When you think about Dr. Seuss, you don’t think torture. And when you think about CIA training, you don’t think about Whoville and the Grinch who stole Christmas.
But the Grinch and a CIA torture expert came together for me in a blaze of improbability that saved one of my most important movies.
It was 1999, and my partner Ron Howard and I were set to shoot Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Jim Carrey was starring as the Grinch—and he wasn’t just a moment of inspired casting. Ron Howard and I had won a two-year bidding war for the rights to make Grinch. The person running the auction and choosing who would make the movie was Audrey Geisel, Dr. Seuss’s widow. As part of our effort to persuade Audrey, we suggested Carrey as Grinch. Audrey asked to meet him, and she liked him so much, she sold us the rights to make the movie only if Jim was playing the Grinch.
The makeup required to transform Jim into the Grinch wasn’t just extensive, it was insanity. Here’s Jim: “That first day, the makeup took eight-and-a-half hours. It was like being buried alive.”
After the first day of shooting, Jim went back to his trailer convinced he couldn’t survive weeks of carrying the Grinch makeup. He went to Ron Howard and said the makeup was like being tortured, that he couldn’t bear it, that he couldn’t do the movie. The makeup wasn’t routine in any way, and it was critical to creating the movie we wanted to make. Jim is game for anything—his misery said a lot about how suffocating the makeup was. Still, without him, we’d lose the right to make the movie, along with all the millions of dollars we’d spent to win the rights, and all the work we’d done to get ready to shoot.
We had to keep the makeup, and we had to keep Jim—but we had to find a way to make it possible for him to endure something that felt like being tortured.
It was an unsolvable problem. Then an idea popped into my head.
For years, I have been meeting and having conversations with a whole range of people with expertise outside Hollywood. I think of these as my “curiosity conversations,” and for me they are a vital part of my professional life. The curiosity conversations connect me to all the important, fascinating, fast-changing worlds outside show business—physics and medicine, genomics and terrorism, sports and pop art, hip-hop and architecture.
I have a particular curiosity about the world of intelligence, spies, terrorism, and counter-terrorism. As we were frantically trying to fix our Grinch problem, a curiosity conversation I’d had suddenly popped to mind. One of the CIA people I’d talked to years before specialized in training U.S. agents to survive torture if they were captured.
We had an actor being held prisoner by his costume—he was being tortured by his makeup. Maybe the CIA specialist could teach Jim Carrey to survive the green Grinch makeup the way he’d taught spies to survive hostile interrogation?
We flew the CIA specialist in on a Friday, and he spent the whole weekend closeted with Jim. He taught Jim all kinds of techniques for distracting himself, for creating mindsets that allowed him to ignore and work through the discomfort.
Years later, Jim described those sessions as “quite hilarious.” But they worked. Jim came back to the set, he put on the Grinch makeup 100 times—every day for months. “I just kept telling myself, ‘It’s for the kids! It’s for the kids!’”
And How the Grinch Stole Christmas became a huge hit—four weeks as No. 1 at the box office in Christmas 2000. And it won an Academy Award. For Best Makeup.
Without curiosity—without those years of curiosity conversations—Grinch never would have gotten made. Curiosity rescued the movie, it saved Jim Carrey, and it certainly saved me.
That’s the story of me and curiosity. Curiosity is the quality that brought my childhood to life, curiosity helped me figure out how to become a movie producer, curiosity has added zest and adventure to my life as an adult.
I use curiosity to stay close to the people who are most important to me. I used it to be a better boss and a better dad. And sometimes, I use curiosity to get us all out of an impossible situation, like some movie superhero.
In fact, curiosity is my secret superpower.
It just happens to be the kind of superpower that every one of us is born with, that every one of us has equal access to.
I know because I started using curiosity back in elementary school, when I struggled to learn to read but figured out that there were many ways to answer questions besides books.
I started the curiosity conversations when I was not only unknown—I should have been unknown, because I hadn’t actually accomplished anything. For many years, I had to charm my way into the good graces of assistants, I had to work for months, even years, to get 10 or 15 minutes with people I thought it would be valuable to talk to.
The curiosity conversations especially—this discipline I developed for myself when I was in my 20s—have this wonderful contradiction at their heart.
When I have them, I am not looking for movie or TV ideas. I tell the people I’m hoping to talk to that I’m not interested in doing a movie on them or their work. I’m just interested in them and their world. And it is that very quality of having a relaxed, open-ended conversation—where I quite literally follow my curiosity, and the person I’m talking to does as well—that allows all kinds of new ideas and new connections to be created.
The fact that I’m not looking for ideas is what creates the space and the freedom to see new ideas.
My father was a criminal defense attorney. I was always curious about how attorneys think about their clients and themselves. Early in my curiosity conversations, I met with a series of the best criminal defense attorneys I could get to: Johnnie Cochran, Gerry Spence, F. Lee Bailey, Melvin Belli, Vincent Bugliosi, Alan Dershowitz.
