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So What Do You Do, Gale Anne Hurd, Executive Producer of The Walking Dead?

'I think we need to get beyond any old gender roles'

- August 14, 2013
Comic Con is a celebration of just about everything your 7th grade teacher labeled a waste of time -- comic books, video games, toys, movies -- made culturally and monetarily valuable by the millions who flock to the event. Also in attendance this year was Gale Anne Hurd, filmmaking legend whose production credits include Terminator, The Incredible Hulk and, most recently, The Walking Dead. She may not have been mobbed by fans or sacked for autographs like a cast member, but she's witnessed how the hit AMC series has developed an international cult following.

"I'm always completely shocked in the best possible sense that this show has taken on a life of its own, not only here in the U.S. but around the world," she told Mediabistro. Her talent has lured even skittish, unlikely viewers (including this writer) into the weekly showdown between flesh-eating zombies and an ever-shifting band of post-apocalyptic survivors. That, and a resume that reads like a Comic Con-goers list of all-time favorites, earned her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Here she discusses the fine art of negotiation, film vs. television and a moratorium on slow dying gender roles.

Name: Gale Anne Hurd
Position: Chairman and producer
Resume: Joined New World Pictures as executive assistant to president Roger Corman. Ascended corporate ladder through various administrative positions, ultimately ending up as a one-person marketing department for the company. Negotiated her first production opportunity as Corman's mentee. Formed her own production company, Pacific Western Productions, and produced blockbusters including Aliens, Armageddon and The Terminator, for which she was also screenwriter. Began producing AMC drama series The Walking Dead in 2010. Became governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and recording secretary for the Producers Guild of America. Awarded star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012.
Birthdate: October 25, 1955
Hometown: Los Angeles
Education: Graduated from Stanford University with BA in economics and communications, minor in political science; elected to Phi Beta Kappa
Marital status: Married to filmmaker Jonathan Hensleigh
Media idol: Mary Tyler Moore and Marlo Thomas
Favorite TV show: "Other than mine?" she laughs. "I'd have to say The Americans."
Guilty pleasure: The Voice
Last book read: The Mistress's Daughter by A.M. Homes
Twitter handle: @GunnerGale
Aliens. Terminator. Now The Walking Dead. You're behind some of the most freakish and frightening productions in film and TV. So what are you afraid of in real life?
In real life, I'm claustrophobic. Small places and elevators really freak me out, so I walk up and down a lot of stairs.

You made a deal with legendary filmmaker Roger Corman that basically opened your own door to the industry. Tell us about that experience.
Roger was my mentor and he allowed me to make the kind of mistakes that, if I made them while working for someone else, I would not have survived. He was a very difficult taskmaster and threw me into marketing knowing I knew nothing about it, but he allowed me to make mistakes. For example, I wasn't completely familiar with all of the lingo that people use to create key art for motion picture promotion -- ad slicks, posters, one-sheets -- and I would often get the layouts wrong because I didn't know the terminology. We'd end up having to redo them. Even though I learned quickly, I still made mistakes. But I negotiated with him before I took the job. I told him I would do it for six months and at the end of that period, I wanted to work on the set of a production, which was a piece of experience that I hadn't had working in the office. I'd worked in development, I'd worked in marketing, but I had yet to be on set. So it was good that I negotiated that in advance. And he lived up to his promises, even though I was far from a marketing maven.

"If you want to prove that you can take on more responsibility, take that responsibility and be willing to also take the consequences. "

Most people don't feel comfortable laying out stipulations like that to their superiors. Why did you feel entitled to make your own rules? How can others follow suit?
I wasn't given a choice. It was, "OK Gale, I want you to be the marketing department starting Monday." (And this was a Friday). I had no training period, so the odds of my failing were pretty high, especially since I was taking the place of two people who had significant experience. I think you have to take some initiative and show that you have the potential to be a leader. I was about to take a position heading a department and negotiating with him proved that I had a degree of the skill set that I needed in that position. If you want to prove that you can take on more responsibility, take that responsibility and be willing to also take the consequences. I knew I wasn't prepared and I had that conversation up front with Roger. And, if it didn't work out, my fallback position was going to law school. I think it's really important to have a fallback position.

How much of an obligation did you feel to the original comic book storyline?
Robert Kirkman, the creator of the comic book series, has been a partner and a fellow executive producer since the very beginning. We always wanted to follow the comic book to a certain extent, but never to the degree that fans would know exactly what was coming. So we've deviated from it: We've introduced new characters, killed off some who are still alive in the comic book, extended the life span of others. That's a real tribute to Robert Kirkman being willing to change it up.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Tracey Edmonds, Award-Winning TV and Film Producer?

How do you invoke creativity to write and produce? Have you ever gone through a period when you were completely burnt out?
I do a lot more producing now than writing so I don't interface as much with the blank page or the untouched computer screen. But at the same time, it's important to make sure you're on the same page with a show runner and the writing staff. Television is more of a team sport than feature films -- you have a writer's room and you collaborate with a number of people. That keeps things really fresh and interesting, and it's much harder to burn out.

Does having experience on both sides inform one another and does it help you be more multifaceted in your delivery?
I think so. A lot of people have said that The Walking Dead feels like a mini-movie every week, and I think that that's a nod to the fact that a lot of us who work on the show started out in features, so that's our approach and vision for storytelling. I think that having to produce a show week in and week out has made me a better producer for features. You don't have as firm a deadline for when you have to create something. With a TV series, every eight days you have to be in production on a new episode so you can't not feed the machine. You have to keep the standards up. You have to have a lot figured out before production starts and you really have to have thought about 16 hours of character-driven storytelling. In a feature, it's only two hours.

"Having to produce a show week in and week out has made me a better producer for features."

The Walking Dead is one of the most talked-about TV shows on social media. How does the show achieve such a large social presence and how do you think the industry will change as a result of second-screen viewing?
Well, I think that our show already had a following of people who are technologically advanced to begin with, the early adopters who were comfortable with a deeper dive into related media, whether that was finding out about the comic books and exploring them, participating in second-screening or watching the webisodes or the aftershow, The Talking Dead. People can experience the show 24/7. Now we're going to be seeing a talk show after Breaking Bad called Talking Bad. I think you're going to see a lot more of that and they'll have their presences on the web, too. I think it's really pioneered new ground on other shows.

What have you sacrificed to reach your level of success in this industry? And what have you sacrificed specifically as a woman?
I don't think there's any difference. I mean, as a woman I think we need to get beyond any old gender roles. I know a lot of women who are very prominent whose husbands have taken on child rearing and their relationships work very well. So I think we need to get past the idea that there are particular roles that women have to undertake. Obviously, my personal life takes a backseat. I was lucky that much of the time my daughter was growing up, production took place in Los Angeles. Now she's in college and very few films and TV series shoot in Los Angeles anymore. It's a shame. But my compromises weren't as great then as they would be now.

Janelle Harris resides in Washington, D.C., frequents Twitter and lives on Facebook.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Tracey Edmonds, Award-Winning TV and Film Producer?

© Mediabistro Inc. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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