Gale Anne Hurd. Executive Producer of The Walking Dead. Fear of the Living Dead. Mentored by Roger Corman and Debra Hill. She co-wrote The Terminator. She produced your favorite features: Aliens, The Abyss, Raising Caine and Punisher: Warzone; Tremors. She produced my favorite feature: Cast a Deadly Spell. She grew up with an affinity for sci-fi literature later to find herself as the foreman of these very dreams, helping to bring to life the uncanny and wonderful to the silver screen. What follows is the wisdom she shares with us. The struggle of being a woman in a business that, to this day, denies women. The importance of being hands-on when making a film. How Corman stood by her. Why we need stories. Scary. Scary stories.
DIABOLIQUE: Did you always know that you would have a career in the genre?
GALE ANNE HURD: Because it’s what I love, it’s what I started reading when I was a kid; the first things that I read were sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. And, even though I was born in L.A., I really grew up in Palm Springs, and I became – even though I was still in high school, I made recommendations to the Palm Springs library what to acquire from what has now become sort of YA [young adult] – they didn’t call it that then, they still called it ‘children’s’ – and I even reviewed sci-fi for the local newspaper. So it was always my love.
DIABOLIQUE: When were you first introduced to the genre?
GALE ANNE HURD: My older brother – he was nine years older – started reading – that’s when I started reading comic books; he wasn’t a big book reader – I was a huge reader of books. So I go to the local library and the librarian loved fantasy, and I remember [Ursula K. LeGuin’s] A Wizard of Earthsea and things like that. I just started eating them up. And then literally moved on to everybody: you know, Heinlein and Zelazny and Bradbury and Asimov and Philip K. Dick – I mean, you name it.
DIABOLIQUE: When did you first realized you wanted to make film?
GALE ANNE HURD: Well I didn’t realize that film was a career option. It was when I was in college, I happened to take a foreign study program in London – well it was outside of London – and the program specialized in British film and broadcast. That’s when I thought, ‘Oh my God, I could just study this?!’ So I completed the degree – two degrees: one in economics, one in communications – which is what film and broadcast was called at that university – and then I was hired by Roger Corman, directly out of school.
DIABOLIQUE: When did you start transitioning into the role of a producer?
GALE ANNE HURD: From the moment I started working for Roger. But if I hadn’t gone to work for him, in 1978 there weren’t a lot of women producers, other than Debra Hill, who became a friend and a mentor. Roger made genre films – I mean, you know the films that he made then were sort of lower-echelon ‘B’-movies are now the ‘A’ movies, are tent-pole today. But he was there, he was in on it from the very beginning and he was a perfect fit for me.
DIABOLIQUE: What did you learn from him about producing?
GALE ANNE HURD: Everything: I think one of the most valuable things was – there are two things: One was how valuable pre-production is. If you can work out just about everything in pre-production, the production process will go a lot more smoothly. And that’s why I think we see a lot of issues today – we even did back then – with scripts not being completed, everything being sort of figured out late in the process, on the day, and then you can’t really track the character arc. People are, the characters are sort of just following the plot – So the lesson that I learned is sort of what not to do, from Roger was just as important as what to do, and what not to do was start with a plot and try to shoe-horn the characters in. I mean, he would come up with sort of premise and plot-driven stories and arcs, and Jim [Cameron] and I, when we started talking projects, was all characters first, with characters who lead you, to develop character-driven storylines, to put characters in equal storylines that, where you have to figure out why they’ve made decisions, not just because you have to get to the X point in the plot at hand.
DIABOLIQUE: Was it tough for you as a woman Producer?
GALE ANNE HURD: No, it was incredibly tough – doubly so as a woman. First of all, everyone looked down their noses on them and it was like, ‘If you could do anything else, why are you choosing to do this?! You must be crazy!’ But remember, working with Roger at this time – I mean, John Sayles was writing the scripts, and James Horner was composing the scores. I worked with such incredibly talented people, and we all put everything into it, and didn’t look at it as being something inferior to anything. That’s why it’s tough – What was great to see, actually, was MAD MAX: FURY ROAD this year, winning more Academy Awards than any other film. That to me is a watershed – not just the sort of classic fantasy, absolutely fantastic the Tolkiens, but that’s sort of establishment – but MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, an original idea, and not only that, but how many movies in? To achieve that sort of recognition, hopefully things will change.
DIABOLIQUE: What are the special challenges of TV production?
DIABOLIQUE: I mean we have to do an episode in eight days. It has to be cinematic. They’re forty-five minutes long. Try doing a feature – y’know, a feature’s only often double that. How many features are done in sixteen days, with the kind of scope and cinematic quality that we have? So on THE WALKING DEAD, sixteen hours of programming that we do in one season; so the amount of time that it takes for a feature, at the minimum, at that level, is two years? I’ve done thirty-two hours. So there’s just no comparison in my mind. I still love features, and have [hard to make out: ‘something in place] – but just in terms of the challenge, TV is much more challenging.
