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GALE ANNE HURD - How A Movie Producer Translated Her Skills Into Cable TV's Biggest Hit

Posted By Chris Green, Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Readers, we’re breaking with precedent here.

To this point, Produced By has never in its 17-year history put an individual subject on its cover twice. We think it’s a reasonable policy. After all, there are always new and talented producers coming on the scene for us to cover.

But then there’s Gale Anne Hurd.

Hurd appeared on the cover of Produced By’s fourth issue, way back in the spring of 2001. At the time, she was an acclaimed motion picture producer, having blown the doors off the business in the 1980s and ‘90s with modern classics like Aliens and the first two films of the Terminator franchise. In that interview, Hurd ruminated on her experiences in the business to that point, including her apprenticeship with low-budget impresario Roger Corman and the challenges she faced as a member of the new vanguard of female producers—a cohort that included Laura Ziskin, Lauren Shuler Donner and industry trailblazer Debra Hill. That group would ultimately lay the groundwork for the rise of Marvel Comics as a force in movies—at the time of the interview, Shuler Donner’s X-Men had been a hit, Ziskin was gearing up for production on Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man, and Hurd herself was soon to bring Ang Lee’s Hulk to the screen.

But if Gale Anne Hurd had stayed in the superhero movie game, it’s not likely she’d be on the cover of this magazine for a second time. While maintaining her profile as a feature producer, she dipped a toe into television, getting back to her classic genre-story roots to develop a horror series for AMC based on a cult-hit comic book she’d long admired. Originally conceived as an attempt to capitalize on the network’s strong Halloween ratings, The Walking Dead proceeded to rewrite the cable television record book, and propelled Hurd down an entirely new and unexpected career path.

Today Gale Anne Hurd is enjoying one of the most gratifying second acts the producing business has ever seen. And based on the interview that follows, we’re happy to report that the 21st century TV producer is just as candid and incisive as the 20th century movie producer was. Of course, Gale Anne Hurd is still producing movies in 2017, and there’s no telling what other platform(s) she’ll set her sights on. Check our cover in another 16 years and we’ll have the rest of the story for you.

 

Rather than going all the way back over your years with Roger Corman and James Cameron, which we’ve covered before, could we pick up the story with the years before The Walking Dead? To what degree was TV even on your radar in those years, say, the mid-2000s?

In the mid-2000s, the landscape was beginning to shift, but I was still focusing almost entirely on a feature deal at Paramount. Producing TV series, at that point anyway, was not something that I anticipated. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what it was that a non-writing TV producer actually did on a series!

 

Right.

And other than a premium cable, like HBO, no one really thought of TV as being the source of some of the most compelling scripted content, with top actors, writers and directors. I thought of television as being the home of standard legal, medical and police procedurals. But as I saw more and more people, including our former PGA President Mark Gordon, finding huge success in television, it was clearly a medium worth exploring. Perhaps it would provide an opportunity to explore the kinds of genre stories that I’ve always loved but with a greater focus on creating compelling characters.

My development executives maintain strong relationships with their counterparts at various studios, networks, and production companies to find out if there’s particular content they are looking to develop. The feedback that I got was that AMC (which at the time we all thought of as the home of Mad Men and definitely not a network that would do genre) was looking to launch a show in their block of horror-genre programming, Fearfest, which ran during the two weeks leading up to Halloween. The little-known fact was that this block actually garnered better ratings than Mad Men!

AMC was really astute for realizing that they had a big audience of genre fans watching their network. How could they keep them there? How do they keep these fans coming back after Halloween? So with that intel, we needed to pitch a genre story that would be the basis for a character-driven, serialized horror drama. I’d been reading The Walking Dead comic book since it debuted in October, 2003. I had inquired before and the rights weren’t available. This time when I called CAA, they told me that the last person who had optioned them was Frank Darabont. And it just so happened that Frank Darabont was a close friend. He and my husband, Jonathan Hensleigh, had worked very closely together on the Young Indiana Jones TV series in the early 1990s, for George Lucas. I picked up the phone and called Frank and said, “Frank. The Walking Dead. Let’s do it.”

What I didn’t know was the backstory. Frank, under his overall deal with NBC, had developed a pilot script that they passed on. It had been submitted to and passed on by every other network. I told him, “Look, I know that AMC is looking to launch a genre show.”

