Interview: 'The Walking Dead' producer Gale Anne Hurd
When it comes to credibility among sci-fi and horror movie fans, it's hard to do better than Gale Anne Hurd. She co-wrote the first "Terminator" film (and executive produced all of them), and has been a producer on "Aliens," "The Abyss," "Alien Nation," "Tremors," both recent Hulk films (odds are you liked one or the other) and a lot more.
Hurd's TV resume is skimpier - one season of the syndicated drama "Adventure Inc." with Michael Biehn - but she should make a much bigger splash with her new project, the zombie epic "The Walking Dead," which debuts on AMC on Halloween night at 10 p.m.
Based on the long-running comic book series by Robert Kirkman, "The Walking Dead" tells the story of Kentucky cop Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who's shot in the line of duty, goes into a coma and wakes up to discover that zombies have overrun the world, with only small pockets of frightened and angry human survivors left. Hurd helped writer/director Frank Darabont find a home for the project after he'd spent five years unsuccessfully trying to sell it. And the two of them - working with a large creative team that includes acclaimed horror makeup master Greg Nicotero and Robert Kirkman himself - have had to figure out how to make the zombie apocalypse work for TV, which parts of Kirkman's opus to fit into the six episodes that will comprise the first season (and when to deviate from the text), and a lot more.
I spoke with Darabont about the project back at Comic-Con, and last week I got on the phone with Hurd to get her take on "The Walking Dead":
When I was at Comic-Con I sat down with Frank for a little while to talk about the genesis of this and he told me about how he first found the graphic novel in the comic book store and spent 5 years banging his head against a wall trying to sell it to somebody. And then he happened to be talking to you and you had the idea to take it to AMC, so I’m wondering what it was that attracted you to the material, and then why you thought AMC was the place?
First of all, I am a comic book and genre geek from way back. When a colleague here at my company first showed me the comic book, I started reading, couldn’t put it down, I went out and bought the first compendium, and the next one, and I was hooked. So it already seemed perfectly ready-made for a television series - the post-apocalyptic drama with zombies that never ends, as Robert Kirkman calls it. And it so happened that when I researched the rights I found that Frank had had the rights for a period of time and he’s someone who’s a very close friend of mine and my husband’s. And I contacted him and he said, "This has been really tough. We’ve tried and it just didn’t seem to gain any attraction." And I thought that was shocking, at least to me, that something that is so obviously so right for cable television wasn’t on TV, that there hadn’t even been a series about zombies. And simultaneously our company had been in touch with the creative team at AMC talking about different ideas about series and they said they were interested in genre because of their Fearfest block of programming, which is airing right now and leading up to Halloween. And after I got the permission from Frank and from Robert Kirkman to run the idea past AMC, they brought us in last October. We pitched them and they said to Frank, "We want you to write a pilot." It was the perfect marriage of material and studio and network.
What would you say have been the biggest challenges of adapting Kirkman’s work to the screen either in terms of just things on the page not automatically translated or working within a TV budget and still creating a plausible zombie apocalypse? What’s been the hardest part?
I think it really is a combination of having such a breadth of material and so many compelling characters, that at least with the first six (episodes) charting not only how much of what is in the first few issues of the comic book we’re going to tackle, but also where we veer off and, and how we strengthen the drama that’s already on the page. And also establish the zombie apocalypse, as you say, in a TV budget. You know and the pilot we shot in 14 days and the rest of the series in 8.
You shot the second episode (which features a lot of zombie extras and several complicated action set pieces) in 8 days?
That was about 8-1/2 days, yeah.
Yeah, yeah. I mean really huge props to Michelle MacLaren who directed it.
Logistically, how do you pull something like that episode off, with all these extras and the makeup and everything going on? That would just seem like a nightmare to me.
Well not only that -100-degree heat and a 99% humidity. It really is like going to war. I think that analogy is everyone has to be battle-ready. And you simply do not have the option of making mistakes. You have to get it right the first time and you have to move on. And honestly, Michelle was in overdrive. She was a force of nature, leading the company, leading the battalion.
I want to talk a little bit about what you said before about the points where the story veers off. Certainly the second episode is quite a bit different from what’s happening to Rick in the comic book at that point. More characters, different incidents. Frank talked to me a little bit about that. What’s your philosophy in terms of when and why you feel you need to add things to the spine of the comic?
