LOS ANGELES — For Brian Grazer, being a film and TV producer isn’t all about name-dropping celebrities and A-lister lunches at the Palm. OK, some of the job is definitely about that.
But the Oscar winner behind “A Beautiful Mind” and “Apollo 13” and shows including “Arrested Development” and “Empire” says one key to his success has been to connect deeply with other people. That’s probably no surprise coming from Grazer, who co-founded Imagine Entertainment with Ron Howard in 1986, establishing one of the entertainment business’ most enduring partnerships.
In his 2015 book, “A Curious Mind,” Grazer drew on his habit of engaging in “curiosity conversations” with the likes of scientist Jonas Salk and writer Isaac Asimov. His new book, “Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection,” explores the virtues of getting people to open up in an era defined by social media and multitasking.
In an interview at his Santa Monica home, the 68-year-old Grazer spoke about why he wrote “Face to Face,” the future of his company, and how actor Tom Hanks kept him from bailing on the Eminem movie “8 Mile.”
Why did you focus this new book on human connection?
My curiosity conversations have defined my life. … Whether it’s with Princess Diana or John Nash, I always knew you had to make a point of being completely present with them, but not until two years ago did I realize that is created through eye contact. If you’re immediately taking this simple step of looking at somebody in the eye, that makes a statement to them: “I see you.” We’re reading people’s energy more than what they say. By looking someone in the eyes, it enables great things to happen.
Face-to-face communication is not something that always came naturally to you. How did you overcome that obstacle?
I was crippled by dyslexia, and I had a hard time reading, and therefore I never wanted to be asked a question in class because I knew I couldn’t answer it. So I developed all these different methods of diverting my eyes so I wouldn’t get picked. … But then I found that in college, I was one of the smart kids, and it felt really good to be one of the smart kids.
I’m a very successful communicator, when I’m concentrating and focusing. It’s not a natural thing for me. Ron Howard and I were working on our first movie together, “Night Shift” (1982) with two writers, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. In meetings, I’m often not looking at them because I feel like I’m getting away with multitasking. So Ron says gently to me, “You know, when you don’t look at them, it makes them feel bad; it hurts their feelings.”
What was a pivotal moment in your career where this skill helped you? I’m thinking of an awkward meeting you had with Eminem before making “8 Mile.”
So I had an office that was very comfortable, and I had a lot of success getting people to communicate in this office. But when Eminem came in, he stared straight out a window. I did everything possible. But he had this impenetrable icy glare.
Eventually, he decided he was going to leave, after about 20 of the longest minutes of my life. Out of desperation, as his hand hit the door to exit, I said, “Oh, come on, you can animate.” I don’t even know why I said that word. I guess because I’d seen the urban side of him, and I’ve seen the really funny and fluid side of him. And then he paused and he came back, to my surprise, and we really opened up to each other. For the next 40 minutes to an hour, he basically told me his story, which became really the body of the movie.
What made you persist in that moment?
I think I was just determined to understand him. He wasn’t yet even near the peak of his career, but he was already at that time today’s genius rap poet, who was doing a really unique thing.
I’ll tell you another story, but it’s unrelated. After a couple years of working with Eminem, we had a script, we had a director, and we were ready to make the movie. And it was when he was having an issue with Elton John, and he seemed homophobic. And I thought, “If I make this movie, I’m empowering that.”
Then, serendipitously, I’m having dinner with Tom Hanks at Giorgio Baldi. And I say, “I’m about to make this movie on this guy, Eminem, and I’m thinking I may be fueling his power source by making this movie, and I’m thinking he could be homophobic. I don’t want to do that.” And he says, “Are you crazy? That’s another character. … That’s Slim Shady. He doesn’t even take it seriously. He’s not a homophobe.” … And I thought, if anyone knows, it’s this guy, Tom Hanks.
One of your most interesting upcoming projects is “Hillbilly Elegy,” based on the 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance about his difficult upbringing in rural Ohio. Why did you want to do this adaptation?
Ron and I like making movies about family. Everybody roots for family.
Imagine Entertainment has been an independent producer for several years, after a long relationship with Universal Pictures. How has that changed your business?
We’ve expanded by being independent. … I think now, with multiple platforms of all types that make all sizes and shapes of narrative content, we’ve come to realize that stories are everything. … Unless you tell a story that becomes visceral and reaches people, you’re not differentiating yourself from all the clutter.
Even as recently as “Empire,” no one wanted a 90%-plus African American cast show on network television. But we saw there were certain ingredients that could make that work within the equation of the show. People love watching stories of earned success. People like being in glamorous environments, if it’s earned and juicy. Those are the ingredients that made “Empire” work.