The executive producer of 'The Walking Dead' talks about the making of the hit show, the 30th anniversary of 'The Terminator' and how 'Aliens' got its name
When The Walking Dead premiered on Halloween 2010, long before it would become AMC’s most popular show to date, one name in particular stood out in the opening credits. It was not Robert Kirkman, the cult hero/comic-book writer whose graphic novels (created with Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard) gave the series its sickening, gory source material. It was not Frank Darabont, the filmmaker best known for directing The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Mist (2007) who would be Dead‘s first showrunner and help set its course. It would not even be one of the cast member’s names, as most of these talented journeymen actors would become famous via the show later on.
No, the name that would give those in the know pause was one of five listed executive producers on the show: Gale Anne Hurd. For genre-film fans, this was the credit that suggested this serialized tale of zombies and survivors might be more than a Sunday night lark. If you grew up watching The Terminator movies, if you ever ran around your front yard pretending to be Ripley or Vasquez or Corporal Hicks from Aliens, if you remember when superhero films were still considered pulpy pleasures instead tentpole collossi, if you still love that certain B-movie thrill, then you knew what this pioneering writer-producer’s name on a project meant. And as The Walking Dead became a gigantic hit, lost key creative team members and experienced growing pains, viewers would come to realize exactly how important her continued involvement would be. Showrunners would come and go. Hurd’s hand on the wheel not only kept things steady, it insured that someone who understood what the series was really about was helping to call the shots. “The title doesn’t refer to the walkers,” she says. “It refers to the survivors. That’s the key to the whole show right there.”
Speaking to Rolling Stone as she was getting ready to attend the Season Five premiere in Los Angeles (“I’m literally trying to get into my dress as we’re talking, so my apologies in advance”), Hurd talked about where The Walking Dead had been and where it was headed, the 30th anniversary of the film that established her as a producer — the original Terminator — and how she and then-husband James Cameron turned the sequel to Alien into a template for blockbuster sci-fi action flicks.
Let’s go back to the very beginnings of The Walking Dead. Zombies were already prominent in pop culture, but not on TV. What made you think these comics would work as a series?
Anyone who’s read Robert Kirkman’s books can tell you that the story he’s telling…it’s not really about the zombies, or what you need to do to survive a zombie apocalypse — thought you will pick up some tips on that, definitely. [Laughs] They exist to ask a certain question: What does it mean to be human? More specifically, can you maintain your humanity in a world where there is essentially no civilization left, no law and order left? The zombies were simply a way to raise the stakes for the characters in a way that wasn’t, you know, “They are trying to survive in a warzone, they’re experiencing something that people actually went through.” I mean, you could not tell this story if it was set during a real war — it would be genuinely horrible! But you set it in a world beset by zombies, and look at these issues in a situation that could never possibly happen…
So you say!
I think it’s a pretty safe bet that this will remain a work of fiction [laughs]. I was impressed by the way Robert had set it up without losing the key questions behind everything. That, more than anything else, was what drew me to this.
Why not adapt it into a movie, then?
The idea that these characters were all on a journey, one which didn’t really have an end in sight — that meant something longform. That didn’t mean two hours. Frank Darabont, Robert Kirkman and I all shared a vision of doing this in a way that wouldn’t rush things and wouldn’t be camp. Thankfully, when we brought this to AMC, they didn’t want to turn this into something silly either. They were committed to taking something that might seem preposterous but playing it very straight, and very, very real.
Did the fact that the show was hugely popular right out of the gate surprise you? Horror TV shows have traditionally been cult hits, not pop-cultural phenomenons — so you can’t really chalk it up to genre.
I’ve thought about this a lot. I think it’s this sense we all have that each and every one of us is dancing on the edge of some sort of abyss. I think social media and the Internet has made every global catastrophe feel like it’s right next door. Whether it’s civil war, an Ebola epidemic , a tsunami, global financial collapse — we now get this news immediately, and it feels as if it’s happening right next door to us. So our characters are in the worst of all possible worlds — a world which, as I said, any one of us is very unlikely to encounter. But the moral and ethical dilemmas they face…we can all identify with those right now. You know, “What would I do if everything collapsed around me?” I think that struck a chord with everybody.
So it’s the moral and ethical dilemmas that keep people tuning in, you think?
If you go on social media after an episode airs, you’ll find a small percentage of people talking about the “kills” — and a large percentage of people talking about the choices and decisions these people had to make. We took a risk in doing an episode like “The Grove,” in which we had a character, Carol, who had grown to love these surrogate daughters — and then had to do something absolutely horrible. When we went on Twitter or Facebook once the episode had aired, we had no idea what to expect. And what we got was a lot of people admitting that they’d cried. That, and a lot of discussions over “What would you have done in that position?” It generated discussions like that for days afterward. They responded to the human element, not the fantastic elements. It made me think, “Okay, this is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. This is still working.”
