“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” — Albert Einstein
I started having what I called curiosity conversations. At first, they were just inside the business. For a long time, I had a rule for myself: I had to meet one new person in the entertainment business every day. But pretty quickly I realized that I could actually reach out and talk to anyone, in any business that I was curious about. It’s not just showbiz people who are willing to talk about themselves and their work — everyone is.
For thirty-five years, I’ve been tracking down people about whom I was curious and asking if I could sit down with them for an hour. I’ve had as few as a dozen curiosity conversations in a year, but sometimes I’ve done them as often as once a week. My goal was always at least one every two weeks. Once I started doing the curiosity conversations as a practice, my only rule for myself was that the people had to be from outside the world of movies and TV.
The idea wasn’t to spend more time with the kinds of people I worked with every day. I had quickly discovered that the entertainment business is incredibly insular — we tend to talk only to ourselves. It’s easy to think that movies and TV are a miniature version of the world. That’s not just wrong, it’s a perspective that leads to mediocre movies, and also to being boring.
I was so serious about the curiosity conversations that I often spent a year or more trying to arrange a meeting with particular people. I would spend hours calling, writing letters, cajoling, befriending assistants. As I got more successful and busier, I assigned one of my staff to arrange the conversations — the New Yorker did a little piece on the job, which came to be known as “cultural attaché.” For a while, I had someone whose only job was to arrange the conversations.
The point was to follow my curiosity, and I ranged as widely as I could. I sat down with two CIA directors. With both Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. I met with the man who invented the most powerful weapon in history and the richest man in the world. I met with people I was scared of; I met people that I really didn’t want to meet.
I never meet anyone with a movie in mind (although in recent years, it’s clear that some people met with me because they thought that maybe I would do a movie about them or their work). The goal for me is to learn something.
The results have always been surprising, and the connections I’ve made from the curiosity conversations have cascaded through my life — and the movies we make — in the most unexpected ways. My conversation with the astronaut Jim Lovell certainly started me on the path to telling the story of Apollo 13. But how do we convey, in a movie, the psychology of being trapped on a crippled spaceship? It was Veronica de Negri, a Chilean activist who was tortured for months by her own government, who taught me what it’s like to be forced to rely completely on oneself to survive. Veronica de Negri helped us to get Apollo 13 right as surely as Jim Lovell did.
Over time, I discovered that I’m curious in a particular sort of way. My strongest sense of curiosity is what I call emotional curiosity: I want to understand what makes people tick; I want to see if I can connect a person’s attitude and personality with their work, with their challenges and accomplishments.
I met with Jonas Salk, the scientist and physician who cured polio, a man who was a childhood hero of mine. It took me more than a year to get an audience with him. I wasn’t interested in the scientific method Salk used to figure out how to develop the polio vaccine. I wanted to know what it was like to help millions of people avoid a crippling disease that shadowed the childhoods of everyone when I was growing up. And he worked in a different era. He was renowned, admired, successful — but he received no financial windfall. He cured what was then the worst disease afflicting the world, and he never made a dime from that. Can you imagine that happening today? I wanted to understand the mind-set that turns a cure like that loose in the world.
I met with Edward Teller, who created the hydrogen bomb. He was an old man when I met him, working on the anti-missile “Star Wars” program for President Reagan. He was another person I had to lobby for a year in order to get an hour with him. I wanted to understand the intellect of a man who creates something like the hydrogen bomb and what his sense of morality is like.
I met with Carlos Slim, the Mexican businessman who is the richest man in the world. How does the richest man in the world live every day? I wanted to know what it takes to be that kind of businessman, to be so driven and determined that you win bigger than anyone else.
— Grazer, Brian, “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life”
For Discussion: What is the most memorable ‘curiosity conversation’ you have had?