As a producer of Aliens and the Terminator movies, Gale Anne Hurd has ushered humankind to salvation through the bleakest circumstances. Over the past twelve months, she’s faced more bloodshed of sorts, in real life. Frank Darabont, her co-executive producer (also a key writer, creator, director, and showrunner) on AMC’s The Walking Dead, was abruptly fired this summer. This, after the announcement late last year that a chunk of the series’ writing staff would not return. How will the zombie drama, AMC’s most popular program, survive this behind-the-scenes apocalypse? Vulture asks Hurd, who’s preparing to face the show’s most diehard contingency at this weekend’s New York Comic-Con, about The Walking Dead’s survival strategy.
That nod to The Walking Dead in Breaking Bad’s gory season finale was genius.
That was entirely AMC. They had that planned, but actually kept all of us in the dark. We just knew that [Walking Dead special makeup effects artist] Greg Nitocera and some of his team were going to be in Albuquerque on Breaking Bad, that he was creating some effect for them.
The victim, Gus Fring, looked like a cross between Two-Face and the Terminator, which is interesting, because you produced some Terminator films.
[Giggles.] There are multiple homages in there, I guess.
There’s been a lot of curiosity about this season for obvious reasons. We know new executive producer Glen Mazzara has a pedigree [The Shield, Hawthorne], but what makes him a good replacement for Frank Darabont?
Well, Glen wrote the fifth episode last season. So that was as we were finding our feet — we were really lucky. He wasn’t available last season, so he just did that freelance episode.
What is your relationship with Darabont now?
I’m totally close [to him]. That hasn’t changed — no, no. Frank basically made it clear that everyone associated with the show should continue and make sure that people knew that regardless of how difficult the transition might be, it wasn’t a situation where a showrunner was being brought in from the outside to change the direction and vision for the show.
Why did AMC fire him?
I have no idea. None.
Nothing precipitated this?
I have no idea. You’d have to ask AMC.
How did this affect the workplace? You can’t just pretend it didn’t happen.
[Slowly, choosing words carefully.] We didn’t lose any time in the shoot. We didn’t have to shut down. It’s a group of incredible professionals. You put your head down, and you go back to work. It was really difficult emotionally, but you carry on.
How has season two changed with Darabont’s departure and the shakeup in your writing staff previous to that?
I think what people interpreted [about the departing writers] was a bit off the mark. It’s not a lot of writing staff being different. And Glen brings his expertise, his life experience to the show. Of course, there are going to be subtle changes, but it’s a collaborative medium in which many people contribute. We started up the writers’ room in February. So they all worked together for most of the season.
How have AMC’s budgetary concerns affected the show?
[If] you’ve seen the show, I don’t think that you can say there’s any change between last season and this season. Whenever you’re starting up a show as difficult as this one — especially one that’s not shooting in Los Angeles — there are enormous start-up costs. Those were amortized over six episodes; now we have thirteen episodes. So the budget, the money we have to spend to make each episode, has not been affected as much as what one cost calls the amortization budget. It was much more expensive last year because of the start-up expenses, and because it’s much more expensive to produce six shows on location than thirteen.
Plot-wise, what’s going to be the biggest difference between season one and season two?
The first season was setting up the world, learning about it through Rick’s eyes ’cause obviously he was in a coma as the world was falling into the zombie apocalypse. This season we’re able to delve into each of the cast members: who they are, what their fears are, what their hopes are. Are they giving into despair? Are they willing to fight? Do they have an opportunity to fall in love?
Like the youngest character, Glenn, will finally get some action.
Yes! So there is this season new characters and that changes the group dynamic. And Glenn does find a love among the zombie apocalypse with Maggie.
Doesn’t his love affair get the survivors run off the farm where they’re staying?
I think you’ll have to watch to see. As you know from the first season, we don’t follow the books entirely. Like in the comics, Shane Walsh died very, very early on, and that obviously wasn’t the case [here]. You were asking about violence? There are a lot more threats this season, as you see in the first two episodes. And also when you introduce new characters, you have the fertile ground for humans that take on the role of villains. It’s not just the zombies.
Speaking of villains, it’s interesting how Daryl is the character who’s changed the most, morphing from redneck to leader. How does that happen?
He was always in his brother’s shadow. Now he can define himself. And truly, he’s got the strongest skill set to survive in this environment. He’s a survivalist. The rest are adapting to living without modern conveniences, but Daryl grew up that way.
Every so often there’s speculation that, like, Charlie Sheen or Thomas Jane will make an appearance on the series. Who’s lined up to guest-star?
Actually, we don’t have any. It’s difficult to suspend disbelief and buy into what we think is a very character-driven show if you’re spending your time playing Spot the Zombie.