28:21 What it’s really telling, us we’re not functioning.
Sheila: 28:23 Yes and it’s saying that were discarded and that’s when someone calls you deary, I mean there’s no, I don’t even know how to spell deary. Is it y or an ie?
Alan: 28:32 I think it’s ie, but I don’t know.
Sheila: 28:34 Oh, okay. Well maybe that’s French. She was definitely a y person, but the thing is I-
Alan: 28:39 What? What?
Sheila: 28:41 Crooked like a y, you know what I mean? She was so not sympathetic and when I left finally because I had stopped it to take Ativan, you know, when I finally left there, she didn’t, you know, she said nothing. She was just sitting there. I said, “Bye.”
Alan: 28:56 Yeah. Well-
Sheila: 28:57 Bye.
So it’s pretty clear that neither of us likes to have it pointed out to us how long we’ve been around. But we have slightly different ways of handling the knowledge that you can’t hang around forever. Sheila and I wrestle with “the ultimate reality”… right after this short break.
This is Clear and Vivid. And now back to my conversation with Sheila Nevins
Alan: 28:58 You had established yourself as a person. Tell me about this. You seem to not like getting into advanced years. Is it just-
Sheila: 29:12 Not like? I detest it, but what are the choices?
Alan: 29:15 But why?
Sheila: 29:16 Why, because it’s near death.
Alan: 29:18 Well that’s okay. We all got to do that.
Sheila: 29:20 I know, but it’s closer.
Alan: 29:21 No, but it’s just, we don’t know when it’s gonna happen, but that’s-
Sheila: 29:25 Yeah I know, but you’re closer than you were 25 years ago.
Alan: 29:28 But it’s the ultimate reality. So-
Sheila: 29:30 Oh, I face it. That’s why I’m furious at it. I don’t want it. I don’t really want to die yet.
Alan: 29:37 But you see, denial has been good to me. I was-
Sheila: 29:41 You don’t think about death?
Alan: 29:43 Well, I notice other people are dying.
Sheila: 29:47 I mean, do you have any friends left besides me?
Alan: 29:50 You’re it, but once somebody asked me in an interview in London once when I had a day of interviews and I was sick of hearing myself talk.
Sheila: 30:01 Oh, I never have that problem.
Alan: 30:04 But she asked me a question I had never heard before. So I was grateful. She said, “When do you expect to die? You have thought about.”
Sheila: 30:11 Oh, yeah i get that.
Alan: 30:12 So I said, “If I can still make love 106.”
Sheila: 30:17 You said that?
Alan: 30:18 Yeah and then-
Sheila: 30:18 That’s very macho of you.
Alan: 30:20 Well, what do you want from me?
Sheila: 30:21 Don’t you think that you could live to 106 and not make love?
Alan: 30:25 I’m not interested in that.
Sheila: 30:26 Really? You’re such a hot potato?
Alan: 30:29 Yeah.
Sheila: 30:31 Really?
Alan: 30:31 Take your hand off my knee.
Sheila: 30:34 That’s another good title. [inaudible 00:30:37].
Alan: 30:39 So the next day the paper came out and Arlene reads the paper, watch out girls.
Sheila: 30:46 That was it?
Alan: 30:46 Yeah. That’s the headline.
Sheila: 30:48 Oh, that’s hilarious. That’s very funny.
Alan: 30:49 But the funny thing is for years, decades, I continued to believe that 106 was my number.
Sheila: 30:56 Well, maybe it is.
Alan: 30:57 Well, so far I’m right on schedule.
Sheila: 30:59 Yeah, but I mean that’s 83, 56. That’s 90, 100. I can’t do it. 106.
Alan: 31:05 It’s about 20, 23 years. Something like that.
Sheila: 31:09 If I was a betting girl, I’d bet on that one.
Alan: 31:12 Yeah. Well, but it doesn’t matter. It’s going to happen sometime. I think reality is-
Sheila: 31:16 Where are you going to go? Where are you going to go when you die?
Alan: 31:18 I’m gonna go into the ground, actually into a jar. I’m going to be cremated.
Sheila: 31:23 Did you pick the jar yet?
Alan: 31:24 No, but that’s a good idea.
