A Curious Mind
CHAPTER ONE There Is No Cure for Curiosity
“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
ONE THURSDAY AFTERNOON, THE SUMMER after I graduated from the University of Southern California (USC), I was sitting in my apartment in Santa Monica with the windows open, thinking about how to get some work until I started law school at USC in the fall.
Suddenly, through the windows, I overheard two guys talking just outside. One said, “Oh my God, I had the cushiest job at
Warner Bros. I got paid for eight hours of work every day, and it was usually just an hour.”
This guy got my attention. I opened the window a little more so I wouldn’t miss the rest of the conversation, and I quietly closed the curtain.
The guy went on to say he had been a legal clerk. “I just quit today. My boss was a man named Peter Knecht.”
I was amazed. Sounded perfect to me.
I went right to the telephone, dialed 411,2
and asked for the main number at Warner Bros.—I still remember it, 954-6000.3
I called the number and asked for Peter Knecht. An assistant in his office answered, and I said to her, “I’m going to USC law school in the fall, and I’d like to meet with Mr. Knecht about the law clerk job that’s open.”
Knecht got on the line. “Can you be here tomorrow at 3 p.m.?” he asked.
I met with him on Friday at 3 p.m. He hired me at 3:15. And I started work at Warner Bros. the next Monday.
I didn’t quite realize it at that time, but two incredible things happened that day in the summer of 1974.
First, my life had just changed forever. When I reported for work as a legal clerk that Monday, they gave me a windowless office the size of a small closet. At that moment, I had found my life’s work. From that tiny office, I joined the world of show business. I never again worked at anything else.
I also realized that curiosity had saved my ass that Thursday afternoon. I’ve been curious as long as I can remember. As a
boy, I peppered my mother and my grandmother with questions, some of which they could answer, some of which they couldn’t.
By the time I was a young man, curiosity was part of the way I approached the world every day. My kind of curiosity hasn’t changed much since I eavesdropped on those guys at my apartment complex. It hasn’t actually changed that much since I was an antsy twelve-year-old boy.
My kind of curiosity is a little wide-eyed, and sometimes a little mischievous. Many of the best things that have happened in my life are the result of curiosity. And curiosity has occasionally gotten me in trouble.
But even when curiosity has gotten me in trouble, it has been interesting trouble.
Curiosity has never let me down. I’m never sorry I asked that next question. On the contrary, curiosity has swung wide many doors of opportunity for me. I’ve met amazing people, made great movies, made great friends, had some completely unexpected adventures, even fallen in love—because I’m not the least bit embarrassed to ask questions.
That first job at Warner Bros. studios in 1974 was exactly like the tiny office it came with—confining and discouraging. The assignment was simple: I was required to deliver final contract and legal documents to people with whom Warner Bros. was doing business. That’s it. I was given envelopes filled with documents and the addresses where they should go, and off I went.
I was called a “legal clerk,” but I was really just a glorified courier. At the time, I had an old BMW 2002—one of the boxy two-door BMW sedans that looked like it was leaning forward. Mine was a faded red-wine color, and I spent my days driving around Hollywood and Beverly Hills, delivering stacks of important papers.
I quickly identified the one really interesting thing about the job: the people to whom I was bringing the papers. These were the elite, the powerful, the glamorous of 1970s Hollywood—the writers, directors, producers, stars. There was only one problem: people like that always have assistants or secretaries, doormen or housekeepers.
If I was going to do this job, I didn’t want to miss out on the only good part. I didn’t want to meet housekeepers, I wanted to meet the important people. I was curious about them.
So I hit on a simple gambit. When I showed up, I would tell the intermediary—the secretary, the doorman—that I had to hand the documents directly to the person for the delivery to be “valid.”
I went to ICM—the great talent agency—to deliver contracts to seventies superagent Sue Mengers,4
who represented Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, Candice Bergen and Cher, Burt Reynolds and Ali MacGraw. How did I meet Mengers? I told the ICM receptionist, “The only way Miss Mengers can receive this is if I hand it to her personally.” She sent me in without another question.
If the person to whom the documents were addressed wasn’t there, I’d simply leave and come back. The guy who had unwittingly tipped me to the job was right. I had all day, but not much work to worry about.
This is how I met Lew Wasserman, the tough-guy head of MCA Studios, and his partner, Jules Stein.
It’s how I met William Peter Blatty, who wrote The Exorcist, and also Billy Friedkin, the Oscar winner who directed it.
I handed contracts to Warren Beatty at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
I was just twenty-three years old, but I was curious. And I quickly learned that not only could I meet these people, I could also sit and talk to them.
I would hand over the documents with graciousness and deference, and since it was the seventies, they’d always say, “Come in! Have a drink! Have a cup of coffee!”
I would use these moments to get a sense of them, sometimes to get a bit of career advice. I never asked for a job. I never asked for anything, in fact.
Pretty quickly, I realized the movie business was a lot more interesting than law school. So I put it off—I never went; I would have made a terrible lawyer—and I kept that clerk job for a year, through the following summer.
You know what’s curious: throughout that entire time, no one ever called my bluff. No one said, “Hey, kid, just leave the contract on the table and get out of here. You don’t need to see Warren Beatty.”
I met every single person to whom I delivered papers.
Just as curiosity had gotten me the job, it also transformed the job itself into something wonderful.
The men and women whose contracts I delivered changed my life. They showed me a whole style of storytelling I wasn’t familiar with, and I began to think that maybe I was a storyteller at heart. They set the stage for me to produce movies like Splash and Apollo 13, American Gangster, Friday Night Lights, and A Beautiful Mind.
