SPOTLIGHT January 2015: GAIL ANNE HURD, Producer Extraordinaire

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awfjspotlightsmallsmallThis month’s choice for AWFJ’s Spotlight is producer extraordinaire Gale Anne Hurd, 59, who decades ago smashed the gender barrier that existed in such genres as action and science fiction with ground-breaking cinematic efforts including the original Terminator trilogy and Aliens. Hurd has since expanded her sphere of influence to TV, as executive producer of the most-watched scripted drama among broadcast series, The Walking Dead, which is set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies. She will be honored with the Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick Achievement Award on Jan. 24. Read on…

gail annd hurd 2 croppedFirst Lady of Sci-fi

Known as the First Lady of Sci-fi, Hurd cultivated her taste for the supernatural and fantasy as a girl growing up in Palm Springs, Calif. “It’s arrested development,” she told The New York Times. “You have to go back to the literature that consumed me as a child.” That reading material ranged from The Lord of the Rings trilogy to derring-do comic books featuring the exploits of the Hulk, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.

After graduating from Stanford University, she would enter the world of low-budget filmmaking under the tutelage of B-movie king Roger Corman while climbing through the ranks at New World Pictures. That is where Hurd launched her career as a producer, starting with 1984’s sleeper hit The Terminator. She shared writing credit for the script about a killer cyborg from the future with director James Cameron. They would wed in 1985 and join forces again on Aliens (1986) and, post-divorce, The Abyss (1989).

Measuring Her Convictions

gail anne hurd 4 w cameron aliensShe told Stumped Magazine about the experience of collaborating with her first spouse, who would go on to make such box-office record breakers as 1997’s Titanic and 2009’s Avatar: “Jim Cameron and I made quite a few movies together, and I think working with him, he has always valued my honesty and I’m fearless. I think I’m nice, but I have a reputation for being very tough, because I am a person of convictions and if I believe – if I truly believe something’s wrong – I don’t know how to keep my mouth shut.”

She didn’t realize how unusual it was to be a female producer working on sci-fi action thrillers until she moved on to major studio titles. After toiling on Aliens for almost a year, she has recounted to Stumped how someone had the audacity to come up to her and say, “How can a little girl like you produce a big movie like this?” She added, “ It had never occurred to me that someone would question my gender, and because I was 5 foot 4.”

A brief marriage to director Brian De Palma (1991-93) would result in the 1992 psychological thriller Raising Cain. She then would wed her current husband, screenwriter/director Jonathan Hensleigh, in 1995. They worked together on both 1998’s Armageddon and his directing debut, 2004’s R-rated comic-book adaptation The Punisher.

Gentler Genres

gail anne hurd 3Despite her penchant for explosive mayhem-packed vehicles, Hurd is not averse to exploring gentler genres, such as 1992’s The Waterdance, an Independent Spirit Award-winning drama about a married woman (Helen Hunt) having an affair with a paraplegic (Eric Stoltz); 1999’s cult-fave Dick, a Watergate spoof about two naïve high-schoolers (Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst) who become Richard Nixon’s dog walkers; and this year’s Very Young Girls, a coming-of-age tale with Elizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning.

These days, Hurd is among the growing number of respected film veterans, including Steven Soderbergh (The Knick) and David Fincher (House of Cards), who are staking a claim both on cable TV and online outlets. She is involved in executive-producing a spinoff of The Walking Dead, now in its fifth season, starring Gone Girl’s intrepid detective Kim Dickens and set in the Los Angeles area rather than Georgia.

Her production company, Valhalla Motion Pictures, has a deal with Universal to develop TV and digital projects, including the just-announced Hunters, a 13-episode Syfy network series based on the novel Alien Hunters that will premiere in 2016.

gail anne hurd 5

Why we chose her: If any woman producer in Hollywood deserves to be saluted for her perseverance, continued success and ability to be relevant in an ever-changing world of entertainment, it is Hurd.

Much like the female action figures in her films that remain the standard for big-screen female warriors – namely, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner in the first two Terminator movies and Sigourney Weaver’s galactic bad-ass Ripley in Aliens — she is tough enough to survive the occasional bump in the road such as the critically slammed The Hulk from 2003 and Aeon Flux, a failed try to turn Charlize Theron into an action hero in a dystopian universe that came and went in 2005.

That Hurd has proven to be equally successful and influential in a different medium with The Walking Dead — based on a comic-book series — demonstrates that she still has a knack for being ahead of the curve in popular entertainment. The longtime zombie flick fan, she described to Rolling Stone why the hugely popular series stands out from other tales of the wandering undead: “The title doesn’t refer to the walkers. It refers to the survivors. That’s the key to the whole show right there.”

And if anyone deserves to be placed among the survivors, it is Hurd.

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Susan Wloszczyna

In her nearly 30 years at USA Today, Susan Wloszczyna interviewed everyone from Vincent Price and Shirley Temple to Julia Roberts and Will Smith. Her coverage specialties include animation, musicals, comedies and any film starring Hayley Mills, Sandy Dennis or hobbits. Her crowning career achievements so far, besides having Terence Stamp place his bare feet in her lap during an interview for The Limey, is convincing the paper to send her to New Zealand twice for set visits, once for The Return of the King and the other for The Chronicles of Narnia and King Kong, and getting to be a zombie extra and interview George Romero in makeup on the set for Land of the Dead. Though not impressive enough for Pulitzer consideration, she also can be blamed for coining the moniker "Frat Pack," often used to describe the comedy clique that includes Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Her positions have included Life section copy desk chief for four years and a film reviewer for 12 years. She is currently a contributor for the online awards site Gold Derby and is an Oscar expert for Previously, she has been a freelance film reporter and critic, contributing regularly to, MPAA’s The Credits, the Washington Post, AARP The Magazine online and Indiewire as well as being a book reviewer for The Buffalo News. She previously worked as a feature editor at the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A Buffalo native, she earned her bachelor's degree in English at Canisius College and a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.