The Secret to a Bigger Life
I developed a brief introduction for the secretaries and assistants who answered the phone: "Hi, my name is Brian Grazer. I work for Warner Bros. Business Affairs. This is not associated with studio business, and I do not want a job, but I would like to meet Mr. So-and-so for five minutes to talk to him..." And I always offered a specific reason I wanted to talk to everyone.
My message was clear: I worked at a real place, I only wanted five minutes on the schedule, I did not want a job. And I was polite.
Just like insisting on handing over the legal documents in person, the speech worked like a charm.
I talked to producer David Picker, who was at Columbia Pictures.
Then I thought maybe I could see producer Frank Yablans, and I did.
Once I'd met Yablans, I thought, Maybe I can meet Lew Wasserman, the head of MCA. And I did.
I worked myself up the ladder. Talking to one person in the movie business suggested a half dozen more people I could talk to. Each success gave me the confidence to try for the next person. It turned out I really could talk to almost anyone in the business.
That was the start of something that changed—and continues to change—my life and my career, and which ultimately inspired this book.
I started having what I called curiosity conversations. At first, they were just inside the business. For a long time, I had a rule for myself: I had to meet one new person in the entertainment business every day. But pretty quickly I realized that I could actually reach out and talk to anyone, in any business that I was curious about. It's not just showbiz people who are willing to talk about themselves and their work—everyone is.
For thirty-five years, I've been tracking down people about whom I was curious and asking if I could sit down with them for an hour. I've had as few as a dozen curiosity conversations in a year, but sometimes I've done them as often as once a week. My goal was always at least one every two weeks. Once I started doing the curiosity conversations as a practice, my only rule for myself was that the people had to be from outside the world of movies and TV.
The idea wasn't to spend more time with the kinds of people I worked with every day. I had quickly discovered that the entertainment business is incredibly insular—we tend to talk only to ourselves. It's easy to think that movies and TV are a miniature version of the world. That's not just wrong, it's a perspective that leads to mediocre movies, and also to being boring.
I was so serious about the curiosity conversations that I often spent a year or more trying to arrange a meeting with particular people. I would spend hours calling, writing letters, cajoling, befriending assistants. As I got more successful and busier, I assigned one of my staff to arrange the conversations—the New Yorker did a little piece on the job, which came to be known as "cultural attaché." For a while, I had someone whose only job was to arrange the conversations.
The point was to follow my curiosity, and I ranged as widely as I could. I sat down with two CIA directors. With both Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. I met with the man who invented the most powerful weapon in history and the richest man in the world. I met with people I was scared of; I met people that I really didn't want to meet.
I never meet anyone with a movie in mind (although in recent years, it's clear that some people met with me because they thought that maybe I would do a movie about them or their work). The goal for me is to learn something.
The results have always been surprising, and the connections I've made from the curiosity conversations have cascaded through my life—and the movies we make—in the most unexpected ways. My conversation with the astronaut Jim Lovell certainly started me on the path to telling the story of Apollo 13. But how do we convey, in a movie, the psychology of being trapped on a crippled spaceship? It was Veronica de Negri, a Chilean activist who was tortured for months by her own government, who taught me what it's like to be forced to rely completely on oneself to survive. Veronica de Negri helped us to get Apollo 13 right as surely as Jim Lovell did.
Over time, I discovered that I'm curious in a particular sort of way. My strongest sense of curiosity is what I call emotional curiosity: I want to understand what makes people tick; I want to see if I can connect a person's attitude and personality with their work, with their challenges and accomplishments.
I met with Jonas Salk, the scientist and physician who cured polio, a man who was a childhood hero of mine. It took me more than a year to get an audience with him. I wasn't interested in the scientific method Salk used to figure out how to develop the polio vaccine. I wanted to know what it was like to help millions of people avoid a crippling disease that shadowed the childhoods of everyone when I was growing up. And he worked in a different era. He was renowned, admired, successful—but he received no financial windfall. He cured what was then the worst disease afflicting the world, and he never made a dime from that. Can you imagine that happening today? I wanted to understand the mind-set that turns a cure like that loose in the world.
I met with Edward Teller, who created the hydrogen bomb. He was an old man when I met him, working on the anti-missile "Star Wars" program for President Reagan. He was another person I had to lobby for a year in order to get an hour with him. I wanted to understand the intellect of a man who creates something like the hydrogen bomb and what his sense of morality is like.