Something else happened during that year of being a legal clerk that was just as important. It was the year I started to actively appreciate the real power of curiosity.
If you grew up in the fifties and sixties, being curious wasn’t exactly considered a virtue. In the well-ordered, obedient classrooms of the Eisenhower era, it was more like an irritant. I knew I was curious, of course, but it was a little like wearing glasses. It was something people noticed, but it didn’t help me get picked for sports teams, and it didn’t help with girls.
That first year at Warner Bros., I realized that curiosity was more than just a quality of my personality. It was my secret weapon. Good for getting picked for the team—it would turn out to be good for becoming captain of the team—and even good for getting the girls.
• • •
CURIOSITY SEEMS SO SIMPLE. Innocent, even.
Labrador retrievers are charmingly curious. Porpoises are
playfully, mischievously curious. A two-year-old going through the kitchen cabinets is exuberantly curious—and delighted at the noisy entertainment value of her curiosity. Every person who types a query into Google’s search engine and presses ENTER is curious about something—and that happens 4 million times a minute, every minute of every day.5
But curiosity has a potent behind-the-scenes power that we mostly overlook.
Curiosity is the spark that starts a flirtation—in a bar, at a party, across the lecture hall in Economics 101. And curiosity ultimately nourishes that romance, and all our best human relationships—marriages, friendships, the bond between parents and children. The curiosity to ask a simple question—“How was your day?” or “How are you feeling?”—to listen to the answer, and to ask the next question.
Curiosity can seem simultaneously urgent and trivial. Who shot J.R.? How will Breaking Bad end? What are the winning numbers on the ticket for the largest Powerball jackpot in history? These questions have a kind of impatient compulsion—right up until the moment we get the answer. Once the curiosity is satisfied, the question itself deflates. Dallas is the perfect example: who did shoot J.R.? If you were alive in the 1980s, you know the question, but you may not recall the answer.6
There are plenty of cases where the urgency turns out to be justified, of course, and where satisfying the initial curiosity only unleashes more. The effort to decode the human genome turned into a dramatic high-stakes race between two teams of scientists. And once the genome was available, the results
opened a thousand fresh pathways for scientific and medical curiosity.
The quality of many ordinary experiences often pivots on curiosity. If you’re shopping for a new TV, the kind you ultimately take home and how well you like it is very much dependent on a salesperson who is curious: curious enough about the TVs to know them well; curious enough about your own needs and watching habits to figure out which TV you need.
That’s a perfect example, in fact, of curiosity being camouflaged.
In an encounter like that, we’d categorize the salesperson as either “good” or “bad.” A bad salesperson might aggressively try to sell us something we didn’t want or understand, or would simply show us the TVs for sale, indifferently parroting the list of features on the card mounted beneath each. But the key ingredient in either case is curiosity—about the customer, and about the products.
Curiosity is hiding like that almost everywhere you look—its presence or its absence proving to be the magic ingredient in a whole range of surprising places. The key to unlocking the genetic mysteries of humanity: curiosity. The key to providing decent customer service: curiosity.
If you’re at a boring business dinner, curiosity can save you.
If you’re bored with your career, curiosity can rescue you.
If you’re feeling uncreative or unmotivated, curiosity can be the cure.
It can help you use anger or frustration constructively.
It can give you courage.
Curiosity can add zest to your life, and it can take you way beyond zest—it can enrich your whole sense of security, confidence, and well-being.
But it doesn’t do any of that alone, of course.
While Labrador retrievers are really curious, no black Lab ever decoded the genome, or got a job at Best Buy for that matter. They lose interest pretty quickly.
For it to be effective, curiosity has to be harnessed to at least two other key traits. First, the ability to pay attention to the answers to your questions—you have to actually absorb whatever it is you’re being curious about. We all know people who ask really good questions, who seem engaged and energized when they’re talking and asking those questions, but who zone out the moment it’s time for you to answer.
The second trait is the willingness to act. Curiosity was undoubtedly the inspiration for thinking we could fly to the moon, but it didn’t marshal the hundreds of thousands of people, the billions of dollars, and the determination to overcome failures and disasters along the way to making it a reality. Curiosity can inspire the original vision—of a moon mission, or of a movie, for that matter. It can replenish that inspiration when morale flags—look, that’s where we’re going! But at some point, on the way to the moon or the multiplex, the work gets hard, the obstacles become a thicket, the frustration piles up, and then you need determination.
I hope to accomplish three things in this book: I want to
wake you up to the value and power of curiosity; I want to show you all the ways I use it, in the hopes that that will inspire you to test it out in your daily life; and I want to start a conversation in the wider world about why such an important quality is so little valued, taught, and cultivated today.
For a trait with so much potential power, curiosity itself seems uncomplicated. Psychologists define curiosity as “wanting to know.” That’s it. And that definition squares with our own commonsense feeling. “Wanting to know,” of course, means seeking out the information. Curiosity starts out as an impulse, an urge, but it pops out into the world as something more active, more searching: a question.
