Walking Dead Week: Executive Producer Gale Anne Hurd on Ignoring Expectations and “The Terminator”

Not a Moment's Rest

Oct 09, 2014 Web Exclusive
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This week is Walking Dead Week on Under the Radar's website. Season five of the wildly popular and critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic zombie drama starts this Sunday, October 12, at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central) on AMC. In anticipation of the show's return, for this special theme week of coverage we have interviewed around 10 members of the show's current cast and will be posting one to two Walking Dead interviews every day this week.

If Gale Anne Hurd's only claim to fame was being the producer and co-writer of Terminator (1984), her place in entertainment history would be set. Only 28 at the time, she had her whole career ahead of her, and she has used her time well, adding Aliens (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and a few dozen other films to her resume. But despite her widespread success in the movie genre, she hadn't conquered TV until she signed on as executive producer to The Walking Dead, and it's likely no one has been more integral to the assembling the team that makes the show more than Hurd. With that in mind, there's no one who is in a better position to reflect on why the show has been so successful, how the cast and crew has managed to become one big family, and what the show needs to do to maintain its momentum.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So, since we're only a few days before the season five premiere, do you feel like expectations are continually ramping up for the show? How do you respond to that?

Gale Anne Hurd: You know, you just have to forget all of that and try to make the best show you can, because otherwise you're being reactive as opposed to proactive. So we really want to focus on the characters and what the arc of the season is for the characters, as well as the plot, and tell those stories the best we can. The minute you start thinking about all of that, that's when you aren't true to the show and you start second-guessing yourself. That's the road to disaster.

When you first signed on for this project, did you have any expectations for what the show would be?

The only thing I wanted to achieve was to tell the best possible version of Robert Kirkman's fantastic comic book series that could be told on TV. Everything else beyond that was gravy, but, ultimately, he had created these amazing characters on this journey and had managed to sustain it in a way that his own fanbase kept growing. What we didn't want to do was have a pale imitation or something that felt tonally inconsistent with his graphic novel. That was the goal.

Was there any particular moment when you realized you were hitting that goal?

I think the moment was early on when we took a reel and showed it at ComicCon before we even started airing. And the fans at ComicCon are the fans of comic books, so it was an audience that represented people who had already discovered his comic books and obviously cared very deeply that we got it right. When they responded positively, I began to feel like, "You know what? Maybe we got it right." But, most importantly, Robert Kirkman was happy.

Was there also a moment when you realized the show was connecting with a different audience than the comic books?

Yeah, when the ratings came back for the first episode, because a comic book is doing incredibly well if it sells 40-50,000 copies a month. You can't sustain a TV series with those numbers, so I think it was actually the very first episode.

It also seems like viewers connect with these characters because they see themselves in them. I was talking to Melissa McBride, and she says she knew the show was breaking through when people would write her and tell her they could see themselves in Carol.

Yes! Exactly. And that's why it's so important, because the characters in Robert Kirkman's comic book, as well, they are grounded. Our actors approach their characters in a very grounded way, and they take everything that is happening in this apocalypse very seriously. And we get to points very quickly of the zombies being the threat we know. We know how they're going to reactthey're predictable. What we can't predict is human nature, and it's the human nature of people we care about and the human nature of ourselves. What are we capable of and who do we become? I think that provides amazing fodder for the writers, as well as for the actors. I think that's why people connect with our characters, and the actors disappear into those characters.

Having talked to a lot of the cast, it seems like there's a real camaraderie on set.

Unbelievably so.

Who do you think deserves credit for creating that?

I think Andy Lincoln does. If you ask the cast, they'll all say he's the ringleader of the merry band. He's Robin Hood. He's completely accessible. He is incredibly generous with his time, but he is over 100% committed to the show and to bringing the character of Rick Grimes to life. The set is a complete and total democracy. Everyonecast, crew, extrasare treated very well. I talk to a lot of actors before they join the show, and I say, "This is going to be a different experience," and they nod their heads like, "Yeah, yeah. We're told that all the time." But I say, "You won't feel like you're the 65th person we've hired to be on the show, and your call sheet number is 65. Numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5who are the first people hiredare going to welcome you with open arms and treat you as well as someone who has been on the show for five years." And they go, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, right." And then it happens. I can really attribute that only to Andy. It starts with him. There are no bad apples, and if there were we could kill them off.

