K.M. Soehnlein, the award-winning author of The World of Normal Boys, sat down with Hollywood mega-producer Brian Grazer to talk about Grazer's new book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.
Brian Grazer has met everybody. That’s not a cliché, it’s his plan for living. The veteran Hollywood producer has sat with Presidents, political prisoners, rocket scientists, NASCAR drivers, supermodels, and hip hop moguls. Long before earning box office gold for a string of movies from Splash to 8 Mile, sharing a Best Picture Oscar with Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind, or breaking TV ratings records with "Empire," Grazer made it his life work to pursue the people who most intrigued him. At the root of it all, he says, is curiosity.
Grazer’s new book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, co-authored with Charles Fishman, spryly blends memoir (his 4’10” grandmother, Little Sonia, telling him at age five, “Asking questions will be your superpower in life”), self-help inspiration (“I use curiosity to help fight fear”), and you-are-there anecdotes (Oprah in her pajamas at poolside, Princess Diana eating ice cream, LAPD Chief Darryl Gates calmly ordering a tuna sandwich in the midst of the ’92 LA riots).
Like a post-collegiate informational interview, Grazer’s “curiosity conversations”—one every two weeks for 30 years—have gotten him face time with everyone from Obama to Fidel Castro, supermodel Kate Moss to superstar architect Rem Koolhass. The day before I caught up with him at the St. Regis San Francisco, he was at Cape Canaveral, Florida, watching aviation entrepreneur Elon Musk’s most recent rocket launch.
Given the value he places on asking questions, it’s no surprise that Grazer begins our interview quizzing me on SF: Where’s a good place to take a walk, where should he eat, is the Slanted Door still worth a visit? He even wants an opinion on what he’s wearing, since he’s on his way to give a speech at Pinterest right after we’re done.
Grazer is the rare behind-the-scenes producer recognizable even to non-industry folks. He’s the guy whose hair sticks straight out of his head like a spiky crown. “The hair is no accident,” he admits; it’s his attempt to stand out in an industry of “yellers.” As the new kid in 1970s Hollywood, his curiosity conversations with higher-ups helped him demystify the business. “It was an era of big parties, big personalities like Sue Mengers, powerful celebrities that lived lavish Hollywood lives,” he tells me, “and I couldn’t understand what was going on beneath it. It was like trying to pilot a tiny little Cessna through a storm.” He cornered one of the era’s most powerful studio execs, Lew Wasserman, who told him, you don’t have money or connections, so you better put pen to paper. Grazer’s mermaid-in-love story became Splash, his calling card hit, directed by longtime creative partner, Ron Howard. Their company, Imagine Entertainment, is the force behind movies like Apollo 13 and TV shows like Friday Night Lights.
“Of the people I’ve met who are experts or have excelled at something, all of them have curiosity in common,” Grazer says. “Steve Jobs is a very curious guy. Barack Obama. Clinton. Success is a matter of asking, how do you change something? Anyone who’s trying to make a difference is asking questions.”
Not everyone he speaks to is world-famous. The book’s most moving subject is Veronica de Negri, a Chilean activist arrested, disappeared and tortured during the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. “I wanted to know how she survived,” Glazer writes. What he discovers is “a completely new sense of human resilience.”
“I’m interested in power and capacity,” Grazer tells me. “How people use power, do they think they have it, do they think they started with it, was it an aspiration, are you trying to create a legacy or just feel good in the moment?” Stories like de Negri’s take Grazer’s book beyond Hollywood dish into the mysteries of existence. What makes you curious, it turns out, can also make you stronger. x
K.M. Soehnlein is the author of the novels The World of Normal Boys, Robin and Ruby, and You Can Say You Knew Me When.
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