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Gale Anne Hurd is arguably the most successful, and influential, female producer of her generation, if not of all time.
With credits that include The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Armageddon, not to mention the television juggernaut that is The Walking Dead — Hurd can lay claim to having shaped popular culture for nearly four decades.
Along the way, she’s broken new ground for the depiction of women on screen: think of Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver’s kick-ass heroines in the Terminator and Aliens franchises.
The 2021 Locarno Film Festival recognized Hurd’s contribution on August 7 when it presented her with its Best Producer Award, honoring her life’s work. In addition to the award, Locarno is holding special screenings of two of Hurd’s productions: The Terminator and the 1999 political satire Dick.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough caught up with Hurd in Locarno to talk about pioneering the “female gaze” in action movies, speculation on the streaming revolution and if The Walking Dead could be made today, and exploring why every would-be producer should start off in the B-movies business.
Locarno is honoring you for your life’s work. You started your career with Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. What did you learn coming up that way, in the trenches of the B-movie business?
Well, I think the first thing really is that if you consider going back to 1978, that not only did Roger Corman hire me as a woman, but in our very first interview he asked me what I wanted to pursue as a career. That was truly out of the box. I thought I was going into an interview to be an assistant for him, and for other people in the industry, probably for life. Interestingly, my mother had been a secretary to Jack Dawn, who was head of the makeup department at MGM back in the day. So to me, that would be following in the family’s footsteps.
But at Roger Corman’s, you literally did everything. You weren’t stuck in one position. So I was casting films. I was location scouting. For a while I was head of, well I was the marketing department, at New World Pictures. I had to do all of that. That’s the kind of preparation for a career as a producer that you just can’t get anywhere else.
And Roger didn’t have me transition laterally from running the marketing department to producing a movie, which I have to admit I thought that was going to happen. I’d run a department and then I was going to produce. No, he started me off as a production assistant. I learned on set. I had to drive the grip truck. I had to set up lights. I had to wrap cable. I worked in the props department. I prepared call sheets. I was a second assistant director because Roger wasn’t a signatory to the guilds. I literally did just about everything. And then, within a couple of movies, I was the assistant production manager.
From there, I became a line producer while at the same time going back in-between films to the office where we were developing stories and screenplays. I was working with the editors in post-production and I was doing notes on the director’s cuts. I was working at the lab, back when we were shooting on film, so I learned all about the post-production and sound process.
That’s not the kind of experience that you really have these days. It was most important primarily for my television career and doing documentaries because I learned how to make films on schedule, on a budget, and very quickly. I learned how not to waste time or resources.
Locarno this year opened on August 4 with a film, Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s Beckett starring John David Washington, that has been picked up by Netflix and will go out worldwide a week after it premiered here. What’s your take on the impact of the streaming giants on the cinema business?
You know, I think it’s a challenge for all of us in the business. We want to get our movies made. Your entire job until the day you start filming is to get someone to say yes, to give you money to make your movie. I don’t think you can blame Netflix or filmmakers or anyone else for going along with that offer of financing.
I think we’re in a time right now of transition where we need to figure out how to keep the film business, the cinema business, and the distribution business healthy. That’s especially challenging given there’s a pandemic. I think things would be very different if we also weren’t at this nexus in the middle of a pandemic where cinemas in certain territories and certain cities are closed, where there’s a great deal of fear about going out in public. It’s terrible timing to be trying to navigate something that is challenging in the best of times.
Related to that, to the streaming revolution, your biggest success in television has been The Walking Dead and its spin-off series. When the original Walking Dead ends its run next year it will have been on the air for 12 years and for something like 200 episodes. Do you think it is the last of its kind? Given the fracturing of the TV audience through streaming will there ever again be a show, not a procedural, but an episodic show, that can reach such a mass audience and run for so long and for so many episodes?
Well, first, in the context of why we were able to tell the story, to begin with, streaming had a huge impact on that. Because in the past, the reason you had procedurals is that if you missed an episode, it didn’t destroy that experience. You didn’t miss out on some really important character moment or plot point that made that the rest of the episodes for that season impossible to understand.
So AMC did something very smart with The Walking Dead. After an episode had aired, on the next Sunday, prior to broadcasting the new episode, they’d broadcast the previous episode so people could always catch up. At the same time, we had a streaming deal so that people could binge and catch up with the show, or new viewers who’d been told “you have to watch this” could catch up. We also had iTunes, which we forget about, but that was a pay-per-view way for people to catch up on shows.
I think that it was that streaming experience that enabled what people are calling the golden age of television. But it also made it difficult, as you point out, to have continuing seasons because the impetus for the streamers, regardless of whether they started as terrestrial broadcasters or on cable, is to stop people from churning, from canceling their subscription. But bingeing has created a situation where once someone has seen that show that they’re really excited to see, they may cancel their subscription, sign on to something else, view that, cancel again and move on to another show on a different streamer.
That’s why I think the seasons are often shorter now. You have fewer episodes and you have fewer seasons. If The Walking Dead were starting now, I still think that it would have got commissioned. But for this many seasons with this many episodes? I don’t think so. The typical season for a streaming show is maybe six to 10 episodes. The past few seasons [for The Walking Dead] have often been 16, which is already a lot more than the streamers. But a typical broadcast season used to be 22 to 24 episodes.
Two of your best-known films as a producer are James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), movies considered transformational in terms of their portrayal of female characters in the sci-fi and action genres.