There have clearly been a lot of behind-the-scenes changes that have gone on around the show, all of which have been widely reported. In a lot of ways, however, The Walking Dead seems to be very much the same show four seasons in that it was when it started. How has you managed to maintain a sense of consistency when so much was in flux?
[Pause] You know, the great thing about television is that it’s a collaborative medium. So, you absolutely have a showrunner — but you’ve also got a writer’s room, and you have a certain core of our actors have been there since the very beginning. The cast…they know who their characters are, and they would call bullshit if that changed.
It’s not like a movie where sometimes a sequel is really a remake, or it’s a complete reinvention. The world is the same, and you have to put any kind of upheaval aside and say, “You know what? We’re still telling Robert Kirkman’s story.” There is very much a universe, and as long as we stay within that universe and we work with people who embrace and understand that universe, it’s going to remain fairly consistent.
So what can you tell us about Season Five?
[Laughs] Ah, right. Well…we left our characters split up. Beth is gone; we assume she’s been kidnapped. We’ve got Carol and Tyreese with Baby Judith, separated from the rest of the group; we’ve seen a number of people reunited in the worst of all possible circumstances. And we’ve seen Rick come full circle to…it doesn’t matter how tough or bleak the circumstances, he’s embraced that mantle of leadership again. He’s no longer “Farmer Rick.” He’s, excuse my language “don’t-fuck-with-me Rick.”
So they’re in a fairly precarious position when we see them again, and it’s a question of who will get out of this situation and who won’t. There will also be a number of new characters getting introduced — some from the comics, and some not.
That was very deftly played. You managed to do that without really giving anything away.
I have to choose my words very, very carefully, here [laughs].
This year marks the 30th anniversary of The Terminator, which you co-wrote and produced. What do you remember about making it?
Oh God, I remember it all!
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
[Laughs] Good question. You have to remember, both Jim [Cameron] and I worked for Roger Corman at the time. Jim’s first movie was Piranha II: The Spawning for Roger; had he not directed that, there would be no Terminator films! So Roger was the first person we took the script to, and I’m paraphrasing, but he said something along the lines of “I really don’t think you want to do this for me. You should do this for someone who will actually give you a budget.” [Laughs] Even he could see that this was not a quickie, do-it-for-no-money film. He was nice enough to know when someone had outgrown working with him, and that was the point when he basically told Jim and I, you should fly the coop with this.
Was there a moment when you realized that this would not be something that would just play on the back half of a drive-in double bill, and that it would have life 30 years later?
Oddly enough, it was the guy who was on the financial side of things, this industry veteran named Lindsley Parsons, who caught on very early that this would work. Actually, he saw a rough cut that didn’t even have any of the effects in there, and he still said, “This is going to be a classic.” We thought he was nuts. But that was what we needed to hear, because everybody else looked at it and called it a down-and-dirty exploitation film that they were embarrassed to have been involved in. It’s funny though, that the money guy is the one who had the greatest passion for it and protected us. He was there to make sure the interest of the bond company was represented, and when certain people were coming to take the film away from us, he was the one that threatened to post guards outside the editing room’s doors so we could finish cutting the movie. You just don’t get those kinds of ballsy individuals anymore.
You said in 2003 that The Terminator would not have been made in this day and age. Do you still think that’s true?
We could if we still made it for $6.4 million, sure [laughs].
Really? Because if you look at how the Comic-Con demographic has completely taken over mainstream culture, it actually seems like you get this made in a heartbeat today.
You have to realize that most people underestimated the fact that, once the quality of the entertainment based on genre books and and comic books had the production value and the talent to make them A-picture quality, the audience would show up. Most people in the industry looked down on genre stuff in a condescending way until the one-two-three punch of 2001, Jaws and Star Wars hit within a decade. And even then, it still took a while.
As someone who’s always loved genre movies, it’s an exciting time, but the fear — my fear — is that it’s going to be nothing but tentpole movies based on pre-existing material. So 30 years later, yes, people want to remake the Terminator movies. If it hadn’t been something people already knew, however — it doesn’t matter that sci-fi movies are now accepted. It wouldn’t get made.
So Aliens would get made today, but the Terminator wouldn’t?
Probably, yeah. But the funny thing is, in terms of Aliens…this was a time when people weren’t really making sequels, certainly not like they are now. What happened was, we were all set to make The Terminator, but Dino De Laurentis had Arnold [Schwarzenegger] under contract to make a sequel to Conan the Barbarian. So we knew we were making the movie, but we weren’t going to start for a year. In that time, Jim took a couple of writing assignments — one of which was Aliens, though it wasn’t called that yet.
The story, and it may or may not be apocryphal, was that Jim went into a pitch meeting with the studio executives and the first thing he said was “I am not making another gothic sci-fi film; I’m making a combat movie.” Then he walked up to a white board in the room, wrote “Alien” — and then added a dollar sign to it.
Exactly! That’s how he came up with the name. [Pause] Again, no idea if it’s true, but I’ve heard this story so many times from so many people, including Jim, that, you know…print the legend! [Laughs]