The zombies are on the march again, and Gale Anne Hurd is in her element. “I love creating new worlds that we hadn’t seen before,” Hurd says during a break from the Atlanta production of the third season of The Walking Dead, AMC’s hit series about people trying to hold on to their humanity in a post-apocalyptic world.
And as producer of that hit series, as well as ground-breaking movies like The Terminator, T2, Aliens, Armageddon and The Incredible Hulk, Hurd has been creating worlds for more than 25 years — with a deep commitment to the story, to storytellers, and to fans.
With The Walking Dead, she says, “we’ve been entrusted with a franchise that people feel passionately about but also introduced it to people who weren’t aware of the comic book” created by Robert Kirkman. And they’ve been able to turn that franchise into a TV hit — a show that rivals its acclaimed AMC brethren, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, creatively and outperforms both in the ratings. More than 10 million people watched the finale of season two, which averaged nearly 7 million viewers per episode.
Expectations are high for season three, after an intense and tantalizingly brief first season (just six episodes) and a second season that began with the dramatic departure of showrunner Frank Darabont and ended with raves for the onscreen drama. Survivors led by sheriff Rick Grimes searched for a missing member of their group, fought to protect a safe haven and suffered new kinds of hell.
“The first season was about setting up the world, coming to terms with Rick rejoining his family and finding out that his best friend and his wife — thinking that he was dead — formed a bond. Gradually, he found out just how strong a bond they’d formed,” Hurd said. With deadly consequences. “And now,” Hurd added, “we’re continuing in the tradition inspired by the comic book.”
Which sounds like things are going to get even more brutal. When the new season begins in October, viewers know that there’s a different world waiting — one that will include fearsome female warrior Michonne (played by Danai Gurira from Treme), and (spoiler alert) the Governor (David Morrissey), a dark figure well known to fans of the comic books for inflicting all manner of cruelty on those who cross him. Fans of the comics know them well, but as with, say, the character of Shane, should expect to experience them differently in the television series.
We asked Hurd about zombies, Aliens, and what she’d do differently if she could.
What are the benefits and challenges of creating a show based on such well-realized (and beloved) source material?
The comic is fantastic: terrific, character-driving storytelling. And not every fan will appreciate variation from the panels. Some would prefer that we bring every panel to life. But that’s not what Rob Kirkman wanted to do. He’s the first to say that [comics and television] are two different media. … You can’t include everybody that was in the comic. But you can make sure the characters you have integrate into the world. … And some of the new characters have become fan favorites, like Daryl and Merle [the Dixon brothers, whose abusive upbringing turned them into hardcore survivors].
What is the appeal of shows like The Walking Dead?
It’s not about the zombies, really. People far wiser than we are … talk about a primal fear that we have as human beings — being dead but not dead, with no control, shuffling around with no awareness. And then you become a cannibal and eat your family.
Are you worried that people will tire of zombie stories?
No. I think what people get tired of is ripoffs that don’t deliver. I can’t imagine World War Z won’t deliver.
You tend to be involved with projects that generate a great deal of interest and enthusiasm. And over time, fans have developed more and more ways to connect not just with each other, but with people like you. Has that changed your approach to your work?
There’s not enough hours in the day to do everything you need to do to produce a show, and to read everything people have posted. But I’ve been reading the boards since Ain’t It Cool News began, or Superhero Hype. You can sense a vibe and I think that’s important, but at the same time you truly have to stick to the original vision that everyone signed on for.
What is the enduring appeal of the Aliens universe?
All the directors who have taken on the franchise [Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet] are talented not only as storytellers, but as creators of worlds. With each movie, you really feel that you’re entering a different world, a place where you don’t know quite what’s going to happen or who you can trust, or if the aliens have morphed. Each time the stakes increase.
Have you revisited Aliens lately? What did you think?
A couple of years ago it was one of the anniversaries of Aliens [which came out in 1986]. We made this film before CGI, and I wondered, is it going to really hold up in the post-CGI world? I was really thrilled and surprised that it did. … We made a film for $14 million that was pretty remarkable.
What did you think of Prometheus, the new movie (and not quite prequel) set in the Alien universe?
Prometheus is not only a visually gripping film, it’s a compelling and suspenseful must-see for any Alien fan. Even if you haven’t seen previous films in the franchise, Ridley Scott’s movie succeeds on its own merit.
If you could have a career do-over, what would it be?
If I had known how much fun, and how rewarding TV was, I would have done it much sooner.
— Stephanie Reid-Simons