The producer discusses surviving the industry from 1984’s “The Terminator” to “The Walking Dead”

By Michael Aushenker

Gale Anne Hurd converses with the Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway at LMU Photo by Juan Tallo

Gale Anne Hurd converses with the Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway at LMU
Photo by Juan Tallo

The professional and personal destiny of “The Walking Dead” producer Gale Anne Hurd began with a chance meeting in Venice.

As the producer of AMC’s runaway-train zombie apocalypse series told a rapt audience of Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television students, her first industry gig was working for Venice-based producer Roger Corman, who at the time employed a young special effects artist named James Cameron.

During the Feb. 11 installment of the school’s “Hollywood Masters” series (in which industry leaders dialogue with students “Inside the Actors Studio”-style, sans James Lipton’s questionnaire ), Hurd retraced her rise in an industry that has historically given women the short end of the professional stick.

Hurd recalled her first meeting with the famed exploitation filmmaker, in which Corman asked a freshly-graduated-from-Stanford Hurd what exactly she sought to do in Hollywood. Hurd paused long and hard (“was this a trick question?”) before responding that she wanted to produce movies. Corman hired her as an executive assistant. She eventually rose up the ladder at Corman’s New World Pictures to oversee production and handle marketing.

One film Corman had in production was the cheesy “Star Wars” knockoff “Battle Beyond the Stars.” So Corman sent Hurd to his Venice special effects facility to find the head of the model department for a progress report. A very knowledgeable “young blond gent” gave her a thorough tour of the facility.

When Hurd reported back regarding underling Cameron, Corman exclaimed, “‘That’s not the head of the model department.’”

“He should be,” Hurd replied. Corman promoted Cameron to head of special effects.

Meanwhile, Hurd embarked on a personal and professional relationship with Cameron that saw her producing the director’s breakout 1984 film, “The Terminator,” as well as 1987’s “Aliens” and 1989’s “The Abyss.”

Hurd and Cameron were married from 1985 to 1989, but they re-teamed on 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” (“We’ve stayed really good friends. We respect each other so much,” she said.)

Hurd explained how “Terminator” originated while Cameron directed Corman’s “Jaws” knock-off “Piranha 2.” Sick with a high fever, Cameron dreamt “of the endoskeleton merging from the flames and from that image we crafted a story.”

When moderator Stephen Galloway asked Hurd about the secret to her success, she replied, laughing, “Have you noticed that I’m not really shy?”

To get “Terminator” made, the ballsy, then-27-year-old feigned interest in a $400 desk a crucial film executive was selling to meet him.

“I bought the desk and gave him the treatment,” she recalled.

Compromising is de rigueur when producing, however “you have to know which of the compromises will ruin your project,” she said, remembering how she pushed back when the studio wanted the original “Terminator” to star O.J. Simpson and feature a cyborg dog. Hurd rubbished rumors Schwarzenegger’s dialogue was minimalized because of his Austrian accent as “urban legend.”

Trouble followed Hurd and Cameron to the England set of “Aliens,” where “they kept calling [Cameron] ‘Yank’ and he’s Canadian!”

Hurd said she had to fire a cinematographer because he refused to follow the young director’s lighting instructions and was “ruining the look of the film.” Add to that, “the first assistant director had directed a film before and he felt Jim didn’t know what he was doing.” That individual led “a mutiny,” refusing to shoot a close-up of Sigourney Weaver’s face in favor of attending a soccer match.

“The crew walked off and didn’t want to come back,” she recalled.

Making “The Abyss” (Cameron’s rare box office failure) was difficult on many levels. Cameron and the actors shot days on end submerged underwater and “Jim and I were getting divorced.”

While Hurd experienced some sexism — a Fox executive against her producing “Aliens” asked, “‘How can a little girl like you produce a big film like this?’” — she says female producers are now practically the norm, listing Emma Thomas (Christopher Nolan’s films), Laura Shuler Donner (Fox’s “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” flicks) and the late Laura Zisken (Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies). It is women as directors that has barely changed in 30 years, she said.

When a student asked Hurd how long she saw “Walking Dead” running (especially considering how lead characters are routinely offed), Hurd explained that there is no shortage of material: Robert Kirkland, the comics’ co-creator and show’s head writer, had
250 issues mapped out and has 250 more planned. And Hurd just completed making the pilot for a spin-off series.

“I’m looking to beat [TV longevity king] ‘The Simpsons’ record,” she said. “Gotta dream big.”

Back in 2003, Hurd first became enamored with the comic book source material of her AMC show.

“I called. The rights were taken,” she said.

Turned out Frank Darabont, “one of my husband’s closest friends,” held the “Walking Dead” rights (Hurd is married to Jonathan Hensleigh, screenwriter of “Armageddon,” which she produced) and Darabont almost developed “Walking Dead” for network TV.

“Can you imagine the show on NBC?” she said, laughing.