The Life of Brian: From Seuss to nuts

H'wood's eclectic eccentric

Most producers with four TV series on the air and nine films in varying stages of production would find it hard to escape the daily gridlock of phone calls, meetings and last-minute negotiations.

But on a recent evening Brian Grazer found time to appear on a UCLA Hammer Museum symposium with writer Malcolm Gladwell, followed by an all-night party at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he unveiled a Vespa scooter designed by a poster artist and guerilla marketing expert named Shepard Fairey.

This wasn’t carefree museum-surfing for Grazer. It was part of the producer’s idiosyncratic, career-long campaign to surround himself with the best and the brightest experts in every field — a campaign that’s re-shaping Imagine Entertainment, the production entity he runs with Ron Howard.

Grazer has long made it a practice to keep a toehold outside Hollywood, cultivating conversations with scientists, artists, athletes and maverick thinkers of all stripes.

As Imagine prepares for a new burst of productivity — it begins shooting three films in September and just renewed its TV deal at Fox — those conversations have helped mold a production slate that’s the company’s most eclectic to date.

The persona Grazer often presents to the world is disarmingly wacky. His soaring corner office at Imagine headquarters in Beverly Hills is bright red and decorated with toys. He surfs and paints. He laughs easily. He doesn’t scream and hurl objects at assistants. His wife is the novelist and screenwriter Gigi Levangie Grazer, author of a novel called “Maneater.” His hairstyle, straight out of a Dr. Seuss picture book, was perfect fodder for the writing staff of “The Simpsons,” who gave him a cameo on the show.

Peel back the cartoonish veneer, however, and an earnest, intellectually restless side of Grazer emerges. Universal Pictures chair Stacey Snider calls him “genuinely, endlessly curious.” His conversations leap-frog from topic to topic.

On a recent visit, Grazer talked about poster art, phenomenology and a recent meeting with Sheldon Glashow, an expert on particle accelerators who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979. Grazer, who has generated billion of dollars from films like “Liar, Liar,” “The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” casually mentions that he thinks there’s a good movie in particle accelerators.

Three years ago, in a 7,000-word profile of Grazer, the New Yorker proclaimed that the typical Grazer movie is “a sweet but brisk comedy that is structured like a musical.”

That may have been a fair assessment in 2001, before the release of “A Beautiful Mind,” which earned a best picture Oscar for Grazer and Howard.

But it’s no longer true. Grazer’s focus on comedies has dissipated, replaced by an interest in far-flung subjects that’s yielded a portfolio of dramas and thrillers, an animated version of “Curious George” and “Inside Deep Throat.”

This last, a documentary about the sexual and cultural revolution unleashed by the classic smut film starring Linda Lovelace, is well-timed to capitalize on the documentary boom sweeping the nation’s theaters.

Next out from Universal, the studio that’s been home to Imagine since 1988, is the football drama “Friday Night Lights” in October, followed by the Depression-era boxing drama “The Cinderella Man,” directed by Howard, in March.

At this point, Grazer’s worldwide box office grosses exceed $11.2 billion. A sizable chunk of that comes from franchises like “Nutty Professor” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” — comedies that were the perfect balm for Universal Studios at a time of corporate upheaval, when the motion picture division was under heightened pressure to milk its titles for ancillary revenues and spinoffs.

“Grinch,” released in 2002, generated close to $500 million in worldwide theatrical grosses and homevideo revenue. TV rights, licensing deals and theme park income from the Seuss Landing ride at Universal Studios in Orlando are estimated to be worth another $100 million to the studio.

But Grazer’s interests have shifted.

His last Seuss adaptation, “The Cat In the Hat,” fell flat at the box office and was skewered by the critics. The New York Times called it “a vulgar, uninspired lump of poisoned eye candy.”

Grazer says he’s through with Seuss adaptations for now and is more focused on dramas than comedy.

“It’s harder to make big comedies that people respect,” he says. “I guess our culture has changed. Kids are more interested in the casting and the vibe than they are in the story.”

Big idea man

Grazer says he was always interested in serious subjects.

“The underlying roots of the comedies were serious or intense. ‘Liar Liar,’ which was a bright sunny comedy, was built on an idea that I had based on a person who was handicapped in that every relationship he had was built on a lie, and he had to pick between his family and other temptations — and he wanted everything. That sentence could easily conform to a different genre — a drama, for example.”

Imagine is remaking the 1977 George Segal-Jane Fonda comedy “Fun With Dick and Jane” at Sony. Sources close to the project say much of the subtext of the remake, which involves corporate downsizing at an Enron-like corporation, was developed by Grazer.

