A chat with Gale Anne Hurd, producer of “The Walking Dead”

Gale Anne Hurd, producer of There aren’t many producers around these days whose name can help sell a movie or TV show, but Gale Anne Hurd is the rare exception. Probably best known as one of the co-creators of “The Terminator” franchise, Hurd has been an important player in numerous mega- or merely major productions, including both “Hulk” and “The Incredible Hulk,” “The Abyss,” “Armageddon,” “The Punisher,” and the underrated 1999 comedy “Dick,” which starred Dan Hedaya as Richard Milhous Nixon and a young Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams as a couple of teenagers who wind up bringing down a presidency.

Clearly one of the more hands-on producers around, Hurd is pleasant and businesslike when talking to a member of the show-biz press, but clearly has the gumption to deal with the biggest and most difficult of personalities, which is how I segue into the obligatory mention of the fact that she spent the part of the late eighties and early nineties being married to first James Cameron and then Brian De Palma. Moreover, she began her career working for one the most fascinating and effective producers in the history of the medium, Roger Corman, but more of that in the interview.

Still, nothing she’s done is quite like her current project, the zombie horror drama and comic book adaptation, “The Walking Dead.” The AMC television series, adapted from a series of acclaimed comics by Robert Kirkman primarily by writer-director Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “The Mist”) is currently receiving maximum exposure on the web. The publicity train was only just getting started when I spoke to Ms. Hurd at a mammoth new San Diego hotel adjacent to the Comic-Con festivities last summer.

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I had typed my questions on my laptop, which I was afraid might be a little off-putting. So, after a quick greeting, I tried to explain why.

Premium Hollywood: I’m using this because I couldn’t find paper.

Gale Anne Hurd: No worries. You know, it’s much greener.

PH: Is it really? I guess so. Anyhow, you’re one of the people I requested, because I’m a kind of a big movie geek.

GAH: Good!

PH: You’re kind of an important person in recent film history — let’s go back to the beginning. You were a P.A. [production assistant] on movies like “Humanoids from the Deep”…

GAH: I was a PA on “Humanoids from the Deep”….

PH: …”Rock and Roll High School,” “Alligator”…

GAH: I actually worked up to Second A.D. [assistant director] on “Alligator.” I got a promotion.

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PH: You were a fast rising person, but you were part of the Golden Age of Roger Corman films, actually the second golden age, I guess.

GAH: I wasn’t there with the Scorseses, Demmes, Coppolas.

PH: That would actually be the third golden age, then, because if you count the movies Corman made mostly himself [in the 50s and 60s], and then there was the 70s group and the 80s.

GAH: [Laughs.] I fell in love with, I saw his films at the drive-in when I was growing up, especially the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations that I loved.

PH: Those were wonderful. So, what do you think that experience with Corman taught you about the kind of sort of high-class [by which I meant “big budget] producing you do now?

GAH: If you look at the films that he made, the tent-pole summer films of now are versions of what he was doing, with bigger stars, although when you consider that Jack Nicholson started his career with Roger Corman…I’ve got a bigger sandbox to play in, but I’m just as much a fan now as I was then. I come to Comic-Con even when I don’t have a panel or a project to promote.

PH: Really.

GAH: This is so much fun for me. I’ve already been over, checked out the hall, [been] comic book girl and checked out my friends at the various booths.

PH: What are your favorite comics right now?

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GAH: Well, obviously, I love “The Walking Dead.” I’ve got one, actually, that I’ve launched, “The Scourge” written by Scott Lobdell and artwork by Eric Battle, which is from Aspen Comics, I’m very excited about that. There’s also the new adaptation of Phillip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” [the novel that was the extremely loose basis/inspiration for Ridley Scott‘s “Blade Runner”]

PH: I didn’t know they were doing that — you probably know more about comics these days than me. That sounds interesting.

GAH: Very cool.

PH: Maybe they’ll decide to make a movie of it again. [Laughing]

GAH: It’s interesting when you think about it.

PH: Maybe they’ll do the actual book. Now, I’m famously squeamish. The most popular blog post I ever wrote was me getting myself drunk to watch the original “Dawn of the Dead” after putting it off for over 20 years. Approximately how many drinks will it take me to get through a typical episode of “The Walking Dead”?

GAH: It depends on what makes you squeamish. We should probably have some sort of alert so that when the character drama is interrupted by something a bit gory, you can avert your eyes. AMC has not given us the kind of restrictions that I think that the fans were afraid of.

