Brian Grazer: The Life of Brian

Imagine Entertainment co-CEO Brian Grazer has engineered audience-pleasers from Splash and Parenthood to Kindergarten Cop, Backdraft and My Girl. Here he talks about his Tom Cruise epic, Far and Away, as well as such off-screen interests as surfing, sweat lodges, torture, divorce and eating by the clock.


Brian Grazer leads me to the couch in his office--the decor is New Mexico on a thousand dollars a day--and sits me down. There are tired shadows drifting across the gusto of his aspect, like cloud cover threatening a sunny day.

"Are you single?" he wonders, searching my face for what appears to be more than the answer I have to give, which is no. "Because in case you haven't heard," he adds with a mirthless laugh, "I'm in the middle of a divorce." Of course I've heard. When Liz Smith gets into the act, the smart money says Eskimos know all about the end of Brian Grazer's nine-year, two-child marriage to Corki.

"Do you get along with your wife?" he asks me, with some hesitation.

"Yeah. I mean, we try our damnedest not to, but it just seems to work out the other way, I guess.

"Then you must love her."

"Well, yes."

"That's great. I love mine and she hates me." It doesn't take much straining to imagine the little gasp of a publicist somewhere, appalled at such a display of candor. Brian apparently doesn't have or want one.

I find myself caught between two dispositions approaching from opposite directions. From the north comes Brian Grazer the Imagine Films Entertainment co-CEO, the positron, his energy clock running like the first seven notes of "Layla." Brian Grazer, the partner of average guy Ron Howard, the producer of Splash, Parenthood, Kindergarten Cop and other crowd-pleasers ripe with the optimistic signature of his DNA. Brian the cheerful, a man who, by the sheer blithesomeness of his will. could bend a fork, could bend a smile on the corpse of Leonid Brezhnev. "I'm impervious to all rejection," he told The New York Times in 1985. But coming from the south is the Brian Grazer with a bum voltage regulator, emotionally discharging at a rate that seems to be visibly driving a wedge between himself and his surroundings.

Crack open a filmmaker and you find pieces of organizational skills and corporate logic, a thousand colored wires of communication, adversarial friendships, threats and easements, brinkmanship and lucky charms, the metabolic waste of hot-spot dining, a hundred undone deals, ideas spewing out (some his own, others surreptitious transfusions). The Brian Grazer from the north, curious beyond his ninth life, would want to examine all the pieces. Brian Grazer from the south, bereavement all over him like soot, would just be shattered.


Now it's a year later. I'm standing in the middle of a glass-walled conference room, waiting for Brian to wrap up a meeting. A feast of Chinese food has been beautifully spread out on a side table for us. Even the fortune cookies look symmetrically arranged through the efforts of someone bucking for a raise.

"Unh-unh-unh--those are for the end," Brian admonishes me from my flank. As he strides across the room, employees passing outside the conference room wave and call to him through the glass. Ron Howard might be the most normal person at Imagine, but Brian is clearly the most popular. He waves and hollers back with the celebration of an astronaut on the gantry to the space shuttle. Though he is dressed worse than I am-- worse, in fact, than the guy taking tickets in the parking structure of his building--Brian has a spring back in his step. His latest film, Far and Away, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman will close Cannes this year, and he's got two other films, Goldie Hawn's Housesitter and Eddie Murphy's Boomerang, hitting the screens this summer. Brian is back from the dead.

"I couldn't talk, could I?" he says, recalling our encounter of last year. "It was bad, huh?"

"You looked like you were inhaling Freon."

"I was traumatized, dude. I mean, I wasn't one of those people that becomes so completely distraught that they lay on their beds and feel the room spinning, but it was close. I was laying there. I was traumatized at that point."

Suddenly, Grazer shouts through the walls of our aquarium: "Ladies! Hey Ladies! You got any chopsticks? Chop chop chop! Choppers?"

The films Grazer has produced probably say it all. A run on the beach with his then "surfer chick," Corki, whom he soon married, provided the inspiration for Imagine's first big hit, Splash (Ron Howard's directorial breakthrough, although Grand Theft Auto had its moments). And the children he and Corki brought into the world, Sage and Riley, provoked the transcendental bliss behind Parenthood.

"The kids rock the house down," Brian rhapsodizes, pointing to his temple with a chopstick. "I know I'm a good father, I know I'm a good dad. Positive of that. I know because they literally follow me into the bathroom, I have no privacy. Yeah, I see my wife. It's kind of tricky ... we talk. We have kids, you know? So we really make an effort. I'd say we get along, which is nice. She flips me out a little bit ... why ... you thinking of dating her?"

No, but if we ever have dinner together, I'll eat lightly, so as not to remind her of Brian. His plate looks like one of those newspaper ads for the homeless at Thanksgiving, ladled high with shrimp salad, fried rice, a lobster dish, sweet and sour pork and broccoli with beef. The animal rights people would not be happy.

"I have a girlfriend now," Brian says, as if to sum up his personal life. He sounds as though he's speaking about a toupee or liver spots, something you never thought you'd be able to live with in a million years. "But that's not important--no one cares about that. Hopefully, they'll care more about my TV special."

