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The Hemi Q&A: Brian Grazer

The Hollywood mogul has picked the brains of some of the world’s brightest and most powerful people—including Barack Obama, Steve Jobs and Carl Sagan. Now, in his new book, A Curious Mind, he shares some of what he’s learned.

Author David Zweig Illustration Allan Burch

qandaThe only thing about Brian Grazer as legendary as his film credits is his porcupine hairdo. The difference is, of course, that anyone can slather gel in his hair, but few can boast as successful a career in Hollywood as this Academy Award–winning producer. From his breakout 1984 hit, Splash, to a string of critically and commercially successful films and TV series, including 8 Mile, A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Liar Liar, Parenthood, The Da Vinci Code, “Friday Night Lights,” “Arrested Development” and “24,” not to mention the Chris Rock cult classic (and my personal fave as a teenager) CB4, Grazer’s body of work is as varied as they come—and has yielded 43 Oscar and 131 Emmy nominations.

This month sees the release of A Curious Mind, Grazer’s first book, which details his decades-long obsession with holding what he calls “curiosity conversations” with accomplished people in all walks of life. The book gives what may be the best insight into how he’s produced such a diverse and critically acclaimed list of hit films and TV shows.

It’s a fair assumption that there is not another person on earth who has met privately with Barack Obama, Andy Warhol, Steve Jobs, 50 Cent, Alan Dershowitz, Isaac Asimov, Julian Schnabel, Carl Sagan and Howard Zinn. But these icons are just a sampling of the 500-odd luminaries who have indulged Grazer in one-on-one meetings, the sole purpose of which appears to be to sate his curiosity about the world. Many others aren’t boldface names, but they are people who are experts in their fields—science, politics, fashion, what have you—or have led extraordinary lives. Hemispheres spoke with Grazer about how curiosity frames his daily life, in business, art and beyond.

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Hemispheres: So what was your plan when you set out to have regular curiosity conversations some 35 years ago?
Brian Grazer: I’ve never had a plan or agenda. Just subjects and people that interest me. I get a lot of pleasure out of doing it. It has enlarged my world, by transporting me two hours into the world they are expert at, or by going to a place they’ve suggested to meet them. Sheldon Glashow [the Nobel prize–winning theoretical physicist] suggested the Galápagos, so I met him there. A couple weeks ago, I went to Burma. Physical growth, emotional growth, intellectual growth—the talks have just expanded my whole life. And a handful have really enlightened me. Veronica De Negri [a Chilean woman who was imprisoned during the Pinochet regime and whom Grazer met at a party at his Malibu neighbor Sting’s house] was tortured, but it was about the triumph of her survival and how inspirational she was.

Hemispheres: I think it’s telling that you co-wrote your book with business journalist Charles Fishman, and gave him due credit, when other famous people use ghostwriters. It says something about your generosity as a person and a producer. The role of a good producer, I’d think, is to recognize excellence in others. Film is such a collaborative medium; you have to have the humility to understand you can’t do it alone and that you need experts in every role—director, actors, cinematographer, etc. I think this generosity ties into curiosity; when you’re curious, you learn about things and people and the value of what they do. So your curiosity as a producer seems to factor not only into finding new story ideas but also as an approach to assembling teams.
Grazer: It definitely does. Whether it’s Charles or whether I’m finding a director or writer for a movie, you want someone to elevate your thought. But you want to be like-minded, to feel like the fantasy of what you want something to look or feel like is the same endpoint as theirs. But execution will be elevated because you partner with that person.

Hemispheres: When you started out as a document courier for Warner Bros., you insisted on meeting with the recipients of the documents themselves, rather than just handing the papers off to their assistants. But you never asked them for anything; you just wanted the chance to engage these high-level people in conversation. Now that you’re the big shot who receives the documents, what does it take for you to be receptive to a young go-getter looking to pick your brain?
Grazer: The majority of people who try the approach I used don’t really come from a genuine or informed place. The times that I’m receptive to the young or desperate Brian Grazers are when I feel like it’s really genuine or informed, and there really isn’t an “ask” involved. I often go to lunch at a place where TMZ guys spot me. There was one guy who put the camera down and said, “Look, I love you…” and he cited lines from my movies. He knew a lot about me. He was so resourceful and genuine, he researched me, and I ended up spending a lot of time with him.

