Gale Anne Hurd: The Terminator, Walking Dead super producer on being a career geek

Simply put, if you are a fan of genre film and television, you are likely a fan of Gale Anne Hurd. From The Terminator to the 17-million-viewer-strong ratings behemoth that is The Walking Dead (with Aliens, Alien Nation, Tremors, The Abyss and more in between), Hurd has been behind some of the most popular sci-fi projects for more than 30 years.

But the so-called "First Lady of Sci-Fi" (and CEO of Valhalla Entertainment) is not just a super producer; she is also a fan. From early years as a comic-book reader to being a Lostie, she loves the sandbox she plays in. She is also aware of the changing nature of an industry that is increasingly impacted by streaming media, international audiences and spoilers.

Beginning at “A” for android-cyborgs and finishing at “Z” for zombies, Gale Anne Hurd joined me for an extended conversation to look back on the 30-year-old Terminator franchise as well as gaze forward to the future of the apocalypse on The Walking Dead -- along with a brief tease about that TWD spinoff series. 

Congratulations! 30 years of The Terminator!

I know. And we actually started working on the script in 1982. It came out in ’84, but it’s actually 32 years old. 

Looking back, as a producer, someone who got her hands dirty on it, does it hold up well?

You know, there are some things I look at and think, “Wow, that’s really impressive.” To this day, people don’t even realize at the end -- when the little boy is saying there’s a storm coming -- that the mountains and clouds weren’t there. That was all matte painted. That holds up pretty well. I think maybe, now, Sarah Connor’s tie-dye long-sleeve tee is back. So whatever is old is new again.

I often hear people mention Carl as the John Connor of The Walking Dead. When you hear that, does it make you proud that this has become part of the cultural conversation and shorthand?

It really is interesting. The character was always meant to be someone that -- especially in the second movie, with the whole time paradox -- is a child raised in the right way to save humanity. That’s something I know Robert Kirkman has talked about with Carl Grimes.  

Did you ever anticipate that Terminator would be a franchise?

No. When Jim and I made the film, the whole idea of sequels or even remakes was not a phenomenon. It really was a surprise they were doing a sequel to Aliens, which Jim and I did. That wasn’t a staple in the industry; they were looking for original content. Comic-book movies were not big. In fact, science fiction was still kind of considered not real drama, not the tentpoles, but the domain of Roger Corman -- who Jim and I both started working with. He had the first Marvel movie (with Fantastic Four).

You had geek cred before there was geek cred …

Before "geek" was probably even coined.

Was that something you just loved growing up?

Yes! I had an older brother, nine years older than me. He bought both Marvel and DC comics. They were lying around and I read them all. Then I started going to the library and checking out all the fantasy/sci-fi/horror books. It got to the point I was advising the library about which books to buy. I wrote reviews of them for the local newspaper. In fact, I almost came to the University of California, San Diego, because they had a course on the literature of science fiction. It almost determined where I went to college. That is how big of a geek I was and have been. 

I hate hearing this term “strong female producer,” “strong woman character” or whatever instead of just “strong character.” Is your experience that that is still in play, this idea of a “strong woman, geek producer”? 

No, no. Just to give you an idea: I got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame a couple years ago. When the head of the Hollywood commission that gives them out was introducing me, they said, “one of the most prominent women producers.” Jim Cameron -- and in fact Andy Lincoln also spoke -- and said, “I take issue with that; why are you defining her as if she wouldn’t measure up against the male producers?” It was very interesting, because I’d gotten so inured to it that I didn’t realize it. And Jim took umbrage with it. 

Is the geek world, such as at San Diego Comic-Con, friendlier to women?

I did a panel on science and science fiction, and the panelists were all women: Jane Espenson [Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica], Nicole Perlman [who co-wrote Guardians of the Galaxy], Amy Berg [Eureka, Person of Interest] and myself. It wasn’t a “girls panel,” it just happened to evolve that way. That, to me, is a sign of the times.

With The Walking Dead, how do you keep it relevant? The zombies are an ongoing threat. How do you keep it fresh, and is there ever a fear people will grow tired of the apocalypse?

The whole point is, as long as the characters are engaging and relationships are dramatic, intense, unexpected -- but real -- I don’t think people will ever get tired. Do people ever want another medical show, or another lawyer show? It is a staple and has been going on for 30 years on television. If you do it right, and it’s character-driven, people won’t get tired. We have also cast amazing actors, with some not even appearing in the comic. Daryl Dixon [Norman Reedus] is not in the comic book, and you can’t go anywhere without seeing “If Daryl dies, we riot” tees. 

