The Secret to a Bigger Life
My office was in a corner on the third floor, with views of the walkways crisscrossing the lot. I would open the window (yes, in the 1970s and 1980s, office windows still opened) and I'd watch the powerful, famous, and glamorous walking by.
I was curious about who was on the lot and who was working with whom. This was during the time when I made myself meet someone new in show business every single day. I liked to shout down from my window at the people walking by—Howard Koch, who cowrote Casablanca; Michael Eisner, who would become CEO of Disney; and Barry Diller, who was CEO of Paramount and Michael Eisner's boss.
One day Brandon Tartikoff was walking by. He was the president of NBC television, in the process of reviving the network with shows like Hill Street Blues and Cheers and Miami Vice. At thirty-two, he was already one of the most powerful people in show business.
"Hey Brandon!" I yelled. "Up here!"
He looked up at me and smiled. "Wow," he said, "you must be in charge of the world from up there."
A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was my boss, Gary Nardino, the head of TV at Paramount. "Brian, what the fuck do you think you're doing, screaming out your window at the president of NBC?"
"I'm just connecting," I said. "We're just having fun."
"I don't think we're having that much fun," Nardino said. "Cut it out."
Okay, not everyone was equally charmed by my style in those days. I was a little scared of Nardino, but not scared enough to stop shouting out the window.
One day I saw Ron Howard walking by. Ron was already famous and successful from his years acting on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, but he was trying to make the leap to directing. As he was walking by, I thought, I'm going to meet Ron Howard tomorrow.
I didn't shout out the window at him. I waited until he got back to his office and called him up. "Ron, it's Brian Grazer," I said. "I see you on the lot. I'm a producer here too. I think we have similar goals. Let's meet and talk about it."
Ron was kind of shy, and he seemed surprised by my phone call. I don't think he really wanted to meet me. I said, "It'll be fun, it'll be relaxed, let's just do it."
A few days later, he did come by to talk. He was trying to become a mainstream movie director, and I was trying to become a mainstream movie producer. We were two guys trying to do something we'd never done before.
The moment he walked into my office, he had this aura about him—a glow. After talking to him, I could tell my choices in life weren't as thoughtful as his. He gave this sense of having a strong moral conscience. I know that sounds silly after just a single meeting, but it was my immediate impression. And it's true. It's the way Ron is today—and it's the way he was thirty-five years ago.
When he walked in, I asked him, "What do you want to be?"
Ron not only wanted to direct, he wanted to direct an R-rated movie. He wanted to change the way people saw him. I had no idea if he could direct. But I immediately decided I was going to bet on him, and try to persuade him to work with me. I started pitching my movie ideas—Splash and Night Shift. He definitely didn't want to do a movie about a man falling in love with a mermaid. But he liked the irreverence of Night Shift, an R-rated comedy about two guys who run a call-girl ring out of the New York City morgue. Not the movie you'd ever predict from the star of Happy Days.
In fact, we made two movies together—Night Shift, and then, despite Ron's initial reluctance, Splash, which became a huge hit. After working so well together on those two movies, we formed our company, Imagine Entertainment, and we've been artistic and business partners for the last thirty years. Not only could Ron direct, he's become a master filmmaker. The movies we've done together include Parenthood, Backdraft, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Apollo 13, and the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind.
My relationship with Ron has been the most important in my life, outside of my family. He's my closest work colleague, and my best friend. I decided to meet Ron after seeing him from my window, and it was my emotional curiosity—my puzzling over what makes Ron Howard Ron Howard—that connected me to him. Again, at one of the most important moments of my life, following my curiosity opened the door.
Ron and I are different in many ways—especially our temperaments. But we share a sense of standards, including how to tell a story, and most important, we agree on what makes a great story. In fact, if there's anyone I know who is as genuinely curious as I am, it's Ron Howard. When we're in meetings together, he asks as many questions as I do, and his questions are different, and they elicit different information.
My curiosity conversations are something I've done with consistency and purpose for thirty-five years. You'll see many examples of them throughout this book. These conversations are events or occasions when curiosity itself is the motivation.
But in my everyday work and life, curiosity itself is not an "occasion." It's the opposite. Curiosity is something I use all the time. I'm always asking questions. For me, it's an instinct. It's also, very distinctly, a technique.
I'm a boss—Ron Howard and I run Imagine together—but I'm not much of an order giver. My management style is to ask questions. If someone's doing something I don't understand, or don't like, if someone who works for me is doing something unexpected, I start out asking questions. Being curious.
I'm constantly meeting new people—sometimes at events, but often the new people are sitting on the couch in my office during the workday. I'm not particularly outgoing, but I have to act outgoing all the time. So how do I handle all these new people—sometimes a dozen in a single day—often sitting eagerly right in front of me, expecting me to run the conversation? I ask questions, of course. I let them do the talking. Being interested in someone isn't that hard if you know even a little about them—and as I've discovered, people love talking about their work, what they know about, their journey.
The entertainment business requires a huge amount of confidence. You have to believe in your own ideas for movies and TV shows, and you quickly discover that the safest answer for any studio or investor or executive to give is "no." I'm often amazed that we get any movies made at all. But you can't succeed in Hollywood if you're discouraged by being told "no," because regardless of the actual quality of your ideas, or even the quality of your track record, you'll get told "no" all the time. You have to have the confidence to push forward. That's true in all corners of the world—you have to have confidence if you work at a Silicon Valley tech company or treat patients at an inner-city hospital. My confidence comes from curiosity. Yes, asking questions builds confidence in your own ideas.