The apple of Brian's eye is not another Problem Child sequel, or even a second violent kidfest with Schwarzenegger. It's "A Day On Earth," a touchy-feely-sounding TV extravaganza that will run on all three networks some time between Christmas and New Year's.

"I'm still working on it, still conceptualizing it. We'll start production in about a month. It begins with the premise that all mankind is good, with the exception of people who are genetically fucked up. I really believe that--that all man is good and that essentially it's a sixth sense that has to be tapped in each one of us. The special's not about ecology, war, peace, government. It's just how we relate to each other as human beings, and how all of those things come out of how we relate. What we hope to do is to try and demystify fear in human beings so that we can learn to treat each other a little better."

The materialization of Brian Grazer began in the dust of a $5-an-hour office job at Warner Bros, and the swirl of a memorized greeting: "Hi, my name is Brian Grazer. I work in Warner Bros, legal affairs. This is entirely unrelated to studio business. Can I meet with you for five minutes?" Using the office and phone lines of a fired executive, young USC law student Grazer put in calls to every successful producer and director in the firmament. Later the calls evolved into pitches, when, in what might have been Brian Grazer's first epiphany, he realized that the idea was to have ideas.

By 1975, he had had his next revelation, which was that working in Hollywood meant being out of a job. Quitting law school in 1975 to pursue his career as a movie producer, Grazer took one step backwards; since his internship at Warners was contingent upon his education, he was promptly fired. He still had the ideas, however, and for the next year, he peddled them with the bowed neck of a Fuller brush man. "I think I got three thousand--no, twenty-five hundred for my first two story ideas--each. That'll barely keep you in Sex Wax today," says surfer Brian. "But it seemed like a lot then."

The ideas reached fruition in the form of television movies, followed by a short, but lucrative, stay as a producer for Paramount Television. It wasn't the $100,000-a-year salary, however, as much as the people populating the place where he collected it that put him in Krugs. When Richie Cunningham had the good sense to leave Milwaukee and join the army, Grazer had a partner.

"Ron was just quitting 'Happy Days' while I was at Paramount. I saw him on the lot. We talked..." Brian surrenders one of his ironic, whimsical snickers, a falsetto dredged from the pit of his stomach. Grazer and Howard's first picture together would be the generously praised comedy Night Shift, featuring "Happy Days" alumnus Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton making his screen debut, and Kevin Costner, still lingering in obscurity. By the spring of 1986, Grazer and Howard would be ready to file a registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission offering 1.6 million units of common stock in Imagine Films Entertainment Inc.

Thereafter followed major box-office successes like Splash, Parenthood, Kindergarten Cop, Backdraft and Problem Child. Earlier this year The National Association of Theatre Owners presented Grazer with their Producer of the Year award in Las Vegas, and no wonder. Love them or hate them, Grazer films have the ol' pizzazz, the schmaltz to draw in a broad demographic.

"Just remember, you said that. Believe me, I don't need to be quoted as saying, 'Movies need to have that old pizzazz,'" Brian laughs.

"YOOOA! PEOPLE! LADIES! SOMEONE! WE GOT SOY SAUCE HIDIN' IN A DRAWER SOMEWHERE?" Brian hollers through the glass. When he returns from the buffet table with another full load of Chinese food, he frowns at my plate. "Look how little you're eating! You trying to get into a smaller size of jeans, or what? Come on, eat, eat! So ..." he eases in to his second helping, "I guess you probably think I know what I'm doing, don't you?"

"Yeah, except for Backdraft. Don't you?"

"The story of Backdraft didn't quite work, did it? But, yeah, I really think I know what I'm doing and I really think that given my objective as a filmmaker, I know as well as anybody how to make mainstream audience-pleasing movies. This might be a lightweight thing to say, but I am an audience or pop filmmaker."

At work here is what some have identified as Brian's casual quality, a way of speaking in highlights, of extracting the critical marrow, tying a bow around it and disarmingly presenting it to you with the receipt, in case you're inclined to take it back for exchange. Casual and loose, sure, like the swaying belly of a mountain lion. You don't make a film with Oliver Stone, the self-styled Ezra Pound of the Directors Guild, if you're a diffident gum chewer. Or maybe you do.

"Our personalities are different," says Grazer of Stone, who directed The Doors for Imagine. "He operates on a certain negative energy. He tests you and teas¬es you and baits you all the time.

"So how do you handle it?"

"Well, I think it's funny. I get a big kick out of it--I think he's a real funny guy. Even though most of the time you can ward it off, he can break through occasionally and intimidate you sometimes, you know what I mean? I bought the rights and then married Oliver Stone to the project, and it became his vision. I met him and he said that he thought Jim Morrison was a soul mate of his. And he talked about the film in psychological and philosophical terms and convinced me that he was very connected to that person. Look, as a filmmaker, he's one of the greatest living ones that we have. The trial-by-intimidation, that's his nature and it does different things to different people. But for the most part, I think he's really funny and fun to be around."

The Doors didn't do the kind of business that would cause its makers to stand up and salute. But of course, not all of Imagine's films have been successes. The Dream Team, Opportunity Knocks, Cry-Baby and The 'burbs were much bigger letdowns.

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