DIABOLIQUE: And you’re the personality type that likes a challenge.
GALE ANNE HURD: Yes.
DIABOLIQUE: Making the impossible real.
GALE ANNE HURD: Every week!
DIABOLIQUE: They go, ‘It’s impossible’, and you go ‘No’.
GALE ANNE HURD: ‘Watch me.’
DIABOLIQUE: How did WALKING DEAD get to you? Or did you get to it?
GALE ANNE HURD: I was a fan of the comic, which came out in 2003. I checked at the time and the rights weren’t available. I didn’t actually go any deeper to find out who had the rights – and then I guess maybe 2009? – late in 2009 – I checked again and they’re like, ‘Well the rights are coming available, but Frank Darabont has had them.’ And Frank Darabont and my husband are really good friends, they both started their careers as writers working for George Lucas on THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES. So I knew Frank socially, I’d known him for years. So I called Frank and I said ‘The Walking Dead’, and he said, ‘Don’t mention those three words to me.’ ‘Why?’ He said, ‘We developed a script for NBC, they decided not to go forward with it. We tried every cable network, and everyone’s turning it down.’ I said, ‘Can I try?’ and he goes, ‘Just come back to me if you’ve got a “Yes”’. And the executives in my office had been talking to AMC and AMC said, ‘Look, we’re looking to launch a show. We’ve got our most successful block of programming which is AMC FEARFEST, the classic horror films, the two weeks leading up to Halloween.’ And they said as it turns out, more people watched FEARFEST than MAD MEN – which is a little-known fact. [Laughs.] They call it ‘head-to-eyeballs’. People watching the network know. There was an executive there named Jeremy Ellis, who’s not there any longer, and I said to him, ‘Jeremy, okay, I’ve got an idea for you. I’ll tell you all about it.’ I said, ‘THE WALKING DEAD’. And he said, ‘Robert Kirkman‘s THE WALKING DEAD?’ I went, ‘I can’t believe this!’ He said, ‘Love it!’ So I called up Frank and said, ‘Let’s go in.’ – It was a little more complicated on a number of other levels than that, but we took it in in October, very soon thereafter, Frank got an order for a script, which he turned in I think by Thanksgiving. Right after Thanksgiving they asked him to write another script and by February the writers’ room opened. That’s fast. And we were on the air in October.
DIABOLIQUE: Did you know it would be successful?
GALE ANNE HURD: God, no. I mean, look – That to me –I know this may seem counterintuitive – I don’t do things just because I think they’re going to be successful.
DIABOLIQUE: That’s all I wanted to know – ’cause your heart’s there.
GALE ANNE HURD: Exactly. You’re giving up part of your life. Because it’s so intensive. Why do it because there’s just dollar signs at the end of it? Honestly, it’s much easier to go into another line of work, if that’s all you care about. Anyone who’s going into it just to make money should do something else. It’s why I do documentaries; there’s no money in it. They’re not in this genre, but I do Native American documentaries, because they’re stories I care about and need to be told. Because it’s a passion of mine. And that’s what the arts allow us.
DIABOLIQUE: Why are stories so important, do you think?
GALE ANNE HURD: I think especially in this day and age – I mean, you could say it’s two things – One: the political discourse is incredibly frightening to me.
DIABOLIQUE: Yes, it is.
GALE ANNE HURD: What makes us human? What are the decisions that we make? And that’s what I love about THE WALKING DEAD: In every episode, people have to make life and death decisions, not only on their own, but to protect other people, to put other people at risk – How far will you go? And is it even possible to maintain your humanity? I think those are things – you know, as the world becomes more complex and we’re more and more aware of danger, and we act and react out of fear, that often doesn’t bring out the best in us. I’d like to see people realizing the consequences of their actions. Going back to – I find it really hilarious that – Jim and I made a film, THE TERMINATOR, back in 1984. In the last few months Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk and Bill Gates came out and said, ‘Guess what? Sentience, A.I., could be dangerous!’ And I’m thinking, ‘It really would have been easier if you just looked at THE TERMINATOR back in 1984 and realized it does!’
DIABOLIQUE: That reminds me of when I asked George Romero if anyone ever listened to the warnings in his movies, and he laughed and said, ‘No! Look at the world we live in! No one ever listened to my work!’
GALE ANNE HURD: And by the way: all hail NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD! Absolutely seminal. It doesn’t get enough credit, I just think it – You look: here’s an African-American starring in a film – back then – starring in a film, and it truly is such a social commentary film, and it’s never given enough credit for that.
DIABOLIQUE: Is that your favorite horror film, or do you have one?
GALE ANNE HURD: I would say yes.