Sheila: 31:26 You can pick the jar beforehand because I’m finishing a film on death and some people pick Ronald Reagan as the place for their ashes. Who would you pick?
Alan: 31:35 Wait a minute. You put your ashes into Ronald Reagan?
Sheila: 31:37 Well not-
Alan: 31:38 What are you talking about? The airport or what?
Sheila: 31:39 You’re talking dirty. No, there are people who make these ceramic vases for your ashes.
Alan: 31:39 And one has the face of Ronald Reagan on it?
Sheila: 31:39 Yes, yes.
Alan: 31:44 And they want to go into that?
Sheila: 31:45 Yes, this person selected that. You’ll see it when it’s on HBO in about a year. Yeah. Who would you want to be? Where do you want your ashes?
Alan: 31:54 You know, everybody in the control room is shaking their heads in disbelief at this.
Sheila: 31:57 No, but there are people who voted for Ronald Reagan.
Alan: 32:00 I know, but-
Sheila: 32:00 I mean there may even be a Trump vase for all you know that somebody wants to go into. Some Nazi somewhere.
Alan: 32:07 Well actually, my plan is to be put under a tree.
Sheila: 32:11 Oh, that’s so poetic. Do you think the tree will know?
Alan: 32:14 No, I don’t care if the tree knows. It doesn’t matter. I just want-
Sheila: 32:17 You want to be under a tree? Near anybody, just all by yourself?
Alan: 32:20 No. My wife and I under a tree.
Sheila: 32:22 Just Arlene and you under a tree?
Alan: 32:23 Yeah.
Sheila: 32:23 That’s very sweet. That’s so sweet.
Alan: 32:24 Well first I was poetic, now it’s gotta be-
Sheila: 32:26 Do you want like a stone and things that say you’re there?
Alan: 32:29 No, I don’t.
Sheila: 32:30 Do you know where this place is?
Alan: 32:32 I don’t understand stones. I really don’t. When people talk about-
Sheila: 32:34 I don’t understand death.
Alan: 32:35 Do you have a plan? Now this is-
Sheila: 32:37 I have no plan.
Alan: 32:41 Here’s a communications question.
Sheila: 32:41 Okay . Do you have a will?
Alan: 32:42 Of course.
Sheila: 32:43 Yeah, me too and did you basically say whatever they want to do with me they can do with me?
Alan: 32:43 Oh you mean-
Sheila: 32:47 Or did you say burn me up?
Alan: 32:49 Well, I’m going to be burned, but-
Sheila: 32:50 But what if your daughter or somebody-
Alan: 32:52 Well, no but I don’t think anything I am left with like eyes or kidneys are going to be of use to anybody at that age.
Sheila: 32:57 Nobody wants it. I can promise you that’s true. In my case also. They might want my hair.
Alan: 33:03 Why would they want your hair?
Sheila: 33:04 Because I have great hair for an older person.
Alan: 33:06 Well I want your hair.
Sheila: 33:07 Well you can’t have it.
Alan: 33:08 As I get older, I get a new relationship with my scalp every week.
Sheila: 33:13 Closer and closer.
Alan: 33:14 Yeah, well I’m-
Sheila: 33:15 Further and further you get closer and closer.
Alan: 33:15 There’s more of it.
Sheila: 33:17 There’s a title, Further and further, closer and closer.
Alan: 33:20 I think we’re running out of juice with titles.
Sheila: 33:23 That’s more of a song.
Alan: 33:25 Now you’ve got me, I can’t even remember to finish this question I’m going to ask you.
Sheila: 33:28 That’s because I talk too much.
Alan: 33:30 No, it’s partly-
Sheila: 33:30 You haven’t cured me.
Alan: 33:31 … because you’re interesting. This really interested me, it covers a couple of the questions we’ve talked about. On your book tour for your wonderful book, which is called, I can’t … Tell me the name of the book.
Sheila: 33:45 You Don’t Look Your Age and Other Fairy Tales.
Alan: 33:47 Right. Right. Now what really caught my eye was you said that you were asked questions about the book and the most common question was about the conjugal bed.
Sheila: 34:03 Yes, totally.
Alan: 34:04 Tell me.