This inquisitiveness seems as intrinsic to us as hunger or thirst. A child asks a series of seemingly innocent questions: Why is the sky blue? How high up does the blue go? Where does the blue go at night? Instead of answers (most adults can’t explain why the sky is blue, including me), the child might receive a dismissive, slightly patronizing reply like, “Why, aren’t you the curious little girl . . .”7
To some, questions like these feel challenging, even more so if you don’t know the answers. Rather than answering them, the adult simply asserts his own authority to brush them aside. Curiosity can make us adults feel a little inadequate or impatient—that’s the experience of the parent who doesn’t know why the sky is blue, the experience of the teacher trying to get through the day’s lesson without being derailed.
The girl is left not just without answers, but also with the
strong impression that asking questions—innocuous or intriguing questions—can often be regarded as impertinent.
That’s hardly surprising.
No one today ever says anything bad about curiosity, directly. But if you pay attention, curiosity isn’t really celebrated and cultivated, it isn’t protected and encouraged. It’s not just that curiosity is inconvenient. Curiosity can be dangerous. Curiosity isn’t just impertinent, it’s insurgent. It’s revolutionary.
The child who feels free to ask why the sky is blue grows into the adult who asks more disruptive questions: Why am I the serf and you the king? Does the sun really revolve around Earth? Why are people with dark skin slaves and people with light skin their masters?
How threatening is curiosity?
All you have to do is look to the Bible to see. The first story in the Bible after the story of creation, the first story that involves people, is about curiosity. The story of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the tree does not end well for the curious.
Adam is told explicitly by God: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”8
It is the serpent who suggests challenging God’s restriction. He starts with a question himself, to Eve: Is there a tree whose fruit God has put off limits? Yes, Eve says, the tree right at the center of the garden—we can’t eat its fruit, we can’t even touch it, or else we’ll die.
Eve knows the rules so well, she embellishes them a bit: Don’t even touch the tree.
The serpent replies with what is surely the most heedless bravado in history—unafraid of the knowledge of good and evil, or of God. He says to Eve, “You will not certainly die. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”9
The serpent is appealing directly to Eve’s curiosity. You don’t even know what you don’t know, the serpent says. With a bite of the forbidden fruit, you will see the world in a completely different way.
Eve visits the tree, and discovers that “the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.”10
She plucks a piece of fruit, takes a bite, and passes it to Adam, who also takes a bite. “And the eyes of both of them were opened.”11
Knowledge was never so easily gotten, nor in the end so hard won. To say that God was angry is an understatement. The punishment for knowing good and evil is misery for Eve and Adam, and for all the rest of us, forever: the pain of childbirth for Eve, the unceasing toil of raising their own food for Adam. And, of course, banishment from the garden.
The parable could not be blunter: curiosity causes suffering. Indeed, the story’s moral is aimed directly at the audience: whatever your current misery, reader, it was caused by Adam, Eve, the serpent, and their rebellious curiosity.
So there you have it. The first story, in the foundation work of Western Civilization—the very first story!—is about curiosity, and its message is: Don’t ask questions. Don’t seek out knowledge on your own—leave it to the people in charge. Knowledge just leads to wretchedness.
Barbara Benedict is a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and a scholar of the eighteenth century who spent years studying the attitude about curiosity during that period, as scientific inquiry sought to overtake religion as the way we understand the world.
The Adam and Eve story, she says, is a warning. “?‘You are a serf because God said you should be a serf. I’m a king because God said I should be a king. Don’t ask any questions about that.’ Stories like Adam and Eve,” Benedict says, “reflect the need of cultures and civilizations to maintain the status quo. ‘Things are the way they are because that’s the right way.’ That attitude is popular among rulers and those who control information.” And it has been from the Garden of Eden to the Obama administration.
Curiosity still gets no respect. We live in an era in which, if you’re willing to squint, all of human knowledge is accessible on a smartphone, but the bias against curiosity still infuses our culture.
The classroom should be a vineyard of questions, a place to cultivate them, to learn both how to ask them and how to chase down the answers. Some classrooms are. But in fact, curiosity is often treated with the same regard in school as it was
in the Garden of Eden. Especially with the recent proliferation of standardized testing, questions can derail the lockstep framework of the day’s lesson plan; sometimes teachers don’t know the answers themselves. It’s exactly the opposite of what you would hope, but authentic curiosity in a typical seventh-grade classroom isn’t cultivated—because it’s inconvenient and disruptive to the orderly running of the class.
The situation is little better in the offices and workplaces where most adults spend their lives. Sure, software coders or pharmaceutical researchers or university professors are encouraged to be curious because it’s a big part of their jobs. But what if the typical hospital nurse or bank teller gets curious and starts questioning how things are done? Outside of some truly exceptional places like Google and IBM and Corning, curiosity is unwelcome, if not insubordinate. Good behavior—whether you’re fourteen years old or forty-five—doesn’t include curiosity.
Even the word “curious” itself remains strangely anti-curious. We all pretend that a curious person is a delight, of course. But when we describe an object with the adjective “curious,” we mean that it’s an oddity, something a little weird, something other than normal. And when someone responds to a question with the tilt of her head and the statement, “That’s a curious question,” she is of course saying it’s not the right question to be asking.
Here’s the remarkable thing. Curiosity isn’t just a great tool for improving your own life and happiness, your ability to win a great job or a great spouse. It is the key to the things we say
we value most in the modern world: independence, self-determination, self-government, self-improvement. Curiosity is the path to freedom itself.
The ability to ask any question embodies two things: the freedom to go chase the answer, and the ability to challenge authority, to ask, “How come you’re in charge?”
Curiosity is itself a form of power, and also a form of courage.
• • •
I WAS A PUDGY boy, and I didn’t grow out of it as a teenager. When I graduated from college, I had love handles. I got teased at the beach. I looked soft, with my shirt on or off.
