Academy Award winner Brian Grazer sat for a wide-ranging discussion of his prolific career — and where it’s headed — as the first day spotlight conversation from TheGrill 2015, TheWrap’s sixth annual Media Leadership Conference.
From his modern smash with Fox’s “Empire” to the 31-year-old mermaid classic “Splash,” Grazer reflected on his road to the top with moderator Sharon Waxman, editor-in-chief and founder of TheWrap.
But first, “Empire.”
As the second season premiere held its chokehold on big ratings in key demos, executive producer Grazer and show creator Danny Strong (who joined him on stage toward the end of the evening) have faced innumerable questions about what makes the program successful.
“I trust our system,” Grazer said of workflow between showrunners Strong and Lee Daniels. “If things are extreme, I find an elegant way to bring it up.”
And with the groundbreaking, fictional hip-hop family The Lyons, things get extreme pretty quickly.
“We look at him as the godfather of our show,” Strong said of Grazer. “This sage of all show business … if an actor is going crazy? We call the godfather.”
Strong maintains there’s no particular ingredient that makes the show resonate, just old fashioned quality and popularity. He also pointed out that “Empire’s” writers’ room is never allowed to stray from the epic, nearly-mythical standards he sets for characters played by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. Scripts will refer to them exclusively as “King” and “Queen,” and every draft has a Shakespearean quote on the title page.
Grazer places the credit with Fox Broadcasting honchos Dana Walden and Gary Newman. “We were very fortunate that Dana and Gary got it. They loved it,” he said.
Grazer’s interest in hip-hop is long evidenced with other groundbreaking works like “8 Mile” starring Eminem, but the musical genre is just one string in a vast tapestry of Grazer’s interests.
With four decades in show business, Grazer credits his eclectic taste to a fear of “getting trapped breathing the same oxygen as everyone else in Los Angeles. I want to learn about different subjects, and reduce natural preconceptions we all have. If I’ve met 1,000 experts in 30 years, they all proved me wrong about what I thought going in.”
Take a Chilean torture victim named Veronica Denegra, who told Grazer she lived in an alternate reality she constructed “to survive torture in real time, which gave me insight into how ‘A Beautiful Mind’ would exist in an objective narrative.”
“Beautiful Mind,” of course, landed him the 2002 Oscar for Best Picture along with his producing partner Ron Howard.
For all his success, Grazer maintains life in Hollywood isn’t a cakewalk.
“It’s never been easy. The [project] that I want to make, TV or movies, is usually the idea somebody doesn’t want to do. I remember Robert Redford told Ron and I that every movie he wants to make is the hardest movie — like ‘Ordinary People’ — those were the most difficult ones but those were the most rewarding,” he said.
Not that his career isn’t peppered with lessons, like after 1984’s “Splash.” The beloved movie, starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, was rescued from turnaround by Disney after a similar project had lined up stars Warren Beatty and Jessica Lange.
“I thought after the success of ‘Splash’ that everything would be really easy and then right away, everyone said no to everything I wanted to make,” Grazer said.
His stellar TV track record might easily make the medium his favorite — before “Empire” there was “24,” “Arrested Develpment” and “Lights” — but the producer won’t choose sides.
“There’s less gray area in the world of TV. In the movie business, it continues to expand,” Grazer said of mounting projects in the respective spaces. “‘Yes’ in movies means yes to another step, but it never wears me down.”
When asked why he’s never pursued the superhero space, a dominating force in culture and box office, Grazer pointed to ownership.
“I’m envious. I don’t make those movies but I make movies with effects and I’m interested in space and really huge canvases — but I don’t own Marvel,” he said.
Some of the more poignant wisdom Grazer shared was knowing when to tune out the Hollywood machine. Pointing to two other classics, “Kindergarten Cop” and the gold-standard firefighter movie “Backdraft,” Grazer said he learned never to trust focus testing — and rely on his own instincts as a viewer.
“Both of those movies got really high test scores. There was no problem with the violence in them. Oddly enough when I showed my kids, I automatically shielded their eyes during [the violent parts]. I realized testing doesn’t tell you everything. It doesn’t exactly put you in the audience’s shoes,” he said.
Watch the full interview here: