How Brian Grazer Wore Down Eminem and Prince With His Eye-Contact Technique

In his new book, 'Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection,' the producer — who grew up with acute dyslexia and avoided staring — touts the power of eye contact to build trust.

While everybody else is staring at his hair, Brian Grazer is gazing into people's eyes. And now the 68-year-old Oscar-winning producer (A Beautiful Mind) has written a book (his second) about the importance of a steady gaze. In Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection (Simon & Schuster, $25), he shares 40 years of experience going eyeball-to-eyeball in Hollywood. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Grazer at his home in Santa Monica for a (what else?) face-to-face conversation on the fading art of eye contact. 

What was the inspiration for your second book?

My first book was about curiosity and curiosity conversations. But unless you look at somebody, they're not going to trust you and they're not going to share insights. You have to look at somebody to create trust. Without trust, you don't get the insights you could transport into your life or into a movie or television show or just into a relationship.

Is the art of face-to-face interaction dying among millennials and Gen Z?

It is. Because of the oversaturation of social media, it disables you from having that face-to-face conversation, or even picking up the phone and talking. We’re living in the most connected world, but also potentially in the most lonely world. We survive as a species by being socialized. We create empathy by looking at people and talking to them. With empathy, you can create love and stop hate. It demystifies cultures. I think there will be a resurgence of face-to-face contact because right now we’re creating a surplus of loneliness.

What are the advantages of eye contact?

There are intangibles you pick up in the presence of another person that have great value to your job or to a relationship. Are they interested? Are they not? What are they afraid of? What makes them uncomfortable? If you touch somebody’s soul, you’re touching a truth. And truths are the most valuable commodity right now. We’re bombarded by the oversaturation of television shows and movies and everything. But we’re most attracted to things that are authentic.

Early in your partnership with Ron Howard, he pointed out that you weren’t making eye contact in meetings.

At the earliest part of my life in elementary school, I was at that point acutely dyslexic. I didn't look anyone in the eyes because I was in fear that I'd be asked a question, but unable to answer because I couldn't read. So there was a lot of shame involved. I realized in high school that if I look at people and talk to them, I could learn a lot. I could really expand my emotional, intellectual world. But I was imperfect at it. And so when Ron and I were working together, our first writers on Night Shift and Splash were these two guys, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and I would look away or multitask. And Ron said to me, “You know, they don't feel respected if you don't look at them." I go, “But I heard everything.” “But if you don't look at them, they just don't feel respected, like they're valuable.” That really stuck.

Of the many famous communicators you’ve met, would you say Oprah Winfrey is the most gifted?

Probably, yes. As an overall entity — like eye contact leading to insights, leading to being present, leading to just reaching you. And she's soulful. There's God inside of her and that's touching. It touches you. She became central in my life in terms of getting divorced, actually.

How so?

She said, “Betrayal is almost impossible to get over.” I thought, “Wow. That's a fact.” So I was able to assimilate that.

Now let's talk about a different case study. Someone more challenging: Eminem.

Fifteen years before I met Eminem, I met Ol' Dirty Bastard in New York City. And I thought, “Wow, this guy is a trip. He's so interesting.” So I thought, “I have to prove that [hip-hop] is not just an inferior subculture, which was stated by The New York Times, but that in fact it was going to become the pervasive culture. I spent nine years trying to prove that thesis through a film. First I tried with Spike Lee. Then through Jimmy Iovine I met Eminem, right before he blew up. He wasn’t interested in talking to me, but he was in my office. He wouldn’t look at me. After like 25 really silent and awkward minutes, he said, “I'm out.” His hand was on the door to leave. And I just blurted out, “Oh, come on — you can animate!” I just said that word. I’m not sure why. He looked like he was mad at me, which scared me. But then he came back. And he became alive and told his story of coming of age in Detroit, which became 8 Mile. It was magical.

What are some practical tricks everyone can use to make better eye contact?

My kids joke I’m the mayor of Malibu because I think there’s something to being friendly. I believe in human connection. So I fail a lot. I’ll disrupt a stranger’s comfort zone and they may not accept my eye contact. But about 90 percent of the time, people like to be looked at. If I’m in a elevator, I might just glance over and make very brief eye contact. Or say, “Hey, how’s your day?” What I don’t do is just look at my phone. I think that’s uncool. So I do the opposite of that. I leave my phone in my pockets and I welcome everyone around me with friendly eyes.

You once held Prince’s gaze for something like 10 minutes. What was that like?

I was producing The Da Vinci Code and I'm with my daughter Sage. And there was a chance that we could go to this tiny club called Butter in New York and see Prince. As we walked in, he was standing at the door greeting people. He knew who I was. And then he said, “You're doing this Da Vinci Code.” And he knew a lot about religion — as a Jehovah’s Witness, religion was a big force that was integral to his life. So I just kept the conversation going as long as I could. I kept inventing questions and things to say about The Da Vinci Code and the illuminati. I would give his eye-contact a level 7 on a 10 point scale, but his attention was a level 10.

What can you learn about a person just looking into their eyes?

When I'm in the zone with someone, I don’t detect things like deceit or cynicism. I can never tell if someone is intimidated by me — I think I’m really approachable. I don’t have that much self-awareness. In my partnership with Ron Howard, he’s the one who can read subtext. I can read authenticity and talent, but Ron can read other things. We leave meetings and I’ll go, "That was a good meeting!" And he’ll say, "No it wasn’t. They said no." And I’ll say, "They didn’t say no!" Ron will go: "Trust me. Remember when he said, ‘I’m not sure?’ ‘I’m not sure’ meant no." I guess I’m an optimist.

A version of this story appears in the Sept. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.