Brian Grazer: The Life of Brian
The summer of 1992 was a busy one for producer Brian Grazer. Based on their previous success, the duo had just been named Producers of the Year by the National Association of Theater Owners. With three upcoming movies to promote, Grazer sat down for a feast of Chinese food to discuss how he left a career in law to make movies with TV’s Richie Cunningham. In this interview from the July 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Grazer is surprisingly honest – especially when it comes to his commercial (as opposed to artistic) aspirations.
Brian Grazer leads me to the couch in his office–the decor is New Mexico on a thousand dollars a day–and sits me down. There are tired shadows drifting across the gusto of his aspect, like cloud cover threatening a sunny day.
“Are you single?” he wonders, searching my face for what appears to be more than the answer I have to give, which is no. “Because in case you haven’t heard,” he adds with a mirthless laugh, “I’m in the middle of a divorce.” Of course I’ve heard. When Liz Smith gets into the act, the smart money says Eskimos know all about the end of Brian Grazer’s nine-year, two-child marriage to Corki.
“Do you get along with your wife?” he asks me, with some hesitation.
“Yeah. I mean, we try our damnedest not to, but it just seems to work out the other way, I guess.”
“Then you must love her.”
“That’s great. I love mine and she hates me.” It doesn’t take much straining to imagine the little gasp of a publicist somewhere, appalled at such a display of candor. Brian apparently doesn’t have or want one.
I find myself caught between two dispositions approaching from opposite directions. From the north comes Brian Grazer the Imagine Films Entertainment co-CEO, the positron, his energy clock running like the first seven notes of “Layla.” Brian Grazer, the partner of average guy Ron Howard, the producer of Splash, Parenthood, Kindergarten Cop and other crowd-pleasers ripe with the optimistic signature of his DNA. Brian the cheerful, a man who, by the sheer blithesomeness of his will, could bend a fork, could bend a smile on the corpse of Leonid Brezhnev. “I’m impervious to all rejection,” he told The New York Times in 1985. But coming from the south is the Brian Grazer with a bum voltage regulator, emotionally discharging at a rate that seems to be visibly driving a wedge between himself and his surroundings.
Crack open a filmmaker and you find pieces of organizational skills and corporate logic, a thousand colored wires of communication, adversarial friendships, threats and easements, brinkmanship and lucky charms, the metabolic waste of hot-spot dining, a hundred undone deals, ideas spewing out (some his own, others surreptitious transfusions). The Brian Grazer from the north, curious beyond his ninth life, would want to examine all the pieces. Brian Grazer from the south, bereavement all over him like soot, would just be shattered.
Now it’s a year later. I’m standing in the middle of a glass-walled conference room, waiting for Brian to wrap up a meeting. A feast of Chinese food has been beautifully spread out on a side table for us. Even the fortune cookies look symmetrically arranged through the efforts of someone bucking for a raise.
“Unh-unh-unh–those are for the end,” Brian admonishes me from my flank. As he strides across the room, employees passing outside the conference room wave and call to him through the glass. Ron Howard might be the most normal person at Imagine, but Brian is clearly the most popular. He waves and hollers back with the celebration of an astronaut on the gantry to the space shuttle. Though he is dressed worse than I am– worse, in fact, than the guy taking tickets in the parking structure of his building–Brian has a spring back in his step. His latest film, Far and Away, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman will close Cannes this year, and he’s got two other films, Goldie Hawn’s Housesitter and Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang, hitting the screens this summer. Brian is back from the dead.
“I couldn’t talk, could I?” he says, recalling our encounter of last year. “It was bad, huh?”
“You looked like you were inhaling Freon.”
“I was traumatized, dude. I mean, I wasn’t one of those people that becomes so completely distraught that they lay on their beds and feel the room spinning, but it was close. I was laying there. I was traumatized at that point.”
Suddenly, Grazer shouts through the walls of our aquarium: “Ladies! Hey Ladies! You got any chopsticks? Chop chop chop! Choppers?”
The films Grazer has produced probably say it all. A run on the beach with his then “surfer chick,” Corki, whom he soon married, provided the inspiration for Imagine’s first big hit, Splash (Ron Howard’s directorial breakthrough, although Grand Theft Auto had its moments). And the children he and Corki brought into the world, Sage and Riley, provoked the transcendental bliss behind Parenthood.
