Producing the unseen

Walk of Fame Honors: Gale Anne Hurd

From her earliest days, Gale Anne Hurd was a big sci-fi nerd.

“Always,” she says. “From the time that I could read.”

But the Phi Beta Kappa brain from Stanford who knew shorthand and could type 90 words per minute could never have known that the sci-fi world would, in time, nerd her right back. The future producer of such seminal works as the first “Terminator” films, “Armageddon” and the TV series “The Walking Dead” waited in line like everybody else for the first “Alien” film in 1979, never suspecting that she’d be in charge on its sequel seven years later.

The truth is that Gale Anne Hurd had no intention of getting into the entertainment business at all upon graduation. “I was probably headed to law school,” she says, noting that she majored in economics and communications, with a special focus on political science.

“There were no prominent women in the film industry in 1978,” she adds. “There was no career path to follow. It just seemed a bridge too far. A pipe dream.”

The legal profession’s loss has been Hollywood’s gain. A pioneer in her field, Hurd has been a great role model for women in the macho world of sci-fi/horror/action-adventure filmmaking. Indeed, she’s been one of the industry’s top producers of any gender, associated with (or sometimes married to) some of the biggest names in the business, from James Cameron to Michael Bay to Brian De Palma to Frank Darabont.

“I think it’s fantastic to create worlds that we haven’t seen before,” Hurd says. “But it is one of my big things as a writer that if you don’t understand the rules of the world you’ve created, it won’t seem real — or feel real when it’s finished.”

Cameron — her earliest discovery and first husband — is expected to be on hand when Hurd receives her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today, and he’s still impressed by her prowess. She’s a “dynamo and a supercomputer combined,” he says. “Our two alpha personalities could have clashed, but it turned out we complemented each other perfectly, and we became a killer team.”

That team came together as the 1970s were giving way to the 1980s; Hurd was Roger Corman’s assistant who brought the then-model builder to Corman’s attention for “Battle Beyond the Stars.” Corman promoted him.

“That’s one of the huge lessons I learned from Roger, to take a chance on talent,” says Hurd, who adds that the other key to being a good producer is in “knowing which compromises won’t ultimately hurt a finished film, and which you have to stand firm and say ‘no’ to.”

Outside Corman’s office, Hurd hit a few more speed bumps than she might have expected. “We would lunch after she left,” recalls Corman, “and she said she never knew there was prejudice against women until she left our company and was working in a major studio.”

Yet Hurd found mentors, not just in the male directors she worked with but also in New World Pictures CEO Barbara Boyle and the late producer Debra Hill. “There’s still the preconception that action and adventure and sci-fi are male genres,” she says. “That’s just considered the domain of men.”

Hurd has found her own path, producing indie movies such as “The Waterdance” (1992) and the upcoming “Very Good Girls” along with her signature genre films and TV projects. She has beefed up her TV projects in the wake of her “Walking Dead” success, signing a deal with Universal Cable Productions this year.

Hurd has been active with the Producers Guild and last year became a governer for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. AMPAS president Hawk Koch, who worked with Hurd for years on the PGA board, says the Produced By conference “is basically her baby,” and owes a lot of success to her vision.

Her work with Corman trained Hurd to be “a producer who knows how do it all,” he observes, “how to run the set, work with directors and studio executives and how to make little independents.”

Charlize Theron, who starred in “Aeon Flux” for Hurd, lauds the producer’s “unimposing strength that is backed up by her supportive vision for the filmmakers.”

Recognition from any of the academies — television or film — has not yet been forthcoming, however.

“There are many films that have been deserving of Academy Awards,” Hurd shrugs. “It almost seems that a film that’s made a lot of money couldn’t be a critical darling — as if they’re exclusive clubs.”

She says she’s heartened by the way genre storytelling has begun bleeding into more serious films, citing “Melancholia” and “Take Shelter” as examples. “It’s now something that all filmmakers realize,” she says. “You can tell compelling, complicated stories within the confines of genre fiction.”

“There’s an intellectual aspect behind good sci-fi, and that appeals to her,” Corman says. “She understands that. Her pictures are more thoughtful and intelligently put together than most in the genre.”

And, it appears, Hurd knows one of the other key rules to being a successful producer — perpetual motion.

“You have to keep all the plates spinning at once,” she says. “There are always a lot of plates spinning.”

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