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June 01
2023

ISSUE

Summer 2023

VES LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT HONOREE GALE ANNE HURD: CELEBRATING SHEROES IS HER SUPERPOWER

By NAOMI GOLDMAN

Images courtesy of Gale Anne Hurd, except 21st VES Awards photos by Danny Moloshok, Phil McCarten and Josh Lefkowitz.

Gale Anne Hurd strikes a shero pose.

Gale Anne Hurd strikes a shero pose.

From the legendary Lt. Ellen Ripley battling aliens in deep space to the unwitting target of an unstoppable robotic assassin, to a group of survivors in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, Gale Anne Hurd has brought forth iconic characters and cinematic experiences that have transported and transfixed audiences worldwide. One of the most respected and influential film and television producers of our generation, acclaimed producer-writer Hurd has been instrumental in shaping popular culture for nearly four decades. And in the process, she has revolutionized action cinema and delivered transformational depictions of women on screen.

Hurd is one of the entertainment industry’s most prolific producers of film and TV projects that shatter both box office and ratings records. After rising from Roger Corman’s executive assistant to head of marketing at his company, New World Pictures, Hurd’s producing career took off when she co-wrote and produced The Terminator. Her unprecedented success was quickly followed by Aliens, which received seven nominations and two Academy Awards, and additional Academy Award winning films including The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Ghost and the Darkness and Armageddon. When Hurd entered the television industry, she met similar success in shepherding juggernaut The Walking Dead and serving in producing roles on Fear the Walking Dead, Talking Dead and Tales of the Walking Dead. Her latest documentary, The You Tube Effect, a cautionary tale on the impact of social media, will be distributed this summer.

In recognition of her enormous contributions to visual arts and filmed entertainment and the advancement of unforgettable storytelling through cutting-edge visual effects, Hurd was honored at the 21st Annual VES Awards with the Lifetime Achievement Award. In presenting the award, filmmaker James Cameron celebrated Hurd as a ‘true gale… a force of nature.’

On that note, Hurd was visibly moved in accepting her award in front of an audience of more than 1000 VFX artists and practitioners at the awards ceremony: “This is one of the proudest moments of my life. That little girl sitting in a movie theater staring wide-eyed at the extraordinary images on the big screen, never dreaming that one day she’d be producing them herself, is still in awe of the magic you create, each and every day. You are my heroes, and to receive your Lifetime Achievement Award is more meaningful than you could possibly imagine. And to be presented the award by Jim – we grew up in the industry together – and to have it be an evening where Avatar got such accolades – was literally perfection.”

VFX Voice sat down with trailblazer Gale Anne Hurd to talk about breaking barriers, her love of craft and celebrating heroic women – on and off screen.

Hurd and Jim Cameron on the set of Academy Award-winner The Abyss.

Hurd and Jim Cameron on the set of Academy Award-winner The Abyss.

VFXV: Tell us about your origin story what were your early sources of inspiration that led you to your career in filmed entertainment?

Hurd: I was an early reader, and I read every science fiction and horror book I could get my hands on. So much so, that the Palm Springs Library asked me to be their consultant and help them acquire books for young people. I even wrote a column for the local paper and wrote sci-fi and fantasy book reviews.

I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have TV that aired both chiller and thriller movies. My local movie theater was essentially my weekend babysitter. I’d watch double features each and every Saturday and Sunday. I was a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen’s work, in particular Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and I think he was my first visual effects artist/hero/crush. There have been countless since then, but you always remember your first…!

Hurd and Jim Cameron promoting their sci-fi sequel Aliens.

Hurd and Jim Cameron promoting their sci-fi sequel Aliens.

Hurd consults with Charlize Theron on the set of Aeon Flux.

Hurd consults with Charlize Theron on the set of Aeon Flux.

Hurd with feminist icon Gloria Steinem and director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl.

Hurd with feminist icon Gloria Steinem and director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl.

Hurd on the set of The Terminator with Linda Hamilton.

Hurd on the set of The Terminator with Linda Hamilton.

