Of the thousands of people film producer Brian Grazer has contrived to meet in the past few decades—including hundreds of Nobel laureates—one encounter stands out. He spent three years trying to get a meeting with Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine.
“I called many times, I sent many letters,” Grazer told the audience of WeWork employees at a “Make It Work” panel discussion at the company’s recent Global Summit in Los Angeles. (He’s a fan of WeWork through his wife, marketing specialist Veronica Smiley Grazer, who has an office at WeWork 312 Arizona Ave in Santa Monica.) “Eventually he got a new assistant who said, ‘I’ll let you say hi and shake hands, but this is not a full meeting.’ I had so much anticipatory anxiety that as I approached him, I projectile vomited on him.”
Grazer is a relaxed and affable speaker, even as he recounts throwing up on a personal hero. It’s a trait cultivated through years of face-to-face conversations with interesting and influential people, a pursuit he launched 35 years ago as a child who felt hamstrung by dyslexia. “I realized I could learn much more from human interaction and human connectivity,” he explains. “By looking at people and being present and genuinely interested in learning.”
Projectile vomiting on Salk became just a funny anecdote in what turned out to be a decades-long friendship. Shortly after that first meeting, Salk offered to bring a handful of equally intellectual people to Grazer’s home for a visit—and suggested that the producer round up a few of his chums. (Grazer’s guest list included the late Sydney Pollack, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.) “We were friends until his death,” Grazer says of Salk.
Grazer’s “curiosity conversations,” as he calls these biweekly meetings with individuals who are “experts in anything other than entertainment,” have introduced him to a wide variety of people—including presidents, Princess Diana, Andy Warhol, and Fidel Castro. (He recounted his experiences in his 2016 best-seller, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.)
“They can be in medicine, politics, religion, all art forms, gurus, cult leaders—all types of people,” says the 67-year-old producer of critical and commercial hits like A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13. “I don’t have to agree with their philosophy or their point of view. I don’t have to like them, or for them to like me. I’m just out to try and learn something.”
His passion for human connectivity has served his professional career as well: Over the years, he has gravitated towards film and TV projects that have themes of love and redemption at their core (which is why he doesn’t do horror films, he explains—lots of gore, no redemption).
“I champion projects that have a theme, and where I can see the heartbeat,” he says. “The heartbeat is everything to me.”
Those principles of connectivity will be laid out in Grazer’s book, Eye Contact, out this fall. But he’s doing more than just putting his own learning to paper. Among his recent initiatives: Imagine Impact, a fully funded eight-week bootcamp to help new creative talent find a home in Hollywood at WeWork Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles that launched with his partner—director, producer, and actor Ron Howard—last September.
“I looked around at the landscape of the content space, and realized that it’s not democratized at all. It’s a caste system,” he explains. “And the caste system creates barriers that make it really hard for a writer with a new but original voice to get heard.” The bootcamp, he says, “will allow for original and sustainable voices to be heard quicker than struggling for several years at the bottom rung of a ladder.”
Grazer says he’s learned over the years that while making it in Hollywood may look like the ultimate goal, true success encompasses bringing people along for the ride.
“If I do anything just for me, I’ve failed,” he says. “I think it’s bad karma. I try to create win-wins. It’s as simple as that.”