A Conversation with Brian Grazer – Film Producer & Renaissance Man

A Conversation with Brian Grazer, Film Producer & Renaissance Man

Often, when you connect the dots on great periods of creativity, advancement and innovation, you will find they link to key individuals.  If you connect some of the greatest films of our time, from American Gangster, 8 Mile, Liar Liar and parenthood to Splash… with some of the greatest success stories in documentary and television such as Genius, Empire, 24, Arrested Development and Friday Night Lights, you will find Brian Grazer.

Brian Grazer is a true renaissance man, he is an Academy Award, Golden Globe, Emmy, and Grammy award-winning producer and #1 New York Times bestselling author. His films and television shows have been nominated for 43 Oscars® and 195 Emmys and he won the Best Picture Oscar for A Beautiful Mind.   Grazer has been honored by numerous organizations and was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.”  He has also been the author of two influential books on curiosity and human connection “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life” and “Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection”.

In this exclusive interview, I caught up with Brian to learn more about how curiosity and human connection can change our lives.

[bios]Academy Award, Golden Globe, Emmy, and Grammy award-winning producer and #1 New York Times bestselling author BRIAN GRAZER, has been making movies and television programs for over 35 years.  His films and television shows have been nominated for 43 Oscars® and 195 Emmys and he won the Best Picture Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. He has and produced numerous Emmy and Golden Globe-winning television shows including the drama series 24, which ran for 9 seasons and the comedy series Arrested Development.

Reflecting this combination of commercial and artistic achievement, the Producers Guild of America honored Grazer with the David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.  His accomplishments have also been recognized by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which in 1998 added Grazer to the short list of producers with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On March 6th, 2003, ShoWest celebrated Grazer’s success by honoring him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. In May 2007, Grazer was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” In January 2009, Grazer and his creative partner, Ron Howard, were honored by the Producers Guild of America with the Milestone Award. In November 2009, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts honored them with the Big Apple Award, and in May 2010, they were honored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center with its Humanitarian Award. In February 2011, Grazer was the Motion Picture Sound Editors 2011 Filmmaker Award recipient. In 2012, Grazer was awarded the Innovation and Vision award by the Alfred Mann Foundation for his charitable humanitarian efforts. In 2013, Grazer was awarded the Abe Burrows Entertainment Award by the Alzheimer’s Association and was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by PromaxBDA. Grazer was also honored by the Atlantic Council in September 2019 for his global humanitarian work.

In addition to A Beautiful Mind, Grazer’s films include Apollo 13, for which Grazer won the Producers Guild’s Daryl F. Zanuck Motion Picture Producer of the Year Award as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of 1995; and Splash, which he co-wrote as well as produced and for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay of 1984. Grazer also produced Peter Morgan’s critically acclaimed play Frost / Nixon directed by Ron Howard. The film, was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, and was also nominated for The Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures by the PGA.

Grazer’s first book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life’, released in April 2015, was a #1 New York Times bestseller. For decades, Grazer has scheduled curiosity conversations with notable experts from scientists to spies, and adventurers to business leaders. The book offers a peek into some of these conversations and inspires readers to unleash their own curiosity. Grazer’s second book Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection was released in September 2019.

Grazer’s most recent film, the documentary Pavarotti opened this June. Other recent films include the documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, which was a global hit both commercially and critically having won multiple awards including the 2017 Grammy for Best Music Film, two Emmy awards, and the Critics’ Choice award for Best Documentary.

Grazer’s current film projects include the NY Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy; tick, tick…BOOM! directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda; Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band which opens on February 21, 2020; Curious George based on the beloved children’s character; a re-imaging of Imagine’s hit films Friday Night Lights and Fear; a biopic about Gucci Mane; and the documentaries Dads and Rebuilding Paradise. Rebuilding Paradise follows the community of Paradise, California, as it rebuilds following the devastation of the 2018 California wildfires and will premiere this January 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival.