“The kids rock the house down,” Brian rhapsodizes, pointing to his temple with a chopstick. “I know I’m a good father, I know I’m a good dad. Positive of that. I know because they literally follow me into the bathroom, I have no privacy. Yeah, I see my wife. It’s kind of tricky … we talk. We have kids, you know? So we really make an effort. I’d say we get along, which is nice. She flips me out a little bit … why … you thinking of dating her?”
No, but if we ever have dinner together, I’ll eat lightly, so as not to remind her of Brian. His plate looks like one of those newspaper ads for the homeless at Thanksgiving, ladled high with shrimp salad, fried rice, a lobster dish, sweet and sour pork and broccoli with beef. The animal rights people would not be happy.
“I have a girlfriend now,” Brian says, as if to sum up his personal life. He sounds as though he’s speaking about a toupee or liver spots, something you never thought you’d be able to live with in a million years. “But that’s not important–no one cares about that. Hopefully, they’ll care more about my TV special.”
The apple of Brian’s eye is not another Problem Child sequel, or even a second violent kidfest with Schwarzenegger. It’s “A Day On Earth,” a touchy-feely-sounding TV extravaganza that will run on all three networks some time between Christmas and New Year’s.
“I’m still working on it, still conceptualizing it. We’ll start production in about a month. It begins with the premise that all mankind is good, with the exception of people who are genetically fucked up. I really believe that–that all man is good and that essentially it’s a sixth sense that has to be tapped in each one of us. The special’s not about ecology, war, peace, government. It’s just how we relate to each other as human beings, and how all of those things come out of how we relate. What we hope to do is to try and demystify fear in human beings so that we can learn to treat each other a little better.”
The materialization of Brian Grazer began in the dust of a $5-an-hour office job at Warner Bros, and the swirl of a memorized greeting: “Hi, my name is Brian Grazer. I work in Warner Bros, legal affairs. This is entirely unrelated to studio business. Can I meet with you for five minutes?” Using the office and phone lines of a fired executive, young USC law student Grazer put in calls to every successful producer and director in the firmament. Later the calls evolved into pitches, when, in what might have been Brian Grazer’s first epiphany, he realized that the idea was to have ideas.
By 1975, he had had his next revelation, which was that working in Hollywood meant being out of a job. Quitting law school in 1975 to pursue his career as a movie producer, Grazer took one step backwards; since his internship at Warners was contingent upon his education, he was promptly fired. He still had the ideas, however, and for the next year, he peddled them with the bowed neck of a Fuller brush man. “I think I got three thousand–no, twenty-five hundred for my first two story ideas–each. That’ll barely keep you in Sex Wax today,” says surfer Brian. “But it seemed like a lot then.”
The ideas reached fruition in the form of television movies, followed by a short, but lucrative, stay as a producer for Paramount Television. It wasn’t the $100,000-a-year salary, however, as much as the people populating the place where he collected it that put him in Krugs. When Richie Cunningham had the good sense to leave Milwaukee and join the army, Grazer had a partner.
“Ron was just quitting ‘Happy Days’ while I was at Paramount. I saw him on the lot. We talked…” Brian surrenders one of his ironic, whimsical snickers, a falsetto dredged from the pit of his stomach. Grazer and Howard’s first picture together would be the generously praised comedy Night Shift, featuring “Happy Days” alumnus Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton making his screen debut, and Kevin Costner, still lingering in obscurity. By the spring of 1986, Grazer and Howard would be ready to file a registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission offering 1.6 million units of common stock in Imagine Films Entertainment Inc.
Thereafter followed major box-office successes like Splash, Parenthood, Kindergarten Cop, Backdraft and Problem Child. Earlier this year The National Association of Theatre Owners presented Grazer with their Producer of the Year award in Las Vegas, and no wonder. Love them or hate them, Grazer films have the ol’ pizzazz, the schmaltz to draw in a broad demographic.
“Just remember, you said that. Believe me, I don’t need to be quoted as saying, ‘Movies need to have that old pizzazz,'” Brian laughs.
“YOOOA! PEOPLE! LADIES! SOMEONE! WE GOT SOY SAUCE HIDIN’ IN A DRAWER SOMEWHERE?” Brian hollers through the glass. When he returns from the buffet table with another full load of Chinese food, he frowns at my plate. “Look how little you’re eating! You trying to get into a smaller size of jeans, or what? Come on, eat, eat! So …” he eases in to his second helping, “I guess you probably think I know what I’m doing, don’t you?”
“Yeah, except for Backdraft. Don’t you?”
“The story of Backdraft didn’t quite work, did it? But, yeah, I really think I know what I’m doing and I really think that given my objective as a filmmaker, I know as well as anybody how to make mainstream audience-pleasing movies. This might be a lightweight thing to say, but I am an audience or pop filmmaker.”