“Friday Night Lights” director Peter Berg says Grazer has remained focused on the big ideas and themes of the film, major casting, script and marketing decisions, but stayed out of the production minutiae.

“He let me worry about the nuts and bolts of making our 14-hour days,” Berg said. “When you’ve been doing 50 straight days of shooting, it’s nice to have someone who can give you that broad perspective.”

“You can’t do that unless you’re prepared to delegate,” says Universal Studios chief operating officer Ron Meyer. “Brian’s a very smart delegator.”

Grazer has in fact a stable support structure.

Imagine Films co-chairman Karen Kehela, now based in New York, has worked for the company for 17 years. Jim Whitaker, the exec VP overseeing “Friday Night Lights,” has been there for 12 years.

Then there’s Howard, Grazer’s partner of almost two decades. The filmmaker, who lives on the east coast, may not be a part of daily development meetings, but he plays a big role as Imagine films are edited and readied for release.

Imagine headquarters are on the seventh floor of the Wilshire Boulevard high-rise that once housed Mike Ovitz’s oppressively opulent AMG offices (now inhabited by the Firm).

The Imagine suite is a refreshing contrast, a serene combination of waterfalls, plants and stone wall fixtures. On a recent visit, it moved to a manic tempo. Assistants whirled about. A Playboy pinball machine, circa 1978, was parked next to a spiffier “Apollo 13” machine outside Grazer’s corner office.

Grazer says his two role models are Saul Zaentz and Richard Zanuck. “The way they conduct themselves creatively and morally, I aspire to follow their example. They live inside the minute-to-minute process of making a movie. In the world of the proliferation of credits, they’re the antidote.”

Grazer’s background is more Zaentz than Zanuck. He wasn’t born into Hollywood, but clawed his way in from the outside. He didn’t grow up surrounded by Nobel-winning scientists, writers and artists: He had to seek them out.

Years ago, Grazer wrote to people, begging to meet with him. “From the point at which I started lobbying Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, it took a year to meet him,” Grazer says.

Today he keeps an assistant named Brad Grossman under contract at Imagine. His job is to serve as Grazer’s cultural attache, wrangling interesting people to engage him in conversation once a week.

“Originally, I did it selfishly to be more informed,” Grazer says. “Making movies is being in the emotion business. To achieve maximum emotion through images. You have to think less and feel more. I don’t want to be a dilettante and operate on instincts that are uninformed.”

Universal’s Snider states, “The hallmark of a great producer is to be engaged in your culture. The point of going to an art opening isn’t that it leads to a movie idea. The point is that it enriches you, makes you more sensitive to things around you.”

Shuttling between the world of ideas and studio film-making isn’t easy, however.

“A Beautiful Mind” straddled these realms successfully. But Imagine’s most recent literary adaptations, “The Cat in the Hat” and “The Missing,” were stinging disappointments.

Like other top producers, Grazer is keenly interested in the ways in which movies and ideas develop mass appeal — or fail to. But, unlike the others, he’s also interested in talking about the social paradigms that shape them.

That’s one of the things that draws him to people like Gladwell, who wrote “The Tipping Point,” and Fairey, whose culturally subversive poster art has spread like wildfire around the world.

“I thought it was incredibly cool that he could have an effect on so many people in what would appear to be a benign way,” Grazer says.

I am curious (mellow)

How “Deep Throat” reached a tipping point in 1972, becoming a popular sensation for movie audiences young and old, is one of the questions at the center of his new docu.

“There were 50 years, at least, of pornography that preceded ‘Deep Throat.’ ‘Deep Throat’ had a great title and it celebrated the right iconic act — it celebrated a blow job. Because of the title and what it successfully celebrated, it became the most litigated, most profitable movie ever.”

Partly financed by HBO, the doc includes interviews with Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Carl Bernstein, Hugh Hefner, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and John Waters.

“Inside Deep Throat” now appears destined for a theatrical release, though it’s not clear who will distribute it.

Universal, which was among the bidders for “Fahrenheit 9/11,” may want to take a shot with a doc that’s likely to generate its own storm of publicity — though the scenes of graphic sex could present a problem at the multiplex.

It’s provocative, of course,” Grazer says. “We have to include archival footage that makes it unrated. It’s the accident of the skill of Linda Lovelace that turned a movie called ‘The Nurses’ into a movie called ‘Deep Throat,’ that then became a cultural phenomenon.”

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