Frank was initially resistant saying he’d been down that road and didn’t want to do it again, but then he came around. That summer we went down to San Diego Comic-Con to meet Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead comic’s creator, who at the time was still living in Kentucky. In the fall, all of us, including executive producer David Alpert, went in to AMC and pitched the idea of adapting The Walking Dead for cable.

 Gale Anne Hurd discusses a scene with cast member Cliff Curtis on the set of "Fear The Walking Dead"

 

I’m curious, how did the script and the story change from the version developed for NBC?

The early version had a lot more action, and the plot played out a lot faster. But AMC said, we want this to be a slow burn. We want this to be even more about character. You don’t need to burn through the story.

Right.

That was certainly much more in Frank’s wheelhouse. Frank turned in the script to AMC by late November 2009. In December they asked Frank to write an additional script so we’d have two episodes, which Frank did. Shortly thereafter, Fox International met with AMC and said that they were interested in establishing a new paradigm for launching television—essentially, a global launch. Traditionally up until that point, series that aired in the U.S. wouldn’t air overseas for months and months, often six months or more. And Fox said, “No, we want to launch internationally, within a week or less [of the U.S. premiere], but we need more than just a pilot. That’s when we ended up with the six-episode first season order. It wasn’t cast contingent. There really were no significant contingencies.

 

I guess that’s the virtue of working in cable as opposed to the broadcast networks? Broadcast has a reputation of being extremely hung up on casting.

Yes. I think that’s very much the case. At the same time, it’s not just that AMC got lucky. Look at the foresight they had to get behind both Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston playing characters very different from those that TV audiences had seen before.

 

So as a lifetime film producer, what was it like to first find yourself in the TV producer’s chair?

It got easier as I came to see the a television network very much like a film studio. In TV, there are seasons when you launch a series, just like there are summer tentpoles in features. Basically I was able to parlay my film experience and come up with analogies to help me understand television.

 

I’d love to hear some of those.

Well, for instance, the series had a launch date. In features, I’d often been given a release date long before I started a production. In fact you may have a release date before you’ve even got the first draft of a script. If I hadn’t experienced that before, I think I would have been terrified. But with The Walking Dead, at that point we already had a couple of scripts and everyone was happy with them. I have a history of producing films very efficiently. On The Terminator, we started shooting in March, 1984 and the film was in theatres that October.

 

The Roger Corman training almost comes in even handier in television, I imagine, than in film.

Absolutely. When you put a cast together in features, that may be for just one film, but now we’re entering our eighth season of The Walking Dead; we start shooting in May. In fact, 801 will be our 100th episode. If we had gotten the wrong lead—if we hadn’t cast Andy Lincoln—there may not have been a second season. It’s so important to get not only the right cast, but also the right crew. Television really is a family. We’re together for six months and then we reunite again season after season.

Producer Gale Anne Hurd gets a laugh out of cast member Andrew Lincoln while on the set of "The Walking Dead"

 

In terms of putting together that crew, what made you think that they would be the right people for the job?

Well the wonderful thing is that we’ve had the same fantastic line producer, Tom Luse, since the very beginning. We did shoot the first episode like a pilot. We shoot a typical episode in eight days, and we shot the first episode in 14. There were a few different crew members on the pilot, but for the most part we’ve kept with the same crew, certainly since our second episode. Tom (a loyal PGA member, I might add) has gone back and forth between features and television, and he knows the Atlanta crews. He could very much speak a language I understood and his guidance was absolutely essential from the very beginning. We’ve had the same location manager, Mike Riley, since the very beginning, and his insight and knowledge also have been essential. I think locations are more challenging in television than in a feature, because you really don’t know where the season may go, creatively, when you start production. We’ve got somewhat of a guide in the comic book, but not entirely. You need to make sure that you headquarter in the right place for a 16-episode series. You don’t want to find out three episodes in

that you should have based 40 miles in the opposite direction.

 

That’s for sure. Very few shows are an instant, obvious success right out of the gate, but Walking Dead was huge from the beginning. What’s that feeling like, realizing that you’ve got a hit on your hands?

