Far from the madding crowds

Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson’s partner in life and work, is happy to remain an enigma, writes Sarah Catherall.

When film maker Peter Jackson walked down the red carpet to the roar of adoring fans, his partner in work and life, Fran Walsh, was absent.

Those who have worked closely with the softly-spoken 42-year-old are not surprised The Lord of the rings scriptwriter missed the public walk along Wellington’s Courtenay Place. Walsh attended the premiere at the Embassy Theatre but was not at Jackson’s side when he faced clicking cameras about 100 metres from where she lived about a decade ago in a noisy flat above a Chinese restaurant.

Walsh also missed the red carpet walks at LOTR premiers in London, New York and Los Angeles.
Since 1991, when she and Jackson won the rights to turn The Lord of the Rings into three films, her partner has been the protagonist, giving the interviews, while the photogenic Walsh has chosen a behind-the-scenes role in their amazing life and work story.

But Walsh played a vital role in getting the JRR Tolkien epic from the page to the giant screen. With Jackson and Auckland writer Philippa Boyens, Walsh transformed 1100 pages into three movies. She also directed part of the film and was a producer.
The dark-haired music lover, who plays the piano and sings in their rambling fort-like house perched on the edge of Wellington’s craggy Karaka Bay, also worked closely with Canadian composer Howard Shore on the nine-hour musical score.

Boyens says aside from the script, Walsh’s mark on The Fellowship of the Ring can be most felt in the music. “She’s very musical and she has a beautiful voice. She was very concerned about the shape, form and flavour of the music. Also the emotional feeling of the film – we both worked hard to make sure that happened.”

New Zealand’s most successful film couple has been bound in work and life since meeting in 1987, during post-production of Jackson’s first splatter movie, Bad Taste – a NZ$250,000 film featuring exploding sheep, green vomit and leaking brains.

Described as “a natural storyteller” by those who have worked with her, Walsh has co-written with Jackson every script that’s bounded on to the screen since their first low-budget splatter movie collaboration, Meet the Feebles in 1989, including the acclaimed and award-winning Heavenly Creatures in 1994. While Jackson has stood in the spotlight, Boyens says Walsh is respected in her own right as “an incredible film maker and writer”, particularly in the international film industry.

Ken Kamins, the couple’s Hollywood-based world-wide agent, says Walsh has been a talking point in Hollywood since she was nominated with Jackson for best screenplay at the 1994 Academy Awards with Heavenly Creatures. Last week, he was besieged with phone calls from Hollywood studios inquiring about her availability.

When it comes to the story of a couple who think almost the same, whose work and lives are so closely bound, they have chosen to leave Walsh out as much as possible. They have two children – Billy, 6 and Katie, 5 – whose privacy they want to protect and they have chosen to keep one half of their lives as tightly guarded as the high fence enclosing their Wellington home.

“She regards her personal life as her personal life, especially as she is not someone who has sought publicity. She hasn’t courted fame and she is very down to earth,” Boyens says.

Walsh didn’t grow up wanting to write films, according to a 1992 profile – the only one written. Attending Wellington Girls’ High School, she most wanted to be a dress designer but when she sewed her first pair of trousers, they turned into “shredded floppy things” and she turned instead to music.

Walsh spent five years at Victoria University studying English literature, graduating in 1981, as she dropped out from time to time to “pursue the destruction of my eardrums” as a member of punk Band, The Wallsockets.
After graduating from university, Walsh began writing episodes for TV’s Shark in the Park and Worsel Gummidge Down Under.

According to Costa Botes, an independent Wellington film producer, Walsh was dating Auckland writer Stephen Sinclair when Botes urged the couple to watch a rough cut of Jackson’s film, Bad Taste. The trio began working together – in 1989, they produced Meet the Feebles, an adult puppet show described as the Muppets on acid. Braindead, another cult classic that won fantasy film awards, followed three years later. The ideas behind Branded were spun in Walsh’s Courtenay Place flat.

When talking about her scriptwriting on Braindead, Jackson said at the time: “She has an intuitive sense of scriptwriting for film. When she looks at other people’s scripts, she can immediately identify the problems and the way to fix them.”

Since the early ’90s, Walsh has also played a crucial role in helping emerging and established writers with scripts – often without taking any credit. When Botes worked with Walsh and Jackson on Forgotten Silver, a fictitious tale of a New Zealand film pioneer released in 1995, Walsh refused credit, even though she helped rewrite the script and participated in long meetings.

“She is modest to a fault,” says Botes.

“She has collaborated on plays and screenplays but says things like, ‘I shouldn’t be given credit for that’.” Walsh has been an “incredible help” to Harry Sinclair, an Auckland filmmaker, who says he consulted Walsh on the two feature film scripts he wrote – Topless Women Talk About Their Lives and The Price of Milk.

“She has been very helpful as a person to run ideas through. She has such fantastic ideas. She is very perceptive about scripts and a fantastic writer,” says Sinclair, who plays Isildur on LOTR.

But Walsh’s name is there in the LOTR credits, on which she worked long hours, starting around 6.30am and watching rushes of the day’s filming until 11pm. During 453 days of filming, scripts had to be written, often for seven units filming at once, as actors waited for their lines.

Boyens recalls Walsh starting the day with he phone in her hand, as she dressed and discussed the day’s agenda.

Walsh, one of four producers, would attend all the “rushes” (viewing the day’s filming) and spend time with the actors. She would often direct a second unit that was shooting while Jackson was doing the main filming.

Walsh was easy to spend many working hours with – Boyens lives on the same road – and they became close friends. “She is very even-tempered and she has the most fantastic sense of humour. She is so funny and she is one of the quickest people I know, she is so bright. She has a slightly wicked sense of humour.”
Boyens said the work achievements of Jackson and Walsh were inextricably bound. “There was an implicit trust between Peter and Fran and the level of understanding between the two – I’ve never seen that before. They were just incredible. They meshed brilliantly and in terms of their professional relationship, they were so in sync. Fran could answer something on Peter’s behalf and vice-versa. They trust each other and listen to each other.”

“As a writer, she has a wonderful sense of structure and character,” says Kamins. “Not only is the task of writing these films (huge) … she had to oversee the writing of the script and understand the implications when writing film one of films two and three. She couldn’t make a decision that would impact negatively on the others.”

Kamins says Walsh tends to view her storytelling from an “emotional prism”, imagining what it would be like to watch the LOTR as someone in the audience. “I think she feels that the emotional part of a story, portrayed through either a male or female character, will make the story last longer for an audience.”
Jackson has said that after years of working together, the couple has “a shorthand. And it is good working with somebody you live with because film making is such a high-stress occupation and it’s nice when your partner understands. They know what’s involved and what you are going through and can help share the burden”.