In television, Grazer is currently working on Empire for FOX, Wu-Tang: An American Saga with THE RZA and Alex Tse for Hulu, 68 Whiskey  for Paramount Network, Swagger with Kevin Durant for Apple, Filthy Rich with Tate Taylor for FOX, Why Women Kill with Marc Cherry for CBS All Access, Langdon for NBC and the third installment of Genius about the legendary “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, with Clive Davis and NatGeo. Grazer has also produced the fifth season of Arrested Development for Netflix and the hybrid television series Mars for NatGeo.  Previous series includes Shots Fired and 24:Legacy, both for Fox Television and the Genius anthology series for NatGeo. Genius: Einstein garnered ten Emmy nominations in season one. The series’ second season, Genius: Picasso, received seven Emmy nominations, as well as multiple Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG nominations and awards.

Grazer’s additional television productions include, NBC’s Parenthood based on his 1989 film, and NBC’s Peabody Award winning series Friday Night Lights. Other television credits include Fox’s hit Golden Globe and Emmy award winning Best Drama Series 24, Fox’s Emmy award winning Best Comedy Arrested Development, Fox’s 24: Redemption, Fox’s Lie To Me, staring Tim Roth, CBS’s Shark, WB’s Felicity, ABC’s SportsNight, as well as HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, for which he won the Emmy for Outstanding Mini-Series. In 2012, Grazer produced the 84th Academy Awards hosted by Billy Crystal.

Other films include the female led spy comedy and 2018 People Choice winner for Best Comedy Film The Spy Who Dumped Me starring Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon; the critically acclaimed film American Made starring Tom Cruise, Get On Up, about “Godfather of Soul” James Brown; the Formula One drama Rush, staring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brüel, directed by Ron Howard;  Made In America, a music documentary staring Jay Z for Showtime; J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood and staring Leonardo DiCaprio; Tower Heist, staring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy; the drama Robin Hood, directed by Ridley Scott and staring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett; the adaptation of Dan Brown’s best selling novel Angels & Demons, staring Tom Hanks, and directed by Oscar-winner Ron Howard which opened in May 2009; the drama Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie; the Ridley Scott directed drama American Gangster, staring Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington; the big screen adaptation of the international bestseller The Da Vinci Code; the tense drama The Inside Man, directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster; Flightplan; Cinderella Man; the Sundance acclaimed documentary INSIDE Deep Throat; Friday Night Lights; 8 Mile; Blue Crush; Intolerable Cruelty; Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas; The Nutty Professor; Liar, Liar; Ransom; My Girl; Backdraft; Kindergarten Cop; Parenthood; Clean and Sober; and Spies Like Us.

Grazer began his career as a producer developing television projects.  It was while he was executive-producing TV pilots for Paramount Pictures in the early 1980s that Grazer first met his longtime friend and business partner Ron Howard, and embarked on what is now one of the longest running partnerships in Hollywood.  Their collaboration began with the hit comedies Night Shift and Splash, and in 1986 the two founded Imagine Entertainment which they continue to run as Chairmen.[/bios]

Q: When did you realise the power of curiosity?

[Brian Grazer]:  I was always curious; I was a dreamer.  When I was a young kid, I didn’t know what I was or wasn’t going to be able to do – I didn’t know I was going to have acute dyslexia that would turn into a disability for a while, and I didn’t know that having face to face contact with people and being curious would be my medication…. And would save me. I didn’t know curiosity was going to become a superpower in my life.

I was the kid that was wondering what was faster, a car or a bee… what if garbage cans were gold… I’d posit these what-if questions and throw them to people around me.  I remember this kid, Kelly Ross, he was really smart – 3 years older than me.  I said one day, ‘let’s build a paraffin fortress!’ so we went to the market, bought these blocks of paraffin, which we melted and shaped ourselves into this massive (for us!) fortress where we would create strategic games using marbles.  The marbles represented soldiers, intelligence officers, and all the other characters in our games, and we used to battle each other for hours, sometimes for a day or more.  It was like my TV show ‘24’ which became serialised and went on for months! This kind of play improved all of my cognitive skills and really showed me how journeys that began with curiosity could turn into bigger dreams – I expanded my vocabulary (without really having to read).