It was totally unexpected. When we sent the script out to agents for actors to read, we found out later that they were saying, Oh my God, my client isn’t going to want to do this zombie series. There was a great deal of reticence in the industry to take the material seriously. People assumed it was going to be niche and appeal to a very narrow audience. We were hoping for ratings that would be close to or on par with Mad Men. If we managed that, we hoped we’d get a second season order. But the genre experience that Frank and I had, played a role, because we knew—and AMC agreed—that given our October premiere date, the most important exposure for fans would be at Comic-Con in San Diego. Television was already represented there but not to the same extent that it is now. It was still perceived as more of a launching pad for features. But given that our show was an adaptation of a comic book—and that year Kirkman was going to be awarded the Eisner Award at Comic-Con—it was important to promote the show properly to a potentially skeptical crowd. At the time, U.S. audiences primarily knew Andy Lincoln from Love, Actually, which is not exactly the obvious precursor to “genre southern sheriff.” Because genre fans care so deeply about the material that they love, if we had gotten the casting or adaptation wrong, they would let us know. If our promotional material hadn’t worked, it would have been almost impossible to create positive word of mouth. There we all were, sitting on the stage in Ballroom 20, absolutely terrified as to how the fans would react to our sizzle reel. When they cheered and wanted us to play the trailer again at the end of the panel, that’s when we all looked at each other and exhaled. Rather than immediate elation, it was relief first, then absolute joy.

Joel Stillerman from AMC was on the panel, and we announced that The Walking Dead was going to have an international launch … Fox International had brought their global press to a special breakfast and to the panel. That was a real game changer. The closest thing I can come to describing what it felt like was when Jim Cameron and I went down to Hollywood Boulevard and watched The Terminator play on its opening night. It was one of those experiences where no one has very high expectations, and not only do you surprise the audience, but you shock yourself.

 

That’s got to be very gratifying.

Marketing is one aspect of being a producer that doesn’t get enough of the spotlight. You’re not just there making sure that the creative is right and that you’re on schedule and on budget. Whether it’s a film or a TV series, it’s so important to make sure that it’s marketed properly and that you understand how important the fans are, because without them, you have nothing. If no one’s watching, you don’t get to keep doing it. So we’ve always been very, very, very, very involved, all of us who are producers on The Walking Dead. At the same time, even although the comic book fans are the ones with the greatest degree of want-to-see, we also needed to expand beyond that. I think at the time, the comic was selling maybe 30 or 40,000 copies a month, and that was not going to be enough to launch a television show and keep it on the air.

 

In that context, the show’s license to stray from its source material seems like an especially important decision.

From the very first season, we’ve had characters that did not exist in the comic book, like fan favorite Daryl Dixon. We’ve killed characters that are still alive in the comic book and we have characters still alive who are dead in the comic. That immediately changes the dynamic. We also love dropping in “Easter eggs” for the comic book fans, sometimes by bringing the comic book to life, panel by panel. At the same time, you don’t want people to be able to refer to a particular issue of the comic book and know exactly what’s going to happen in an episode.

 

What is your relationship like with the showrunner? Is it in some way analogous to the producer’s relationship with the director in features?

Yes. Absolutely. That’s absolutely the proper correlation.

 

That seems like another way that franchise filmmaking is fair preparation for TV producing. This isn’t the first time you’ve been the persistent presence on a story where the chief creative responsibility—the director or showrunner—might rotate to different people.

Right. Likewise, with franchises, you have to go in expecting that there’s going to be a sequel and knowing where that sequel is going to go as you are writing and producing the current picture. It’s the same way for a serialized drama. We need to know the character and plot arcs for future seasons in order to set up the right conflicts and relationships for the current season.

 

Walking Dead has been a game changer in so many ways, but we can’t ignore that it’s the first show to leverage its passionate fan base into not just a prequel series, but its own freestanding talk show dedicated to the series.

Once again, give credit where credit’s due: AMC had the idea for a talk show. When Talking Dead launched, it was only a half hour, but it turns out that fans wanted more, and the show is now an hour. AMC also deserves credit for finding the perfect host in Chris Hardwick. When the cast or producers are on the show, we all have to sit there like Cheshire cats so as not to give anything away when Chris or the guests make a guess about what’s going to happen on the show.

Talking Dead also significantly increases the demand for content. A typical show will shoot EPK behind-the-scenes footage that’s used for the DVD or for online content. For Talking Dead, we have to create exclusives—both behind-the-scenes content, as well as sneak peeks. Denise Huth, one of our producers, and I review and approve all that content. It’s a lot of extra work, but because we’re so involved, all of our behind-the-scenes materials are consistent with the dramatic story that we’re telling. We don’t want to cross the line and have footage that panders to the audience or that demeans characters or crew members, and we never want to give too much away in any of the EPK footage. That’s a constant challenge.