Sheila: 34:05 I mean, it was so odd. I became like, you know, Dr. Phil on a book line. I was the most bizarre, because I really don’t know very much about sex. I’ve been married for 43 years. I was married before that. You know, I think after 43 years unlike you, I think sex gets kind of like dissipated. I think it’s more loving, that love changes its shape and its color as you get older, but I became a sex expert. So because I wrote a story-
Alan: 34:34 You mean in people’s minds you did.
Sheila: 34:35 Yes, one woman made me call her husband.
Alan: 34:37 What?
Sheila: 34:37 Sam. I had to call this guy named Sam.
Alan: 34:40 What did you have to say to him?
Sheila: 34:41 She didn’t want to sleep in the same bed with him anymore because he both had to pee four or five times during the night because he had some kind of prostate issues, which I think most men do at a certain age. I’m sure you don’t. You’re so virile and perfect, but some men have prostate issues and they wake up during the night and they have to go to the bathroom a lot, and she was always warm and he was always cold. So she wanted the air conditioner on and he wanted covers and so she wanted to sleep in her kids bedroom and she didn’t really want to ask him.
I had a story like that in my book about separate bedrooms at a certain point and the fact that these two people who are imaginary, love each other just as much. They just sleep in separate rooms and whatever, and this was her story. She had, you know, the page bent and she said, “Sam.” I said, “Why don’t you just read Sam the story?” I said, “What do you want me to write in the book?” She said, “Write dear Sam-
Alan: 35:36 See page 67.
Sheila: 35:36 No, “Please let,” I can’t remember her name, but, “Please let Sarah have her own room,” and then I said, “well, I don’t want to write that because that’ll be in the book forever, you know, tell me something else. Why don’t I just say love, enjoy,” you know, some stupid thing, but I don’t wanna give Sam. She said, “Call him.”
Alan: 35:54 Oh my God.
Sheila: 35:54 Yeah.
Alan: 35:54 And you did.
Sheila: 35:55 Well, why not? What was the downside?
Alan: 35:57 What did you say to him?
Sheila: 35:58 I said, “Hi Sam, this is Sheila Nevins. I wrote the book that your wife is reading, and she asked me to ask you what you thought about her moving into Mark’s room now that he’s gone.” He said, “Let her go. Let her go. What she’s telling all the other women about,” this was in Stockbridge. “She’s telling all the other women that I,” you know. I said, “No, she wasn’t implying that nothing happens in bed when you’re together. I think what she was saying was she would be more comfortable.” “Will you do me a favor,” he said, “Tell Sarah goodbye. Okay. Tell her to go,” and he said, “And I’ll read your book.”
Alan: 36:33 This is a communication question within other communication questions, because this woman couldn’t communicate with her husband this simple thing.
Sheila: 36:41 But I didn’t understand why she didn’t just give him the story to read or was I really playing a part that they had sort of assigned to me.
Alan: 36:48 How hard is it to say to the person you love and who loves you-
Sheila: 36:51 Who says she loves and loves her.
Alan: 36:52 … you’re keeping me awake at night.
Sheila: 36:53 Wait, wait, wait. Just a second.
Alan: 36:53 What, what, what.
Sheila: 36:56 What, what. You are sure that people that are married for a long time love each other and tell each other what they’re thinking because you are lucky enough and I am lucky enough to have those kinds of relationships?
Alan: 37:13 I feel so bad for those people. You know you see them in restaurants. How about you look across the room-
Sheila: 37:17 And they’re not talking to each other.
Alan: 37:19 For an hour they don’t say anything.
Sheila: 37:20 They don’t say a word. They don’t say a word and then the next night you see him there with someone 40 years younger and he’s talking a mile a minute.
Alan: 37:26 Well that I never saw.
Sheila: 37:27 Well you don’t look.
Alan: 37:28 I do.
Sheila: 37:31 You don’t go out enough. I can’t help that. You probably cook.
Alan: 37:35 No, I don’t. I don’t cook. Do you cook?
Sheila: 37:37 No. I hate cooking.


Alan: 37:39 What about, you’ve written and talked a lot about how things were different for women in the workplace years ago.
Sheila: 37:39 Yes.
Alan: 37:48 And your own personal experiences. It’s really great. You really are-
Sheila: 37:51 I’m very confused about the whole issue of me too. I’m very confused because I would say part of me says it’s about time. Let’s go girls. Let’s go women.
