For Brian Grazer, being a film and TV producer isn’t all about name-dropping celebrities and A-lister lunches at the Palm. OK, some of the job is definitely about that.
But the spiky-haired Oscar winner behind movies such as “A Beautiful Mind” and “Apollo 13,” and shows including “Arrested Development” and “Empire,” says one of the keys to his success has been his ability to connect deeply with other people, whether he’s talking to Bono or an Uber driver in Paris. That’s probably no surprise coming from Grazer, who co-founded Imagine Entertainment with Ron Howard in 1986, establishing one of the entertainment business’ most enduring partnerships.
In his 2015 book, “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life,” Grazer drew heavily on his habit of engaging in “curiosity conversations” with the likes of scientist Jonas Salk and writer Isaac Asimov. His new book, “Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection,” explores the virtues of getting people to open up with one another, starting with basic eye contact, in an era defined by social media and smartphone-enabled multitasking. He writes about how that skill, combined with old-fashioned Hollywood persistence, helped him get such hits as “Inside Man” and “American Gangster” made.
In an interview at his Santa Monica home, the 68-year-old Grazer spoke about why he wrote “Face to Face,” the future of his company, and how actor Tom Hanks kept him from bailing on the Eminem movie “8 Mile.”
Why did you decide to focus this new book on human connection, and the importance of eye contact?
My curiosity conversations have defined my life professionally and personally. With these conversations, I’m trying to produce my best date, for them and for me. Whether it’s with Princess Diana or John Nash, I always knew you had to make a point of being completely present with them, but not until two years ago did I realize that is created through eye contact. If you’re immediately taking this simple step of looking at somebody in the eye, that makes a statement to them: “I see you.” We’re reading people’s energy more than what they say. By looking someone in the eyes, it enables great things to happen.
Face-to-face communication is not something that always came naturally to you, as a kid who struggled with a learning disability. How did you overcome that obstacle?
Early on in elementary school, I’d actually developed very flawed eye contact. I was crippled by dyslexia, and I had a hard time reading, and therefore I never wanted to be asked a question in class because I knew I couldn’t answer it. So I developed all these different methods of diverting my eyes so I wouldn’t get picked. I would look down, look away or look at my shoes. But then I found that in college, I was one of the smart kids, and it felt really good to be one of the smart kids.
I’m a very successful communicator, when I’m concentrating and focusing. It’s not a natural thing for me. Ron Howard and I were working on our first movie together, “Night Shift” (1982) with two writers, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. In meetings, I’m often not looking at them because I feel like I’m getting away with multitasking. So Ron says gently to me, “You know, when we’re meeting with Lowell and Babaloo, I kind of notice you don’t really look at them.” And I go, “But I’m completely involved in the conversation. I’m getting it all.” And he says, “Yeah, but when you don’t look at them, it makes them feel bad; it hurts their feelings.”
That was very influential for me, particularly said by Ron Howard, who’s kind and gentle.
What was a pivotal moment in your career where this skill helped you? I’m thinking of an awkward early meeting you had with Eminem before making “8 Mile.”
So, I had an office that was very comfortable. I wanted people to want to talk, and I had a lot of success getting people to communicate in this office. But when Eminem came in, he stared straight out a window that looked out onto Wilshire Boulevard. I did everything possible, and I’m pretty creative at getting people to engage. But he had this impenetrable icy glare. It’s intimidating.
Eventually, he just decided he was going to leave, after about 20 of the longest minutes of my life. Out of complete desperation, as his hand hit the door to exit, I said, “Oh, come on, you can animate.” I don’t even know why I said that word. I guess because I’d seen the urban side of him, and I’ve seen the really funny and fluid side of him. And then he paused and he came back, to my surprise, and we really opened up to each other. For the next 40 minutes to an hour, he basically told me his story, which became really the body of the movie.
What made you persist in that moment?
