"Making movies really is like being a kid in a candy store..."
Date: September, 2004
By: Richard Matthews
From The Terminator and Aliens to Tremors, Armageddon and Hulk, Gale Ann Hurd has produced some of the biggest and best sci-fi/fantasy movies ever to hit the screen. On the eve of the UK release of her latest offering, The Punisher, Richard Matthews asks the award-winning filmmaker about her prolific career...
"Role model? God - that sounds so boring!" notes Gale Ann Hurd, when asked if she would like to be considered an example to aspiring female filmmakers. "I'd rather consider myself a pioneer than a role model." Nevertheless, Hurd is both.
A hugelt successfull producer of blockbuster sci-fi movies ranging from The Terminator and Aliens to Armageddon and Hulk, Hurd has a track record envied by her competitors. And in a notoriously male-dominated industry, she - along with the likes of Kathleen Kennedy and Kathryn Bigelow - has forged a path that has opened doors and illustrates that women can make 'big movies' just as well as the guys.
Her latest venture is a big-screen adaption of Marvel Comics' vigilante saga The Punisher. Written and directed by Hurd's husband, Jonathan Hensleigh, The Punisher is a mid-budget and more down-to-Earth film than her last movie, the mega-budget Hulk, but Hurd thrives on variety. She began her career working for B-movie producer Roger Corman on micro-budget genre knock-offs in the early 1980s, and today she prides herself on being able to maintain the highest standard of film regardless of budget, production or profile.
Hurd received a Lifetime of Cinematic Achievement Award from the American National Board of Review at the start of this year, and she is regarded as one of Hollywood's most prolific producers. But from Hurd's perspective, the real measure of her success in Hollywood is her continued ability to get her movies made and up on the screen...
Dreamwatch: The Punisher is your 25th feature film as a producer. With its modest $32 million budget and action-packed script, it seems reminiscent of the movies you made in the 1980s, like Terminator...
It's more intense. That works for the character. The Punisher movie is inspired by the Year One comic-book, as well as Welcome Back Frank. It's about an intense character in a very dark world. But at the same time, there are moments of levity and that was also true of Terminator and Aliens ans some of the other movies that I did with Jim (Cameron, Hurd's ex-husband).
The aim was to deliver an exciting and dark interpretation of the comic-book. The Punisher has always been one of the darker characters in the Marvel universe and I've been thrilled by people's responses to the movie.
Before The Punisher, you produced the big-budget comic-strip movie Hulk. Is making a smaller budget film more demanding than working on a blockbuster?
I started out working for Roger Corman, and I think the largest budget he has ever had was $2 million for Battle Beyond The Stars, which had 400 visual effects. So I probably had the perfect training to be able to deliver incredible entertainment value for a reasonable price. Hopefully I will never lose that ability. The harder thing really is that when you have a bigger budget film, obviously the film needs to gross more to be successful.
You do seem drawn to sci-fi projects. What is it about genre films that appeals to you so much?
When I was growing up I was obsessed with science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy and horror. It's something that I never outgrew. I was lucky enough to enter the film industry at a time when those fantastical worlds could be brought to the screen. The technology had once again caught up.
When you think about it, the film industry actually began with films like King Kong, Thief of Baghdad and other great flights of fantasy, and then we lost that for a while and they were relegated to B-movies. Then they became A-movies again. I was very lucky in terms of timing that the films that I had always wanted to make were no longer B-movies but the movies that the audiences wanted to see and the studios wanted to finance.
I was also fortunate that I started working for Roger Corman because in the 1970s and the early 1980s for a woman to be working in science-fiction action-adventure was pretty much unheard of. While I was working for Roger, it was no impediment being a woman, and he was embracing the science-fiction, horror and action-adventure genres when I was working for him. That gave me all the skills and the track record, so that when I did make The Terminator I had credibility, and the bond company and financiers believed that I could deliver the movie.
You had a wide and varied career. What have been your personal highlights so far?
I'd say Terminator because it was my first film and it was certainly a sleeper hit. Then there was a film that departed from genre, The Waterdance. It was a critical success - it won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and it won the Independant Feature Projects Spirit Award for Best Screenplay and Best First Feature Film. And it cost $2.7 million. I'm also still incredibly proud of Hulk. I think that Ang did an amazing job and hopefully it will be re-discovered.
