Producer faces fears while maintaining composure
Over a career now spanning almost 30 years and comprising some of the most successful action movies ever made, Gale Anne Hurd has acquired a reputation as one of the last real producers, someone who can shepherd a project from script development through digital effects.
Along the way, she’s also become known for her calm approach to crisis management, a rarity in the testosterone-drenched world of actioners. Couple that with her athletic and adrenaline-junkie tastes in recreation — which run to ballooning, off-roading, skiing and scuba diving — and it would be easy to imagine Hurd as simply fearless.
But Hurd’s scuba experiences says otherwise — and reveals a clue about her success.
“In fact, I’m claustrophobic,” she admits. “I flunked my first scuba course, and every time I get in the water after I haven’t been diving for a while, I have to overcome that claustrophobia — feeling like you’re under all these pounds of pressure, of the water over your head. … And I cannot dive in a current.”
That would be the end of diving for many people, but Hurd has learned over the years to overcome her fears with something called composure. “It used to be ‘I’m a fighter,’ and I’d want to fight it, but if you’re not calm, you won’t make good decisions.”
For Hurd, diving in, so to speak, is an essential part of the job.
“To me it’s ultimately about the partnership with the director,” she says while seated on a sofa in her sunny Beverly Hills office. “It’s like being the parents of a child. You’re trying to make the best decision on behalf of that child. And sometimes it’s tough love and sometimes it’s fighting battles on behalf of the project.
“A lot of producers now are people who stay in their office and never go to the set. I don’t know how you can be the advocate of the movie if you’re not there in it every day.”
She’s been “in it” in a remarkable run of action hits: “The Terminator,” which she also co-wrote (with James Cameron); “The Abyss” and “Aliens” (both with Cameron directing); “Alien Nation” (with Graham Baker at the helm); and “Armageddon” (which she developed before Jerry Bruckheimer came onboard).
She is not limited to action fare, either. She produced “The Waterdance,” a well-reviewed Sundance drama about a man coping with paralysis, and “Dick,” the political comedy with Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams as White House interns who become embroiled in the Watergate scandal.
This month she returns with “The Incredible Hulk,” a reboot of Marvel’s popular character after Ang Lee’s leaden 2003 version, which Hurd also produced.
The common thread among her projects, she notes, is that they’re stories of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Hulk’s alter ego, Bruce Banner, is one example. So are the young heroines in “Dick.”
“It doesn’t necessarily mean you have extraordinary powers,” Hurd explains. “But you’re shaken out of your ordinary life and put into something that completely shifts your view of reality and how you fit into the world.”
Bruckheimer says Hurd’s films “have a distinctive look” and that “she has a strong visual sense.”
Hurd accepts that compliment but is more proud of how visuals complement character in her films.
“At the end of the day, it’s about really interesting, fun characters in a great setting,” she says, citing “Armageddon” as an example. “Bruce Willis sacrifices his life to save the world and does it with the guy he doesn’t want to be with his daughter.”
Writer Joel Gross, who worked with her on “No Escape” and is writing her upcoming “Galahad” feature, says one reason she excels at action is that she doesn’t condescend to the material.
“Gale loves action movies,” he says, “she enjoys making them, and she enjoys watching them. So she’s not somebody who has to twist herself into some frame of mind in order to swallow something that’s way beneath her.”
Delectations in the dark
Hurd cultivated her love of action, adventure and science fiction during a Southern California childhood. A San Fernando Valley native who moved to Palm Springs in elementary school, she was a young fan of “Lost in Space,” “Star Trek,” “Dark Shadows” and double features at old movie palaces. To this day, she treasures her memories of “Mary Poppins” at Graumann’s Chinese. “That to me was like this magical world,” she says. “That’s why I still love going there. The sound is better in other places, but it’s a big movie when you go there.”
She was an economics major at Stanford until she signed up for a term in England. There she took a film class because it was the only alternative to more economics.
The film classes were programmed by Julian Blaustein, who’d produced “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Khartoum,” and, as she puts it, “That was it.” Blaustein became her adviser and a mentor. She finished her degree and set off to pursue film.
