Welcome to the “Women of Action” series, a week-long deep dive into five landmark action films made by female filmmakers. The idea here is to fill an important gap in discourse — both pop and academic — that’s dominated by analysis of how women are represented on screen in action films. Instead, I’ll be unpacking the creative influence that these five filmmakers have had behind the camera. Far too often, writers have fixated on what women look like in the action genre — how about talking about what action movies made by women look like?
It’s apt timing, coinciding with the release of the sci-fi action flick The Old Guard on Netflix this week, starring Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, it’s the first big-budget, star-driven action film directed by a Black woman, making it a landmark film in its own right.
Every day this week, I’m taking a look at one female filmmaker who has made a groundbreaking action film, as producers, auteurs, upstarts and finally, as breakthroughs, and attempting to outline their creative influence and impact on the genre, in some of the most notable (one way or the other) action films ever made. (If you’re interested, here’s a Letterboxd list of every film I watched or rewatched for research.)
The list includes:
- Gale Anne Hurd, producer, The Terminator
- Kathryn Bigelow, director, Point Break
- Karyn Kusama, director, Æon Flux
- Lexi Alexander, director, Punisher: War Zone
- Patty Jenkins, director, Wonder Woman
Analyzing these films means analyzing the careers of each filmmaker, and doing so has been a journey into the heart of darkness in Hollywood. Repeated characters have made appearances, like James Cameron, who looms large, and Theron, who is a frequent collaborator. In the process of writing these, I kept turning up more and more pioneering female filmmakers whose influence deserved to be discussed, including Rachel Talalay, who directed the loopy comic book adaptation Tank Girl in 1995, capturing something undeniable in the zeitgeist with the film’s attitude and style (production designed by future Twilight helmer Catherine Hardwicke, who also could have had her own entry with the blockbuster vampire romance). Despite having two other genre features under her belt (Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and The Ghost in the Machine), Talalay has mostly been working in TV for the latter part of her career.
We also must salute the Oscar-winning editor of Mad Max: Fury Road, Margaret Sixel, who had never cut an action film before her husband, George Miller, delivered her 480 hours of wild desert car chase footage. Sixel crafted that into one of the cleanest, most-breathtakingly exciting two hours of action filmmaking ever seen (starring Theron), and Fury Road is widely considered to be one of the best action films of all time — certainly one of the best edited.
One of the most troubling narratives that kept cropping up throughout was the ways in which female filmmakers have had to compromise their visions to navigate working in this space, whether that was from the outset; in terms of what kinds of films they were able to get greenlit; or at the end, sacrificing final cut to studio demands. We also have to acknowledge and reckon with the harsh consequences that female directors have faced after making films that may have been critical or commercial failures. All too often, women are still seen as the “risky” hire, and if a project doesn’t hit, they have suffered the burden of blame and director’s jail in ways their male counterparts have not.
Not every one of these films is a classic, but they’re each incredibly instructive for understanding the nuances of the action genre, and how different female filmmakers approach a traditionally masculine genre in terms of theme and style. The behind-the-scenes stories, too, help to illustrate the challenges of the industry and the uneven playing field that female directors have faced working in the genre. There’s also cause to celebrate, too.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed researching and writing it, because let’s face it, these movies are, at the end of the day, fun as hell.
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We’re starting the series with a filmmaker personally and professionally connected to almost every filmmaker on this list (it’s a very small world), and who is, in part, responsible for the modern era of action filmmaking. Producer Gale Anne Hurd is a legend in the industry, and especially in the action and genre space. Although currently best known for producing The Walking Dead TV franchise through her company, Valhalla Entertainment, she made her name producing The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day with her ex-husband and former collaborator, James Cameron.
In 2012, Hurd received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Cameron was on hand to offer support, declaring, “She smashed down doors and blazed a trail for a generation of women in Hollywood to come through those doors after her. … She’s The Terminator of producers.” An even greater recognition in her field came in 2015 with the David O. Selznick Achievement Award, presented at the Producers Guild Awards. In awarding her, PGA chairs Todd Black and Ryan Murphy called her a “trailblazer,” saying that her early films “created the template for a generation of action films. Her subsequent work has pushed well beyond the boundaries of any one genre.”
She has, in every sense, acted as a shepherd — the producer who discovered and guided Cameron through the first major films of his career, including three of the greatest action films of all time (Terminator, Aliens and T2), with an influence that continues to reverberate throughout the genre. Hurd also produced two of the later entries on this list, Æon Flux, directed by Karyn Kusama, and Punisher: War Zone, directed by Lexi Alexander. She’s also tangentially connected to Kathryn Bigelow, through their consecutive marriages to and collaborations with Cameron.