Well, I have to say, it certainly wasn’t intentional. It’s not like Jim [James Cameron] and I sat down and said, “OK, we’re going to carve out this niche and we’re going to transform an industry.” It was literally about what is the best story to tell? Jim and I had conversations about this, about how we could get a unique way into these stories because there have been so many active male characters in these kinds of films but far fewer female characters. The interesting thing, a theme that tends to be pervasive throughout my career, regardless of whether it’s television or documentaries, is that of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances who often doubt their ability to rise to the challenge. In the case of The Terminator, to not only survive but save all of humanity.
It was wonderful to be able to tell that story through the female gaze. The Terminator film was actually accepted even more so than Aliens, because Sarah Connor started out as an everyday young woman, working as a waitress at a coffee shop, never thinking that she had the skills to become this fighter. And it was told in the context of a love story. Yes, the movie is called The Terminator. And, yes, it was probably sold as the story of The Terminator and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it is truly her story.
With Aliens, on the other hand, was we were attacked by a number of critics. I remember specifically an Austrian critic who basically said “this is preposterous. Women would never be able to rise to the challenge in warfare and they would be cowering in the corner while the big guy with the gun protected them.” I told him: “I have female relatives in Israel [who served in the military] and they could take you out, I’m sure, pretty easily.” But there was an interesting difference. Because we got to see Sarah Connor’s journey whereas Ridley Scott’s first film [Alien] set up her Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley. In our film, she was the reluctant heroine, in the Joseph Campbell mode, but she wanted to go back and save other people from an experience that she knew was going to happen. If she didn’t come along, there was no way that mission was going to be successful.
Do you think when it comes to action, sci-fi, and horror films there is still the perception that the main audience for those movies is male?
That’s 100 percent wrong. Just wrong. There is this feeling somehow, almost like little girls should prefer dolls and little boys should prefer trucks. But the truth is that we’re reinforcing these expectations, these perceptions. Back when I was growing up, if you were a little girl, if was very unlikely that your parents would buy you a toy truck to play with. You were exposed to particular things because there was an expectation that that was what you would like. And that that’s what you should be playing with.
But even when The Terminator came out, so that’s 1984, 40 percent of the audience were women. The other thing that’s interesting is that in the movie-going choice between a couple, a male-female couple, is driven by the female in the relationship. So the fact that that movies like The Terminator and Aliens became date night movies reflects a woman’s choices as opposed to necessarily a man’s choice.
The other thing that’s even more fascinating is that the slasher genre is driven by young girls more than young boys. I think part of that is, you know, the adrenaline that you get going to see those movies. But traditionally there’s a final girl. There is the female character who somehow survives to the very end. I don’t think people have often taken that into account that it is actually an empowering story for women, that they are the ones who ultimately survive this traumatic experience.
Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween is another of those iconic female figures of empowerment.
And by the way, and let’s not forget Deborah Hill, who co-wrote [Halloween], who produced those films and who was a mentor of mine, a close friend of mine, who sadly passed away. I wish I could see the movies that she would be producing now.
Do you think this has been a transformation, a change in the mindset of the still mainly male executives who make decisions at the studios when it comes to greenlighting these sorts of movies and whether to let a female director do them?
I think because it’s a business, the future choices are based on past performance. Every time a woman-directed film succeeds, that opens the door a little wider for other women to direct, especially when it comes to these big tentpole films. I think, going back a few years, that Mimi Leder [The Peacemaker, Deep Impact] and then obviously Patty Jenkins [Wonder Woman] have had a huge impact on that because their films were successful. They weren’t over schedule, over budget, or any of those things that people feared would happen. Yet we’re still in a situation now where, if a particular woman filmmaker somehow fails, that sets all women back, which is not the case with men.
In honor of your career, Locarno is showing The Terminator, which is probably your best-known film. But also the 1999 political comedy Dick, which stars Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams as two young women who take down the Nixon White House. Was that your choice?
Yes, it was my choice. The award is for my career, and I think people probably don’t realize that I have done films outside of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. And because the award that I’m receiving is one that was bestowed 10 years ago upon one of my mentors, Mike Medavoy. Mike Medavoy not only gave Terminator a green light, but he developed and financed Dick. It really was a tribute to him.
It’s also sadly relevant when we’re dealing with a political atmosphere these days in which you have lies and cover-ups. I think it’s very interesting that Andrew Fleming and Sheryl Longin, who co-wrote the script, approached the Nixon administration as a comedic satire about two young girls and their experiences. If you haven’t seen the film, what it comes down to is that Watergate was not really their big concern. Their big concern was Nixon had a potty mouth and he was mean to his dog. It was sort of emblematic of his character. You know, if politicians are mean to animals or to other people the perception is they’re also capable of being guilty of much worse things.
What’s the next stage of your career? What direction do you want to go in now?
I’ve been making documentaries now for a while there. They aren’t as prominent because they’ve all been about Native Americans were made for PBS. They don’t have a huge marketing budget, I think, except for Ken Burns. If Ken Burns does something, everyone hears about it. But they have been very gratifying to make.
My last one was Mankiller, about Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. And now, she’s now going to be on U.S. currency. She’s going to be on the quarter. She passed away in 2010, but she’s going to be on the quarter. To me, that is fantastic.
I don’t judge success based on box office. I don’t judge it based on ratings or anything else. If you feel that you have moved the conversation down the line and you’ve been able to shine a light on something people weren’t aware of, that to me is success.
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