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Interview with “The Walking Dead” Executive Producer Gale Anne Hurd

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Gale Anne Hurd has been a producer in Hollywood since the early ‘80s and has been involved in some of the biggest science fiction, horror and action movies of all time, including the first three Terminator movies, Aliens, and Armageddon. Since 2010, she has been the executive producer on AMC’s monster hit (pun intended), The Walking Dead, which returns Sunday, February 10th, at 9/8c. She was nice enough to talk to us about what terrors await us for the rest of Season 3, why she’s been so drawn to genre cinema, and Hollywood’s attitude toward women in executive roles.

NERDIST: The first half of this season of The Walking Dead ended on a very ominous note; what can we expect from the second half?

GALE ANNE HURD: Well, if you thought this was ominous… [laughs] you’ve only stuck your toes into the shallow end, I can say that.

N: That’s an ominous answer to that question.

GAH: Well, you can be sure not everyone makes it out alive. And we’ve got a truly interesting scenario, not only with Daryl and Merle, but the Governor and Andrea. It’s very complicated and very primal.

N: What is it like to produce a show like this, which has a very real chance for characters to die at any moment, and for the narrative to change on a dime?

GAH: The fantastic thing is that we have such inspiration from Robert Kirkman’s comic book. He’s certainly blown some fans’ minds with what he’s done throughout the series, most recently in issue #100… if you read it, you’ll know what I’m talking about. So, the show is true to the world that Kirkman created and the stakes of it are truly life and death. It’s not life and death like it’s 1 in 100 million I’m going to be hit by a bus tomorrow; it’s am I going to be infected by a walker? How am I going to find food tomorrow? How am I going to find a safe haven? And, even more frightening this season, what am I going to do when I encounter a homicidal human?

N: This show has really, by its very nature, expanded as its gone on, both in terms of story and in location. What have been the challenges of producing this season with its two enormous central locations?

GAH: It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that we have an opportunity to expand the world with not only the prison, but with Woodbury. We get to give some of our cast members some time off, which they didn’t have when they were all together. But at the same time, there are a lot more locations this season which makes the shoot complicated. And, of course, when we are in Woodbury, we have to close down the principal street, Main Street, through the town of Senoia, GA. So, we have everything that goes along with shutting down a town, but, I have to say, they have been incredibly supportive and you can now visit Senoia and buy a t-shirt from any of the local and independent stores there.

Walkers

N: Is shooting the series different than shooting a film because the production has that base of operations?

GAH: You know, it’s so much harder than shooting a film, and I’ve done some very, very, very large films, if you look at Armageddon and Terminator 2 and things like that. Because you’re shooting 16 hours of stories in less time than you would a feature. So, you have to do more with less money and less time, which means the level of talent on the cast and the crew needs to be that much more intense and committed. On a film, you consider yourself lucky if you do two pages a day; on this show we’ve done 10-12 pages a day.

N: Oh, wow.

GAH: So, it’s a factor and what we strive for every week on The Walking Dead is that we’ve shot a mini movie, that when the fans watch the show, they’re not watching “a TV show” which just looks like every other TV show. Everything from the settings to the photography and the scope should feel like a movie. In that way they’re similar.

N: Definitely the look of the show has more in common with a film.

GAH: We even shoot on film.

N: A lot of movies don’t even do that anymore. Speaking of the fans, The Walking Dead is one that fans love to discuss, rabidly in some cases, on the internet; how has the internet and social media affected the show, either the way it’s produced or the way it’s received?

GAH: Through social media, we get immediate feedback. And, of course, a lot of people watch the show and during commercials will tweet about it or post on Facebook or whatever social media platforms they use. But, it allows us to know when people love something or when they don’t, and it’s an immediate focus group for almost every act of every episode.

Gale Anne

N: You came up working for Roger Corman and went on to produce, as you said, some huge, giant sci-fi/horror/action movies; what draws you back time and again to genre stories?

GAH: They’ve always been my favorite. I was a fan of comic books growing up, of science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers… If I had a choice of Jane Austen, I probably would have picked Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It was my pleasure reading and that hasn’t changed.

N: How have you seen the mainstream reception of genre change over time? Obviously, comic book movies are huge now.

GAH: Exactly, they used to be the B-movies, they aspired to be B-movies, and now they’re A-movies. You get the top directors to direct and the top actors performing in them, and that was certainly not the case when I was growing up, but it’s tremendous to see.

N: You’re one of an unfortunately-small number of female executives in Hollywood; what do you think needs to happen for more women to be put into higher positions?

GAH: I think it’s something we see in the overall culture of business. Very few Fortune 500 companies are run by women. Women make up on a small percentage of board seats. This business is no different than any other business so it needs to be a cultural shift. Hopefully, one day we’ll have a woman president and that won’t seem like such an anomaly that a woman can hold the most powerful position in the land, but we’re not there yet. I thought we would have been there years ago.

N: We’ve seen a lot more female writers and directors lately.

GAH: Not really. Things have not really changed since 1992.There, perhaps, is more attention paid, but the actual number of women working on the top 250 feature films released theatrically is the same as it was in 1992.

N: And, as you said, you think it’s a larger problem than just Hollywood?

GAH: Yes, I do. You know, it’s slowly changing, I think. In the independent world, it’s changing faster. There were more and more films at Sundance this year directed by women. There are more and more women serving on the juries of significant film festivals, but that takes awhile for that to trickle up to the mainstream.

N: From the outside, it can seem like Hollywood is still operating much the same way it did when it was founded in the early-20th Century. Does it feel like that from the inside? Are the same wheels in motion that were in motion 100 years ago?

GAH: I think it’s become much more entrepreneurial. It used to be stars were under contract to major motion picture studios and producers and writers were paid a weekly salary, whether they worked or not. And now we see that there are very few deals being made; everyone is now a freelancer. So, there’s not as much stability and there’s a greater sense of fear, and more and more films seem like we’ve seen them before. If a particular genre works once, everyone jumps on board, and if a few of them fail, then everyone is convinced that they’re no longer working. They don’t really examine that fact that, you know, maybe there were a couple films that jumped on the bandwagon and weren’t very good. I think outside of the independent world, there’s much less originality.

N: Do you think that’s why so many creative people have gone to do things on television? Surely, 10-15 years ago, it would have been unheard of to see some of the people on TV who are on now.

GAH: If you look at what one might consider to be the quality of shows on television and the quality of an average feature film, TV has shot up in quality, and I think features have plummeted. So, the most talented people, who have original and unique voices, are finding greater outlets on television. That’s where you find, especially on cable, the most character-driven stories with the most compelling roles for actors.

N: Is that a function of cable TV being willing to take more chances than feature films?

GAH: They’ve taken chances that have worked. If they took chances that didn’t work, they’d be re-entrenched in only the procedural world, and now we see that serialized content is working, and risky content is working; new things are working. You’re only going to stay on the air if you prove you deserve to stay on the air, because people are watching or you get awards. Or both.

The Walking Dead bites back to television on Sunday, February 10th, at 9/8c on AMC.

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