Hurd’s team turned down an interview for this project, and both Kusama and Alexander declined to speak on the record about working with Hurd, so the details of her working style are still, in many ways, a mystery, having rarely been elaborated upon in any profiles or interviews. We do know that the SoCal native graduated from Stanford with a degree in economics and communication and soon went to work as an assistant for legendary B-movie maestro Roger Corman, where she got a full education in film production on the job. As she told Interview in 2017, working for Corman, “One day I would be casting a film, another day I could be out location scouting and the next day I’d be looking at a director’s rough cut and preparing notes.” She worked in marketing and development before negotiating with Corman to get on set — Hurd had no female producer role models at that time, saying that prior to working for Corman, “I saw my future in an office, maybe capping out at director of development.”
But Hurd has also attributed success to her friendships with colleagues in Hollywood. She forged a lifelong friendship with the late Debra Hill, John Carpenter’s writing partner, producer, and ex, whom Hurd met through the fledgling Women in Film organization in the 1970s. Hurd says she and Hill, “bonded over our love of science fiction, fantasy and horror. There weren’t a lot of women in that space back in the 1970s and 1980s.” Hurd had grown up a genre fan, as she explained to Lesley Goldberg at The Hollywood Reporter in 2013: “My older brother always had comics. I started reading them when I was 4 or 5. I was an avid reader of science fiction and horror.”
In order to discern Hurd’s creative influence in her early films, I’ve had to largely read between the lines in descriptions of Cameron’s career. In Rebecca Keegan’s 2010 book The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron, she describes how, in 1979, Hurd walked into the New World Pictures’ model shop at the behest of Corman to check on the sets for his Star Wars homage, Battle Beyond the Stars. There, Hurd met a tall, blond Canadian who had been working in the shop for only a few days, but already seemed in charge.
This was James Cameron, who had been hired based on the low-budget effects he’d pulled off for a short film he’d made, Xenogenesis. Impressed by his confidence and abilities, Hurd suggested he be promoted to art director when their Universal Studios-recommended hire didn’t pan out. Cameron went on to design Corman’s Alien tribute, Galaxy of Terror, and finagled his way into directing the second unit on that film too.
Cameron’s first directing job was a nightmarish experience on a film called Piranha II: The Spawning, a gig for which he was hired merely to be ceremoniously kicked off so that the producer, Ovidio Assonitis, could take over. During post-production, Cameron flew himself to Rome to watch a cut and see if any of the scenes he’d shot were decent. Broke and living off purloined hotel dinner rolls, he’d break into the editing suite at night and recut the footage. It was during this time that he fell ill and dreamt of a robotic torso emerging from an explosion, dragging itself across the floor with knives. That dream image became the inspiration for The Terminator, and when Cameron returned to California, he holed up to bang out a treatment.
Cameron ended up co-writing the script with his old friend William Wisher. His agent hated it, so in overly-confident Cameron fashion, he fired his agent. But he found a believer in Hurd, who in 1982, at the age of 27, had started her own production company, Pacific Western Productions (she added a B-movie arm, No Frills, in 1988, and in 2000, her empire became Valhalla Entertainment).
Hurd optioned The Terminator script for a dollar, with a promise, or “blood oath,” that Cameron would direct. It was a dramatic gamble for the fiery young director, but Hurd backed him when financiers tried to push him out, and the gamble paid off — he has a career — but it didn’t pay out: Cameron hasn’t seen any profits from any other Terminator films or properties he hasn’t directed. Hurd, for her part, produced Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.
As a producer, Hurd offered notes on the Terminator script, and received a co-writer credit. But Cameron has maintained she didn’t write any part of the script, and her reluctance to set the record straight still irks him. “That’s something that sticks in his craw, that people make that assumption,” Keegan tells me in a phone interview. “I think she certainly was a sounding board for him creatively, but she wasn’t a writer — she was the person who makes it happen, which is different.”
That writing credit and her $1 option, though, has been extraordinarily lucrative for the savvy Hurd. Last fall, she moved to terminate the 35-year-old copyright grant on The Terminator, which would revert the rights back to her and Cameron, and away from David Ellison’s Skydance Media, which produced Terminator: Genisys and Terminator: Dark Fate. (Cameron did produce Dark Fate, and he does have plans with Skydance for another Terminator trilogy, so it remains to be seen how this copyright tussle will pan out.)
Terminator and T2 follow the evolution of Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton, from a sweet young diner waitress to a heavily-muscled, gun-wielding warrior mama, protecting herself and her son, John, from the robotic killing machines who keep getting sent back in time to stop John from one day leading the uprising against the machines. It’s easy to look at Terminator and T2, see a woman with a writing credit and assume she’s responsible for the steely but vulnerable Sarah, but it’s not so straightforward: Cameron has always had a thing for strong women (Keegan’s book attributes Cameron’s penchant for “gutsy maternal heroines” to his stock-car racing, rifle-toting mom Shirley, who was a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps when Cameron was a kid).
Either way, it’s clear Hurd was an influence — in a 1986 profile of the couple, Cameron said that Hurd’s strength was “the reason I was attracted to [her] in the first place.” (The two married a few months after the film came out, though it’s unclear when their relationship became romantic, because Cameron was married to another woman when they started working together.) Hurd and Cameron were both intense and competitive, often racing their sports cars to the office.