DIABOLIQUE: How were you introduced to it?
GALE ANNE HURD: I could not say – I know I saw it in the theater.
DIABOLIQUE: How hands-on are you in putting together a project?
GALE ANNE HURD: Oh completely. I mean, Yes. I am a hundred percent on. I don’t believe that you can produce by remote control from your office. I’m obsessed. I am involved every step of the way.
DIABOLIQUE: Even script level, giving notes?
GALE ANNE HURD: Oh God, yes. Absolutely. At first, people my bristle – at the same time, I think it’s important, before you go into production you have to be on the same wavelength as your show-runner, the way that in features I have to be on the same wavelength as my director. Because otherwise I can’t be helpful. So that’s why, whatever marriage you get into, with either a show-runner or a director, that’s when you work it out, in pre-production.
DIABOLIQUE: How do you know the relationship will work?
GALE ANNE HURD: Because you spend a lot of time together. I’m in all those meetings. I’m part of the hiring process for all of the cast. I go to the auditions. I meet with all the – or Skype these days – with all of the production heads of the departments. I scout all the locations. I am there making sure that we do things the same way. Otherwise, I can’t be helpful. If I can’t be helpful, why do it?
DIABOLIQUE: Can you talk about the organization you currently head, The Debra Hill Foundation?
GALE ANNE HURD: Debra was a mentor of mine. I met her actually through Women In Film, and we bonded. She had already done HALLOWEEN. She was already successful when I was just starting out, and it was a difficult time in the early eighties for women because there was an environment where the perception was there’s only room for one. One woman could maybe be in the ring. And so it created a competitive environment where women weren’t helping each other, and that’s why Women In Film was born. Women In Film was formed to say, ‘Let’s pull each other up the ladder. Let’s not get on the ladder and kick everybody else down’ and she was always the strongest advocate of that – as were many other women, including Barbara Boyle, one of the founders of Women In Film who was one of my mentors and worked for Roger Corman as Chief Operating Officer. And then Debra hired Jim Cameron after we’d worked together on BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS to be the Visual Effects Supervisor for ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. She literally was the most positive person I have ever known, even when she was dying. Even when she was dying, she cared more about what someone else’s problems were, how she could help them, than she did about herself. And there are just very few people who I’ve ever come across, in any business, as amazing as Debra, as talented, as passionate about her craft, and as caring. So, before she passed away, we were both in the Motion Picture Academy together, as well as the Producer’s Guild, and Women In Film, so we partnered the Producer’s Guild with Women In Film to create the Debra Hill Fellowship for Producers, and I started funding it, and then we did fund-raising since then, so every year there is a fellow, who is graduating from an accredited producing program at a university that we give the fellowship to, and they’re also enabled to attend all our Producer’s Guild events, the Produced By conference, y’know to help launch their careers.
DIABOLIQUE: What is the best way for women to help each other?
GALE ANNE HURD: I think really networking is so important because men do it better than we do. And we have to understand that there’s room for more than one of us, and that a rising tide floats all boats, so as we all rise, we can help each other. That doesn’t mean to the exclusion of the most qualified person – but let’s make sure that we are enabling women to have the same opportunities as men to gain those skills that men have and that’s why – At my talk yesterday, the head of culture at the Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C. said that all grants in Sweden, for at least the last year or two, have to be 50/50 in the arts – male and female. Canada just followed that. But Sweden started it. The truth is that, unless it’s required, it’s too easy to just continue marginalizing women, to marginalize any group that’s considered a minority. And there’s nothing wrong with it. We’ve come to perceive – and I don’t know why – that giving equal opportunity is not a good thing, and I think it’s because it threatens a lot of people who’ve gotten free rides so far.
DIABOLIQUE: There’s a big call in Hollywood for female directors: do you think there should be a call for female producers?
GALE ANNE HURD: I know a lot of women producers. I know a lot of women directors as well – but there are a lot more women producers in terms of percentages in television and film than there are [women directors]. The statistics for women directors has gone down since the nineties. So clearly, whatever has happened naturally hasn’t worked. So I think it’s really important to focus on directors. We have the Women’s Impact Network at the Producer’s Guild. We are already creating alliances on the producing side, but directing is still lagging behind.
DIABOLIQUE: Why do you feel so many women go into producing than directing – or there are more opportunities than in directing?
GALE ANNE HURD: I think that as a producer you can naturally learn the skill-set. If you start, as I did – I started both in development as well as the production system on-set and built up my skills. How do you do that really as a director? Unless you start off directing, you’re not building your skills. A lot of people move into directing from being Assistant Director – we’ve had a number of directors on THE WALKING DEAD who were Assistant Directors beforehand – or from writing. But, you know: It’s not as easy to work your way up if you want to direct, unless you’re a writer, or a producer as well.