One of the genre’s most well-respected producers, Gale Anne Hurd’s credits include such films as The Terminator, Aliens, The Incredible Hulk, Tremors and Alien Nation.
With so many big-name feature projects to her name, what compelled the veteran filmmaker to help bring the award-winning graphic novel The Walking Dead to television? According to Hurd, it was an opportunity to create a series of mini-movies for the small screen.
Airing Sunday nights on AMC beginning Halloween night, The Walking Dead follows a small group of survivors seeking shelter and security in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Hurd recently down to discuss the series, which she executive-produced with Frank Darabont (The Mist). ..
When did The Walking Dead first appear on your personal radar?
It was one of the executives in my company, Ben Roberts a few years ago. He always gives me things that I have to read on weekends. Other people are reading the hottest new screenplay and do I read some of those, but I also read genre including speculative fiction whether it’s books or comic books, so I have a steady diet.
When I read this, I said, ‘Oh, my God, are the rights available? This is terrific!’ I also said (which was surprising, considering I come from a feature background), ‘You know, this really needs to be a TV series. You can’t tell the story in two hours.’ The cast is too large, and it’s a journey; it was 70-plus issues of the journey of these characters. I then found out that Frank Darabont had originally been attached to adapt it and he’s an old and dear friend so it honestly surprised me how the pieces fell together.
What was the response from AMC when you brought it to them?
When you put it in context that AMC is not only the home of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Rubicon but also FearFest, but they also embrace and celebrate genre filmmaking and the great classic genre films. It’s counter-intuitive if you just look at their original programming, but if you look at the channel as a whole, you realize there is a deep appreciation. When we first ran the idea of The Walking Dead past their executive ranks, they were already aware it and said, ‘This is something we’d be very interested in!’
I said, ‘The Walking Dead? Robert Kirkman’s comic? The graphic novel?’ They said, ‘Yeah, exactly; Rick Grimes, Shane, Lori-‘ and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ Honestly, it was a marriage of people who have so much in common; the filmmakers and AMC. If you look at the first two episodes, it’s no holds barred. They haven’t said to us, ‘Okay, we know it’s about zombies and zombies eat people and people kill zombies, but can you do that off screen?’ This is not a ‘do-it-off-screen’ type of series.
Maybe so, but has there been any point when you felt you had to pull back a bit?
We don’t self-censor. If you’re a filmmaker the way Frank Darabont is a filmmaker, you do what’s true to the storytelling and the material and you don’t self-censor. What imagery is the best way to tell the story, which is a character-driven story? So you don’t show the violence just for the gratuitousness of shocking the audience. It’s about, what is that doing to the character? How is the character affected by what they’ve just had to do or what they’ve just seen?
That’s the context that every decision in the show is made from, not just the violence, but it’s an important factor and when you look at it, it really is rooted in what is the choice that the character has made and how has that affected the character in what they’ve just had to do or what they’ve just seen?
What sort of budget considerations did you have to deal with as far as producing this series for television?
We were really lucky. When you think about it, we were going into it with a partnership with [makeup FX wizard] Greg Nicotero and KNB EFX. Greg is a consulting producer; he’s earned that title, because he was part of the entire visual creation of what our zombies were going to look like, how they were going to be killed, and how the people were going to be attacked and eaten by zombies. When you’re in Greg’s hands, you just say, ‘We’re going to put it in the script and Greg is going to bring it!’ and he has.
But in general, this is a real horror dream team, isn’t it?
Not only is it a horror dream team, but they’re all really nice people. Sometimes you get a horror dream team and the horror is across the board. But we’ve got people who really like and respect each other and are on the same page creatively and that’s very rare.
We’ve survived together in brutal conditions. I’m not sure people have talked about the heat and the humidity and the bugs and the hours and the blood and the gore and how having lunch with zombies turns your stomach but these are people who love and respect and support each others. That’s what makes this an experience that everyone is really eager to go back to work.
With vampires being so popular at the moment, is this a good time for a bit of counter-programming?
To me, zombies and vampires are very different. What is selling the vampire genre on television is sex. They’re sexy and it’s not horror. This is truly about the survival of our cast in a zombie apocalypse and we take it dead real. I’m not sure we’ve seen a zombie series yet where you completely buy the premise and you take it as dead real. Not that I don’t find them guilty pleasures, but this is very different.
There’s an awful lot of talk about the zombies, but The Walking Dead is really a series about survival, isn’t it?
Yes, in a post-zombie apocalypse. That’s a very important distinction, because the ‘walking dead’ of the title refers to the people who survived it, not necessarily the zombies, although it can actually refer to both. It’s the pressure cooker of that environment in which we are able to see how our cast of characters reacts. Humans will do some very surprising things when they’re in a life and death situation.