Alan: 38:00 The me too movement.
Sheila: 38:01 Yeah and part of me says, you know, you’re throwing out the baby with the bath water. Like I had this dream, you know how you told me about your dream? I had this dream that David got angry at Michelangelo for touching his penis and that Michelangelo said, “But I loved you. I loved you,” and David said, “But I was only 16. You can’t love me.” Then there was a whole movement and they threw the statue of David out. They took it out. They threw it out and then when I woke up and I thought to myself, you know, what about all these people, James Levine, the greatest opera master in the whole world. What’s going to happen? What about Baryshnikov?
You know, I don’t know. Maria Tallchief isn’t here to talk anymore. I didn’t know if the two of them were together. What about Picasso? Does that mean we have to take down Guernica? I mean, I don’t know what you lose, but you lose sometimes. There are fiends. Fiends should be punished. Rapists should be punished. Women should have equity and, you know, a fair play in the workplace. Yes, yes, yes, but it’s a country that’s become so puritanical and you’re throwing out the creativity with the bath water, so to speak. I mean-
Alan: 39:13 And you talk about somebody being accused of harassment.
Sheila: 39:16 Without even being, James Levine, he’s never, it was thrown out of court. The guy is in a wheelchair, I think. I think he has some illness, I saw him being wheeled by something at Lincoln Center, but the real point is where’s the art from all this? If we look back in history, do we just throw out everything? I mean, I don’t know the answer because I don’t know the sins and I don’t know the crimes.
Alan: 39:38 Well it’s a movement that’s freely moving forward without direction this organization.
Sheila: 39:48 Yes, freely moving forward and without gradation. What about gradation?
Alan: 39:51 But that happens in every revolution.
Sheila: 39:53 I know, but that’s time, revolutions end.
Alan: 39:55 Now you know what’s interesting? I mean along the lines of what you just said, it occurred to me at one point that for awhile, and one particular instance, you couldn’t see an exhibition of paintings by Chuck Close.
Sheila: 40:09 Wasn’t that something?
Alan: 40:09 But you could see an exhibition of paintings by Adolf Hitler. So I mean it-
Sheila: 40:15 I wish I had known that before and I could’ve said that instead of you. That’s awfully smart.
Alan: 40:19 But that doesn’t mean that I-
Sheila: 40:21 You can cut that part out. I’ll use it somewhere else. Okay.
Alan: 40:24 No, but the thing that interests me is that I want to see the movement succeed. I want to see this.
Sheila: 40:31 Yeah, without question.
Alan: 40:33 There’s no doubt about that, but what’s interesting to me, we were talking about age a minute ago. Most of the women I know who are beyond the age of 50 or 60 expressed the thought that you just expressed. The younger women, twenties and thirties are impatient and they don’t care that some men get their lives rearranged for them because what they did rearranged the lives of women.
Sheila: 41:02 Yeah, I disagree. I mean I agree, but I also think that the failure in the workplace is not always indicative of male oppression. It may be indicative of the fact that you’re not good enough. You may not be talented enough. You may not be able to sing those notes. You may not be able to write that play. You know, just because someone rejected you doesn’t mean they rejected you because you didn’t sleep with them. There are a lot of people in my career that I pushed away but didn’t stand in my way. They were in my way for the moment.
Alan: 41:31 Yeah, but if somebody says, sleep with me-
Sheila: 41:34 Or I will so and so.
Alan: 41:35 Yeah.
Sheila: 41:35 Nobody ever said that to me. No one ever said that I probably would have slept with them. You know, at a certain age I would probably have done it.
Alan: 41:43 And I think you need to explain that a little bit. I’ve heard you say that, but-
Sheila: 41:48 But it’s true, but it’s just true.
Alan: 41:49 But that’s the culture you grew up in.
Sheila: 41:51 I grew up in a, well, okay, so I was on camera at, I had gone to the Yale drama school and majored in directing. There were no jobs for me. It was the sixties. I got married to a Yale lawyer. I went to Washington. There were no jobs, what was I going to do. I went to Arena Stage to try to get a job as a PA or whatever. No women were being hired and also my husband at the time said I should be home in the evenings and I should be home on weekends. I had a boss. Long dead, thank God he’s dead. Okay. I had a boss. I was on camera teaching English. That was my job. The only job I could get.
