Brian Grazer likes to tell the story about the time he didn’t meet Vladimir Putin. Not meeting Putin is a story nearly all of us could tell, but Grazer came closer than most, right into the ante-room of the Russian President’s office, in fact.
Grazer–producer and founding partner, along with friend and director Ron Howard, of Imagine Entertainment–had gone to Moscow for one of what he has dubbed his “curiosity conversations,” which are pretty much just what they sound like. You may be one of the great power players in Hollywood, responsible for such cinematic classics as A Beautiful Mind and Splash, and such TV hits as Arrested Development and Friday Night Lights, but that doesn’t mean you know everything. So Grazer tries to sit down with accomplished people and simply ask them questions. “I lay out the ground rules,” he says, “and basically I say, ‘I’m going to research you; it’s not going to be hard. This won’t be your worst date.'”
Of course, “accomplished people” doesn’t have to mean nice people, and Putin was always high on Grazer’s wish list. In 2016 he got his shot, when friends in Hollywood connected him with friends in Russia who threaded the Kremlin needles and got him his audience. But, as Grazer recounts in his new book Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection, it all came apart in the final seconds, when he was about to be ushered into Putin’s presence and his Kremlin handler explained to the press secretary what the purpose of the meeting was.
“We are here because Brian loves our country,” the escort explained. “He would like to do a film about our President. He feels as if for 20 years, people in the West have been misled about what happens in Russia, which he loves.”
Grazer gaped. “That is absolutely not true,” he said. “I have no intention of ever making a movie about President Putin. I came here simply to meet the President.” By immediate and mutual agreement, the meeting was scuttled, and today, Grazer tells the story with a measure of regret.
“Sometimes in your blind passion of wanting something to happen, you ignore cues,” he said when I met him for coffee at his hotel during his recent working visit to New York. “You go ahead and do it anyway and it ends up bad. This was like a Hitchcock movie.”
I can’t pretend I come to the topic of Grazer with anything like pure objectivity. I worked closely with him and Howard during the production of Apollo 13, which was based on the book I co-authored with mission commander Jim Lovell–and I loved getting to know those guys. But in exchange for my lost detachment, I got a close-up look at how one of Hollywood’s most prolific production tandems works.
Since its founding in 1986, Imagine has earned nominations for 43 Academy Awards and 196 Emmys for its movies and TV shows. In 2016, the company ended its production deal with Universal Studios and is now producing its own content in multiple genres across multiple platforms, while keeping a foot in traditional movie and TV production.
A big part of the team’s success and the kind of work they produce is a certain lack of pretense, an unembarrassed ingenuousness that is captured in the entertaining life lessons that fill Face to Face. Grazer came to Hollywood by way of a zigzag academic route, majoring in psychology at the University of Southern California, switching to cinema and television, then graduating and spending a year in law school before starting in TV production. But it’s the psych-major part of him that may have the most influence on his work.
“I’m interested in the hows and whys of human communication,” he says. “Hollywood is 1,000% that–almost more than talent. There are agents who only say good things because they know it produces oxytocin.”
Some of Grazer’s experiences in communication have come to him in unexpected ways. In his book, he tells a story–quite bravely, it must be said–of having a conversation with Jonas Salk, the developer of the first polio vaccine. Grazer deeply admired Salk, and worked hard to get a spot on the great man’s calendar. A meeting was at last arranged, in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Grazer spotted Salk across the room, approached him with a nervousness that quickly bloomed into full-bore panic and, when he was finally in front of him, proceeded to throw up. Salk, he writes, responded like the doctor he was, physically supporting him, asking a waiter for orange juice to boost his blood sugar and helping him clean up.
“I mean, it’s kind of the most embarrassing thing that could happen,” Grazer says. “But he probably thought, ‘Wow this guy really cares.’ I think that moment made him really engage.” Engage a lot. After their initial, messily brief meeting, they scheduled a later, eight-hour curiosity conversation at Grazer’s home that also included George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
It’s that embrace of human fallibility and vulnerability that is at the core of so many of the most memorable characters in the stories Imagine tells: the Nobel laureate who can master math but not his own mind, the astronaut who is denied his only chance at a lunar landing. (Grazer writes about the 1996 Oscars ceremony at which Apollo 13, nominated for Best Picture, lost. Lovell, two seats away from him, reached over and clasped his arm. “It’s O.K.,” he said, “I didn’t make it to the moon either.”)
One of Grazer’s favorite insights in Face to Face belongs not to him, but to Oprah Winfrey, who has interviewed thousands of people in her career, and found that nearly all of them–Presidents, royalty, billionaires–have the same question when the camera goes off: “Was that O.K.?” No matter who we are, we want to please and we carry that innate, even sweet fear that we’re failing to please. “It means you care,” Grazer says, “so I’d say it’s a good thing.”
He’ll be asking “Is this O.K.?” a lot soon, as Imagine continues to expand far beyond its roots. Its new content will include more multicultural movies, pre-school TV, documentaries–like the recently released Pavarotti and the earlier Grammy-winning Beatles doc Eight Days a Week–and even podcasts and Broadway adaptations of Parenthood and A Beautiful Mind.
Grazer and Howard are 68 and 65 respectively, both keeping a teenager’s pace, but the question inevitably arises of whether the partnership that has churned out nearly four decades of work is beginning to think about the body of work that will endure in the decades that will come after them. Grazer answers philosophically.
“Honestly, very honestly I just live in the present,” he says. “Because we don’t really know if tomorrow’s happening.”
He very much seems to be enjoying all of his todays. I’m put in mind of a moment several years ago, when I was seated at a table with Grazer at the annual TIME 100 Gala, the dinner at which this magazine celebrates the 100 most influential people in the world. The gala is, by any measure, a glittery affair–especially for journalists who, to be frank, don’t get out all that often. But Grazer surely gets out all the time–to Oscar ceremonies, White House screenings, overseas premieres, royal audiences.
All the same, during the dinner, I spotted Grazer looking about, smiling, taking in the faces, wholly in the moment. He caught me looking, and he beamed. “This is just great!” he said. As a cradle-to-grave outlook on life, that’s a pretty hard one to beat.
This appears in the September 30, 2019 issue of TIME.