I decided I didn’t want to look the way I looked. When I was twenty-two years old, I changed my diet and developed an exercise routine—a discipline, really. I jumped rope every day, Two hundred jumps a minute, thirty minutes a day, seven days a week. Six thousand jumps a day for twelve years. Gradually my body changed, the love handles faded away.
I didn’t drive myself to be buff. And I don’t look like a movie star. But I also don’t really look like what you might imagine a movie producer looks like. I have my own slightly offbeat style. I wear sneakers to work, I gel my hair so it stands straight up, I have a big smile.
And today, I’m still exercising four or five times a week, usually first thing in the morning, often getting up before six to
make sure I have time. (I don’t jump rope anymore, because I eventually ruptured both my Achilles tendons.) I’m sixty-three years old, and in the last four decades, I’ve never slipped back into being soft.
I took a resolution and turned it into a habit, into part of how I live each day.
I did the same thing with curiosity.
Very gradually, starting with that first law clerk’s job at Warner Bros., I consciously made curiosity a part of my routine.
I already explained that first step, insisting on meeting everyone whose legal contracts I delivered. I took two things from my success with that. First, people—even famous and powerful people—are happy to talk, especially about themselves and their work; and second, it helps to have even a small pretext to talk to them.
That’s what my “I have to hand these papers over in person” line was, a pretext—it worked for me, it worked for the assistants, it even worked for the people I was visiting. “Oh, he needs to see me in person, sure.”
A few months after I started at Warner Bros., a senior vice president of the studio was fired. I remember watching them peel his name off the office door.
His office was spacious, it had windows, it had two secretaries, and most important, it was right next to the executive suite—what I called the “royal” offices—where the president of Warner Bros. worked, as did the chairman, and the vice chairman.
I asked my boss, Peter Knecht, if I could use that vice president’s office while it was empty.
“Sure,” Knecht said. “I’ll arrange it.”
The new office changed everything. Just like when you wear the right clothes for the occasion—when you wear a suit, you feel more confident and grown up—going to work in that real office changed my perspective. All of a sudden I felt like I had my own piece of real estate, my own franchise.
This was a great time to be in show business in Hollywood, the late sixties and seventies, and the “royal suite” was occupied by three of the most important and creative people of the era—Frank Wells, the president of Warner Bros., who went on to head Disney; Ted Ashley, who wasn’t ever a household name, but who as chairman of Warner Bros. really brought energy and success back to the studio; and John Calley, the vice chairman of Warner Bros., who was a legendary producer, something of a Hollywood intellectual, a creative force, and unquestionably an eccentric character.
I was just a law clerk, but I had an office, my own secretaries, and I even had one of those old-fashioned speaker-box intercoms on my desk. Just outside my door worked three of the most powerful men in Hollywood. I had created a situation where I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
I was baffled by the entertainment business, and it seemed as if even many of the people in the entertainment business were baffled by it. It was hard to understand how movies and
TV shows got made. It was definitely not a linear process. People seemed to be navigating in a fog, without instruments.
But I was fascinated and captivated by it. I became like an anthropologist entering a new world, with a new language, new rituals, new priorities. It was a completely immersive environment, and it ignited my curiosity. I was determined to study it, to understand it, to master it.
It was John Calley who really showed me what being in the entertainment business was all about, and he also showed me what it could be like. Calley was a huge figure and an important creative force in the movies in the 1960s and 1970s. Under his aegis, Warner Bros. flourished, producing movies like The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, Dog Day Afternoon, All the President’s Men, The Towering Inferno, Dirty Harry, and Blazing Saddles.12
When I was working just down the hall from him, Calley was forty-four or forty-five years old, at the height of his power, and already a legend—intelligent, eccentric, Machiavellian. Warner Bros. in those days was making a movie a month,13
and Calley was always thinking a hundred moves ahead. A handful of people loved him, a slightly larger group admired him, and a lot of people feared him.
I think what he found appealing about me was my innocence, my utter naïveté. I wasn’t working any angles. I was so new, I didn’t even know where the angles were.
Calley would say, “Grazer, come sit in my office.” He’d put me on the couch, and I’d watch him work.
The whole thing was a revelation. My own father was a lawyer, a sole practitioner, and he struggled to be successful. I was headed to law school—a life of manila file folders, stacks of briefs, thick casebooks, working away at a Naugahyde-topped desk.
Calley worked out of a huge office that was beautiful and elegant. It was set up like a living room. He had no desk. He had a couple of sofas, and he worked all day sitting on the sofa.
He didn’t do any writing or typing, he didn’t carry piles of work home from the office each day. He talked. He sat in this elegant living room, on the couch, and talked all day.14
In fact, the contracts I delivered were just the final act, formalizing all the talk. Sitting there on Calley’s sofa, it was clear that the business part of show business was all about conversation.
And watching Calley work, I realized something: creative thoughts didn’t have to follow a straight narrative line. You could pursue your interests, your passions, you could chase any quirky idea that came from some odd corner of your experience or your brain. Here was a world where good ideas had real value—and no one cared whether the idea was connected to yesterday’s idea or whether it was related to the previous ten minutes of conversation. If it was an interesting idea, no one cared where it came from at all.
It was an epiphany. That’s how my brain worked—lots of ideas, just not organized like the periodic table.