For two years I did this show where I’d say, “Look at the sky,” and the word sky would come up and he’d say, “Look at the moon Jean,” and I’d say, “Yes, Professor Richards,” Then he’d say, “The moon and the stars are in the sky,” and then I’d say, “Yes, the moon,” and the words would come on. Okay. That was my job for two years. I thought I was going to lose my mind and then I heard about a documentary that was being made in Cacoctin or something Maryland about something called the Job Corps.
The guy who was directing the show that we did The Adventures in English, it was called. It was excruciating. The guy who was directing that thing and it was the only job I could get and I needed a job. I wanted a job and I was unhappily married at the time and long, long, long divorced now. So anyway, so I wanted that job. I knew there was a job for a PA in Maryland, right, and I knew that that boss, who was much, much older than I, could have arranged for me to get off that, finish the series, get off it and get a PA job on that show.
Alan: 43:33 So the guy you were working with had the chance to help you get on another show that you really wanted to be on.
Sheila: 43:39 Yes. Not acting, not being on camera, but working in the craft.
Alan: 43:45 So was there some quid pro quo.
Sheila: 43:46 Yes, it was a snow dome. There was a quid pro quo. I love Latin. Quid pro quo. Okay. So it was snowing. This is like 60 years, 60, 70, no, 50 years ago. Okay. So it was snowing in Washington and they had snow days then. They don’t have snow day, I don’t know if we have snow days in Washington anymore. I saw the light in his office and snow didn’t keep me from working and I had to deliver the scripts and we had to, it was a stupid show, but anyway, we had to do it. I finished the show.
There was no one in the office and I saw the light in his office. Now, did he pursue me or did I pursue him? I went into his office and two weeks later I was in Cacoctin, Maryland working on that show. Was I hooker? Was I a bad girl? Did he force me? Was it the rules of the time? Did I ask him if I could have that job rather than do the on camera thing? I didn’t have the guts to ask him that.
Alan: 44:45 Did he ever indicate to you that there was a connection between the job and the …
Sheila: 44:49 No, never. No, never, but I said to him at the end of this love affair that lasted about two hours. I said to him at the end, and I remember it very clearly because it was really a turning point. I remember saying to him, “Do you think that I could finish Adventures in English in the next five weeks, but I could take two weeks off to do, you know, this Job Corps thing,” and he said, “I don’t see a problem with that.”
So Monday morning the snow was gone. I went into the office and I said to the producer of the show, “X, y, z told me I could take off two weeks so you could shoot all the other stuff and I can go and worked on this other thing.” I don’t know if she ever checked. You know, did he write me letters after that? Did I see him a year later and think, what was I doing with that old man? Absolutely. Did he write love letters? Yes. Did I throw them in the garbage? Yes.
Alan: 45:44 Now 50 years later, that kind of unspoken deal can come up again for a young woman, a woman-
Sheila: 45:53 I think it can. I think it probably can and I empathize with it because I think that I didn’t have the courage to ask for the job. I couldn’t get turned down because I didn’t ask. I did the deed and then I made it a fact and then I transferred that fact to my more immediate boss.
Alan: 46:09 So what’s the-
Sheila: 46:10 The message?
Alan: 46:11 What’s the advice to the young woman now? You now transported 50 years later. What advice would you give to yourself now?
Sheila: 46:21 Have more confidence in myself to be able to ask for, you know, not just another pretty face, which it was then and ask for a job in the craft that I thought I was made for and to sort of say, “I have the credentials for that.” I am not going to say moon, stars, sky. I can’t do it anymore. It’s like bad, you know, [inaudible 00:46:42]. You know, it was horrible. I was like, you know, this could not be right, but I think it was close, we did like 26 shows in which each one had three keywords.
So you’d go home at night and you’d say three words. You said, you know, you’d say milk, glass, bottle until you go like milk, glass, bottle. You go out to see a movie, all you can think of is milk, glass, bottle because you said it 35 times during the day. So the people in Ethiopia and wherever, USIS or USIA at the time sending it. You know, I was losing my mind on that show. Plus I was unhappily married. So I mean, you know, I had to get out of there fast.