Yesterday I sat down with our unit publicist and we talked about what days we should have EPK on set. And when they get here, what sequences should they should they cover? It’s very much part of what a producer does on a show like The Walking Dead. I don’t know if it’s typical for TV, but that’s what I do on a feature as well.

 

So on the other side of that equation, how has being a television producer challenged you and expanded your skill set as a producer?

I refer to TV producing as a marathon and feature producing as a sprint. I mean, look at the shooting schedules. We do 16 episodes of both The Walking Dead and now Fear the Walking Dead. My new series, Falling Water, was 10 episodes. So to me, television is even more demanding. The directors rotate through, but as the producer, you have to gear up to shoot a short film every eight days. Eight days for 40 some-odd minutes of content. When you consider a movie is 90 or 120 minutes, that would be like shooting a feature film in 16 to 20 days.

 

Which, to be fair, is something you’ve always known how to do.

Exactly! That’s where the Roger Corman training is so valuable. TV is hugely challenging, but it’s also incredibly fun. You go to work knowing that there is no going over schedule. I mean, you’ll find very few studio films that shoot on schedule with no reshoots, but we get eight days. That’s it.  No reshoots. And the level of scope on our shows is pretty significant.

 

Yeah, they’re cinematic shows, by any standard.

We still shoot The Walking Dead on film. We shoot on Super 16.

 

A vanishing breed.

Fear the Walking Dead is shot HD. But it also goes to show you that old-school filmmaking still works, especially given the amount that our camera operators are shooting handheld. Super 16 cameras are much smaller than HD. You’d think the technology would mean that contemporary HD cameras are tiny. No, they’re huge and they’re heavy! [laughs] It’s great to be retro!

 

Gale Anne Hurd (bottom row, second from right) on location
in Georgia with her "Walking Dead" family.

Right. Before you go, I want to talk a little bit about Falling Water and getting the chance to discover a whole new world again. Can you say a little bit about the story and what drew you to it?

Sure. I had a general meeting with Blake Masters and he pitched me the concept that we’re all connected through our dreams. What if very powerful dreamers existed and they could leave their dreams and enter yours? I thought that was a powerful premise. Blake told me that he and Henry Bromell (Homeland and Homicide: Life on the Street), who has since passed away, had written a spec pilot script during the writer’s strike in 2007-08. He dug it out and sent it to me. I read it and immediately told him that I had some notes but I’d love to meet to discuss where the show could go as a series. Soon after, he and Henry came in for a meeting. They were excited to expand the world of Falling Water and I was captivated, because it was all new to me. Then within a week and a half, just before we were going to meet again, Henry passed away. It was such a shock that we put Falling Water on the shelf. About a year or so later, Blake called up and told me he’d spoken to Henry’s widow Sarah, and since Falling Water was such a passion project of Henry’s, she’d given us her blessing to take it out. By this time I had an overall deal with Universal Cable Productions, so we took it to Dawn Olmstead and Kate Fenske and they loved it. The first director we went out to, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who had directed 28 Weeks Later and Intacto, read the script and came on board to direct the pilot.

Juan Carlos, Blake and I were on the same page, creatively and visually.  The work that had really inspired Henry and Blake was by Haruki Murakami, the remarkable Japanese novelist. Bringing the world of Falling Water to life visually was a challenge, but Juan Carlos came in with a look book that blew everyone away. The timing was ideal because USA Network had just launched Mr. Robot successfully and they wanted something else that might appeal to the same audience. The premise of Falling Water is that we’re all dreaming individual tiles of a larger mosaic, and if you can stand back and see the mosaic, perhaps you can change the fate of the world.

 

Well, now I’m curious. It sounds like the show is very much in the vein of the existential, searching genre shows we’re seeing today like Westworld and Mr. Robot. Black Mirror is another one. These shows seem to be willing to really question the most basic premises of TV narratives.

The show delves into the power of the human mind and our connections to each other that haven’t been explored before.

 

And obviously that’s territory you’re looking to explore. Where do you hope it goes?

Well, I hope it goes into a second season! [laughs]

 

- This article originally appeared in the February/March issue of Produced By magazine

- photography by Kremer Johnson Photography


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