For years, I struggled in school. I wasn’t that good at sitting quietly, tucked into a little desk, following a bell schedule and
filling out worksheets. That binary way of learning—either you know the answer or you don’t—didn’t fit my brain and didn’t appeal to me. I’ve always felt like ideas come from all corners of my brain, and I felt that way even as a kid.
I did well in college, but only because by then I had figured out some tricks to succeeding in that environment. But the huge classes and impersonal homework assignments didn’t excite me. I didn’t learn that much. I was headed to law school because I had gotten in, and because I wasn’t quite sure what else to do. I did at least have some idea of what it meant to be a lawyer—although, frankly, it seemed a lot like a life sentence to yet more homework assignments, assuming I passed the bar exam.
Calley, on the other hand, was one of the hippest guys in the world. He knew movie stars, he socialized with movie stars. He was highly literate—he read all the time. He sat on his couch, with ideas and decisions winging through his office all day long without rules or rigidity.
Watching him was intoxicating. I thought, I want to live in this man’s world. Who needs a life of brown accordion files? I want to work on a sofa, follow my curiosity, and make movies.15
Sitting there in his office, I could clearly understand that the movie business was built on ideas—a steady stream of captivating ideas, new ideas every day. And it was suddenly clear to me that curiosity was the way to uncover ideas, it was the way to spark them.
I knew I was curious—the way you might know you are funny or shy. Curiosity was a quality of my personality. But
until that year, I didn’t connect curiosity to success in the world. In school, for instance, I had never associated being curious with getting good grades.
But at Warner Bros., I discovered the value of curiosity—and I began what I consider my curiosity journey, following it in a systematic way.
Calley and I never talked about curiosity. But being given the big office and watching Calley in action gave me another idea, a more evolved version of my meetings with the people to whom I was delivering contracts. I realized I didn’t have to meet only the people Warner Bros. happened to be doing business with that day. I could see anyone in the business I wanted to see. I could see the people who sparked my curiosity simply by calling their offices and asking for an appointment.
I developed a brief introduction for the secretaries and assistants who answered the phone: “Hi, my name is Brian Grazer. I work for Warner Bros. Business Affairs. This is not associated with studio business, and I do not want a job, but I would like to meet Mr. So-and-so for five minutes to talk to him. . . .” And I always offered a specific reason I wanted to talk to everyone.
My message was clear: I worked at a real place, I only wanted five minutes on the schedule, I did not want a job. And I was polite.
Just like insisting on handing over the legal documents in person, the speech worked like a charm.
I talked to producer David Picker, who was at Columbia Pictures.
Then I thought maybe I could see producer Frank Yablans, and I did.
Once I’d met Yablans, I thought, Maybe I can meet Lew Wasserman, the head of MCA. And I did.
I worked myself up the ladder. Talking to one person in the movie business suggested a half dozen more people I could talk to. Each success gave me the confidence to try for the next person. It turned out I really could talk to almost anyone in the business.
That was the start of something that changed—and continues to change—my life and my career, and which ultimately inspired this book.
I started having what I called curiosity conversations. At first, they were just inside the business. For a long time, I had a rule for myself: I had to meet one new person in the entertainment business every day.16
But pretty quickly I realized that I could actually reach out and talk to anyone, in any business that I was curious about. It’s not just showbiz people who are willing to talk about themselves and their work—everyone is.
For thirty-five years, I’ve been tracking down people about whom I was curious and asking if I could sit down with them for an hour. I’ve had as few as a dozen curiosity conversations in a year, but sometimes I’ve done them as often as once a week. My goal was always at least one every two weeks. Once I started doing the curiosity conversations as a practice, my only rule for myself was that the people had to be from outside the world of movies and TV.
The idea wasn’t to spend more time with the kinds of people I worked with every day. I had quickly discovered that the entertainment business is incredibly insular—we tend to talk only to ourselves. It’s easy to think that movies and TV are a miniature version of the world. That’s not just wrong, it’s a perspective that leads to mediocre movies, and also to being boring.
I was so serious about the curiosity conversations that I often spent a year or more trying to arrange a meeting with particular people. I would spend hours calling, writing letters, cajoling, befriending assistants. As I got more successful and busier, I assigned one of my staff to arrange the conversations—the New Yorker did a little piece on the job, which came to be known as “cultural attaché.” For a while, I had someone whose only job was to arrange the conversations.17
The point was to follow my curiosity, and I ranged as widely as I could. I sat down with two CIA directors. With both Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. I met with the man who invented the most powerful weapon in history and the richest man in the world. I met with people I was scared of; I met people that I really didn’t want to meet.
I never meet anyone with a movie in mind (although in recent years, it’s clear that some people met with me because they thought that maybe I would do a movie about them or their work). The goal for me is to learn something.
The results have always been surprising, and the connections I’ve made from the curiosity conversations have cascaded through my life—and the movies we make—in the most unexpected ways. My conversation with the astronaut Jim Lovell
certainly started me on the path to telling the story of Apollo 13. But how do we convey, in a movie, the psychology of being trapped on a crippled spaceship? It was Veronica de Negri, a Chilean activist who was tortured for months by her own government, who taught me what it’s like to be forced to rely completely on oneself to survive. Veronica de Negri helped us to get Apollo 13 right as surely as Jim Lovell did.
Over time, I discovered that I’m curious in a particular sort of way. My strongest sense of curiosity is what I call emotional curiosity: I want to understand what makes people tick; I want to see if I can connect a person’s attitude and personality with their work, with their challenges and accomplishments.