Were you surprised when Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected as the Governor of California?
Arnold told Jim and I within the first few months of meeting him that he was going to be in politics. And if you knew Arnold, even back then, you knew that whatever dreams he had, he was going to achieve them!
What are your future ambitions?
To continue to make films that I'm proud of and to continue each time I make a movie as I was the first time, when I fot The Terminator made. Making movies really is like being a kid in a candy store and anyone who fails to feel that kind of excitement should pursue a different line of work! We are so lucky to be able to work in an industry with so many talented writers, directors, actors and all of the crafts people who work so hard on the films. I can find something positive in every filmmaking experience I've had, regardless of the box office or the critical reviews. And where popular entertainment is concerned, I think the audience decides for themselves.
How did you feel when you won the National Board of Review Award?
It was very exciting, especially to get it with Cristine Vachon and Kathleen Kennedy. That's a testament to how far women have come. When I was starting out it was hard to name two or three other women producers and now we regularly show up on the lists of producers who have films nominated for Oscars, or whose films have been number one at the box office. It's tremendous that it's no longer an anomaly.
What can you tell us about the next project, Aeon Flux?
It stars Charlize Theron and is directed by Karyn Kusama, who directed Girl Fight. I'm excited because I have been working in this since 1991, and it's great to finally be making the movie rather than talking about it!
There's been a lot of talk about a possible sequel to Hulk. If there is one, what form will it take?
Hulk was always intended as an origin story. And it was a movie about rage and where the rage comes from to create a Hulk.
We always intended that a sequel would be very different, because it can deal with what most people think of the Hulk, which is the whole wish fulfilment aspect: "Wouldn't it be great if...". We could take the great line of "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry...", but play it on the lighter side. You can't do that when you're doing an origin story about a child remembering how his father was trying to kill him and how his mother saved him and was, in the process, killed herself. That's a dark origin.
Are you going to be working in television again after Adventure, Inc?
We are developing a number of things right now, but nothing that's going to be coming to a television near you within the next few months. We just started the division. Right now I'm working on a series based on Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, which is a fabulous book, for the US Sci Fi channel.
What would you say are the trademarks of a Gale Ann Hurd production?
I think from a story perspective the films generally follow oridinairy people who are caught up in extraordinairy circumstances and then find the strength, to overcome evil, and to survive. In terms of the look, hopefully my films have enormous production values regardless of budget.
Appendix: Seen and Hurd
Gale Ann Hurd offers a personal review of her biggest genre movies...
- The Terminator
"The Terminator was where it all began. I remember being told by executives at Orion, two weeks before it came out, that it was a down-and-dirty exploitation film that wouldn't last. It was thrilling to prove them wrong!"
"Working on Aliens was an honour for me, as a sci-fi horror fan. Ridley Scott's original film is one of my favourite genre movies, and I welcomed the opportunity to make a sequel rather than a remake of his classis picture."
- Alien Nation
"It was a terrific experience working with such consummate actors as James Caan and Mandy Patinkin."
- The Abyss
"The Abyss was such a difficult shoot. We had a favourite saying on the set: 'Life's abyss, and then you dive.' Nonetheless, the film stands up today, and ILM's 3-D CGI water snake effect for the NTI broke new ground in visual effects."
"That was another cult classic that at first didn't make an enormous amount at the box office, but has lasted."
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day
"It was my first film to be number one at the worldwide box office, which was surprising and thrilling."
- The Relic
"It was absolutely terrific to work with Tom Sizemore in a romantic leading role. And (director) Peter Hyams has become one of my closest friends."
"That was the first time I got to collaborate with my husband. (The Punisher writer-director) Jonathan Hensleigh. It proved the nay-sayers wrong and went on the become the number one film at the box office that year.
"It was fun to make a film that my daughter could see - one that wasn't rated 'R'. It was also an absolute delight to work with (director) Jonathan Frakes, who's probably the nicest man alive."
- Adventure, Inc.
"I had a fabulous time working with Michael Biehn. To do 22 episodes with Michael was absolutely worth it."
- Terminator 3
"I was less involved in Terminator 3 because I was making Hulk at the time. I kept a godmotherly eye on the project. It was exciting to see the series continue."