Hurd meeting with director Ang Lee on the set of The Hulk.

Hurd meeting with director Ang Lee on the set of The Hulk.

Hurd on the set of Aliens with Sigourney Weaver.

Hurd on the set of Aliens with Sigourney Weaver.

Hurd with mentor and friend filmmaker Roger Corman.

Hurd with mentor and friend filmmaker Roger Corman.

VFXV: What most captivates you about the action-adventure genre?

Hurd: I was always an adrenaline junkie and love sharing the theater experience. It’s an art to tell a story that engages many different audiences and finds a way to make them identify with the character in jeopardy and root for them. There is nothing better than being in a dark theater with an audience on the edge of their seats who are cheering, screaming as an integrated part of the experience.

If you boil down the story I strive to tell over and over, it’s of ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and find the strength within themselves that they never knew they had, to succeed and overcome… and in some cases, save the world!

Hurd and the cast of The Walking Dead celebrating its 100th episode.

Hurd and the cast of The Walking Dead celebrating its 100th episode.

VFXV: What was your pathway from school to your first job in the film industry?

Hurd: At Stanford, I studied economics, political science and communications. It was my original intent to be a marine biologist, but I realized I would never do well enough in math and science, so I embraced the social sciences. I had a seminal event in my junior year when I was part of the Stanford in Britain program. I fell in love with British film and broadcasting and knew what I wanted my future path to look like.

During my college years at Stanford University, I was lucky enough to have the late producer Julian Blaustein as my mentor. He and I bonded over our mutual love for science fiction. Julian produced the original The Day the Earth Stood Still and was one of the few producers at the time who valued sci-fi as an art form in which to tell powerful stories.

Hurd consults with Jeffrey Dean Morgan on the set of The Walking Dead.

Hurd consults with Jeffrey Dean Morgan on the set of The Walking Dead.

“I want people to see themselves and especially women in a different and ‘enlightened’ light. Not victims cowering in a corner waiting to be saved by an alpha male. There is a rich tapestry of roles that women can and are playing in real life as well as in film and TV. I’m inspired by what we’re seeing here with diverse and older actresses coming to the forefront. They have been doing that for years in British cinema with rich roles for Dame Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. But what’s different now in actresses being lauded in the U.S. [such as Michelle Yeoh and Viola Davis] is that the roles are rather transformative.”

—Gale Anne Hurd

Hurd in Peru for her Amazonanthology series Lore.

Hurd in Peru on a tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Hurd in Prague for her Amazon anthology series Lore.

Hurd in Prague for her Amazon anthology series Lore.

For a film class my senior year, I chose to write my final paper on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that touched on its groundbreaking visual effects. As fate would have it, Roger Corman hired me after reading my thesis on 2001: A Space Odyssey, clearly disregarding my less than stellar personal interview with him. So you could say that my fascination with visual effects was instrumental in my Hollywood career from Day 1 and you’d be 100% correct.

VFXV: You have been credited with ushering in the era of strong female protagonists. What did it take to get the industry to support films with “sheroes” in the lead?

Hurd: There were a lot of early challenges in getting the industry to support women as heroes in the lead; Jim [Cameron] and I were lucky that The Terminator was the success it was. At its heart, the movie really is the story of Sarah Connor, and it was wonderful to tell that story through the female gaze. The Kyle Reese moment with Sarah – ‘I came across time for you Sarah, I love you, I always have’ – is one of my favorite lines, but we knew better than to sell it as a love story. We had everything stacked against us and prepared like we were defending our dissertation. We knew it was an easier sell as The Terminator with an unstoppable villain at the center point. Yes, it was sold as the story of the robotic soldier and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it was her story.

With Aliens, we were lucky, because the only character left alive was Ellen Ripley, brought to power by Sigourney Weaver… So if there was going to be a continuation, it would either be her… or the cat! I hope audiences take away from seeing strong women on screen, that women are capable of living their own truths and being the protagonists of their own stories.

Jim Cameron presents Hurd with the VES Lifetime Achievement Award.

Jim Cameron presents Hurd with the VES Lifetime Achievement Award.