Hemispheres: When you’re at a party, do you ever wonder if people are just being nice to you because they want something from you? Are you constantly trying to ascertain if a person engaging you in conversation has an ulterior motive? I mean, you are one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.
Grazer: I’m initially open to everybody. I don’t really judge people harshly if they’re being charming in an effort to get something from me. I understand it. I wouldn’t want someone to just write me off because I was needy. If I’m at a party and people want something from me, I don’t hate them for it—they might want 100 percent and I give zero, or they might want 70 percent and I give 40 percent, and that might be OK.

Hemispheres: I love how you tell the origin story in the book about your spiky hair. You liked that X percent of people thought you were a jerk because of it.
Grazer: It takes the guesswork out of it with people if you know if they’re going to reveal what they think of you more quickly. I like that better. It makes everything easier to figure out.

Hemispheres: Explain the nuts and bolts of your position in Hollywood. Your company, Imagine Entertainment [which Grazer owns with director Ron Howard], has deals with certain studios. But if they still can reject or greenlight your proposed projects, what exactly is the agreement? They give you money for right of first refusal?
Grazer: It’s as simple as you said. It’s just a right of refusal. If they say no, I have to decide, do I want to go to other places? Do I want to limit the other places to just the inner circle of the major movie companies? Do I want to go to smaller movie companies? Do I want to finance it independently? It depends on how passionate you are about the project. I just produced this movie on Pelé, and it was paid for by a Peruvian billionaire.

Hemispheres: Despite your eminence, you still need the gatekeepers—financiers, distributors, etc.—to say yes to get your projects made. How do you get around someone saying no? This is, of course, the essence of the entertainment business: tenacity, the ability to get things done. The art of figuring out how to persist until you get a yes. What is your special sauce here? What do you do differently?
Grazer: I’ll be impregnated by the deepest belief in an idea. Usually within the idea is a theme, and that’s what I care the most about. Once it’s in my bloodstream, it becomes inescapable—my desire to see it come to life. I’m pretty articulate and well read, and because of the curiosity journey, I’ve met a lot of different people. Meeting all of them has enabled me maybe to get around “no” better than others.

Hemispheres: You tell an interesting story in the book about scheduling your first meeting with Edgar Bronfman Jr., who at the time was the new head of Universal, the studio Imagine had a partnership with. I’m intrigued by the advice you followed, which was that sometimes the best action is no action at all—you chose not to reach out to him.
Grazer: The conviction in a non-action has the same strength or more than the conviction in an action. Patience is required too. It’s not within my nature to have patience like that and do nothing. But it’s good to do nothing sometimes. I create mechanisms to do things that are against my basic nature.

Hemispheres: You write about how movies can cost $300,000 per day to shoot. For the producer, it’s critical to keep things on schedule. There’s a great anecdote about you getting Tom Cruise to work quickly, which set an example for the crew for the expensive but non-commercial film Far and Away. You got what you wanted not by telling him what to do but by treating him as an equal on the set and empowering him.
Grazer: What you want to do is basic physics. You want to engage people so that their basic physics—in the case of Tom Cruise, intellect, energy and force—are working for you, not against you. Discovery is a better igniter for that than declarative sentences.

Hemispheres: Bringing things back to curiosity as the engine for what you do, do you see your company’s investment in New Form, the digital studio, aligned with curiosity, as a platform to try out new avenues for storytelling?
Grazer: Yes. I just like all narratives. That’s why I produced the Oscars and a Jay Z concert that became a documentary. I like different sizes and shapes of stories.

David Zweig has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal. He somehow refrained from shoving a spec script into Brian Grazer’s hand after the interview.

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