PH: The gorehounds are going to be happy.

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GAH: I think you’ve actually got some of the stills that are out there [in the hall]

PH: I actually don’t think I’ve seen anything.

GAH: I’ll take you next door and there’s something I want to show you that will give you an idea. You know, it is the zombie genre.

PH: No, I understand. You’ve got to have a little bit of that.

GAH: You don’t want to make it seem like it’s got the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for all ages, but it’s not what we’re focusing on. Because this is on AMC. It’s story. It’s character. But it is a zombie apocalypse. Although we call them “walkers,” people will know them as zombies and we have to be true to the genre.

PH: And with zombies comes zombie apocalypse. You’ve actually worked on a number of movies with apocalyptic themes.

GAH: I have.

PH: Even in the title, “Armageddon,” “Judgment Day.” Why do you think that’s obviously such an appealing concept? I was watching “The Mist” [written and directed by Frank Darabont] last night. The end of the world seems to be such a popular sub-sub genre. Why do you think that is?

GAH: Regardless of your religious or ethnic origin, all traditions of the human experience deal with some sort of end of time, end of days. What people disagree on is what happens after that or what’s causing it. With [“The Walking Dead”] it enables us to not have a natural disaster but the aftereffects are such that you’ve got a small band of humans dealing with the exigencies of survival.

PH: I’m not too familiar with the comic book — actually I’m not familiar at all with it — but I imagine there’s the usual group dynamics in these things where sometimes the people are the bigger threat than the monsters.

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GAH: You can predict what the zombies are after; you can’t always predict human behavior.

PH: Was “The Mist” — like I said, I just watched it last night — was that directly related to how Frank Darabont ended up on this project?

GAH: No. You know Frank is also an enormous genre fan. I think this may be his twentieth Comic-Con. He’s been a fan of Robert Kirkman’s work since the very first issue. It’s issue 75 at this point. In fact, it was at last year’s Comic-Con that Frank and I sat down with Robert and said, “We want to take this to AMC.” Who would’ve thought that a year later we’d be here, in the middle of shooting episode 4?

PH: I understand Mr. Kirkman’s very excited about it and wants it to last 27 seasons. [Laughing.]

GAH: At least! He told us he’s got 250 issues mapped out.

PH: So how closely are you following the [story] of the comic?

GAH: We’re not slavishly following it. It’s a different medium to begin with. We have the opportunity to explore characters in a way that a comic book is limited. It’s limited in the number of panels that you’ve got. The amount of dialogue. So, we’re able to dig deeper there. And Robert was very, very upfront saying “I don’t want all of the fans of the comic book to be able to predict exactly where it’s going.” So, we change it up. In fact, the episode we’re shooting right now…which is the fourth episode, Robert Kirkman wrote.

PH: How was he in handling that transition [from comic book to film writing]? Had he done any screenwriting before?

GAH: No. First of all, he was involved from the very beginning as an executive producer. In the meetings, talking about where the arc of the six episodes would take us by the end of the season. He worked very closely with Frank and the writer’s room. In fact, he was in the writer’s room and he’s been on set.

PH: AMC is really developing an interesting, very eclectic pattern. They started with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad“…

GAH: And “Rubicon.” But the interesting thing is they’re going to have a block of programming in October called “Fear Fest” which is a collection of the best of the genre and we’ll be premiering during that block, so it’s actually perfect.

PH: So, they’ll schedule you right after showing “Night of the Living Dead”?

GAH: I don’t know. That’s up to them. But we’re in good hands. [Note: The movie preceding “The Walking Dead” premiere turns out to be Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead”]

PH: I understand that, in terms of the rules of your zombie universe, you’re following the ones set up in [George Romero’s] original “Night of the Living Dead.”

GAH: Our zombies are not Usain Bolt. They’re not world record sprinters. They’re dead, they’re not moving as fast as when they were alive.

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PH: “They’re dead. They’re all messed up.” Right. So, looking at the history of all these zombie movies, what do you think is going to be the contribution of “The Walking Dead” to the genre?

GAH: The great news is we have at least six hours starting out to explore the characters and this world. If we continue we’ll have 13 hours next years [Note: AMC has already renewed the show, so they will.] No one’s ever gone as in-depth as we’re able to in any kind of zombie series in the United States. We want it to be great television as well as something where the fans of Robert Kirkman’s comic book will say that it’s also a great adaptation.

  

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