VFXV: As we’re celebrating Women’s History Month, why was Wilma Mankiller a subject you wanted to focus on in a documentary? And what drew you to produce True Whispers: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers and Choctaw Code Talkers?

Hurd: The road to making these documentaries was rich and inspiring. I reached out to a Native American woman director, Valerie Red-Horse, about working with me on a documentary on Navajo Code Talkers and their service during World War II. I had read a terrific script when I was Chair of the Nichols Screenwriting Committee at The Academy. When we went to the Navajo Nation and asked for support from the Navajo Code Talkers Association, they said ‘Please tell our real story.’ So we got financing from ITVS, and PBS and made a well-received documentary. What was most rewarding was to see these code talkers, these men who had to keep their service classified for all these years, finally lauded by young people. That project led to our making of the documentary on the Choctaw Code Talkers.

Then the Cherokee Nation proposed a documentary on Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. I had never heard of her and that shocked me. As someone interested in women’s studies and leaders, the fact that there was such an amazing woman recognized around the world that I didn’t know about – I was compelled to take this on. We raised most of the funding for MANKILLER on Kickstarter – and wow, the cast of The Walking Dead and the Indigo Girls helped immensely by providing great rewards to donors. I’m proud that our film helped bring national recognition for Wilma, who is now rightly emblazoned on the U.S. quarter coin.

Hurd accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 21st Annual VES Awards.

Hurd accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 21st Annual VES Awards.

Hurd backstage at the VES Awards flanked by VES Executive Director Nancy Ward and VES Chair Lisa Cooke.

Hurd backstage at the VES Awards flanked by VES Executive Director Nancy Ward and VES Chair Lisa Cooke.

VFXV: You’re known for embracing daring material. What is the essential “it” in taking on a new project?

Hurd: Whether it’s Wilma Mankiller or The Walking Dead, I return to similar themes when seeking out new projects. Since I am such a hands-on producer, I have to make a visceral decision to leap and dedicate so much of my time to projects so that I don’t regret that choice later. That’s my first litmus test. I really like telling stories of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances in new ways. I love examining the human condition and posing the question that the audience is thinking – ‘What would I do in that situation?’

I want people to see themselves and especially women in a different and ‘enlightened’ light. Not victims cowering in a corner waiting to be saved by an alpha male. There is a rich tapestry of roles that women can and are playing in real life as well as in film and TV. I’m inspired by what we’re seeing here with diverse and older actresses coming to the forefront. They have been doing that for years in British cinema with rich roles for Dame Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. But what’s different now in actresses being lauded in the U.S. [such as Michelle Yeoh and Viola Davis] is that the roles are rather transformative.

When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion and the ‘state of women’ in the business, here’s the thing: Socially, culturally, even to this day and from my own experience, women are taught not to stand out or speak up. And we are criticized when we do. Women are more frequently interrupted in meetings and quieted when we are the ‘interrupters,’ and at a certain point, subconsciously, you absorb that and adapt. We often see ourselves differently and sell ourselves short.

I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without mentors who not only believed in me, but pushed and challenged me, and encouraged me to value myself and continue – even when I wasn’t feeling likely to succeed. From the beginning, I always wanted to work with women in every capacity and recognize and support talent. I’m hoping that with strong mentorship and the success of films and TV series that feature strong women and non-traditional heroes in front and behind the camera, our collective influence will grow and make an impact on everyone our work touches.

VFXV: What excites you about using visual effects technology to advance character-driven and highly visual storytelling?

Hurd: What I love about VFX and where it’s going – it can be used to make sets safer, and that should be a top priority on film and TV shoots. And it can be used to broaden our horizons so that a filmmaker can bring anything they can imagine clearly on the screen and be real enough for audiences to suspend their disbelief and feel they are engaged with a character or immersed in an environment – not an effect. I love that filmmakers like Jim [Cameron] and Guillermo del Toro constantly embrace innovation, and as a result are giving people a reason to go back to movie theaters and see bold visual storytelling done like never before.



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