I think I was just determined to understand him. He wasn’t yet even near the peak of his career, but he was already at that time today’s genius rap poet, who was doing a really unique thing. It was such an intellectual entry point into hip-hop. I had to understand it.
I’ll tell you another story, but it’s unrelated. After a couple years of working with Eminem, we had a script, we had a director, and we were ready to make the movie. And it was at a time when he was having an issue with Elton John, and he seemed homophobic. And I thought, “If I make this movie, I’m empowering that.” I thought, “Am I doing the right thing? Maybe I shouldn’t be making this movie now.”
Then, serendipitously, I’m having dinner with Tom Hanks at Giorgio Baldi. And I say, “I’m about to make this movie on this guy, Eminem, and I’m thinking I may be fueling his power source by making this movie, and I’m thinking he could be homophobic. I don’t want to do that.” And he says, “Are you crazy? That’s another character. ... That’s Slim Shady. He doesn’t even take it seriously. He’s not a homophobe.” ... And I thought, if anyone knows, it’s this guy, Tom Hanks. So I just went forward. He was the gatekeeper, and he didn’t know it.
You really considered not making “8 Mile”?
I was definitely not going to do it, because I thought it could be really bad karma for me. Karma is my guidepost to life.
One of your most interesting upcoming projects is “Hillbilly Elegy,” based on the 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance about his difficult upbringing in rural Ohio. Why did you want to do this adaptation?
Ron and I like making movies about family. Everybody roots for family. We had the slightly dysfunctional extended family in “Parenthood,” and we had the highly dysfunctional family in “Arrested Development,” and this is another extension of the American family. Everybody thinks their family is [messed] up. You cherish your family, no matter how [messed] up you think your brother is.
Imagine Entertainment has been an independent producer for several years, after a long relationship with Universal Pictures. How has that changed your business?
We’ve expanded by being independent. Being dedicated to one studio or one network or television environment can be very important if you really need that singular support to get TV shows and movies made. If you find that perfect marriage with a studio, it can be fortifying.
But I think now, with multiple platforms of all types that make all sizes and shapes of narrative content, we’ve come to realize that stories are everything. As a writer-producer, I know that, but I don’t think the tech industry knew that. They just thought stories are valueless or extraneous. But I think we learned that stories are what move people. Unless you tell a story that becomes visceral and reaches people, you’re not differentiating yourself from all the clutter.
Even as recently as “Empire,” no one wanted a 90%-plus African American cast show on network television. But I think we saw there were certain ingredients that could make that work within the equation of the show. People love watching stories of earned success. People like being in glamorous environments, if it’s earned and juicy. Those are the ingredients that made “Empire” work.
You recently hired Rich Battista, formerly of Time Inc., as chief executive of Imagine Entertainment. What went into that decision?
Ron and I thought, Imagine is not just two guys making movies and television. We’ve expanded to seven different divisions. A big documentary division headed by Justin Wilkes and Sara Bernstein. We have really smart captains of these teams. Same thing with family entertainment, led by Stephanie Sperber. We recently bought a stake in [family entertainment brand] “Tiny Chef.” It felt like we’d better get someone who could be in the middle of all that operationally, to optimize those divisions, to raise money if it’s needed and to be the team captain. That enables Ron and I to focus on what we do the best.
What’s the endgame for the company, now that we’re in this era of consolidation and streaming? Does Imagine eventually raise more money, merge or sell a stake?
Probably any and all of those things, if they’re the right mix. We’ve had a couple companies propose to buy our company, and we’ve had many different merger possibilities, but these marriages are really sensitive, and you want to do the one that’s best for both people. I get very excited about some of these things, like super excited. But then I start living them and realize, “Wow, how will that change how we do what we do best?” If the right partnership comes along, we’ll all know it. We’ll feel it.
Are you pursuing something like that?
Not actively pursuing, no. I don’t think that works. It’s like trying to pursue the right husband or wife. I think you just have to try to be yourself, be smart, be happy. With a lot of these things, there’s chance involved.