For all of us, we need to realise that curiosity, that ‘wi-fi’ of face to face contact with people, those real-world interactions – those are the moments we find what differentiates us from each other.  Even people I know in the tech world are going lo-tech and slowing down – many leaders in technology don’t allow their kids to have mobile phones right away, why? To slow them down to be in the moment, to encourage human communication, and to encourage real-world curiosity.

Q:  How has your curiosity helped you to build persistence or to create serendipity?

[Brian Grazer]:  Let me tell you the story about my relationship with the book, a Beautiful Mind which is the story of the mathematician John Nash.

So, I started doing these curiosity conversations in a very informal way right after graduating college.  I’d taken a job as a law clerk at Warner Brothers; I didn’t know why I’d chosen to be a law clerk or even to be at Warner Brothers – I just needed a job quite frankly.  I was really curious about understanding the language of this business; it seemed to me that it was all about just going to parties or talking – I wanted to know what was really happening. How did these movies get made? How do they come about? It was quit e mysterious to me.  Eventually, I got fired from Warner Brothers – but my curiosity decoded in that short time, what would otherwise have taken me 10 years of trial and error working in showbusiness.

The most important thing I learned was how people get things done.  I learned that there are multiple points of how to accrue leverage in creative business, I was only 22 years old and it was hugely helpful.

I also started to imagine to myself, ‘I wonder what the perfect girl would be like…’ well, in answering that question I realised that I had to be my authentic self – I had to learn that what differentiated me from everyone else was the lens that I use to experience and understand the world, and if you can understand the world, and yourself, you’re reaching into the unique source – your own voice… the thing that makes you, you.

In this case, I started thinking about who this perfect girl would be…. would she exist in Los Angeles? What would she look like? How would she act? What are her truths? How would all these different things come together? I actually ended up working on a script which became the movie Splash starring Tom Hanks, Darryl Hannah and John Candy, which was Directed by Ron Howard. The main character was never a mermaid, although everyone thought it was a mermaid… I mean, it was conceived as non-mermaid, but then I thought wow, how would I make a girl more powerful, like a power character, how could I make her almost mythological – how about a mermaid? … it just sort-of evolved through the process of asking myself questions interrelated to my search to find a perfect woman.

The movie comes out in 1984, it was a great success and that made it easier for me to meet some of the important people I wanted to interact with.  I was very curious about the musician, Sting, and he generously also introduced me to a woman who was a survivor of torture from Chile; I remember sitting with her and asking how she survived the unrelenting torture she went through – and she said she survived by living in an alternate reality, wow!

Fast forward 20 years, and I decide I want to make a movie to help destigmatise mental disabilities.  That turns out to be the John Nash story, which then became the movie, ‘a Beautiful Mind’ starring Russell Crowe.  I was able to successfully buy the rights to the book, but only then after really reading it did I realise that it was a great story, but not one that created subjective engagement – pulling the reader, or viewer in.  I had to find a way to engage the viewer from the beginning, and remembered my time with Veronica de Negri, and how she used an alternate reality to survive – but it was not just her, but of course Schizophrenics also live these alternate realities, so why don’t we start the movie in an alternate reality? This became the narrative device that helped make the movie successful and earned Ron Howard Akiva Goldsman and myself Oscars.

The beauty of curiosity and being present is that it allows you to turn the constellation of dots in your mind into paths you can access, and that’s a competitive advantage over other people.  It was a competitive advantage for me, competing against powerful producers who often had far greater resource than me.  I realised that being exhaustively curious was my main competitive advantage, because it led to information, knowledge and resourcefulness that others might not have had.

Q:  What is the relationship of making deep human connections to curiosity?

[Brian Grazer]:  To make anything happen, whether it’s raising money for your startup, getting that job, that promotion, or – in my case – raising $100 million for a movie, you need to make connections.  When we talk about connections; it’s not just transactional, it’s about reaching into someone’s heart, expressing your thoughtfulness, intelligence, sincerity or even just being present with them.