Curiosity does something else for me: it helps me cut through the routine anxiety of work and life.
I worry, for instance, about becoming complacent—I worry that out here in Hollywood, I'll end up in a bubble isolated from what's going on in the rest of the world, from how it's changing and evolving. I use curiosity to pop the bubble, to keep complacency at bay.
I also worry about much more ordinary things—I worry about giving speeches; I worry about the safety of my kids; I even worry about the police—police officers make me nervous. I use curiosity when I'm worried about something. If you understand what kind of speech someone wants you to give, if you understand how cops think, you'll either see your fear dissipate, or you'll be able to handle it.
I use curiosity as a management tool.
I use it to help me be outgoing.
I use curiosity to power my self-confidence.
I use it to avoid getting into a rut, and I use it to manage my own worries.
In the coming chapters, I'm going to analyze and tell stories about these different types of curiosity, because I think they can be useful to almost anyone.
And that is the most important way I use curiosity: I use it to tell stories. That, really, is my profession. My job as a producer is to look for good stories to tell, and I need people to write those stories, to act in them, to direct them. I'm looking for the money to get those stories made, and for ideas about how to sell the finished stories to the public. But, for me, the key to all these elements is the story itself.
Here's one of the secrets of life in Hollywood—a secret you learn in ninth-grade English class, but that many people forget. There are only a few kinds of stories in the world: romance, quest, tragedy, comedy. We've been telling stories for 4,000 years. Every story has been told. And yet here I sit in the middle of a business devoted to either finding new stories, or taking old stories and telling them in fresh ways, with fresh characters.
Good storytelling requires creativity and originality; it requires a real spark of inspiration. Where does the spark come from? I think curiosity is the flint from which flies the spark of inspiration.
In fact, storytelling and curiosity are natural allies. Curiosity is what drives human beings out into the world every day, to ask questions about what's going on around them, about people and why they behave the way they do. Storytelling is the act of bringing home the discoveries learned from curiosity. The story is a report from the front lines of curiosity.
Storytelling gives us the ability to tell everyone else what we've learned—or to tell everyone the story of our adventure, or about the adventures of the people we've met. Likewise, nothing sparks curiosity like good storytelling. Curiosity drives the desire to keep reading the book you can't put down, it's the desire to know how much of a movie you've just seen is true.
Curiosity and storytelling are intertwined. They give each other power.
What makes a story fresh is the point of view of the person telling it.
I produced a movie called Splash, about what happens when a man falls in love with a mermaid.
I produced a movie called Apollo 13, the true story of what happens when three U.S. astronauts get trapped in their crippled spaceship.
I produced a movie called 8 Mile, about trying to be a white rap musician in the black rap world of Detroit.
I produced a movie called American Gangster, about a heroin smuggler in Vietnam-era New York.
American Gangster isn't about a gangster—it's about capability, it's about talent and determination.
8 Mile isn't about rap music, it isn't even about race—it's about surmounting humiliation, about respect, about being an outsider.
Apollo 13 isn't about aeronautics—it's about resourcefulness, about putting aside panic in the name of survival.
And Splash, of course, isn't about mermaids—only a thousand people in Hollywood told me we couldn't make a movie about mermaids. Splash is about love, about finding the right love for yourself, as opposed to the love others would choose for you.
I don't want to make movies about alluring mermaids or courageous astronauts, about brazen drug smugglers or struggling musicians. At least, I don't want to make predictable movies about only those things.
I don't want to tell stories where the "excitement" comes from explosions or special effects or sex scenes.
I want to tell the very best stories I can, stories that are memorable, that resonate, that make the audience think, that sometimes make people see their own lives differently. And to find those stories, to get to inspiration, to find that spark of creativity, what I do is ask questions.
What kind of story is it? Is it a comedy? A myth? An adventure?
What's the right tone for this story?
Why are the characters in this story in trouble?
What connects the characters in this story to each other?
What makes this story emotionally satisfying?
Who is telling this story, and what is that person's point of view? What is his challenge? What is her dream?
And most important, what is this story about? The plot is what happens in the story, but that plot is not what the story is about.
I don't think I'd be very good at my job if I weren't curious. I think I'd be making movies that weren't very good.
I keep asking questions until something interesting happens. My talent is to know enough to ask the questions, and to know when something interesting happens.
What I think is so exciting about curiosity is that it doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what your job is, or what your passion is. Curiosity works the same way for all of us—if we use it well.
You don't have to be Thomas Edison. You don't have to be Steve Jobs. You don't have to be Steven Spielberg. But you can be "creative" and "innovative" and "compelling" and "original"—because you can be curious.
Curiosity doesn't only help you solve problems—no matter what those problems are. There's a bonus: curiosity is free. You don't need a training course. You don't need special equipment or expensive clothing, you don't need a smartphone or a high-speed Internet connection, you don't need the full set of the Encyclopædia Britannica (which I was always a little sad I didn't have).
You're born curious, and no matter how much battering your curiosity has taken, it's standing by, ready to be awakened.
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Grazer