The list of what surprises Gale Anne Hurd in the entertainment business is a very short one, and the backlash to the legal battle between Scarlett Johansson and the Walt Disney Company certainly isn’t on it.
Hurd has been a driving force behind some of the biggest films ever made (“The Terminator,” “Aliens” and “Armageddon”) and a small screen franchise which, for a time, was the most watched show on television (“The Walking Dead”). With such a list of credits, she seems like a fitting candidate for a best producer award, and is set to receive one such prize at the Locarno Film Festival this week.
Variety met with Hurd at the Swiss fest for a wide-ranging discussion covering gender equality, the Johansson-Disney lawsuit, and making sure “The Walking Dead” mothership series comes to a satisfying end.
What does it mean to be joining the illustrious list of producers who have received this award at Locarno?
When I looked up the previous recipients, what struck me most was that one of my mentors, Mike Medavoy, received this 10 years ago. He’s one of the people without whose support I wouldn’t be a producer today. It makes it even more meaningful. He was one of the people who greenlit “The Terminator” and the other film they’re showing, “Dick,” was a project he developed and partnered with me on. He financed it and I produced it. It’s a lot of luminaries that I don’t quite feel I measure up to, but I’m glad the people who run Locarno think so.
The award is given out to producers who epitomize a fierce indie spirit, would you say you’ve retained that throughout your career?
I would say I’ve retained a fierce spirit. And indie in the sense that I’ve tried very often in my career to push boundaries, whether that was within the studio system or without. A lot of my films were released by major studios, but had a lot of speed bumps along the way. Most of them were financed independently too, even though they were released by studios. I think it’s easy now to look back at the comic book films I did and say, “Well obviously we should make those,” but people weren’t making comic book movies back then, and now everyone wants them. To have a filmmaker like Ang Lee direct “The Hulk” was ahead of the times. Now, there are a lot of arthouse filmmakers directing comic book movies, but I think he was the first. Also, people always think “The Terminator” was adapted from a comic book, which of course it wasn’t. But it seems like it could have been a comic book.
You’ve said before the that “The Terminator” was only given that name in order to appease studio execs who were worried the main character was a woman. Would that still happen in today’s industry?
“The Terminator,” I think first of all, is an incredible name. I couldn’t have thought of a better one, but it does obscure the fact that it’s a love story about Sarah Connor and the man who crossed time to save her, and if he hadn’t done that she would not have had a child that led the human resistance against robots. But at the end of the day it’s a love story, and on top of that it’s a cool techno, thriller, action film.
It spawned a massive techno, thriller action franchise too. Have we seen the last “Terminator” film?
Honestly, I have no idea. I wasn’t involved in the last one. To give you some perspective, I used to have a scuba diving practice in Micronesia, and we found that they even screened “The Terminator,” albeit a bootleg video version, of one of the most remote islands in the world. The awareness is already built in, and I do think it’s a perennial with the right story with the right cast and the right direction. I think there could still be a potential future there.
As one of the most vocal proponents of gender equality in Hollywood, what would you say is the current state of affairs?
It depends on what you read. I think in television women are doing much better, certainly better than when I started making “The Walking Dead” in 2010. In 11 years there’s been enormous progress in diversity, both in leading roles and behind the camera, as well as in the writers’ room. I think with features, it’s harder with the bigger budget films. There’s still some sort of misconception that the bigger the budget, the more you need “a general” as a director. Even though there are female generals in militaries around the world, the first image you have is of a man. I think that’s beginning slowly to change, with people like Patty Jenkins directing. The higher budgeted films are not only being directed by woman now, but are being very successful at the box office starring women, and they are working internationally, not just in one particular territory.
What are your thoughts on the Scarlett Johansson and Disney lawsuit? There’s been a considerable backlash against her, would that have happened if one of the male Marvel leads filed the same claims?
Why should anyone be surprised? I heard Disney leaked her salary is $20 million, but why is that so surprising? She opens movies around the world, she is clearly someone who can do so with consistency, and no one questions male actors’ salaries. I do think that women are judged differently to men in the entertainment industry. Progress is going to take time, you don’t change people’s attitudes and their perceptions and the biases they already have overnight. However, we’re making a great deal of progress towards that. So many more films, whether they be “Nomadland” or “Wonder Woman,” are led by women and are proving successful. You have the DC universe starring women, the Marvel universe starring women, and then you have Oscar winners starring women.
Do you think parity will be achieved in the directing chair?
It’s very hard to say. I also don’t think that’s necessarily the definition of success. I think the definition is when we no longer have to talk about it. When Women in Film was founded in Los Angeles back in the 70s, the whole point was to have an organization that had an expiration date when you didn’t need it anymore. I’m hoping that within my lifetime I see that.
“The Walking Dead” is coming to a close, what can we expect from the final season and the franchise going forward?
Norman Reedus is always the person I’m happy to quote on this, and he has said there are some spectacular things coming up. I woke up this morning and looked at a cut of one of the episodes, and for people who love the fact that it is a character driven show and love these characters, they’ll be happy. There are some surprising alliances, there is surprising friction.
Then we’re doing a new series that follows Carol and Daryl, and it’s important to remember that the character of Daryl doesn’t come to the comic books, so it’s unique that he’s one of the most beloved. Norman brings him to life with such nuance and he’s so charismatic, but he’s committed so many years of his life to this franchise. When people say I can’t believe you killed off such and such a character, or that Andrew Lincoln is not on the show anymore, at a certain point, actors on the show have said, “I have other stories I need to tell,” or, “I have a young family, I live in England, and I need to be there in the morning and wake up to my children.” There are so many factors that go into storytelling and casting, but luckily almost everyone who’s ever been on the show wants to come back and have their story be told on “Tales of the Walking Dead.”
Andrew Lincoln is returning for a feature film too, but progress on that seems to have been a little slow.
When the series itself has such a large scope, you have to make sure that the scope of the film matches the demands of a theatrical audience, but also continues with the nuanced characters that people come to expect from the TV series. That’s why.
Last question, are you still working on the “Aeon Flux” live action series at MTV?
I wish I could say more. Just watch this space.