To make deep human connections you can’t just be curious; you have to give something of yourself to that other person.  This starts with eye-contact and focussed concentration.  You have to connect with people for them to believe in you, your mission and your vision.  You have to look at people, to give and be the first person to offer part of yourself; that’s often the way to get something back.

In conversations, I’ll try to always be present and make my heart available knowing all the while that not everything I’m going to say is perfect, and that I may have to ask for clarifications and explanations along the way – and that’s fine – you have to be willing to be, and show, the vulnerable side of you.

Let me give you an example; I’d known Spike Lee for about 10 years, but it was only when he actually grabbed my hand one day and looked me in the eye and said (about a new project), ‘I promise this work experience will be one of the best you’ll ever have…’  that I thought, ‘yes, I believe this!’ – I’d always believed in his talent, but he promised me part of himself in this experience; and the result was a movie called Inside Man, with Denzel Washington.  Spike delivered on that promise through the extraordinary results of the film, and the day-to-day process of working with him.

Q:  How can we bring the power of better human connections into our lives?

[Brian Grazer]:  When you go to meet somebody, for example – a meeting – you have to know that the story starts early, not when you’re at their desk.  It starts at reception when you say hello to the first person you see.  It’s a butterfly effect, and all those interactions, and the energy you bring to them are connected.

It’s odd; we live at the most connected time in history, but the loneliest time.  Evidence supports the fact that we’re living through a loneliness epidemic.

When you walk into an elevator, when you’re in your taxi, just put your phone down – look at people, and try and make connections; who knows, they may be advantageous to you.  Put your phone down, look around, be calk, be generous, say hello, hold the door open – do the things our parents probably told us to do as kids! Look people in the eye when you shake their hands!

Everyone thinks Hollywood works on transactional connections, ‘oh this guys uncle was this, or this person was that…’ – That almost never works – you need real, deep relationships at a human level that have unique value.

I’m sure Denzel Washington liked me because, when I sought him out (he was a 20 year old kid) we found independently that we’d formed a deep, human connection; it was this connection that perhaps formed a lot of the reason why he decided to do those two movies with me  – Inside Man and American Gangster. The intangible of trust always has value in the equation of making a decision.

Life is a jump ball, and you want to try to get the tip on that jump ball – and if you’ve made yourself available, looked at somebody in your presence, and if they feel kindness and truth from you? You get the jump ball. Ultimately within all the ingredients of decision making you’re trying to gain the advantage of getting tips on the jump ball in life…

Q:  How can we apply curiosity and connection to our lives?

[Brian Grazer]: The first film I made with Tom Cruise, I was so excited – it’s Tom Cruise! The number one movie star in the world! I was thrilled he wanted to do a movie with Ron and I – but when we went to have the studio meeting, it was way, way over-budget.  I had no idea how to get the budget down and instead of saying to Tom, ‘…you gotta’ get your budget down;’ I said, ‘…Tom, how would you do it? How would you make it for less money?you’re the team-leader here!’ – he said, ‘yep! I sure am!’ and he took over the process and made it cheaper, he’s that efficient.   He made every day move faster because he created a cadence and pace – as a leader, he made the movie substantially less expensive.

When you feel there’s some mutuality with someone you know, perhaps through being in the same job, the same field… or shared objectives…. Maybe you want to raise money for your startup, maybe you want to get a promotion, whatever that mutuality is, you must be prepared to say, ‘…how would I do this?’ – you can’t have nothing, you have to start with something.  You can’t come to me and say, ‘Brian, how do I become a movie producer” or ‘Brian, how do I build a startup’ – you have to be researched, and have substance, and realise it’s OK to not have the answers for how to move forward.  You’re allowed to say, ‘…I love that you like this, what is my next step?’ or ‘does this next step sound right to you?’

What you cannot do is bullshit people; it’s not smart, and it’s not good karma.

Do your homework, don’t be lazy, have some grit, and show you’ve done something.  Find the mutual interest and be curious enough to know what questions to ask.  Great things come from collaboration and people aligning around mutual benefits.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.