Gale Anne Hurd is living proof that networking, nabbing opportunities, spotting talent, and getting the job done is the best answer to fighting sexism in Hollywood. After decades of producing mainstream action fare— from the invention of the tech noir genre with “The Terminator” franchise (when it was good) to “Aliens” and Marvel’s “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Punisher.” Hurd now sits atop AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” television’s most-watched scripted drama among the prized 18-49 demographic, now in its sixth season, along with its multiple platform spin-offs, including web series “Fear of the Walking Dead,” which heads into Season 2 April 10.
At SXSW, she also introduced an upcoming 2016 Syfy series, “Hunters” (April 11), which is based on Whitley Streiber’s latest novel and created by showrunner and “Heroes” and “Sarah Chronicles” grad Natalie Chaidez. “It’s a crossover gritty crime drama and thriller, a wild and creepy ride,” said Hurd. “It deals with something in the zeitgeist today, the issue of terrorism, but it is able to do what sci-fi does so well, which is to create a way to look at it that doesn’t feel as if it’s a particular ethnicity or religion. Alien terrorists are here and we don’t know why. It examines the many decisions we make as people and a nation when we don’t understand something.”
Hurd says she is a convert to TV, because the medium is more gender blind than studio moviemaking, where budgets reduce risk-taking and so many tentpole movies are “made by committee, it’s always spectacle over character development,” she said. You can take a shot on a woman director in TV, even if TV’s rigid turnaround demands limit the production of spectacle: “I love those constraints. I love television because I love character-based storytelling.”
Armed with a dual economics and communications degree from Stanford, where she graduated in the top percent of her class, Hurd landed a job as Roger Corman’s assistant (in those days, it was secretary) at New World Pictures. In the ’70s, a time when women weren’t expected to do much more than help men get their important work done, Hurd had the temerity to tell Corman that she wanted to become a producer like he was.
Luckily for Hurd, Corman believed in throwing people into the water and letting them learn all aspects of the business (as he exploited them with tiny wages). Hurd learned script coverage, casting, and the art of giving feedback to directors. Soon she took on marketing such films as Allan Arkush’s “Rock ‘N Roll High School” and The Who documentary “The Kids Are All Right”—always a valuable skill in any profession—and rolled up her sleeves on her first film set as a production assistant on “Humanoids from the Deep,” tipping Corman that a gifted young man in the model shop department should be running it.
Soon James Cameron was also running VFX. He not only went on to direct their first feature, “The Terminator,” with her as co-writer and producer, but Cameron and Hurd also married briefly in the ’80s. All her New World experience helped Hurd earn support from mentors like Corman and Orion executive Barbara Boyle. “I knew with each word I wrote what it would take to put it on screen,” Hurd said.
“Partnerships are great because film is a collaborative medium,” she told me in our exclusive video interview following her SXSW keynote speech last week. “It’s so important to me— in TV, with the showrunner, and in film with the director—whether or you not have a romantic relationship, you are in a very deep personal relationship with someone and you have to be inside each other’s heads.”
Hurd credits the continued longevity of AMC series “The Walking Dead”—which survived the abrupt Season 2 departure of creator and showrunner Frank Darabont and is still going strong in Season 6 —to comics creator Robert Kirkman (who came to SXSW to promote his new Cinemax series “Outcast”).
“We’re lucky that [”The Walking Dead’] is based on his comic book series which is going to this day,” she said. “Not only do we get fresh material, but he embraces and encourages the idea that we are going to take liberties, which keeps the fans of the comic book guessing.”
The character of Carol Peletier is one of a long line of kick-ass heroines who are both strong and vulnerable, from Sarah Connor to Ripley, in Hurd’s entertainment universe. They all “use their power to save others in the midst of chaos,” said Hurd. “A story is more truthful with many strong female protagonists. Strong female characters defy expectations and the cliches that saturate much of TV and film today, which is changing, thankfully… we can relate to complicated and flawed women and men because we see ourselves in them.”
“The Walking Dead” has yielded multiple tech Emmy nominations since 2011, but only one win so far, for Hair & Makeup. Critics’ Choice nominee Melissa McBride’s performance as Carol Peletier has emerged from the imperiled ensemble, as she transforms over the seasons from a mousy woman full of fear and grieving to a machete-wielding leader.
“She’s a bit of a different character in the comic book,” Hurd admitted. “We are blessed with Melissa McBride; her performances have for many years been Emmy worthy. She embraces everything we throw at her… Melissa, she can do anything, as with many actors on the show—which is one of the reasons we continue to thrive: great material brought to life with one of the best casts in television.”
Now in her 60s, Hurd has learned not to shy away from being a powerful woman. “I embrace being a bitch!” she told the crowd at SXSW. “No guy would be called that, there is no equivalent term for a guy. It’s not being a bitch to stand up for yourself and speak out.”
Culled from Hurd’s SXSW Keynote (below), are Hurd’s 15 lessons on how to get ahead in Hollywood.
1. When opportunity knocks open the door and say “yes.” Figure out the details later. Don’t be afraid to accept a challenge.
2.Do your homework. Learn from your mistakes, swallow your pride, improve. Ask questions so you don’t waste others’ time. Failures are an opportunity to get it right next time.
3. Spot talent: you recognize it when you see it.
4. Forge creative partnerships. Find someone passionate and in your corner.
5. Tell the truth even if it makes your path harder.
6. Never give up and always give back.
7. Don’t make a play until you have the right project with the right skills, mentors, and partners.
8.You can find your wolfpack If you have no role models, become one. (Hurd cites writer-producer Debra Hill (“Halloween”) for always having her back.)
9. Don’t stray from the path because it’s the road less traveled.
10. Important source material can come from anywhere, from your own life experience, a blog, a magazine, book, comic book.
11. Chase character-driven content. Don’t try to shoehorn things in, make it true. Allow real characters to decide your journey and dramatic direction. Characters do your work for you if you let them. Content speaks personally, when ordinary people are thrust into the extraordinary, but remain relatable. We all want our expectations challenged.
12. If you have a story go tell it. You can use not only high-quality professional cameras, but even iPhones—which is how 2015 film “Tangerine” was shot. Hurd raised half the budget for “Mankiller,” a documentary on Wilma Mankiller, the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation, on Kickstarter. Or create your own YouTube Channel.
13. Engage directly with your fans. Build your community via social media rather than rely on traditional paid marketing, which is expensive and ineffective.
14. Always do what you love, which is not always easy.
15. And remember what William Goldman wrote in “Adventures in the Screen Trade”: “Nobody knows anything.”