Do you think that sense of rapport has been there since the very start?

Absolutely. No question. And it extends to the crew, as well. The crew feels likes part of the family. We started this Twitter #TWDfamily, and we feel connected. The cast, the crew, as well as the fanswe feel that we're all one community. And without everybody, we wouldn't be successful.

That must make it particularly heartbreaking when a character has to be killed off.

It is beyond heartbreaking. So, first of all, we don't do it lightly, and we feel terrible when we do.

It seems as if most TV shows, at a certain point, start running out of momentum around season five or six. What do you think this show needs to do to keep that momentum going?

Ignore the pressure. Ignore the expectations, and just be true to the goals we set out for ourselves from the very beginning. Be faithful to the comics but not a slave to them. And make it a character-driven show in which the characters, as well as the audience, are always off-balance. And continue to raise the stakes and see how these characters put in this pressure cooker react. And we have the stakes, because it is life or death every moment. And every time there is a loss, it changes the balance, so the show can always grow and evolve but not change its tone or its sensibility.

Since the last season was in some regards the most shocking one you've done yet, are there times when you'll see a script and think you're going too far?

Absolutely. Last season, "The Grove," the scene in which Lizzie kills Mika and Carol has to kill her, and then [Carol] confesses that she killed Karen and David to Tyreese. That was a show where we questioned ourselves: "Can we pull this off?" We wondered a lot, and then we thought, "But this is, indeed, the natural conclusion to Lizzie's arc." After that experience, Carol just isn't going to keep up the lie anymore. We thought that one was challenging, but we went with it because it was the natural outgrowth from where we started these characters.

So now that you're working on Hunters for the SyFy channel, what do you take from The Walking Dead to that project?

Natalie [Chaidez, showrunner] and I have talked about this, and I would love from now on to have the kind of experience I've had with The Walking Dead, with a cast who bonds and gels and is a total democracy, working with great people, whose focus is on doing great work. That, as you know, is incredibly difficult five years in, with an incredibly ambitious show that is delivering ratings like ours. No one was become egotistical. No one has started acting like a diva. So I think that's just as important as writing great scriptsthe mood on set.

Did you know ahead of time that Andrew Lincoln would be that kind of leader on set? Or was that a happy accident?

Frank [Darabont, former showrunner] and I made phone calls and checked with people who had worked with him. All of us on the show do check to see what someone's on set character is likenot just, "Are they a good actor?"because you can upset that balance. We weren't as familiar in the U.S. with him as a television actor; we saw him as the guy from Love Actually, but he had actually been the lead in a number of British TV series.

But he hadn't done anything like The Walking Dead, this horror genre.

That's the great thing about working with AMC. They wanted the best actor for the role. That he was unknown in the U.S. was actually better, because there were no preconceived notions about who the actor was who was playing Rick Grimes.

Given that you were also instrumental in the success of the Terminator series, you've now been integral to the success of two iconic projects. Not many people get to experience something like that twice.

Indeed. Terminator being the first film that I ever fully produced, it will always be very special. It was a film that had to overcome a lot of obstacles, which meant that its success was all the sweeter. But it is weird not being involved anymore. It's kind of bittersweet at this point.

Since so many sci-fi films don't tend to age that well, are you surprised that Terminator has held up?

It was pretty prescient. At times, you look at what's going on todayand I know people who are in the community of defense and stuff and that arenaand it turns out SkyNet was not that far off from what we have now. If you watch television and the advances in science and robotics, cyborgs are probably not that far off, either, at least some form of cyborg. A lot of things we predicted have happened. I don't know if we're that close to time travel, but I won't rule anything out.

www.amctv.com/shows/the-walking-dead

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