At work here is what some have identified as Brian’s casual quality, a way of speaking in highlights, of extracting the critical marrow, tying a bow around it and disarmingly presenting it to you with the receipt, in case you’re inclined to take it back for exchange. Casual and loose, sure, like the swaying belly of a mountain lion. You don’t make a film with Oliver Stone, the self-styled Ezra Pound of the Directors Guild, if you’re a diffident gum chewer. Or maybe you do.
“Our personalities are different,” says Grazer of Stone, who directed The Doors for Imagine. “He operates on a certain negative energy. He tests you and teases you and baits you all the time.
“So how do you handle it?”
“Well, I think it’s funny. I get a big kick out of it–I think he’s a real funny guy. Even though most of the time you can ward it off, he can break through occasionally and intimidate you sometimes, you know what I mean? I bought the rights and then married Oliver Stone to the project, and it became his vision. I met him and he said that he thought Jim Morrison was a soul mate of his. And he talked about the film in psychological and philosophical terms and convinced me that he was very connected to that person. Look, as a filmmaker, he’s one of the greatest living ones that we have. The trial-by-intimidation, that’s his nature and it does different things to different people. But for the most part, I think he’s really funny and fun to be around.”
The Doors didn’t do the kind of business that would cause its makers to stand up and salute. But of course, not all of Imagine’s films have been successes. The Dream Team, Opportunity Knocks, Cry-Baby and The ‘burbs were much bigger letdowns.
“I like to make money on my movies,” says Brian evenly. “I really care about that. I really am driven to please the audience. Art for art’s sake, I can’t do that. The closest thing I did–but that wasn’t really art–I made Closet Land with essentially my own money.”
An essay on Third World torture, the 1991 Closet Land was so out of character for Imagine that Leonard Maltin exclaimed, “Co-produced by Ron Howard!” in his Movie and Video Guide 1992. Made for a million-eight and starring Madeleine Stowe and Alan Rickman, the story congealed out of a series of meetings Brian had with ex-political prisoner Veronica DeNegri, after being introduced to her by Sting and Bruce Springsteen during the Amnesty International Tour.
“The woman was an inspiration. She survived torture in Chile and she might be one of the very few people who’ve survived torture that you can come across who is still capable of being hopeful and inspirational. I’m also fascinated with torture, itself.” For a man willing to wrangle with Oliver Stone and a cast of 500 hippie-extras, that goes without saying.
“My life,” says Grazer, “is collateralized by lots of interests. And more than that, my life, which is fueled by curiosity, and my search for the truth and happiness are commensurate to one another. If I don’t feel like I’m in a state of truth, whatever that might be…I’m not completely happy. And because I’m driven by curiosity, if I’m not learning things, or experiencing new things, then I’m not as happy as I would like to be–”
“A state of truth? Does that happen often?”
“Well, yeah…” Grazer avows, sounding like a guy with a system for beating blackjack, for doubling down on providence. “I have different epiphanies.”
“So what was your last one?”
“Tell me yours first,” Brian counters.
Okay. I discovered not long ago that the debilitating allergy to mediocrity from which I suffer–brought on by things as disparate as those little black arrows that say “key buy” in the market, PTA cupcakes and the Ford logo–attacks women as well. And in the middle of a left turn at an intersection, it hit me like an electrical shock that in Jimi Hendrix’s sublime composition, “Castles Made of Sand,” it’s perfectly okay for him to sing, “And so castles made of sand…slips in the sea,” instead of slip.
How all of this can somehow be transferred into Brian Grazer’s “useful revelations” file might best be summarized by the expression he casts on my epiphanies. It is a look that suggests a walk through the stables in a pair of slippers.
“I’ve had some money-related epiphanies,” Brian says, now taking his turn. “They’re all different–money, for example, in terms of the importance or lack of importance of it. People will do just about anything–people will put themselves through a lot of pain and defer a lot of happiness to have or accumulate money.”
“You never did?”
“Not so much, not so much. But I don’t care that much about money. I’m driven by other things. I like making money, but money for me is a by-product of other things. I like the process of making movies. I would be richer if I cared more about money.”
There is an element of truth in this otherwise specious remark. Due to Imagine’s corporate structure (when the company went public back in ’86, Grazer and Howard agreed to reinvest their creative fees from other films into Imagine), Imagine’s co-founders found themselves short-changed during the ’80s boom where, had they been free to offer their services in the open market, they might have realized markedly greater earnings. Grazer and Howard have announced that come this November they will not renew their existing contracts with the company they run together, and will perhaps re-imagine Imagine in a way more to their liking.