She impressed Roger Corman, who hired her and became another mentor. Corman remembers her as “very poised” from the beginning, adding, “It was immediately apparent that she was very intelligent.
“Even though she was very accomplished as a student at Stanford, she was modest about it,” he adds. “She hasn’t changed since then except that her experiences have made her more confident as a producer. But she was never someone who was overconfident either.”
She was already determined to excel, though, says Cameron. “I think that was inculcated in her by her father, who was quite the achiever and quite the disciplinarian,” he says.
Hurd met Cameron on “Battle Beyond the Stars,” and she recognized a kindred spirit. “We realized we were both can-do people,” she says, “which means, ‘OK, you’ve got a problem?’ And there are always problems, there’s not enough time and money. ‘You can either sit there and complain or you can do something about it.’ We shared that.”
Cameron spotted something else in Hurd as well. “When we first teamed, we were 24-25, yet she had this icy self-discipline that I think really set her apart from other people our age. No matter how ambitious they were, they just didn’t know how to get there. But she did.”
‘It’s about excellence’
During their four-year marriage, Cameron remembers experiencing all manner of exotic activities with Hurd, whom he affectionately calls “adventure girl.”
“She doesn’t feel any sense of limitation because of gender, and just wants to do it all and be excellent,” he says. “I think it’s about excellence. Not every movie you make is going to be excellent, but you can perform your task with excellence, and I think that’s what drives her.”
That drive has let her confound expectations throughout her career.
A production designer slated to do “Aliens” offhandedly told her he could never work for a woman producer. She calmly shook his hand and told him she was sorry he wouldn’t be working on her movie, leaving the man speechless. And fired.
She left the crew of the film similarly agape when Cameron, unsatisfied with an actress’s performance as she shot an alien, announced to his crew, “I’m going to get my wife in here to do this.” Hurd, then a young-looking 29-year-old known for her impeccable attire, coolly changed into fatigues and Army boots and fired the 9mm pistol on camera, faking the gun’s recoil perfectly and spattering herself with yellow acid-blood goo.
The shot of her blowing the alien’s brains out is in the final cut.
“She’s a larger-than-life person once you get to know her,” says “Dante’s Peak” helmer Roger Donaldson. On his own film, she impressed him with her ability to “speak to the right people and cut through the bullshit.”
“When she came on (“Dante’s Peak”), things moved a lot faster,” he says.
Yet those close to her also talk about her generosity and patience. Marvel Studios prexy Kevin Feige, who cut his teeth as a producer under Hurd’s tutelage, says, “What is jarring is how kind and down to earth she is, and inclusive of a newbie producer just starting at Marvel.”
Universal Pictures marketing prexy Eddie Egan, who’s worked with Hurd since the 1980s, calls her “quite a modest person for someone who was one of the creators of the ‘Terminator’ franchise.”
Egan also admires her work ethic and her talent for listening.
“That’s instinct or something she decided she should do,” says Egan. “But it’s absolutely an aspect of her personality that makes her a pleasure to work with. She doesn’t react to things emotionally. She’s crazy intelligent, a fiercely intelligent person.”
Dispassion is something of a trademark for Hurd, and while she admits she will lose her temper like anyone else, she has made a conscious effort not to do so in her work.
“To some degree I think it’s still a sociocultural situation,” she says, “where if women lose their temper they’re labeled ballbusters, or whatever, that would never be applied to a male producer.
“What I have learned is that no one makes the best decisions when a problem is exacerbated by people overreacting. I try to get calm. That’s how you make the best decisions and empower everyone else to make the best decisions.”
Away from the set, she is still finding new interests and returning to old ones. She got hooked on watching soccer, even organizing a group trip to a match during “The Incredible Hulk’s” Rio shoot. She did less diving while her daughter was growing up, but now that her offspring is a teenager, she is thinking of taking one of those dream vacations: diving off Borneo.
But first there is that “Hulk” movie to launch.
“I keep pinching myself, thinking, ‘I’m making a movie with Edward Norton and Tim Roth and William Hurt and Liv Tyler and Tim Blake Nelson. I’ve got a director (Louis Leterrier) who is terrific — a visionary who is so excited and so enthusiastic every day.
“To have the opportunity to do this, it is unbelievable.”