In his new Simon & Schuster book A Curious Mind: The Secret To A Bigger Life, Imagine Entertainment co-founder Brian Grazer describes how a career-long regimen of “Curiosity Conversations” with the world’s most fascinating people helped him build one of the most accomplished producing resumes of his generation. Curiosity, and a willingness to ask questions at the risk of looking silly, helped forge his partnership with Ron Howard and expand his world with insight that influenced Imagine hits from A Beautiful Mind to Apollo 13, American Gangster and 8 Mile. Grazer — who admits in the book he adopted his spiky hairstyle to make people curious about him, and kept it even though superagent Mike Ovitz warned it might hurt his career — answers questions on where curiosity has taken him.
DEADLINE: Until I read your book, I’d always wondered why Universal and Imagine did not go forward with the Mexican drug drama Cartel. Can you explain how Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice killed the film?
GRAZER: Well, that really did happen. I loved, loved this project, written by Peter Craig, this awesome writer who did The Hunger Games. Great, dramatic story, an autopsy on what was going on in Mexico with the drug cartels. We were able to get insurance ensuring our safety, but something about it didn’t seem logical or make sense to me. Like, OK, yeah, you’ve got an entire crew of two hundred people there, you mean to say that we’re going to have security 24/7 that will keep them safe while we’re filming these beheadings? We just kept getting told, we had insurance, we would be fine. I told all of this to Condoleezza when we had lunch. She said, look, you might be insured, but it’s too dangerous. I have access to so much information that should indicate to you that this is not a safe thing for you to do.
DEADLINE: That sounds ominous.
GRAZER: It made things clear. That variable, being able to have access to Condoleezza Rice and being able to bring this up in our luncheon conversation, that was something of tipping-point proportion and it had to outweigh anything that anybody else was saying. And so we decided not to do it.
DEADLINE: Had you gotten other warnings?
GRAZER: No. This triggered a proactive response on my part. It left me not wanting us to go make this movie in Mexico City, even though we were told we were OK. As she said, all it’s going to take is one problem with one person, and it will be like a terrorist act within your tiny community of people. You just never know when that’s going to happen, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable, was how she said it.
DEADLINE: Ever try to put it back together again, even in another location?
GRAZER: No, it just didn’t feel like a good idea to test it after that. At some point that becomes like artistic greed or something, you know? It’s not the right karma.
DEADLINE: You’ve put yourself in rooms with bomb builders, scientists who cured diseases, politicians, architects and artists, all because you were curious about them. But it sounds like the best career advice you got was when you were delivering legal documents for Universal, and summoned the courage to ask for a Curiosity Conversation with Lew Wasserman. How does that happen?
GRAZER: Well, it was over 30 years ago, and I had developed the discipline of doing these Curiosity Conversations every single day, which was possible because I had about 14 months there they gave me an office and kind of a secretary. I had the time, and that created a front that I was credible.
DEADLINE: And just who were you, really?
GRAZER: Really? I was just this 24-year-old kid who realized that if I was articulate and charming and persuasive enough, I could get my way into anyone’s office in Hollywood. The most important directors, like Mel Brooks, or Hal Ashby, or John Frankenheimer, or Billy Friedkin. I could get into their office, get a meeting with them. Same with Richard Brooks, for example, or David Picker when he was running a studio, or John Calley. So why not Lew Wasserman? I tried very hard for about six or seven months to get a meeting with Lew Wasserman and finally I persuaded his assistants. I got in the elevator of the tower at Universal, went up to the 15th floor, and he approached me before I could actually get to his office, kind of like a roadblock. He wasn’t going to let me in the office.
DEADLINE: You don’t get to his level without being able to read people. Did you think he saw through you?
GRAZER: What I felt was, whatever I was going to say to him was not going to register as anything of value. He’d seen or heard it all in his lifetime, as the single most powerful patriarch of modern entertainment. He said, look, whatever you’re going to say, you don’t have any money to buy a book. You can’t pay for galleys. Your cousin is not friends with a movie star. You don’t have a family that can buy their way in. What do you have? I didn’t have an answer.