“But I still suffer from that to a certain degree. Of liking money more than I should. There are people I know who have seven or eight hundred million dollars that would give up all their money to not have certain physical ailments, like horrible back trouble or arthritic conditions. Or being psychologically imperiled because of their up-bringing. They’d give up almost everything to be free from that. Since I’m not psychologically abused, or because I’m physically in perfect condition, I don’t have to make that trade. So it leads me to the conclusion that I should live every single day like the guy that’s willing to give up everything to be in the position that I am in. I’m really lucky and I have to take complete advantage of that.”
It would not take a divining rod to determine that the subtext here points to a moderate preoccupation with money. Is this a weakness? In a business that has ultimately been forced to grapple with the economic morass the rest of the country has had a head start on, obviously not.
A popular conception rests with the assumption that Brian Grazer is boyish, that his enthusiasm can be traced to an arrested adolescence, that if you’re in a room with him you can expect to hear the clang of a study-hall bell. In fact, this is not exactly true, unless foregoing a tie and a suit puts you in Doogie Howser’s age group. If, indeed, he bears an attribute associated with the young, it might be a weakness for immediate gratification. To appease the near-gluttony of his curiosity, he holds meetings with physicists, hangs out with think tank genius-stiffs from the RAND corporation, talks Nobel prize winner Donald Cram into giving him a crash course in molecular structure, picks the brain of a political prisoner. And unwilling to neglect the psychic and the physical, he has his surfboard and a hankering for sweat lodges.
“It’s the oldest form of church in the North American continent. You stay in about an hour and a half. The real place to go is on an Indian burial ground. When we were location-shooting in Montana for Far and Away, I found one there.” If you’re envisioning Arnie and Mel and Julia shorting out their portable flip phones with perspiration, forget it. Says Brian, “There’s a lot of effort that goes into them. First of all, the only place you can go locally is in Point Dume, north of Malibu where there’s an Indian burial ground. It’s work because you have to have the right people in the sweat lodge. You want a chief in there, like Nobby Brown, the Crow Indian. You want other Indians. You wanna make sure that some rock star’s not in there with you. You don’t want it to be this Hollywood thing. What you’re trying to do, after all, is to take your mind off of yourself, and put it on a higher plane, or, at the very minimum, another plane.”
Grazer is about to eschew higher planes in favor of the full-strength glitz of Cannes, where Europeans will get an early glimpse of Far and Away. But before submitting to such things as the inevitable tyranny of Madonna’s cups, Brian will visit his mother, who owns a home in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. Along with him, he’ll take his girlfriend, his two kids, a nanny and his surfboard. “The surf there is fantastic–it’s the Mexican pipeline,” Grazer enthuses, his voice rising to the swell of a six-foot knuckle. “Surfing is obsessive. It’s completely different than any other sport–it’s an adrenaline-provoking sport–because the variables are changing all the time. The water always changes. The wave changes in height, speed and dimension and there are people on that wave other than you. It’s a synergy between the wave and the competition of the other people on the wave.”
Setting his chopsticks aside for a brief moment to give what must be a tapeworm as long as the twine used to wrap Michael Bolton’s hate mail a rest, Brian gives me a canny once-over. “I know you’d like there to be a parallel to the rush of my business, but there isn’t. The only thing that has a similar axis point, from my side of the business, is that I create and make movies and I have no idea, really, how the public is going to react to them. You just never know. I like that sense of complete unpredictability to a certain degree. The excitement of surfing comes from its own unpredictability. I don’t wanna get beat up … but I kinda like the idea that it’s possible.”
Brian abruptly announces that it’s time to stop, but he looks puzzled when I reach to flip off my recorder.
“Oh, I meant eating. I don’t like to eat for too many hours. It’s 2:30 and I really should stop.”
“You mean you time yourself for eating?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s how organized I am … See, if I’m going to eat at 7:30 tonight, I don’t want to be eating after 2:30 in the afternoon.”
“You can’t just eat until you’re full?”
“I don’t get full. I could eat this and go up for another round. So I have to time myself. I’m extremely organized.” Grazer shrugs. “And I suppose that could be viewed as a strength and a weakness. To the good, I have everything compartmentalized and sorted out. But it’s probably not fun to live with. I’m not Felix Unger, but I’m in that category.”