I wasn’t thinking of a movie, that’s for sure. I wanted to understand their mentality.
In law school, do lawyers dream of defending accused criminals? Do lawyers always believe what they say to juries? How do great trial lawyers align their ideals with the reality of violent crimes and sometimes-guilty clients?
Those conversations were eye opening. They lodged in my brain and eventually they created a funny question: What would happen if a really persuasive trial attorney had to tell the truth?
The result: the comedy Liar Liar, about an attorney forced to tell the truth for 24 hours.
Most of my conversations don’t have a direct connection to a movie or TV series. What they do is give me this wonderfully varied experience in a whole range of things I care about, that I’m curious about, and that curiosity cascades back into my life. I met a whole series of great artists—Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons—and I was so intrigued with the joy they took in making art that I started to paint. I’m not a very good painter, but I really enjoy doing it. While we were making the surfing movie Blue Crush, I got to meet some of the best surfers in the world. Meeting those men and women, seeing the thrill they got in riding waves, inspired me exactly the same way: I learned to surf, and I surf to this day, at age 63—an adventure and a joy I never would have had if I hadn’t listened to my curiosity.
That’s the way all of us can use curiosity—to cultivate that tickle of interest, instead of ignoring it, as we are so often taught to do in middle school (or the office). Curiosity is just like any other quality or good habit—the more you exercise it, the more nimble and powerful it becomes.
When you ask genuine questions of the people around you—and listen to the answers with real attention—the results will surprise you. I guarantee it. Questions draw you closer to the people you care about most—your romantic partner, your children, your parents, your friends. Ask the right questions, and even people you’ve known for years will surprise you. Curiosity gives you a competitive edge at work; it’s the key to sparking creativity, and also to building confidence in your ideas. And curiosity can refresh your life, opening the door to new interests and new adventures.
We don’t often think about it this way, but curiosity is about connection—to people, and also to the world, especially the world away from a screen.
When I was first starting out in the movie business, I had a third-floor office at Paramount Studios, with windows overlooking the Paramount campus, and I would lean on the windowsill and shout down to people walking by. I was already doing a small version of the curiosity conversations—I had made a rule for myself that, for three months, I was going to meet one new person in show business every day. One day, one of the people I spotted out the window was Ron Howard.
After a childhood and adolescence as a renowned actor, Ron was at Paramount trying to become a director—in exactly the way I was trying to become a producer. I didn’t shout down to Ron (which was probably smart), but I did call him up that very afternoon and persuade him to come over, meet me, and talk about movie ideas.
The first two movies I produced were Night Shift and Splash—which were both directed by Ron. We went on to become business partners, artistic partners, and close friends of 30 years. Outside of my children, Ron has been the most important person in my adult life—and my curiosity led me to Ron as surely as it led me to Liar Liar and surfing.
I use curiosity every day, in all kinds of ways. I consider it my secret weapon, my competitive edge.
Curiosity gets me into the heads of characters and stories that come from way outside my own experience—which is partly how I’ve come to produce movies about topics as varied as high school football in Texas, heroin-dealing in New York City, and disaster in outer space.
It is curiosity that gives me the confidence to push forward with ideas other people are skeptical of—because I’ve had some experience outside the world of showbiz that gives me that confidence.
I use curiosity when I’m worried about something—whether it’s a big speech I have to give, or a movie project I’m worried has gotten off-track. Instead of fretting, I ask questions.
Curiosity helps me be a better boss. I don’t particularly like to give orders, so instead I ask questions. Being curious about how projects are going is a much more powerful and valuable way of managing than issuing commands. Asking questions is certainly more constructive than that popular Hollywood management tool: Yelling.
Curiosity sometimes even keeps me from making mistakes. In 2009, we were working on a movie titled Cartel, about a murder involving the drug cartels of Mexico. We were planning to shoot on location in Mexico—doing a movie critical of the drug cartels in the country where they were beheading people. The plan made me a little nervous, although all the security experts we had hired told us it wouldn’t be a problem.
As we were getting Cartel underway, I happened to have a curiosity conversation with Condoleezza Rice, who had just stepped down from being Secretary of State. We had lunch at the well-known Hollywood restaurant E Baldi, on Canon Drive, and I told her about Cartel, and that we’d been assured it was safe to make.
What did she think?
Condi was skeptical. “I don’t think it’s safe to do that,” she said.
After lunch, she did some checking and got back to me. “I don’t think it’s safe to do what you’re planning,” she said. Her sources and her judgment confirmed my nagging doubts—and we shut the movie down.
It’s a perfect lesson in curiosity’s quiet power.
Curiosity has never let me down—just the opposite. The only questions I regret are the ones I haven’t asked.
With Charles Fishman.
For more about the power of curiosity—in Hollywood, and in your own life—read Brian Grazer’s new book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, co-authored with journalist Charles Fishman.