First of all, we all agreed up front - and that is Frank, Robert Kirkman, myself and AMC - that the comic book series was the rich source material, but we were not doing a panel-by-panel adaptation of the comic book. We had an opportunity to, say, keep people alive that, Robert may have killed off pretty early in the comic book. We have the opportunity at the same time of not having certain characters enter the story when they do in the comic book. And we also can pursue other avenues in terms of locations and storylines that Robert has not yet gotten to in the comic book. And it was all essentially to make it as character driven and emotionally resonate as possible. We’re on the network of “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” and “Rubicon”, and they have a strong history of morally complicated characters. So we’re really able to delve into a morally and epically complicated world and the characters that inhabit it.
Well, let’s talk specifically about episode two, I’m just curious about how you made the decisions there. In the comics, the story is just Rick and Glen and pretty quick. Here, there’s a whole bunch of other people and more happens. What was the thinking behind you saying, "All right, we need to introduce these people now"?
We have 6 episodes in the first season and if you spent 2 episodes not having introduced part of our cast of characters other than Rick and Glen, you put yourself in a position of trying to fit those stories in 4 episodes. So it seemed like a way to be true to the underlying material from the comic book while at the same time getting to know some of the survivors earlier than you would and in a comic book series that, you know, is 80 issues at this point.
Beyond the simple fact that this is hopefully an on-going series that, as you said, has the never-ending zombie apocalypse, what is it that you think sets this story apart from the many other zombie stories or is it simply that never-ending nature of it?
I think the sense that humans are often more dangerous and more unpredictable than the zombies. It’s something that resonates very profoundly throughout Robert Kirkman’s comic books. That’s not always the case in other staples of the genre.
How did you come to find and decide on Andy Lincoln?
We did the traditional search. And huge credit to AMC; they didn’t want to cast off the list of people with a high TV-Q, that already had a following. They felt it was it was even more important to find a Rick, at least to US audiences, it wasn’t so identifiable with another role, so that he really could become Rick. We, at this point, probably auditioned I would say at least 100 people for the role. We’d auditioned in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. Essentially anywhere where people speak English. And Andy was actually the last person to audition and we were getting to the point where we were wondering if we could even continue not having found our Rick. And then lo and behold, the audition is posted on our casting website and everyone - Frank, myself, Robert Kirkman and AMC - said, "Oh my God. This guy really has promise." So Frank got on the phone with him while Andy was still in the U.K. and gave him some direction. He auditioned again. We loved it and we brought him over to the U.S. and he had the glorious chance of auditioning in Frank’s garage along with John Bernthal who we’d already cast as Shane. Which I think was an untraditional way to go as well to cast Shane before Rick.
In the comic, everyone is a talker, but Rick especially talks a lot - a lot of speeches, a lot of monologues and things, and certainly in the pilot especially but also in the second episode, he becomes much more a man of few words. Is that just a case of you can’t be putting that much dialogue into the mouth of a flesh and blood character?
In the initial discussions that we had with Frank, he said that if any actor living or dead could play Rick, it’d be Gary Cooper. And I think that Andy Lincoln inhabits the role of Rick and you get who he is without having to have him talk a great deal. Although in upcoming episodes, he does have a bit more to say.
Ordinarily a cable season will be 12 or 13 episodes, and you've got 6. How much of a challenge, given the vast amount of material you had to draw from in the comics, was it to come up with 6 hours worth of story that you're going to tell and it’s going to be satisfying to people, regardless of whenever or whether you come back?
Gale:We didn’t want to look at this as, "Okay, this is just 6 and we’ll treat it like a limited series." We wanted it to be open-ended but still have the feeling of the close of the season. And we had a lot of discussions as to how much we wanted to cover from the comic book and if we wanted some clear end points for a potential season in the comic book. And we made some conscious decisions to let (fans) then speculate as to where we might end and hopefully have a few surprises up our sleeve. But always feeling that this is true to the universe that Robert Kirkman created and with his complete collaboration. And Robert's been involved every step of the way in terms of the season or like writing episode 4, approving all the casting, being on-set, and also giving notes in post-production.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org