Milken Conference: Brian Grazer, Bob Iger Talk 'Empire,' Meeting Eminem, Princess Diana

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Brian Grazer

They joked about Disney buying Imagine Studios after the phenomenal success of the hip-hop drama.

Producer Brian Grazer on Monday brainstormed with Robert Iger on the notion of selling Imagine Entertainment to Walt Disney, though they likely were kidding.

Disney CEO Iger noted that Imagine’s music-industry soap opera Empire is a hit show, but lamented it’s not on a Disney-owned network. “You can buy the studio,” Grazer said. “Don’t give me any ideas,” responded Iger, who has been on a bit of a buying spree since becoming CEO of Disney a decade ago.

The two were speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles, ostensibly about Grazer’s book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.

Grazer began by telling of the time he asked his “little grandma” a question — "What’s faster, a car or a bee?" — and she went through extraordinary lengths to answer her grandson’s query: “Curiosity is going to be your superpower,” she told him.

Naturally, the two connected the topic to the entertainment industry. Grazer said his hobby is meeting interesting people to pick their brains. When he was 22 in the early 1970s, the object of his desire was Lew Wasserman, at the time perhaps the most powerful man in Hollywood.

Grazer described how he worked the phones, speaking to Wasserman's various assistants, then approached one of them in the parking lot. When he finally managed to schedule a meeting, Wasserman stopped him short of his office, handed him a pencil and paper, said something about how the two are more valuable together, then told him: “Now get out of here.”

Grazer, though, said that he was encouraged to write scripts after the brief encounter, which led to him writing Splash, a hit movie starring Tom Hanks released in 1984.

Would a curious 22-year-old nobody be able to schedule a meeting with Grazer today, asked Iger. Yes, Grazer said, if the person were as persistent and followed a similar method of operation. “You’ll be inundated,” Iger quipped.

Grazer said when he meets people trying to break into the industry he can get a good read on them quickly in part through their “soulful eyes.” “I can tell if someone’s just being expedient,” he said.

Iger said he also tries to gauge how curious a job applicant is before hiring or promoting them, sometimes by asking mundane questions about the books, movies or travel that they enjoyed recently. “You can quickly tell if someone’s fake trying to be an interesting person,” Iger said.

Some of the more interesting people Grazer said he met were Princess Diana and Dr. Jonas Salk. Of the latter, he said: “As I approached him, I vomited. I was just so nervous.”

Not all meetings with strangers went well for Grazer. He said when he met I, Robot author Isaac Asimov and his wife, his wife called an end to the meeting after just one minute because she quickly determined that Grazer’s knowledge of her husband’s work wasn’t satisfactory.

Iger noted that celebrities aren’t a very curious lot, perhaps because they are so accustomed to being the objects of curiosity, an observation that prompted Grazer to tell of a “superpowerful person” he met recently who had “zero curiosity” and only spoke of him- or herself. He refused to name the person, but said it was not a politician.

Grazer told several stories about people he met who somehow tied into a movie or TV show he was involved with. For example, in 1984 he reached out to rock star Sting, who introduced him to a former political prisoner who spoke eloquently about survival. That meeting, Grazer said, was instrumental in shaping the 1995 film Apollo 13. “She shifted my perspective,” Grazer said.

A meeting with Eminem started out very badly, Grazer told the attendees. “He wouldn’t even look at me.… I thought he was gonna kill me.” But the rapper eventually opened up, and the movie 8 Mile was the result.

Grazer said that when he heard a rapper on the radio by the name of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, he just had to meet him, which led him to other hip-hop artists. The knowledge they imparted, naturally, has been used in his production of Empire.

Iger ended by asking Grazer who he wants to meet most now. Russian President Vladimir Putin, he answered. 

"I've met Putin. It was interesting," Iger informed his friend.

Iger then told of how he and Putin had a long conversation about Disneyland and  Nikita Khruschev, who led the Soviet Union from 1953-1964.

Khruschev was in the United States and wanted to visit the iconic theme park, and Walt Disney set it up, but President Dwight Eisenhower nixed the idea because he didn't want the Communist leader of the Soviet Union to be photographed at Disneyland. To save face, a story was concocted about how it would have been too dangerous for Khruschev to roam around Disneyland at the height of the Cold War.