It’s also clear that Hurd was an important ally and advocate for the notoriously exacting, often difficult, but brilliant Cameron. In her 2013 THR interview, Hurd said, “I collaborate best with people that others might call aggressive or assertive; they have a defined vision and can communicate it. It does mean that it tends to be a rather mono-maniacal perspective.” On the phone, Keegan explains, “She completely believed in him, backed his vision and executed all of the absurd things that he wanted to do. He has these huge, crazy ideas, and there needs to be a person with him who actually knows how to execute. In the beginning of his career, in this really pivotal moment, Gale was that person.”
During production and development on these first four films, one of Hurd’s most important roles was as a mediator, or a “Cameron Whisperer” of sorts. “She was brilliant at corralling Cameron, and managing Cameron — he’s a very, very challenging person to manage,” says Keegan. So Hurd was the go-between between Cameron and the studios, as well as Cameron and his crews. With the studios, she stood up for his vision, backing him on maintaining that Aliens should be a Ripley-focused film when the studio balked at star Sigourney Weaver’s salary request. But she also talked him into cutting a reel from the film when it clocked in way too long. Weaver described Hurd as a “gentle but firm” presence on set, while Michael Biehn, star of Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss, said of Hurd and Cameron, “They play good cop-bad cop, and often he’s the bad cop. She comes in and tries to find a compromise, smooth things over.”
Hurd was at the forefront of peace talks between Cameron and the crew at Pinewood Studios in England where they shot Aliens. Hurd and Cameron, a pair of scrappy Corman grads, newlywed and fresh off their Terminator success, landed in England and almost instantly clashed with the Pinewood crew, who had never heard of The Terminator, were extremely loyal to Alien director Ridley Scott and even more deeply-wedded to their union-mandated tea breaks and pub lunches. When the crew walked off in an uprising over the tea trolley, Hurd coaxed them back to work out a deal. She also had to navigate replacing cinematographer Dick Bush with Adrian Biddle when Cameron and Bush disagreed on lighting.
None of this was easy for a young, female producer married to the director. Keegan explains, “People always underestimated Gale, because she was a woman, because she was romantically involved with this very charismatic, intense director.” Hurd herself described her experiences with sexism, saying she had to interview at Fox to produce Aliens even after the success of Terminator. She said of the interview, “The first question I was asked was, ‘How can a little girl like you produce a big movie like this?’” On the set of Aliens, men kept going above her to U.K. Fox head Tim Hampton. But after she divorced Cameron, it was clear she had proven herself, scoring her own overall deal at Fox.
It can be hard to isolate Hurd’s unique creative contributions to the action genre, especially with such a discerning artist as Cameron. But every great director needs someone like Hurd, who understands them and helps to make their ideas happen. “That’s why he trusted her so much,” Keegan says. “She backed him from the very beginning. They had this relationship forged in the early days of their careers.”
One can make the argument that without Hurd serving as a professional and personal cornerman for Cameron during the first four films of his career (even after they were separated), there might be no Cameron in the way that we know him today. Cameron is too ambitious and too talented to not have eventually made his way in Hollywood, but it stands to reason that things could have been very different without Hurd as a collaborator. Without her, we’d likely not have The Terminator as the trend-setting piece of elegant and ferocious “tech-noir” that set the standard for so many sci-fi action movies to follow.
It’s not a completely unique relationship: The new season of Karina Longworth’s Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This details the contributions of producer and production designer Polly Platt on the films of Peter Bogdanovich, her first husband. While Platt had a clear creative role on the style and storytelling of each film (though one could argue she deserved more credit), Longworth also articulates the kind of invisible emotional labor that Platt provided to Bogdanovich and the other male directors she worked with. It’s evidence that all too often in creative partnerships among couples, women have emotionally and physically supported the man’s genius in unseen and uncredited ways.
Exactly how Hurd’s relationships with other directors have played out is, as already mentioned, something that’s rarely spoken about — again, both Alexander and Kusama declined to speak on the record about their experience of working with Hurd. But it’s clear that as an ambitious and intense young producer, Hurd had an incredible eye for talent, and a preternatural sense for industry trends and lucrative franchise properties (she was ahead of the curve on the Marvel movie explosion, producing 2003’s Hulk (directed by Ang Lee), and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk (directed by Louis Leterrier)). She now commands The Walking Dead zombie empire, which spawned a million zombie copycats, and though the 2005 Æon Flux film was a memorable flop (more on that later in this series), she has a new series based on the cult MTV animated series in the works.
Hurd undeniably has an uncanny sense of the business, and how to shepherd these properties through decades of iterations. She’s helped bring to life some of the most influential action films ever made, while forging a path in the genre to allow more women to advance. It’s hard to overstate just what a monumental figure she is in this space — and how important her contributions would be for those who followed.