Q&A: Brian Grazer


In the quarter-century since Brian Grazer burst onto the scene with the hits "Night Shift" and "Splash," he has become one of Hollywood's most reliable producers. Grazer has been uniquely able to keep his finger on the pulse of the culture,  taking such diverse material as last year's "American Gangster," 2002's  "8 Mile" and 2001's "A Beautiful Mind" to boxoffice heights (and a best picture Oscar for the latter). Grazer's enduring partnership with director Ron Howard in Imagine Entertainment generated this year's"Frost/Nixon," and he also produced Clint Eastwood's "Changeling."

The Hollywood Reporter: You're known for having an adviser, of sorts, whose job is to arrange meetings with interesting and unusual people. How did that start?

Brian Grazer: I've been doing it for 25 years. One thing I learned in college is that I couldn't learn in college. Then I realized that movies are about subjects, and subjects distill themselves into people and experts. I realized I can call these people. I just created a discipline, and I started doing it about once every three weeks.

THR: Who are the people you've met that most stand out?

Grazer: (They) are usually the ones who disagree with you. Edward Teller stood out because he's a technocrat, and he was one of the founders of the hydrogen bomb, and he doesn't have any real belief in humanities or in the arts, and so everything we as storytellers stand for is very antithetical to his belief system. (And) I met a man who taught fire walking. Jonas Salk stood out. James Watson. Carl Sagan.

THR: What motivates you to do that?

Grazer: Well, it's probably a little Jungian. When you challenge yourself or disrupt your comfort zone, or you deal with language or subjects or experts that cause you to feel inferior in some way, you learn the most. I'm curious about myself and my own psyche and what works and doesn't work about it. I grew up never using the first  person pronoun, and then I learned later that the more you know about yourself,  the better that is going to serve you with storytelling.

THR: How does your own psyche affect your choice of films?

Grazer: I like making movies about good and evil and the moral divide. I look at things in a very polarized way. Even though the world, I know, is gray -- I'm told that the world is gray -- I see things in a polarized fashion. That might help me with films.

THR: Was there a film you made where you had a hard time making that distinction?

Grazer: "American Gangster" was hard. (That) was something that I loved; visually and sonically, it was dynamic to me. However, the lead character was a known murderer. So you wonder if you're actually supporting the wrong message, and that's a close call because the director and the stars have to share the same belief system. Denzel (Washington) felt this guy has to pay for his crime. He has to go to prison. He doesn't have a good end. With "8 Mile," I was very worried that, even though Eminem was rising to be the biggest artist in the world, he or his music could be (perceived as) misogynistic or  prejudiced.

THR: Was it good and evil that drew you to "Changeling?"

Grazer: Probably. Yes. It came as a spec script that Jim Whitaker from our company found. We all looked at it and said, "Oh my God, how could this really happen?" You wonder what drives someone to do such a thing, and will they pay for it? In "Changeling," (Christine Collins) didn't get her child back; at the same time, you're making a movie, and she needs to have something that's emotionally triumphant, otherwise it would be completely depressing. (But) Clint (Eastwood) was able to find that within the character. Watching the execution of the murderer, the way she handled that gave her some kind of triumph.

THR: Good and evil are much less clear in "Frost/Nixon."

Grazer: Well, I think good and evil are very much the root of "Frost/Nixon" because Richard Nixon was characterized as one of the most evil, tyrannical monsters on the planet. What (David) Frost does in this David-and-Goliath type dynamic is, he finds this tiny glimmer of humanity that lives inside Nixon's psyche.

THR: Obviously you must love reading scripts. Do you read a lot of other things?

Grazer: I don't read a lot of scripts. I read magazines and periodicals, and I go on the Internet and I like factual material. That's why I go out and meet these experts. I meet these experts in different areas to inform me, so I can either create movies or fiction.

THR: Do you read a lot of books?

Grazer: I really just read fact. I don't really read fiction.

THR: What magazines?