I met with Carlos Slim, the Mexican businessman who is the richest man in the world. How does the richest man in the world live every day? I wanted to know what it takes to be that kind of businessman, to be so driven and determined that you win bigger than anyone else.
The truth is that when I was meeting someone like Salk or Teller or Slim, what I hoped for was an insight, a revelation. I wanted to grasp who they were. Of course, you don't usually get that with strangers in an hour.
Salk was gracious and friendly. Teller was crabby. And Carlos Slim was unlike what I expected, not brisk or businesslike or ruthless in any way. He was very warm. Very Latino. At lunch, he ordered a lot of courses, he drank wine, it seemed like he had nowhere else he wanted to be—our lunch lasted three hours.
I've done hundreds and hundreds of curiosity meetings. It's the thing I look forward to, and often the thing I end up enjoying the most. For me, when I'm learning from someone who is right in front of me, it's better than sex. It's better than success.
I had my first real curiosity conversation outside the entertainment business when I was twenty-three years old. I had been fired from the law clerk's job at Warner Bros. (after fifteen months, they thought I was having too much fun, and delivering too few documents), and I was working for the producer Edgar Scherick (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Stepford Wives), trying to become a producer myself.
I went to see F. Lee Bailey. Bailey was the most famous criminal trial attorney in the country at that point, having been the lawyer for Sam Sheppard and Patty Hearst.
I had an idea for a TV series, what I was calling F. Lee Bailey's Casebook of American Crimes—kind of a judicial version of Walt Disney Presents, using an expert to narrate the stories of these great cases.
I really wanted to talk to Bailey. He was winning a lot of important cases. How did he pick them? Does he have a moral compass? How does he communicate in the courtroom—with facts? With legal points? With the morality of the case?
I wanted to understand the distinction between a lawyer's belief system and what he or she was good at. What was Bailey's purpose in life, and how did that mesh with his talents?
When I tracked him down, he was preparing for trial in a case in Las Cruces, New Mexico. For some reason he agreed to see me, so I flew out there.
It was kind of crazy. He was staying in this tiny town, at this Western-themed road motel, a little run-down, with a kidney-shaped swimming pool. I had no idea what was going to happen. I knocked on the door, he let me in—he was alone, no assistants—and he told me to come in while he practiced his arguments.
It was ungodly hot. I hung out on the couch in his room. He seemed to be creating his case right in front of me. After a little while, he sent me to the liquor store across the street to buy him a bottle of Johnny Walker Black.
He had a drink. He was pacing back and forth in the room, getting more confident, ramping up his argument, sounding really smart. He had tons of information. I didn't really understand it, but he was testing it out on me.
Right there in the motel room, I could see that the guy was a force. Spellbinding.
I flew home thinking he would be great at hosting this TV show. In those days, before reality TV and Nancy Grace and Greta Van Susteren, we were thinking of it as a miniseries. We did a deal with Bailey, we hired a writer, but in the end it never got made.
Still, sitting there on the couch in that sticky motel room, in that small town in New Mexico, listening to Bailey build his case, I realized that there's a huge distance between the noble reasons he probably went to law school—which were still there, deeply embedded in him—and what things were like at that moment.
It was a whole new way to look at lawyers and their work.
I never made a movie about F. Lee Bailey, of course, although his life is certainly rich enough for one. I didn't even make a movie about lawyers until twenty years later, when I did Liar Liar, with Jim Carrey, about what happens to a lawyer who is forced to tell nothing but the truth for twenty-four hours straight.
For me, the curiosity conversations are just the most obvious, the most visible example of my own curiosity. They are a kind of discipline, like the exercise routine, because you don't get to talk to busy, interesting people unless you put steady effort into persuading them to see you.
But the curiosity conversations are different from the workouts in this way: I hate exercising, I just like the results. I love the curiosity conversations, while they are happening. The results—a month or a decade later—are something I count on, but they are a bonus.
In fact, of course, all I do is talk—I talk for a living. Actually, I try to listen for a living. Being a movie and TV producer means I live a version of the life John Calley showed me forty years ago. I have meetings and phone calls and conversations all day long. For me, every one of those is in fact a curiosity conversation. I don't just use curiosity to get to meet famous people, or to find good scripts. I use curiosity to make sure movies get made—on budget, on time, and with the most powerful storytelling possible. I've discovered that even when you're in charge, you are often much more effective asking questions than giving orders.