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the lunch

Illustration of film producer Peter Guber by Anthony Jenkins.Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Peter Guber wants to tell you a story.

It's okay: You're in good hands here, for in addition to being one of the most successful Hollywood executives over the past few decades, he is also a master storyteller. Though it's probably more accurate to say the two achievements go hand in hand.

Here he is right now, sitting at a corner table in the minimalist mezzanine area of Frank Restaurant at the Art Gallery of Ontario, his back to the noisy lunch crowd like a conspirator as he bares a mouthful of teeth and jabs the air between us with both hands, arguing his case that something usually considered the province of artistic endeavour is also a keystone to the success of medicine, sports, business, politics, and probably even the future of the planet if you really think about it.

And if you thought that last sentence was long, you've never asked Peter Guber a single question and then listened as he unfurled half a dozen answers over the course of 14 minutes.

He is a Hollywood producer, yes, but it seems truer to say he is a screenwriter's version of a Hollywood producer: sharp suit, sharp smile, and a roiling enthusiasm for whatever he's selling that leads him to yelp and gesticulate and not infrequently veer into blue language. Dustin Hoffman wins Oscars for this kind of stuff.

Mr. Guber orders a small bottle of sparkling water and then begins a seduction of sorts, asking for advice on conducting interviews: Though he is the CEO of a diversified entertainment company with interests in TV, movies and professional sports, in his spare time he does television interview shows with celebrities. It was hard, he admits, to learn how to free himself from his predetermined series of questions and just listen to somebody - to play, as he later says, "pitch and catch."

He has become an evangelist for that connection, writing a briskly readable self-help business book about the importance of storytelling, albeit with the deceptively boring title Tell to Win. It is his contention - no, his core belief - that narrative is the most powerful way to persuade someone, be it a company president getting her troops to embrace a new strategy, a salesman closing a deal, or a doctor convincing a patient to fully support a course of therapy.

People, he argues, aren't naturally built to absorb raw data. But if you coat information in a compelling story, your audience will remember it for years.

"When you want to move somebody, you have to say to yourself: 'I'm in the emotional transportation business.' I gotta move them, emotionally. If I move them emotionally, I can get them to move a little bit closer to where their fear space is, and take a bit of a chance. If I try to move them informationally or intellectually, I'm aiming for the head - and, in my business, that's where flops are born."

"Hits are born here," - he motions to his heart, "and they migrate [to the head] Business is born here," - again, the heart - "and migrates here - to the wallet. You aim at the wallet - people protect their wallet and their groin."

On page after page of the book, Mr. Guber offers up anecdotes drawn from his decades in Hollywood: here is Michael Jackson, trying to convince Mr. Guber to let him direct a movie by showing him a snake cornering a mouse; here is Michael Milken talking about discovering he had prostate cancer; here is Carl Sagan talking about the possibility of discovering alien life forms; here are Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra and Tom Cruise and Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela and Steven Spielberg, all sharing wisdom through stories.

Mr. Guber shares some of his own tales of success and failure, like how he flopped down like a wounded primate on the floor of a studio chief's office to secure a green light for the film Gorillas in the Mist. In one early tale, he relates how he had to convince a group of power players on a wilderness trip (which included Pierce Brosnan, Onex chairman Gerry Schwartz, and Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis), some of whom were on the rowdy side, to smarten up and work together or they were going to die while shooting the rapids of the Colorado River.

He goes further afield, too, travelling as part of his research to the wilds of New Guinea to observe tribesmen telling stories during coming-of-age rituals. Tell to Win, in fact, is a story about Mr. Guber discovering the importance of story.

"As I look at the successes and failures in my own life, if you have a vision, you have to be able to narrate that, you have to be able to put it in a cohesive way - around a charity, around a political proposition, a business proposition, around medicine," he says. He cuts a chunk of vegetable strudel, shoves it into his mouth, chews a moment, then continues.

"It's actually very critical, and we leave it out. I talked to doctors and they say, 'Don't talk to the patients! Give 'em the medicine! Don't listen to the story!' But that's the whole thing! That's IT! You gotta turn on THIS pharmacy!" He points at his head.

"So the idea is: recognize [stories]as an omnibus element in every single area - science, medicine, art - to keep it alive as a holistic teaching tool."

"The story isn't the icing on the cake, it's the fuckin' cake!"