That kind of confidence probably could have come in handy in Sheila’s
Alan: 47:22 You told an amazing story about that marriage when you got to go away for three days and when you came back …
Sheila: 47:32 Yeah, there were three shirts. There were three cups of coffee with the, you know how coffee gets like a little moldy after three days?
Alan: 47:41 Yeah.
Sheila: 47:42 So they were gradations of decay. So the one from the day before was still cold coffee, and then the second one was really yucky, and the third one was like moldy, and I was to wash those. I was to bring the shirts in and one had a loose button, I had to bring the shirt in, the button was in an envelope, I had to bring it into the cleaners.
Alan: 48:03 And as I remember you said, What’s this,” and he said, “that’s for you.”
Sheila: 48:07 That’s for you. That’s yours. No, that’s yours. That’s my job. That’s what women do, but was it his fault? That’s how he had been brought up.
Alan: 48:17 That’s the part that’s hard to cope with. The culture has such an effect on how-
Sheila: 48:21 Yeah and he had been brought up, that’s what his mother did.
Alan: 48:22 I mean we have founding fathers who had slaves and we’re grateful for them saying things like, “All men are created equal.”
Sheila: 48:31 Created equal, but you don’t have the right to vote. Yeah.
Alan: 48:33 And not only that, you’re supposed to include yourself among the men.
Sheila: 48:36 Yes, of course.
Alan: 48:37 But The idea that it’s all the product of the culture, it’s partly a product of the culture, that somebody who can see through that and behave in a way that’s above the culture has to be some kind of genius.
Sheila: 48:51 Yeah, very hard. Very brave.
Alan: 48:51 But now the culture is saying something else and we’re in a wave that we don’t know where it’s going.
Sheila: 48:56 I think as being an older woman, I think I’m in that wave and I’m sort of asking for it to recede a little bit. You know, give a guy a break. Give a young male, what about young men growing up in this culture? I mean, how are they going to feel their worth?
Alan: 49:10 Do you get the impression? I get the impression, and I wonder if you do that young men are learning to be better collaborators with women than they were when I was a kid.
Sheila: 49:22 I hope so. I hope so. I don’t know the answer.
Alan: 49:24 You do you see anything, like any signs of that?
Sheila: 49:27 Not really. No. I don’t. I’m not in a position to see those signs if they were existing, but I find myself thinking that men, you know, like I went to a memorial service last week and so my old old, old boss who’s probably in his nineties now, hugged me goodbye. He’s the loveliest man in the world and he’s married to one of the most wonderful women. It was her memorial service and she’d made a film and everything and when he hugged me goodbye, I thought, I wonder if men can hug the people that they like a lot, goodbye anymore. Or is that like no more. I mean, we had a perfectly lovely relationship and he helped me a lot when I got to New York, and he gave me so much confidence and he never laid a hand on me. He was just a hero and now he was an old man and, you know, I was at his wife’s memorial service and I felt so uncomfortable being hugged. Like, you know, questioning the hug. When you start questioning a fucking hug, it’s the end of the world. I mean, you know. There’s a title.
Alan: 50:35 It has to be put in the plain brown envelope, I think, but that moment of relating, which changes as the culture changes is so interesting.
Sheila: 50:45 It is very interesting.
Alan: 50:47 You hug, you kiss. Do you kiss on the cheek? Do you kiss on the cheek now or do you wait for the woman to make the first move toward you?
Sheila: 50:56 I think you have to wait for the woman to make the first move.
Alan: 50:57 I think you do now.
Sheila: 50:59 I think you actually so.
Alan: 50:59 However, my life-
Sheila: 51:01 It might go back, it’ll switch I guess.
Alan: 51:03 When I was in Chile 15 years ago …
Sheila: 51:05 In where?
Alan: 51:06 Chile, the country.
Sheila: 51:07 Oh Chile, I thought it was the name of a play. Yeah there.
Alan: 51:10 Oh, I see. No, no. The country and I saw this interesting thing about their culture. When a man meets a woman for the first time, he’s expected to kiss her on the cheek.
Sheila: 51:21 Oh really? How interesting.
Alan: 51:23 Yeah and I think it’s kind of off putting if you don’t.
