On ‘Homeland,’ Showtime’s David Nevins seeks to get his native D.C. right
By Ellen McCarthy,
When David Nevins was in elementary school in Bethesda, he’d spend every afternoon playing basketball with his best friend. Then one day the boy was gone. His family had moved to Florida, seemingly without explanation.
It wasn’t until years later that Nevins understood his friend’s father had been a lawyer for President Nixon and wanted to get out of Dodge. That was his first introduction to the ways of Washington.
As the son of a lobbyist, he continued to be exposed to the inner workings of the government. He understood it just enough to be intrigued. Rather than follow in his father’s footsteps, however, Nevins took his appetite for politics to Hollywood, where he has launched a successful television career highlighted by shows that bring Washington to life on the small screen.
Nevins championed the development of Aaron Sorkin’s brainchild, “The West Wing,” oversaw production of “24” and, in his first major move as president of entertainment at Showtime, shepherded the launch of “Homeland,” a spine-tingling CIA drama that’s become the network’s biggest new hit and will air its season finale Sunday night.
“In all my shows, I’m not interested in the iconic shots of the Capitol and the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial,” Nevins says. “I’m always interested in trying to get the culture of the place — trying to get it right.”
Nevins, 44, is sitting in a dark wood booth at the Tastee Diner, nursing a bowl of vegetable soup. It’s late November and he’s in Washington to visit his father, who lives in an affluent Northwest Washington neighborhood (his parents are divorced and his mother lives in California) . The diner was a regular hangout during his teenage years in the early 1980s at Walt Whitman High School.
Wearing designer jeans and loafers, Nevins has an air of Los Angeles nonchalance and admits in his gravelly voice that Washington no longer feels “like my world.” He is almost certainly the only late-Wednesday-morning patron with a pair of gold cuff links under his pullover. Still, he prefers the Metro to rental cars when he’s in town and joked easily with a fellow diner who interjected repeatedly throughout a 90-minute conversation.
“This is classic Tastee Diner,” he said.
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Growing up in the Washington suburbs, Nevins says, he was always jealous of the city kids. So now, more than 20 years since he moved to Los Angeles, he chooses to live in the center of things, sharing a Hollywood home with his wife of 15 years, documentary filmmaker Andrea Blaugrund Nevins, and their three children. An avid Redskins fan, he returns to Washington twice a year to see family and show the kids his old stomping grounds.
Nevins didn’t dream of Hollywood life as a child. At Amherst College, he focused on English literature and American studies. But during a semester in Scotland, he fell in with a group of students who were obsessed with American films, and they began making amateur movies together. Nevins remembers feeling that his friends would’ve given anything for the chance to move to L.A. and try to build a career in show business. Since he didn’t have the same immigration barriers as his buddies, he decided to give it a shot.
Weeks after graduation, he packed up his car and headed west, with few industry connections and only a faint idea of what he wanted to do. He crashed with the parents of a former roommate and fruitlessly tried to find a job during a writer’s strike.
An older Amherst alumnus offered to let Nevins use a vacant desk at his production company and tell people he worked there. Eventually Nevins started pulling scripts off the shelves to read and eagerly accepted every opportunity to make copies or send faxes. When the strike ended he was hired as a production assistant on one of the company’s cable shows, “The Hitchhiker.” “It was like ‘Twilight Zone,’ ” he says, “but there was an actress who would take her top off halfway through.”
Nevins stayed for several seasons and slowly took on more responsibility, doing rewrites and learning about budgets.
Just as he was despairing that he’d never have a chance to make it to mainstream television, he was hired in the development shop at NBC. A year later, the network went through a reorganization and Nevins, the youngest guy, wound up leading the nine-person team. That year they developed the insta-hit “ER.”
“There’s an enormous amount of luck involved,” Nevin says. “You just have to use it.”
In the case of “ER,” an enterprising agent revived a script Michael Crichton had written for Steven Spielberg in the early 1970s and shopped it around to networks after the release of the duo’s blockbuster, “Jurassic Park.”
“All the other stations said, ‘Who are the main characters? This is not what we do,’ ” Nevins says. “I didn’t accept the prescribed ways of, ‘This is what television has to look like.’ ”
His first attempt to get “The West Wing” on the air was shot down by an NBC official, but when an executive change was made, he pushed again.
“There was always a taboo that people aren’t going to watch shows about politics. I thought if you got it right, it’d be interesting,” he says.
Nevins eventually moved on to become the vice president of programming at Fox, where in addition to “24,” he oversaw shows such as “Boston Public” and won an Emmy as the executive producer of “Arrested Development.”
He’s keenly aware that to the viewing public, producers can seem to be Oz-like figures. “You’re not the writer, you’re not the director, you’re not the actor. Those are the three fundamental people who have to put their souls out there,” he says. “But as a producer you’ve got to get the best out of all those people and put those elements together. The director with the right writer. The right actor with the right script. It turns out it’s the ultimate dilettante job.”
And he thinks that what has driven his success, including a stint as the president of Imagine Television, where he produced “Friday Night Lights,” is a personality that connects with creative talents and a willingness to take risks on untested formats.
“I’m always interested in trying to stay on the cutting edge of television storytelling,” he says. “To be slightly in front, pushing for the next new thing.”
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The credits under Nevin’s name are diverse, but he says that if you look closely, the shows have a common thread that will continue during his tenure at Showtime. “I like shows that are surprising and not predictable,” he says. “That have deep, rich characters that are fully formed. And I think there’s a basic humanity to both the comedies and drama.”
When he took the job at Showtime a year and a half ago, the network was already in a good place. His goal was to make it better. “I wanted shows to be bigger, a little more ambitious, to have a little more sprawl,” he says.
He knew even as he took the job that Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, the writer-producers with whom he’d collaborated on “24,” had a new project in the works. He persuaded them to bring “Homeland” to Showtime, and together they reconfigured the show for cable — slowing it down, increasing the sophistication.
“He was the underdog, but went after it very aggressively and once he got it, he became a phenomenal partner,” Gordon says. “He shares paternity for ‘Homeland’ and its success.”
Nevins, Gordon continues, “has that thing you want in any ally — tremendous passion and doggedness. He’s got a point of view, but is also a keen listener. He’s able to find his vision and leverage other people’s talents.”
Critics have hailed the show, in which a bipolar CIA agent played by Claire Danes tries to prevent a former U.S. soldier she believes is working for a terrorist group from executing a plot to kill Americans. And the drama’s ratings have increased 40 percent since its debut, a rare feat for cable programming.
Nevins suspects the show is resonating not just because of its masterful plot twists, but because it brings viewers into a world they can’t usually access. That’s the Washington he likes to see on screen. “How it really works, how a candidate gets tapped, how the press gets the story, how the military plays the press. All those sorts of things I think are interesting,” he says. “People want to have that sense of learning something behind the scenes.”
His next big show, “House of Lies,” tackles another American institution: capitalism. “It’s about everything that’s [messed] up in American business right now,” he says. In it, Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell play highly paid management consultants tasked with diagnosing everything that’s wrong with their corporate clients.
Though “Homeland” is shot in Charlotte, Nevins says he’s still heavily involved with every aspect of the show. And when he makes edits, they’re often in an attempt to get Washington right. It shouldn’t be a nameless neighborhood, he told his writers recently. It’s called Adams Morgan.