I met with Jonas Salk, the scientist and physician who cured polio, a man who was a childhood hero of mine. It took me more than a year to get an audience with him. I wasn’t interested in the scientific method Salk used to figure out how to develop the polio vaccine. I wanted to know what it was like to help millions of people avoid a crippling disease that shadowed the childhoods of everyone when I was growing up. And he worked in a different era. He was renowned, admired, successful—but he received no financial windfall. He cured what was then the worst disease afflicting the world, and he never made a dime from that. Can you imagine that happening today? I wanted to understand the mind-set that turns a cure like that loose in the world.
I met with Edward Teller, who created the hydrogen bomb. He was an old man when I met him, working on the
anti-missile “Star Wars” program for President Reagan. He was another person I had to lobby for a year in order to get an hour with him. I wanted to understand the intellect of a man who creates something like the hydrogen bomb and what his sense of morality is like.
I met with Carlos Slim, the Mexican businessman who is the richest man in the world.18
How does the richest man in the world live every day? I wanted to know what it takes to be that kind of businessman, to be so driven and determined that you win bigger than anyone else.
The truth is that when I was meeting someone like Salk or Teller or Slim, what I hoped for was an insight, a revelation. I wanted to grasp who they were. Of course, you don’t usually get that with strangers in an hour.
Salk was gracious and friendly. Teller was crabby. And Carlos Slim was unlike what I expected, not brisk or businesslike or ruthless in any way. He was very warm. Very Latino. At lunch, he ordered a lot of courses, he drank wine, it seemed like he had nowhere else he wanted to be—our lunch lasted three hours.
I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of curiosity meetings. It’s the thing I look forward to, and often the thing I end up enjoying the most. For me, when I’m learning from someone who is right in front of me, it’s better than sex. It’s better than success.
I had my first real curiosity conversation outside the entertainment business when I was twenty-three years old. I
had been fired from the law clerk’s job at Warner Bros. (after fifteen months, they thought I was having too much fun, and delivering too few documents), and I was working for the producer Edgar Scherick (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Stepford Wives), trying to become a producer myself.
I went to see F. Lee Bailey. Bailey was the most famous criminal trial attorney in the country at that point, having been the lawyer for Sam Sheppard and Patty Hearst.
I had an idea for a TV series, what I was calling F. Lee Bailey’s Casebook of American Crimes—kind of a judicial version of Walt Disney Presents, using an expert to narrate the stories of these great cases.
I really wanted to talk to Bailey. He was winning a lot of important cases. How did he pick them? Does he have a moral compass? How does he communicate in the courtroom—with facts? With legal points? With the morality of the case?
I wanted to understand the distinction between a lawyer’s belief system and what he or she was good at. What was Bailey’s purpose in life, and how did that mesh with his talents?
When I tracked him down, he was preparing for trial in a case in Las Cruces, New Mexico. For some reason he agreed to see me, so I flew out there.
It was kind of crazy. He was staying in this tiny town, at this Western-themed road motel, a little run-down, with a kidney-shaped swimming pool. I had no idea what was going to happen. I knocked on the door, he let me in—he was alone,
no assistants—and he told me to come in while he practiced his arguments.
It was ungodly hot. I hung out on the couch in his room. He seemed to be creating his case right in front of me. After a little while, he sent me to the liquor store across the street to buy him a bottle of Johnny Walker Black.
He had a drink. He was pacing back and forth in the room, getting more confident, ramping up his argument, sounding really smart. He had tons of information. I didn’t really understand it, but he was testing it out on me.
Right there in the motel room, I could see that the guy was a force. Spellbinding.
I flew home thinking he would be great at hosting this TV show. In those days, before reality TV and Nancy Grace and Greta Van Susteren, we were thinking of it as a miniseries. We did a deal with Bailey, we hired a writer, but in the end it never got made.
Still, sitting there on the couch in that sticky motel room, in that small town in New Mexico, listening to Bailey build his case, I realized that there’s a huge distance between the noble reasons he probably went to law school—which were still there, deeply embedded in him—and what things were like at that moment.
It was a whole new way to look at lawyers and their work.
I never made a movie about F. Lee Bailey, of course, although his life is certainly rich enough for one. I didn’t even make a movie about lawyers until twenty years later, when I did
Liar Liar, with Jim Carrey, about what happens to a lawyer who is forced to tell nothing but the truth for twenty-four hours straight.
For me, the curiosity conversations are just the most obvious, the most visible example of my own curiosity. They are a kind of discipline, like the exercise routine, because you don’t get to talk to busy, interesting people unless you put steady effort into persuading them to see you.
But the curiosity conversations are different from the workouts in this way: I hate exercising, I just like the results. I love the curiosity conversations, while they are happening. The results—a month or a decade later—are something I count on, but they are a bonus.
In fact, of course, all I do is talk—I talk for a living. Actually, I try to listen for a living. Being a movie and TV producer means I live a version of the life John Calley showed me forty years ago. I have meetings and phone calls and conversations all day long. For me, every one of those is in fact a curiosity conversation. I don’t just use curiosity to get to meet famous people, or to find good scripts. I use curiosity to make sure movies get made—on budget, on time, and with the most powerful storytelling possible. I’ve discovered that even when you’re in charge, you are often much more effective asking questions than giving orders.
• • •
MY FIRST REAL, FULL-FLEDGED producing job was at Paramount Studios. I had an office on the backlot in what was called the
Director’s Building. I was twenty-eight years old, and I had produced a couple of successful TV movies (including the first episodes of a twenty-hour miniseries on the Ten Commandments) and Paramount gave me a deal to find and produce movies.
