Oscar-winning screenwriter and producer Fran Walsh prefers to remain in the background, but she is a key factor in partner Peter Jackson's Wellywood empire.
Walsh attended Victoria University of Wellington, majoring in English Literature, and graduating in 1981. During this period she also played in bands Naked Spots Dance and punk group The Wallsockets.
Walsh began writing for the screen after editor Jamie Selkirk suggested she might help out on rewrites for period drama A Woman of Good Character (also known, in its extended version, as It's Lizzie to those Close). Impressed by her abilities, producer Grahame McLean later enlisted Walsh to write for his series Worzel Gummidge Down Under. "Fran just came up with some magic stories, she had a marvellous wit," McLean has recalled. Her other 80s work includes scripts for police show Shark in the Park, and composing songs for Stephen Sinclair's theatrical satire Big Bickies.
Walsh met Peter Jackson in the mid-80s, while he was in the final stages of making his feature debut Bad Taste. She and Jackson were among the quartet of writers on his puppet follow-up Meet the Feebles (1989).
Since then, Walsh has worked on all of Jackson's films, collaborating closely with him on Braindead (1992) (which scored an NZ Film best screenplay award for Jackson, Walsh and Stephen Sinclair); Heavenly Creatures (1994); The Frighteners (1996); The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001 - 2003); King Kong (2005); The Lovely Bones (2009); and three Hobbit features. Since Rings, Jackson and Walsh have usually written alongside Phillipa Boyens.
Heavenly Creatures was based upon Christchurch teenagers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, who in 1954 murdered Pauline's mother Honorah. The film would likely not have been made — at least not by Jackson — were it not for Walsh's own longtime interest in the case. Walsh talked about Parker and Hulme in a 1994 New York Times interview. "Not only did they have a rich fantasy life, not only did they have an intense friendship, but they actually went through with their fantasy. It's heart stopping. I can't rationalize or understand or justify what they did. It's still a mystery."
Heavenly Creatures brought Walsh and Jackson their first Oscar nomination for scriptwriting. Walsh also had an active role in casting, discovering young co-star Melanie Lynksey (who plays Pauline) while on a casting call through North Island high schools.
The directing credit has always gone to Jackson, while Walsh usually shares writer and producer credits. By all accounts however, their roles overlap more than that designation would suggest. For example, Walsh occasionally served as a second-unit director on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Walsh is often portrayed as residing in her husband's shadow, but her reticence seems to be deliberate.
Notoriously private, she declined to be interviewed in the Lord of the Rings DVD extras, although she contributed to the audio commentary.
From the Rings trilogy onwards, the core scriptwriting team has been Walsh, Jackson, and Philippa Boyens. The New York Times summarised the contributions of each team member in a 2012 interview. "Ms. Walsh has a knack for conveying emotion, Ms. Boyens excels at structure (and line readings), and Mr. Jackson is the visual genius."
Walsh is the co-winner of three Oscars, in 2004, for her work on Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Music (for Original Song Into the West). She also won a Grammy Award for her part in co-writing the song.
As one of the producing team, she was Oscar nominated for Best Picture for the two previous instalments, plus a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for The Fellowship of the Ring. Among dozens of wins and nominations for the Rings films are gongs from the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, the Writers Guild of America and the Australian Film Institute.
She went on to work on adaptations of fantasy classic King Kong and Alice Sebold novel The Lovely Bones. The latter film echoed some aspects of the teenage characters and fantastical settings explored in Heavenly Creatures. Next came a big budget three-part movie adaptation of The Hobbit, with the last episode released in December 2014. A rare project not directed by Jackson was an adaptation of cities on the move tale Mortal Engines, helmed by Weta effects veteran Christian Rivers.
Earlier, Walsh was also a co-writer with Jackson on fantasy Jack Brown Genius (1994), directed by Tony Hiles. Outside of the Walsh/Jackson partnership she has worked as a script supervisor on Harry Sinclair's The Price of Milk (2000), and a script consultant on Sinclair's Topless Women Talk About Their Lives (1997) and Scott Reynolds' Heaven (1998).
A number of New Zealand Universities, including Massey and Victoria, have awarded Walsh with honorary degrees. In 2002, she became a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and in 2019, a Dame Companion.
Updated on 5 June 2019
Brooks Barnes, 'Middle-Earth Wizard's Not-So-Silent Partner' (Interview with Walsh and Philippa Boyens) - The New York Times, 30 November 2012
Brian Sibley, Peter Jackson: A Film-Maker's Journey (Sydney: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006)
Bernard Weinraub, 'Making a Film Out of the Horror of Mother Murder' (Interview with Walsh and Peter Jackson) - The New York Times, 24 November 1994