In a promotional video for the book, Mr. Guber speaks of the classical narrative arc: a first act challenge to the protagonist, a second act struggle, and a third act resolution. With Mr. Guber now in the final act of his own career, what purpose might writing the book serve? What struggle in his life does it resolve?

This is where he spends 14½ minutes not answering the question.

But even if he wanted to, could he come up with a single answer? The complete version of Mr. Guber's own story would have too many twists and turns for a Hollywood feature; it'd be sent back for rewrite. It would begin with one of those sentimental montages of hardship (maybe over the opening credits?) set in the working class neighbourhoods of Boston, where his father was a junk yard dealer, and then segue to New York as the striving Mr. Guber earns his law degree but abandons his MBA studies when he lands a job with Columbia Pictures.

He rises quickly to become the studio chief but is turfed out after three years, then claws his way back to the top of the town in the late eighties when he and his producing partner Jon Peters are hired by Sony to run Columbia Pictures. Unfortunately, they had just signed a contract with Warner Bros., so their erstwhile employers hit their new ones with a $1-billion (U.S.) lawsuit. It doesn't end well, and a few years later the whole delicious episode is chronicled in the dishy book Hit & Run, in which the journalists Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters note that, even from his early years in Hollywood, Mr. Guber was considered "brilliant, manipulative, seductive, and virtually without close friends."

In 1995, he parts ways with Sony and forms Mandalay Entertainment Group.

Given the splash that book made in Hollywood, I ask Mr. Guber if he'd like Tell to Win to outsell Kim Masters. "I don't care who I outsell, I don't care what I outsell," he responds quickly, so quickly that it's hard to know if he really heard the question.

In Tell to Win, he mentions a conversation with Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, who suggested that stories can be dangerous because they frame the world in a clean, easily digestible form when in fact life is often random. In that respect, of course, even a storyteller can fall victim to the stories that he or she tells to persuade others. Mr. Guber, after all, has frequently managed to convince himself of the wisdom of certain business deals that led to heartbreak, or of making movies that summarily bombed. (See: Bonfire of the Vanities. Or, rather, don't see it.) Like a story, he says, "a gun can be dangerous. But a gun can protect you, you can hunt for food with it - you know, the tool itself is a tool. The intention of the party using the tool is a part of the process, right? You know: the knife cuts the steak, stabs the person, saves somebody from danger, cuts somebody out of a car."

He plucks a pill bottle from his jacket pocket, pries it open and pours about 10 capsules of varying shapes and sizes into his left hand. He looks them over, then throws them in one shot to the back of his throat, chasing the cocktail with heavy gulps of water. "Here's the thing: beliefs," he says with a wry smile. "I don't know if I believe these work or not, you know? I don't know if I believe it." But his doctor tells a good story.

Curriculum vitae

Personal

Born in Boston, March 1, 1942

Married Tara Lynda Guber, 1965

Four children: Jodi (41), Elizabeth (39), Jackson (17), Samuel (16)

Education

Syracuse University, B.A.

New York University, J.D. and LL.M., incomplete MBA

Current interests

Chairman and CEO, Mandalay Entertainment Group

Co-owner and co-executive chairman, NBA team Golden State Warriors

Professor, UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television

Career highlights

Chairman and CEO, Sony Pictures Entertainment (1989-95)

CEO of Polygram Entertainment (1979-83)

Co-chairman, Casablanca Record and Filmworks (1975-1979)

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Films produced or executive produced

Rain Man

Batman

The Color Purple

Midnight Express

Gorillas in the Mist

The Witches of Eastwick

Missing

Flashdance

IN HIS OWN WORDS

On the need for connection:

"Going back 40,000 years, it was the same: the yearning for human connection. Do you think Facebook and Twitter made social cohesion? That's ridiculous! We made social cohesion. Without that, the rhinoceros, the elephant, the cheetah would have ruled the Earth. We created strategies, rules and beliefs through connection, to work together and outsmart them!"

On the value of stories:

"My mom used to tell me stories at night, read books to me - and I read 'em over and over and over again. And you know what I learned from that? I went back and looked at everything - Why do I like reading the same stories over and over and over again? What, was I some kind of nincompoop? No - the narrative gave me connection with my mom. It made me feel that connection was shared with her. I loved her through that connection."

On shared experiences:

"There's a sense of aliveness that comes from connection, shared experience. And you see it in every place. You see it when ball players jump up and down, gather at home plate, hugging, and it's not just because they're winning, it's that shared moment, that feeling of - we enter the world alone, we leave alone."