My office was in a corner on the third floor, with views of the walkways crisscrossing the lot. I would open the window (yes, in the 1970s and 1980s, office windows still opened) and I’d watch the powerful, famous, and glamorous walking by.
I was curious about who was on the lot and who was working with whom. This was during the time when I made myself meet someone new in show business every single day. I liked to shout down from my window at the people walking by—Howard Koch, who cowrote Casablanca; Michael Eisner, who would become CEO of Disney; and Barry Diller, who was CEO of Paramount and Michael Eisner’s boss.
One day Brandon Tartikoff was walking by. He was the president of NBC television, in the process of reviving the network with shows like Hill Street Blues and Cheers and Miami Vice. At thirty-two, he was already one of the most powerful people in show business.
“Hey Brandon!” I yelled. “Up here!”
He looked up at me and smiled. “Wow,” he said, “you must be in charge of the world from up there.”
A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was my boss, Gary Nardino, the head of TV at Paramount. “Brian, what the fuck do you think you’re doing, screaming out your window at the president of NBC?”
“I’m just connecting,” I said. “We’re just having fun.”
“I don’t think we’re having that much fun,” Nardino said. “Cut it out.”
Okay, not everyone was equally charmed by my style in those days. I was a little scared of Nardino, but not scared enough to stop shouting out the window.
One day I saw Ron Howard walking by. Ron was already famous and successful from his years acting on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, but he was trying to make the leap to directing. As he was walking by, I thought, I’m going to meet Ron Howard tomorrow.
I didn’t shout out the window at him. I waited until he got back to his office and called him up. “Ron, it’s Brian Grazer,” I said. “I see you on the lot. I’m a producer here too. I think we have similar goals. Let’s meet and talk about it.”
Ron was kind of shy, and he seemed surprised by my phone call. I don’t think he really wanted to meet me. I said, “It’ll be fun, it’ll be relaxed, let’s just do it.”
A few days later, he did come by to talk. He was trying to become a mainstream movie director, and I was trying to become a mainstream movie producer. We were two guys trying to do something we’d never done before.
The moment he walked into my office, he had this aura about him—a glow. After talking to him, I could tell my choices in life weren’t as thoughtful as his. He gave this sense of having a strong moral conscience. I know that sounds silly after just a single meeting, but it was my immediate
impression. And it’s true. It’s the way Ron is today—and it’s the way he was thirty-five years ago.
When he walked in, I asked him, “What do you want to be?”
Ron not only wanted to direct, he wanted to direct an R-rated movie. He wanted to change the way people saw him. I had no idea if he could direct. But I immediately decided I was going to bet on him, and try to persuade him to work with me. I started pitching my movie ideas—Splash and Night Shift. He definitely didn’t want to do a movie about a man falling in love with a mermaid. But he liked the irreverence of Night Shift, an R-rated comedy about two guys who run a call-girl ring out of the New York City morgue. Not the movie you’d ever predict from the star of Happy Days.
In fact, we made two movies together—Night Shift, and then, despite Ron’s initial reluctance, Splash, which became a huge hit. After working so well together on those two movies, we formed our company, Imagine Entertainment, and we’ve been artistic and business partners for the last thirty years. Not only could Ron direct, he’s become a master filmmaker. The movies we’ve done together include Parenthood, Backdraft, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Apollo 13, and the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind.
My relationship with Ron has been the most important in my life, outside of my family. He’s my closest work colleague, and my best friend. I decided to meet Ron after seeing him from my window, and it was my emotional curiosity—my puz
zling over what makes Ron Howard Ron Howard—that connected me to him. Again, at one of the most important moments of my life, following my curiosity opened the door.
Ron and I are different in many ways—especially our temperaments. But we share a sense of standards, including how to tell a story, and most important, we agree on what makes a great story. In fact, if there’s anyone I know who is as genuinely curious as I am, it’s Ron Howard. When we’re in meetings together, he asks as many questions as I do, and his questions are different, and they elicit different information.
My curiosity conversations are something I’ve done with consistency and purpose for thirty-five years. You’ll see many examples of them throughout this book. These conversations are events or occasions when curiosity itself is the motivation.
But in my everyday work and life, curiosity itself is not an “occasion.” It’s the opposite. Curiosity is something I use all the time. I’m always asking questions. For me, it’s an instinct. It’s also, very distinctly, a technique.
I’m a boss—Ron Howard and I run Imagine together—but I’m not much of an order giver. My management style is to ask questions. If someone’s doing something I don’t understand, or don’t like, if someone who works for me is doing something unexpected, I start out asking questions. Being curious.
I’m constantly meeting new people—sometimes at events, but often the new people are sitting on the couch in my office during the workday. I’m not particularly outgoing, but I have to act outgoing all the time. So how do I handle all these new
people—sometimes a dozen in a single day—often sitting eagerly right in front of me, expecting me to run the conversation? I ask questions, of course. I let them do the talking. Being interested in someone isn’t that hard if you know even a little about them—and as I’ve discovered, people love talking about their work, what they know about, their journey.