On that note, contracts expire and actors move on. Do you ever plan as if you need to start building up one character or preparing because a person might die on screen or leave the show?

The good news: Actors do not want to be killed off on the show. We have the best group of people who love and respect each other. It is not a competition, there’s not someone coming out of the trailer where we go, “How quickly can we kill them off?” A lot of times we do have arcs that may be a season-long arc or midseason arc, or it may be over a couple years, and there are endpoints for certain characters. Sometimes it evolves over the course of writing a particular season, so it is flexible in that respect. But it has never been from an economic perspective or someone has come to us and said, “I’ve decided I only want to do features now.”

Let’s talk spoiler culture. You deal with a lot of journalists, a lot of fans. I could just as easily ask, how is it all going to end ...

Well, the comic book hasn’t ended, and Robert Kirkman is not intending to end it anytime soon. So if he’s not ending his, we’re not going to think about ending ours anytime soon.

But what bothers you about journalists ...

Actually, journalists don’t. I think it’s people who, their only objective, journalist or not, is to spoil the show. The feedback I get, and I mean 99 percent, at least of the people that follow me, say, "We don’t want the show spoiled." I mean, Chris Hardwick doesn’t even like coming to set because he may see something that will spoil the show for him -- or come to set and not see an actor he’s expecting to be there. It does run the gamut, and then there are the people that basically make a living spoiling the show, or trying to. 

What counts as a spoiler? When is it safe to talk about this character dying? Is it 24 hours later, a week later?

You know, I think once the episode has aired it is fair game. It is also why most of the foreign fans -- who are just as passionate as domestic fans ... and it airs in most countries within 24 hours. So I would like the foreign fans not to have their experience ruined because it is the World Wide Web, not a geocache where, in the U.K., the U.S. posts aren’t going to be read. It would be great, but I know people can’t help themselves. I respect that but wish they would start with a big all-caps letters SPOILERS. 

In addition to being a producer, you’re a consumer. Has anything been spoiled for you? 

Mine was Lost. I was behind on Lost

That’s also when I realized you have to be careful. I got off a plane, I was in London, I got in a car and the driver says, “So, what are you here for?” This was before The Walking Dead started airing, so I was there for a show that hasn’t started airing yet. He asked what TV show and said he read the comic book. Then he said, “I want to apologize up front: If it’s delayed [internationally] six months like Lost was, I am going to pirate it.” So I asked what he felt would be a time he wouldn’t feel the compulsion to pirate. He said a week, and that window has gotten narrower and narrower. Five years ago now, it would have been a week. Now, 24 hours is about as much as you can wait.

Certainly you’re not suffering for ratings, but do you see a sea change that involves streaming media and people wanting to watch on their own time? Do you see that altering an industry?

There is no question it is altering it. Every study you read basically says that the people who do stream, and I hope they stream legally, they generally want to view three at once. They are willing to commit three hours of their time. Well, that is changing things up. The good news is for most Walking Dead fans, it is appointment television. So, their Sunday nights, they are there at 9 o’clock, and a lot of times there are viewing parties. That enables it to be appointment viewing, because they are seeing it with their friends. Most binge viewing is by yourself; it is not a social experience. 

I do recall for last season’s finale I had been working at a comic con, and it is part of the job for a lot of us. But we still gathered together at a bar to watch, place bets on who died, etc. It was a community.

Yup, it is. Not all shows are like that, nor do they need to be. But that has been something that’s helped us maintain viewership the night we air.

You’re also developing a show with Warren Ellis, and have done a lot of TV and film. Is TV more conducive to community than film?

I am a complete TV convert. I’m still doing features, but in the time it would take me to shoot maybe half or three quarters of a 2-1/2 hour feature, I have shot 16 hours of character-driven television. That has changed my life, my understanding of what you can accomplish, and how you can connect with an audience. Compare 16 hours to 2-1/2. It is much deeper storytelling. You can really get into the weeds with the character, as opposed to painting sketches of a character. 

Is television a harder gig?

Much harder, oh my god. So much harder. We’re constantly getting outlines, scripts, music, new cuts in, visual effects in. It doesn’t stop.

Anything else you’d like to discuss?

We are still working on the companion series for The Walking Dead, and are excited about that. Dave Erickson is the writer working with Robert Kirkman and comes from Sons of Anarchy, so that will give you an idea of the tone.

Is that going to kick off with some crossover?

No. That’s why it’s a companion series, not a spinoff!

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