John Drescher

Hollywood’s Brian Grazer has a curious mind

From left, Director Ron Howard, actor Russell Crowe and producer Brian Grazer on the set of the film "A Beautiful Mind." Writer Akiva Goldsmith is in background.
From left, Director Ron Howard, actor Russell Crowe and producer Brian Grazer on the set of the film "A Beautiful Mind." Writer Akiva Goldsmith is in background. Getty Images

Brian Grazer is one of Hollywood’s top producers. Among his movies: “Splash,” “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind,” and “8 Mile.” Grazer is relentlessly creative and inquisitive. For more than 35 years, he has sought interesting people from various professions for what he calls “curiosity conversations.” He shared a bowl of ice cream with Princess Diana and asked Michael Jackson to take off his white gloves.

Those conversations led to Grazer’s new book, “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.” The book was co-written with former News & Observer assistant managing editor Charles Fishman, 54.

Fishman, the author of two other books, three times has won the Gerald Loeb Award, the top prize for business journalism. In keeping with the spirit of “A Curious Mind,” I asked Fishman five questions about the book.

Q: What was it like to work with Grazer?

Fishman: Brian Grazer is a fascinating character. He is in many ways unassuming in the sense that you don’t hang out with him and feel like you’re in awe of a genius. But he is clearly a genius. You look at Brian Grazer’s body of work – there is just this incredible thread, this ribbon of quality of telling stories that have an emotional core….

We talked three times a week for 18 months for 30 minutes to an hour. His brain just works in really interesting ways. He is a natural storyteller, even though he doesn’t sit at a keyboard or get behind a camera. I spent a fair amount of time watching him work. He’s always thinking about the story. What are we trying to say? What’s the story here?

Q: Did he interview you?

Fishman: He interviewed me at the beginning the day we first met. He’s good at asking questions in that sense. He was clearly taking my measure. After that I really did most of the asking questions. He much prefers to ask questions than answer them. He didn’t find the process of writing the book to be as much fun as sitting down with a CIA director and a supermodel and the police chief of Los Angeles.

Q: Do you have a favorite story in the book?

Fishman: My favorite moment in the whole book: Brian is asking Edward Teller (the physicist who developed the atomic bomb) whether he knew anything about his movies and Edward Teller saying, “I haven’t seen a movie since ‘Dumbo,’” which had come out 50 years earlier. That’s like, here’s what I think of you and your stupid movie business. I love Brian asking Letitia Baldridge to explain the difference between etiquette and manners.

Q: What made Grazer such a curious person?

Fishman: We tell the story of him being in school, especially elementary school. It was disaster. The guy was failing third grade. He was clearly dyslexic at a time when there wasn’t much thinking about dyslexia. He learned that he was the kind of person who liked stories but he wasn’t going to absorb stories by sitting in a corner with a book. He had curiosity but he didn’t have the outlet that somebody who loved reading had. So he had to find another way to try to understand and appreciate the world....

I think he figured out pretty early that he could connect dots between the value of meeting people and talking with them one on one and being successful in the movie business. He sort of went through this evolution that the way to expand his universe was to meet people outside of the movie business. Almost every profession is hermetic. It’s hugely valuable to get outside your bubble. Curiosity is the antidote to complacency and routine. That’s true no matter what you do in your life.

Q: Do you buy into Grazer’s premise that curiosity can change your life, even your private life?

Fishman: I certainly believe it. I think actually it’s harder to do (in your personal life). I’ve actually tried to do that with my wife and kids and it’s successful to the degree that I’m successful in asking good questions. It’s hard to pause and ask questions of the person who you are most familiar with. But it’s a key to staying connected with people.