Speaking of the anal retentive, that brings us to Tom Cruise’s Irish brogue in Far and Away.
“Perfect,” Brian insists. “He lived with this Irish family for three months.”
“I read somewhere that he has some kind of sound technology to improve the quality of his voice,” I say, referring to reports that a few of Cruise’s fellow Scientologists developed some high-tech recording equipment designed to erase a perceived squeak in his voice.
“No, no, no, he’s just a fanatic,” Grazer says in a tone of forgiveness. “He’s a total perfectionist and he really, really works hard. He has sound equipment that’s good and we used it. D’you see him on Barbara Walters? Didn’t he look cute?”
He looked fine, sure. My groaning at this point has more to do with the lemon-lipped huckster of living legends, the diva of the discerning stare, as piercing as a rubber knife.
Brian responds to my objection. “Movie studios saying, ‘Tom, get out there and plug the movie.’ Cruise would not do it–if he wasn’t promoting the film, he wouldn’t do it. Everyone’s different, but…”
“Would you do it?”
“Well, yeah. I’m not gonna lie to you. I would do it. Thing is, the quality of people that she’s had has been so consistently good. Look at ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.’ I loved that show at first. First six episodes were great, until after a while it got to the point where you’re looking at Donna Mills in a condo. But, really, a movie producer doesn’t belong on a show like that banging knees with Barbara.
“We all have to self-promote,” Grazer continues. “My girlfriend works for Fred Silverman. She’s very bright, works extremely hard. Because she doesn’t self-promote, she’s been there for seven years. And, you know, you shouldn’t work for anybody for that long unless you–no, you just shouldn’t do that. What exacerbates it for her is it’s fucked up for women. America, and how it treats its executives, is very chauvinistic. And it’s even more pervasive in the movie business.”
Grazer may not be the primo arrested development case he’s often taken for, but what is taking shape before me is an individual wildly put off by instruction, by authority, by patience–a lawn-crosser. The kind of person who learns to play Gershwin by ear, type 80 words a minute through hunt-and-peck. The unordered wrinkle of his manner might be his most potent weapon; yeah, you surf between deals but you don’t wipe out. Grazer can laugh at his own imponderability, his New Age lapses, but he’s driven his spirituality into untended corners enough times to finally resign himself to the certainty of the dog finding its way back.
“I have to be spiritual in order to cope with all of this… I have to do my best to keep the artifice at an arm’s length. So I pick and choose people that I allow into my emotional and psychological self. I am extremely non-trusting. In the scope of things, however, I still believe that people are basically good and can be trusted. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive thoughts.”
When your philosophy is based on the assumption that anything can happen, that anything is possible, suspicion becomes a cottage industry. How do the number of great movies made on trust, one has to wonder, stack up against the great ones borne out of sleeping with the light on?
“On an emotional level, I don’t expect very much from people,” Brian alleges. “So, when someone goes, ‘Do you believe what that guy did to me, how he fucked me over?’ I go, yeah, I believe it. Or, ‘Can you believe that guy did that to you, Brian? He totally betrayed you.’ Sure, I believe it. I suppose the percentages keep you from being bitter. The good is qualitatively more powerful than the bad. Six people can fuck you over, then one treats you well, and it’s worth all six.”
Grazer currently has his faith in a comedy called Blowhard, a film for which David Friendly, Imagine’s president of production, gave the best pitch Grazer’s heard in a long time. “It’s sort of an Airplane! parody of Die Hard, and we’re gonna make it. It’s not just a one-liner that won’t go anywhere. I mean, look–it’s got a building in the middle of it.” Principle photography is already under way for The Concierge, a Grazer-conceived comedy with Michael J. Fox. And Grazer has plans for old pal Henry Winkler to direct Burt Reynolds in Cop and a Half.
“I’m proud of this crop of movies,” says Brian. “And insofar as my selectivity, I have complete confidence. But I still like being hungry and desperate.” He lets go of a sleepy yawn.
“You at low level?”
“Yeah … I’m getting down. I think that lobster had sugar in the sauce.” Brian hands me my fortune cookie. While he’s distracted with his, I stuff another one in my pocket for later, having forgotten to eat until I’m full. My immediate fortune reads, “You will be attending a wedding soon.”
“You getting married in the near-future?” I ask Brian, showing him my fortune. Shaking his head, taking care not to appear too resolute, Brian surrenders a disappointed groan and points to his own little slip of paper. Brian from the East recites his fortune: “Look deeply within to root out negative attitudes.”
Michael Angeli has also written “The Sound and the Furry” for this issue.