DEADLINE: How do you fast talk your way out of that one?
GRAZER: It was not the moment to say anything. He said, just stand still. I stood still. He goes to his desk, comes back, and he has this big lined legal pad, and a number 2 pencil, one thing in each hand. He said, “You put your pencil onto the paper and it has greater value than it did as separate parts. Now get out of here.”
DEADLINE: What did that mean?
GRAZER: At first, I felt humiliated and undermined, but then I started to think about what he was saying, and I got it. He basically was saying that you need to control IP. You need to have some ability to have a library of intellectual property. Since I didn’t have access to any of those things, as he mentioned, I better start writing. I started to manufacture ideas on paper, and in a relatively short period of time I came up with the movie idea for Splash, and wrote that story. It took about five or six years to get made, but I wrote that and several other stories, movies for television. And eventually Ron and I got Splash made.
DEADLINE: How did that profound meeting change the way you did your Curiosity Conversations?
GRAZER: I just immediately discontinued meeting new people in show business completely. And I went on this kind of curiosity journey of meeting people that could enlarge my life beyond Los Angeles and entertainment. That became science, medicine, politics, religion, all art forms. It stretched my world into something much bigger. I learned about subjects, traveled places to meet people, even if I was low on money. And then 30 years later I was convinced that I should write a book about it.
DEADLINE: So are you saying that after Wasserman gave you that advice, you had what you needed to make it in the business and no longer needed to sit at the knee of other industry giants?
GRAZER: Yeah, he spent five minutes with me and gave me what I needed. Really, it hasn’t changed. You can get good at finding access in the entertainment business. But the ideas, the narratives themselves, they are the only things that are going to be of any value. I followed that. I never tried an idea out on Lew Wasserman, who wouldn’t have listened.
DEADLINE: Which of your Curiosity Conversations left you most disappointed, either because you weren’t prepared or because the subject didn’t match the person you hoped to meet?
GRAZER: Well, the one I put in the book was Isaac Asimov. I just didn’t know enough about science fiction or robotics to be qualified to have an actual conversation with him. I thought I was qualified, but then I realized my definition of qualified did not really apply to someone like Isaac Asimov.
DEADLINE: You fared better with Jonas Salk, who cured polio. How qualified can a normal person be for an encounter with icons like these? How did the Asimov encounter, which ended when he and his girlfriend dismissed you and walked away from the table, change you approach?
GRAZER: I became better prepared, and I matured into a smarter person with a better access point when I met somebody. What I would do is, if I met with the architect Rem Koolhaas, I brought something that would be of interest or value to them. A piece of music, a graphic design, or something that was artistic that might enrich their lives. I could see immediately they thought, this is of value to me. Even cultural knowledge I’d gained from previous meetings or travels around the world. It was like…I cared more. And they were more likely to open up.
DEADLINE: There seems a contradiction in the book. You spent your career being solicitous of input and endlessly curious, but you assiduously avoid feedback when you pitch a project and are told no. Why don’t you want to know why they think it won’t work and why they said no?
GRAZER: You have to spend a substantial amount of time in energy and research and trial and error to nurture an idea, and then there’s a point where you have established its emotional intention, and once you achieve that, you either believe in it or not. You have to trust your belief. It’s like you’ve turned a vapor into a solid, and you have to buy into it. More trial and error will occur, but if you don’t go forward at that point, you’re just indecisive.
DEADLINE: You write that nobody really knows what the right decision is until after the fact, when a movie has soared or flopped. How much closer are you to being able to figure out the success formula than when you were a wide-eyed kid getting told all over town that Splash was a dumb idea for a movie?
GRAZER: I don’t know. Every story is a different story with different entry points of perspective. That’s the thing about this art form. It’s unique, every time you do it. So you just don’t know. You can’t know. You can test things, on friends, think them over and over, but ultimately there are too many variables. You think you’ve figured it out, but there’s no science here, and there is a human dimension. Is the actor or the actress really communicating the emotion that was the fantasy you had when you first read that perfect script?