Grazer: Vice. (Laughs.) I will come up with subjects, and I just go on the Internet and dig into the subject, whether it's yakuzas or low-riders. I'll go to car shows, and I'll bring my kids. I love to bring my kids to the things I'm interested in.

THR: You met a real-life yakuza for your upcoming movie about them.

Grazer: He came to my office. He was pretty low-key. He looked like he could be serious -- they have to be. But mostly, he was just low-key and really not very descript. Like everybody, you want to know how they control things, what they control, what kind of violence occurs and how it works. I'm interested in crime. I'm interested in gangsters. I'm doing a movie about the Tijuana cartels ("Cartel").

THR: What's your day like? Are you a workaholic?

Grazer: My average day is I get up, drink coffee, and read magazines and go on the computer. (I'm up at) 6:30 a.m. Not that early. I get up sort of slowly, work out. I try to meditate. (Laughs.) I try. I'll try different forms of meditation.

THR: Do you follow any particular philosophical school of thought?

Grazer: No, but my girlfriend's a Buddhist. She's a classical pianist, actually. She was born in Hanoi and lived there until she was 20. Then she went to Indonesia and then Juilliard, and now she plays piano all over the world. (So) I read, work out. My greatest ability to create anything is in the morning, so I like to get on the subject. I'm making a movie on the L.A. riots -- because for all of us who live in L.A., the L.A. riots had an impact because they were only seven miles away from us. That always intrigues me. You know, living on the West Side, there are 2,000 fires going on in this five-day period, so on one hand, you're safe, but you're really not. There are these two things going on that are diametrically opposed.

THR: Where do you find these subjects?

Grazer: In all types of magazines. And (in) images. Images give life to curiosity. I wake up every morning wondering about something. My grandmother used to say, "You always said, Brian, what goes faster -- a car or a bee?" I was like 3 years old. I guess I just live in wonder.

THR: Who influenced you the most growing up?

Grazer: Probably my grandmother. She was the one who said, "Think big, be big." She owned a hat shop in the '30s and '40s. She was the one who would tell me I was special every day. I was a B student, and my grandmother would tell me I was special every day.

THR: What does it take to be special in Hollywood?

Grazer: Perseverance. And focus. You know, movies are ideas, so you're moving an inanimate object from one place to the next.

THR: These inanimate objects -- "Frost/Nixon," "Changeling" -- were they difficult to get off the ground?

Grazer: "Frost/Nixon" was difficult, yes. Seldom are plays made into movies in modern film. Studios don't want to spend a lot of money, so you have to make it like an indie film, and that's what Ron did. Ron directed this in 38 days. So he had to reinvent his way of making a film.

THR: How has that partnership worked so well? On the surface, you both seem very different.

Grazer: We're very different in terms of our process, but we have the same work ethic and the same value system. We both trust that we're working hard toward the same end, and that we're rowing in the same direction.

THR: There's a perception that he's more interested in directing and you're really running the company. True?

Grazer: Well, I live in Los Angeles, and he's been living on the East Coast for 20 years; and I'm a producer, and he's a director. Ultimately, I'm running a company, but really I'm just a movie producer. I'm not running the United States government or anything.

THR: What are you making next?

Grazer: I'm doing the L.A. riots. I'm hoping to make "Nottingham," the origin story of Robin Hood that would star Russell Crowe. We're hoping to start filming in March.

THR: Your level of success has changed, obviously. Have you changed as a person?

Grazer: Not really, no. I'm still just as desperate! (Laughs.)

THR: Is that really true?

Grazer: It's really true. I'm still just as hungry.

THR: What do you do when you're not working?

Grazer: I surf. I paint. I practice martial arts a little bit. At the top of the list, I really love being a father. I have four kids. I also like to travel. I go to exotic locations. I've been to Cuba, many different parts of Africa. I really like painting. I do fairly big pieces -- oil, acrylic and pencil. And I paint Barbies -- Barbies that don't exist, like the "666 Barbie."

THR: The Devil Barbie?

Grazer: Yeah, like the Devil Barbie.

THR: You're very haunted by evil.

Grazer: I think about it. I think about people with diabolical minds.