The entertainment business requires a huge amount of confidence. You have to believe in your own ideas for movies and TV shows, and you quickly discover that the safest answer for any studio or investor or executive to give is “no.” I’m often amazed that we get any movies made at all. But you can’t succeed in Hollywood if you’re discouraged by being told “no,” because regardless of the actual quality of your ideas, or even the quality of your track record, you’ll get told “no” all the time. You have to have the confidence to push forward. That’s true in all corners of the world—you have to have confidence if you work at a Silicon Valley tech company or treat patients at an inner-city hospital. My confidence comes from curiosity. Yes, asking questions builds confidence in your own ideas.
Curiosity does something else for me: it helps me cut through the routine anxiety of work and life.
I worry, for instance, about becoming complacent—I worry that out here in Hollywood, I’ll end up in a bubble isolated from what’s going on in the rest of the world, from how it’s changing and evolving. I use curiosity to pop the bubble, to keep complacency at bay.
I also worry about much more ordinary things—I worry about giving speeches; I worry about the safety of my kids; I even worry about the police—police officers make me nervous. I use curiosity when I’m worried about something. If you understand what kind of speech someone wants you to give, if you understand how cops think, you’ll either see your fear dissipate, or you’ll be able to handle it.
I use curiosity as a management tool.
I use it to help me be outgoing.
I use curiosity to power my self-confidence.
I use it to avoid getting into a rut, and I use it to manage my own worries.
In the coming chapters, I’m going to analyze and tell stories about these different types of curiosity, because I think they can be useful to almost anyone.
And that is the most important way I use curiosity: I use it to tell stories. That, really, is my profession. My job as a producer is to look for good stories to tell, and I need people to write those stories, to act in them, to direct them. I’m looking for the money to get those stories made, and for ideas about how to sell the finished stories to the public. But, for me, the key to all these elements is the story itself.
Here’s one of the secrets of life in Hollywood—a secret you learn in ninth-grade English class, but that many people forget. There are only a few kinds of stories in the world: romance, quest, tragedy, comedy. We’ve been telling stories for 4,000 years. Every story has been told.
And yet here I sit in the middle of a business devoted to either finding new stories, or taking old stories and telling them in fresh ways, with fresh characters.
Good storytelling requires creativity and originality; it requires a real spark of inspiration. Where does the spark come from? I think curiosity is the flint from which flies the spark of inspiration.
In fact, storytelling and curiosity are natural allies. Curiosity is what drives human beings out into the world every day, to ask questions about what’s going on around them, about people and why they behave the way they do. Storytelling is the act of bringing home the discoveries learned from curiosity. The story is a report from the front lines of curiosity.
Storytelling gives us the ability to tell everyone else what we’ve learned—or to tell everyone the story of our adventure, or about the adventures of the people we’ve met. Likewise, nothing sparks curiosity like good storytelling. Curiosity drives the desire to keep reading the book you can’t put down, it’s the desire to know how much of a movie you’ve just seen is true.
Curiosity and storytelling are intertwined. They give each other power.
What makes a story fresh is the point of view of the person telling it.
I produced a movie called Splash, about what happens when a man falls in love with a mermaid.
I produced a movie called Apollo 13, the true story of what
happens when three U.S. astronauts get trapped in their crippled spaceship.
I produced a movie called 8 Mile, about trying to be a white rap musician in the black rap world of Detroit.
I produced a movie called American Gangster, about a heroin smuggler in Vietnam-era New York.
American Gangster isn’t about a gangster—it’s about capability, it’s about talent and determination.
8 Mile isn’t about rap music, it isn’t even about race—it’s about surmounting humiliation, about respect, about being an outsider.
Apollo 13 isn’t about aeronautics—it’s about resourcefulness, about putting aside panic in the name of survival.
And Splash, of course, isn’t about mermaids—only a thousand people in Hollywood told me we couldn’t make a movie about mermaids. Splash is about love, about finding the right love for yourself, as opposed to the love others would choose for you.
I don’t want to make movies about alluring mermaids or courageous astronauts, about brazen drug smugglers or struggling musicians. At least, I don’t want to make predictable movies about only those things.
I don’t want to tell stories where the “excitement” comes from explosions or special effects or sex scenes.
I want to tell the very best stories I can, stories that are memorable, that resonate, that make the audience think, that sometimes make people see their own lives differently. And to
find those stories, to get to inspiration, to find that spark of creativity, what I do is ask questions.
What kind of story is it? Is it a comedy? A myth? An adventure?
What’s the right tone for this story?
Why are the characters in this story in trouble?
What connects the characters in this story to each other?
What makes this story emotionally satisfying?
Who is telling this story, and what is that person’s point of view? What is his challenge? What is her dream?
And most important, what is this story about? The plot is what happens in the story, but that plot is not what the story is about.
I don’t think I’d be very good at my job if I weren’t curious. I think I’d be making movies that weren’t very good.
I keep asking questions until something interesting happens. My talent is to know enough to ask the questions, and to know when something interesting happens.
What I think is so exciting about curiosity is that it doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what your job is, or what your passion is. Curiosity works the same way for all of us—if we use it well.
You don’t have to be Thomas Edison. You don’t have to be Steve Jobs. You don’t have to be Steven Spielberg. But you can be “creative” and “innovative” and “compelling” and “original”—because you can be curious.
Curiosity doesn’t only help you solve problems—no matter
what those problems are. There’s a bonus: curiosity is free. You don’t need a training course. You don’t need special equipment or expensive clothing, you don’t need a smartphone or a high-speed Internet connection, you don’t need the full set of the Encyclopædia Britannica (which I was always a little sad I didn’t have).
You’re born curious, and no matter how much battering your curiosity has taken, it’s standing by, ready to be awakened.