DEADLINE: Sounds like golf. One day you think you’ve figured it out, next day you are flinging your 9-iron into the lake…
GRAZER: Yeah. That’s exactly what it’s like.
DEADLINE: I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In The Heart Of The Sea when it was first set as a movie over a decade ago. It’s a fine telling of the sinking of the Whaleship Essex that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick, but also a harrowing survival tale with cannibalism. Since nobody knows what’s going to work, what positives make you confident?
GRAZER: The positives? In The Heart Of The Sea has the same dramatic architecture as Apollo 13. It is about survival. It’s about cutting away the things you care about, to survive. That includes Chris Hemsworth’s character, who wants to get back to his wife. You care about her, you care about their family, you care about his intentions and why he goes out to become a whaler. It is all about survival. This has the same dramatic designs as Apollo 13. It’s just…will people engage? That comes down to marketing. Warner Bros is pretty exceptional at marketing. But then, at that moment, that day, that week, will people want to go see it? If they do, I think they’ll be captivated because Ron, who is a master filmmaker, did an exceptional job.
DEADLINE: You tell a funny story about the movie Cry-Baby, acknowledging you hadn’t really seen the early outrageous movies John Waters directed, something that would have let you know what kind of movie he might make. What kind of shock was it when you learned of his counter-culture resume and realized he was not the guy to ever follow a mainstream course?
GRAZER: I knew he wasn’t going to follow a mainstream course. It was just how much he would or wouldn’t. I fell in love with Hairspray, and I loved him personally. He’s a tremendous uncompromising artist. He has total integrity, and you love that with an artist. So together we discovered Johnny Depp, and we created a really interesting potpourri of actors to be in the movie. I thought that this movie had a chance of being Grease, or that it had a chance of being Cry-Baby. It became Cry-Baby.
DEADLINE: You write that on Far And Away, you challenged Tom Cruise to set an example, to lead the picture to stay on budget, and that it worked. When an artist like Waters lives in a counter-culture space, how much can you work that mojo on him, in the name of getting a more commercial and profitable film?
GRAZER: Well, you can’t do that because here’s the deal. Artists, whether they’re Tom Cruise, or John Waters, or Ron Howard, or Oliver Stone, you can empower them to become a better version of themselves, but you cannot change them 180 degrees to be someone they are not. It’s not physically possible, and it’s not the right thing to do, to say to John Waters, don’t be you, creatively. With Tom Cruise, I knew he liked to take responsibility. You tell a guy like that, who likes to compete and who likes to work hard, you tell him I want you to be the leader of this team and to use all of your superpowers to make this thing come in on time and be good, he embraces that. He said, let’s go, man, and it worked. All I did was empower him to do the things that he likes to do.
DEADLINE: Stephen King’s The Dark Tower just moved to Sony, its third studio, and Ron Howard won’t direct it. How frustrating has it been to have such an ambitious film and TV series adaptation plan, and struggle to find a studio to take the ride?
GRAZER: I’m so used to movies taking a long time, it’s not that tough. I have an amazing amount of tolerance for that. Friday Night Lights started with the perfect director in the late Alan Pakula, who gave me the project. It ended with the perfect director, Peter Berg, but there was 12 years in between. The result was a great movie, and a great TV series that lasted five seasons. We’ll get Dark Tower made, and get it made right. I don’t know who the actors will be. But it will get made, and it will be a powerful and emerging force.
DEADLINE: What was the most profound thing you learned from your Curiosity Conversation with President Obama?
GRAZER: The most profound thing he did for me was demystify speaking in public, and he helped remove my fear of it. It doesn’t mean I am good at it, but I stopped fearing it. He has so much comfort with himself, and he does nothing to intimidate you or make you feel uncomfortable. You come away thinking, if I could just do a small portion of what he does. It’s doable and so he did demystify all of the fear that we create in public speaking.