'Walking Dead' Producer Gale Anne Hurd Talks Spinoff, Showrunner Turnover and Refusing to Work With 'A--Holes' (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
During a 35-year career, Gale Anne Hurd has produced some of the biggest cult -- and commercial -- successes in film and television.
Starting in the 1980s with The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss, Hurd, 57, is still one of the few female producers working in the sci-fi genre. And her AMC zombie drama The Walking Dead, which premieres its fourth season Oct. 13, remains TV's top-rated series in the 18-to-49 demo, with more than 10 million total viewers each week and a spinoff in the works. Starting as an assistant to B-movie king Roger Corman, the Stanford University grad -- who famously optioned James Cameron's Terminator script for $1 provided she guaranteed that he would direct (she also married him the year following its release) -- now serves as CEO of her Valhalla Entertainment.
In addition to four movies, the banner has a pod deal at Universal Cable Productions, where Hurd has five TV shows, including a new Syfy drama, in development. With so much going on, Hurd is putting the lessons learned from former producing partners Corman as well as ex-husbands Cameron and Brian De Palma to work. When the comic-book fan isn't reading scripts, making documentaries, skiing, scuba diving or grabbing a bite at her restaurant, Vertical -- which she opened seven years ago to fill "a need in Pasadena for a Manhattan-style wine bistro with a great chef" -- the avid moviegoer and Palo Alto, Calif., native spends time with her husband, writer Jonathan Hensleigh, and daughter, Lolita De Palma, 22. She sat down with THR in her geek-charming Universal City office.
You're the rare female producer consistently working in sci-fi. Where does your interest come from?
My older brother always had comics -- mostly Marvel, which is why I love the Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four [she has produced two film adaptations of the Hulk] -- and I started reading them when I was 4 or 5. I was an avid reader of science fiction and horror. When I was 10 and my family moved to Palm Springs, I became a consultant to the children's library there and advised them on what were then called "juvenile acquisitions" for the library.
What lesson did you learn from Roger Corman?
Roger taught me the value of preproduction. If you spend valuable time in preproduction, you'll make mistakes then and they won't cost as much. Work with the best; don't work with assholes. (Laughs.)
And how about Cameron and De Palma?
I collaborate best with people that others might call aggressive or assertive; they have a defined vision and can communicate it. It does mean that it tends to be a rather monomaniacal perspective. When we were doing Aliens, Jim knew in his mind every cut point in every scene and what look he wanted. Our initial DP was Dick Bush (Victor, Victoria), who was used to doing lighting, camerawork and the [duties of the] DP, and he didn't want to know what the director's vision was. He felt that was his domain. If Jim wanted something in the cooler tones backlit, he would do warmer tones front-lit. Two weeks in, he was fired. I learned it's really important that everyone on a set share the vision, and the vision really should be the director's.
NBC famously passed on The Walking Dead. What was AMC's biggest note on that script?
It was a network script. There was a lot more focus on action sequences. AMC's big note was: It's more important to take your time, get to know your characters and set up the world rather than to gratuitously have things happen. So, character over plot.
What do you think the Walking Dead universe is worth now?
I have no idea. I'd like to find out! According to the profit statements, it's not that valuable. (Laughs.)
The show is on its third showrunner in four seasons. Nobody seems to want to talk about that. What can you say about the turnover?
Generally, these are two-year deals. I'm not privy to the discussions that happen between the showrunner and AMC. They're always on two levels: renegotiating fees and the creative vision for moving forward in the season. There probably have been issues with both.
You were very involved with Frank Darabont in bringing the show to AMC. What were the discussions like when he left? Were you tempted to leave along with him?
Frank is a close friend, and we talked about if I should stay on. It was important to keep the family going and make sure the cast was protected.
What happened with Glen Mazzara, who also left? And should we expect a new showrunner to replace Scott Gimple next season?
It was the end of a two-year deal. In terms of the discussions [Glen] had with AMC as to where the show was going, none of us was privy to those because those take place with the AMC executives. I don't know if Scott has a two-year deal or a one-year deal. I'm hoping it's longer. He's a genre fan from way back and someone who is accessible and has written some of our best episodes.
What's the biggest challenge in changing showrunners?
It's not as much of a challenge as you'd think. The important thing is the scripts come in and they're strong. That's the difference between film and a TV series: Every eight days you're doing a new script and you get a new director and you have a lot of cast come in and come out. It's a show that naturally has a lot of changes and is constantly evolving.
What don't we know about working at AMC, which has been criticized for its treatment of showrunners?
Their notes are smart; they're not conflicting. Sometimes you'll work with executives -- especially when there's a studio and a network and they're different personalities -- and the studio will want one show and the network will want another and you have to please both. That's not the case with AMC. If any showrunner feels strongly about something, AMC will let them go with it.
Why do a Walking Dead spinoff now?
It came from AMC. This is something we would all like to do. Robert [Kirkman] has always been interested in expanding the world and doing something quite different than what he was doing in the book. It won't deal with any of the characters from the book or the TV series.
Looking at your TV development slate, what defines a Gale Anne Hurd show?
They're generally focused on ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and how they cope. That theme works better in television than it does in features because you can continue to tell the story. The perfect show is Breaking Bad: an ordinary chemistry teacher who ends up in a world of meth.
What do you think is behind the recent resurrection of sci-fi and horror?
It's what sells. The problem is going to be everyone jumping on the bandwagon and doing things that aren't that good. That could be one of those things where you kill the golden goose.
What's the next genre to take off?
I don't think there's any limit. The most exciting thing is to have a diverse universe of genre and not 10 vampire shows and four zombie shows. The witch universe seems a little oversaturated at the moment. I also love the fact that now TV series like American Horror Story: Coven and The Blacklist are being promoted in movie theaters.
What keeps you up at night?
Piracy. If people aren't paying for content, the content creators and the financiers will not continue to create that content. Anyone that's not staying up at night worrying about this has not faced the facts.
Looking back on your early producing days, did you ever feel that you had to work harder to prove yourself as a woman?
All the time. My early filmography is all science fiction, fantasy and horror. At a certain point people thought, "You're doing one of these, let's get Gale." Until that point it was, "How can a little girl like you produce a big movie like this?"
A decade ago, you told The New York Times that you weren't sure 1984's The Terminator could get made then. Do you still feel that way?
Yes. It's really hard to get a lot of films in the genre made that star women. There are few exceptions, but there's still this strange sense that other than franchises that already exist, like Alien, that somehow a genre film in which a woman is the lead is going to turn men off. That's not the case. It's a perception that unfortunately influences decision-making by executives who have the ability to say yes.
What's on your DVR?
Every Arsenal match. Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, The Americans, Ken Burns series. I love documentaries. In fact, I actually do documentaries. I've already done two and we're in the research phase on one about Wilma Mankiller, the first woman in contemporary times that was elected chief of the Cherokee. Valerie Red-Horse is writing, directing and co-producing with me. We were on the Cherokee reservation this summer in Oklahoma. That's what I do in my spare time, because believe me, there's no money in it. As far as I'm concerned, it's a hobby if there's no money in it.