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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Sex, drugs, real life: It's perfect for TV

June 10, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Sheila NEVINS vividly recalls her first reaction to “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” Marina Zenovich’s new documentary about the controversial Oscar-winning filmmaker that premiered on HBO Monday night. Fifteen minutes into the film, Nevins' heart was pounding.

"It's always a good sign when my heart is beating fast when I'm watching something," says Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films. "I kept thinking -- that man is so interesting. Marina took something that was an old story and made it into what you always want from a documentary -- something vibrant, vital and necessary."

With its lineup of high-profile scripted series, including “Big Love” and “Entourage,” delayed because of the writer's strike, HBO has found a new way to make a programming splash -- it has launched a summer-long weekly series entirely devoted to documentaries. The network is airing a new documentary every Monday night through Aug. 25, embracing a wide range of subjects, including profiles of self-destructive artists, drug traffickers, Baghdad teenagers, Hollywood madams and stolen children in China.

The subject matter is often sensational, which is just the way Nevins likes it. She touts documentaries the way Oprah promotes books. With HBO's deep pockets and reservoir of 35-million-plus subscribers, Nevins is easily the most powerful woman in Documentary- land, her films having earned dozens of Emmy and Peabody awards as well as 19 Academy Awards during her three-decade-long tenure at HBO. Her often confounding combination of high- and low-brow tastes have long been hotly debated in doc circles, but she remains an unapologetic believer that documentaries should be viewer friendly.

"We've launched this series to spotlight how HBO has helped created a new kind of documentary," she told me Friday. "The good news is that docus" -- her preferred word for the form -- "are no longer a dirty word. They don't have to be exposes about famine and pestilence or a cerebral look at something you'd find on the front page of the New York Times. They can be about real people who are stuck in some kind of extraordinary predicament."

The new series reflects Nevin's catholic tastes. One of the most gripping films is "The Recruiter," airing July 28, which focuses on a military recruiter as he sells high-schoolers in a Louisiana town on the merits of joining the Army at the height of the war in Iraq. However, that film is preceded, on July 21, by "Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal," a warts-and-all portrait of the infamous Hollywood madam.

It's a sign of Nevins' impatience with convention that when things weren't going well on the documentary -- Fleiss had stopped speaking to filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato -- Nevins stepped in and did the interviews with Fleiss herself. "I simply wasn't going to let that film die," she explains. "Fenton and Randy know how much I respect them. But Heidi is temperamental, and I think she just needed a woman to talk to her."

Nevins sees the episode as typical of the angst that grows out of the documentary process. "She walked away," she says of Fleiss. "But doesn't everyone walk away when they're revealing who they really are?"

It's telling that Nevins views the series' two most controversial subjects -- Fleiss and Polanski -- in much the same light, as people in the sexual spotlight who got a bad rap. "I'm sure Marina will be criticized for being a woman, making a film about a man who had sex with an underage girl," she says. "But there's so much more to what happened to Polanski than that. It's an endlessly complex story."

The documentary, which airs on HBO throughout the week, works so well because it goes beyond the ample drama in Polanski's stranger-than-fiction life. The focus is on the legal wrangling that ensued after Polanski was arrested for having sex with Samantha Geimer, then 13, in 1977.

The film takes the form of a legal thriller, with Polanski, a man used to creating his own reality through his films, ensnared in the web of a judge, Laurence Rittenband, who appears far more concerned with his own image than legal impartiality. Zenovich intersperses the documentary footage with clips of Polanski acting in his movies, which serves to illustrate her theme: "All along I saw this as Roman Polanski stuck in a Roman Polanski movie, but directed by the judge."

Zenovich says that when she first approached Polanski's agent, ICM's Jeff Berg, he tried to steer her away. "He said, 'Everyone knows the story,' " she recalls. "And I said, 'No, you know the story.' But it has a great understory. We all know Polanski fled the country, but I was interested in why he fled."

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