Sheila: 51:25 How interesting. I was just thinking about how women used to in those 19th century novels, you know, drop their handkerchief so the man would pick it up.
Alan: 51:33 Now would it be out in the open or accidental? Like slip it down your-
Sheila: 51:36 You mean drop the handkerchief?
Alan: 51:37 Yeah.
Sheila: 51:37 I don’t know. I was not around them.
Alan: 51:40 Oh, I didn’t realize that deary.
Sheila: 51:43 I know the way I look sweetheart. You male chauvinist pig.
Alan: 51:49 Okay, on that note, we can say goodbye.
Sheila: 51:52 Goodbye.
Alan: 51:52 What a nice-
Sheila: 51:53 I love you. This was a wonderful interview. Thank you so much.
Alan: 51:55 Oh, it’s so much fun because of it was a real conversation.
Sheila: 51:57 May I kiss you on the cheek?
Alan: 51:58 You could kiss me on both cheeks.
Sheila: 52:00 Okay. I’ll kiss you on the left cheek and right cheek.
Alan: 52:02 Now before we go, we do this thing. I bet you don’t mind this at all. We got seven quick questions-
Sheila: 52:07 Oh, I love that.
Alan: 52:08 … and seven quick answers.
ASheila: 52:10 Go ahead. Go, go, go.
Alan: 52:11 What do you wish you really understood?
Sheila: 52:13 Life.
Alan: 52:15 What do you wish other people understood about you?
Sheila: 52:18 That I’m special.
Alan: 52:21 What’s the strangest question someone has ever asked you?
Sheila: 52:23 I haven’t been asked that yet.
Alan: 52:28 You don’t take any of the question as strange?
Sheila: 52:30 Not really.
Alan: 52:30 I can see that from today’s talk.
Sheila: 52:33 No, I really don’t. No, no.
Alan: 52:34 How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Sheila: 52:39 Get rid of me.
Alan: 52:42 That’s good. I thought you were going to say I got to go.
Sheila: 52:45 Oh, well, okay. I was going to say I got to go.
Alan: 52:49 Is there anyone for whom you just can’t feel empathy?
Sheila: 52:52 Yes.
Alan: 52:55 Okay. That’s good.
Sheila: 52:58 I wouldn’t say anyone. I would say …
Alan: 53:00 There are people.
Sheila: 53:02 Yeah, a small number.
Alan: 53:04 How do you like to deliver bad news? In person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Sheila: 53:09 Always in person.
Alan: 53:11 Always. You’re like that. You would like it.
Sheila: 53:13 Always in person and there’s more and more bad news as you get older and older.
Alan: 53:18 Okay. Last question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Sheila: 53:24 Disloyalty. Is there a word disloyal?
Alan: 53:27 Sure.
Sheila: 53:28 Disloyalty. Pretend like, “Oh, are you okay?” Meaning, “I wish you would leave,” or, “You’re so smart,” meaning that was my idea. Or, “We’re going to miss you,” meaning get the fuck out of here.
Alan: 53:47 Well, I think you’re so smart and I’m gonna miss you.
Sheila: 53:50 Oh, you shit.
Alan: 53:52 Whatever that mean.
Sheila: 53:55 Okay, but I think what we should do is that I should kiss you on both cheeks on your podcast.
Alan: 54:01 Wait, say that into the phone.
Sheila: 54:03 I think that I should kiss him on both cheeks into the podcast so that it goes out-
Alan: 54:08 Okay, here we go.
Sheila: 54:08 … because I want everyone to know that I did it first. Okay. Okay. Thank you Alan, so much. Thank you so much.
Alan: 54:13 That was really fun.
Sheila: 54:13 Be well.
This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

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Sheils Nevins has to be one of the most charming people I know – and she has the rare quality of being both truly witty and genuinely wise. She’s humble about her accomplishments, but she shouldn’t be – Sheila really transformed the documentary scene and has helped to champion stories from all corners of the world. Her creative mind is contagious and she’s also known as a mentor to many of the world’s top documentarians, especially women who often have a hard time breaking into the field.

Sheila’s first book, and I hope the first of many, is called, “You Don’t Look Your Age … and other fairy tales.” You can find more about Sheila and her about book at her web site:

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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Thanks for listening. Bye bye!