January 10, 1959
Screenwriter, Producer, Bass player, Composer
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Screenwriter-producer Fran Walsh enjoyed a hugely successful career with her partner, New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson. A former musician-turned-writer, Walsh met Jackson early in his career and quickly became his collaborator on low-budget cult classics like "Meet the Feebles" (1989) and "Braindead" (1992). As a writing partner, she helped Jackson defy expectations with the lyrical tale of obsession and murder "Heavenly Creatures" (1994), a critically hailed effort that brought them to Hollywood for the Robert Zemeckis-produced horror-comedy "The Frighteners" (1996). Then, in a monumental undertaking, Walsh worked alongside Jackson as a co-writer, producer and even unofficial 2nd unit director on the first of a trilogy of films adapting the works of fantasy novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001). Nearly a decade after the project had begun, Walsh and Jackson capped it off with the third installment, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003), which in addition to winning a Best Picture Oscar, earned Walsh an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Other endeavors included the impressive remake of the monster classic "King Kong" (2005), followed by an underwhelming adaptation of the best-selling novel "The Lovely Bones" (2009). Walsh and Jackson returned Middle-earth once more, however, for another trilogy of eagerly anticipated films, beginning with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure" (2012). While Jackson received director's credit on each production, Walsh's creative DNA was undeniable and deeply imbedded in every film.
Born Frances Walsh on Jan. 10, 1959 in Wellington, New Zealand, she was educated at Wellington Girls College. Initially interested in a career in fashion design, she gradually shifted her attentions to music while attending Victoria University in Wellington, where she majored in English Literature. Prior to her graduation from VUW in 1981, Walsh wrote music and performed on bass with several local punk bands, such as Naked Spots and The Wallsockets. Described as a natural storyteller by friends, Walsh began her screenwriting career when she contributed material for producer Grahame McLean's pioneer drama "A Woman of Good Character" (TVNZ, 1983). Impressed by the young woman's talent, McLean offered her more work scripting episodes for his popular children's fantasy series "Worzel Gummidge Down Under" (TVNZ, 1986-89). An episode of the Wellington police drama "Shark in the Park" (TVNZ, 1989-1991) further added to Walsh's budding screenwriting résumé. It was around this time that she met the man who would soon become her professional and personal partner, New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson. Soon after showing her raw footage from his latest project, Jackson invited Walsh to assist him with post-production work on his first feature film, the appropriately named "Bad Taste" (1987), an ultra-low budget sci-fi horror comedy about a group of aliens looking to start a fast food chain on earth, with mankind on the menu.
Clearly smitten with Walsh and impressed by her storytelling acumen, Jackson asked the screenwriter to collaborate with him on his second film, the bizarre puppet romp "Meet the Feebles" (1989), perhaps best described as a Muppet movie directed by John Waters. In addition to providing the score for "Feebles," Walsh co-wrote the screenplay with Jackson, Stephen Sinclair and Daniel Mulheron. Walsh reteamed with Jackson and Sinclair to pen the script for Jackson's third project, "Braindead/ a.k.a. Dead Alive" (1992). Their first movie to receive significant U.S. distribution, it was yet another outrageously gory, comic saga about a nerdy teenager whose sleepy neighborhood in 1950s New Zealand is suddenly overrun by zombies. Although "Braindead" was heavily censored, even banned outright in some countries, back home it was a smash hit, emboldening Walsh and her creative partner to attempt even more daring cinematic heights. Moody and sumptuously filmed, "Heavenly Creatures" (1994) caught both fans and critics equally off-guard. Based on an infamous 1954 New Zealand murder case, it starred Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as two highly imaginative and mutually obsessed schoolgirls who plot the murder of one of their mothers in an effort to avoid being separated. One of the most highly-acclaimed films of the year worldwide, it was not only Jackson's visual craftsmanship that impressed audiences, but the intelligently written script's focus on the intricacies of the girls' all-consuming and ultimately destructive relationship. As a creative team, it was beginning to look as if for Walsh and Jackson, no genre of film was out of reach.
Basking in the afterglow of her professional success, Walsh enjoyed the fruits of her equally satisfying personal life when she and Jackson gave birth to two children, Bill and Kate in 1995 and 1996, respectively. Not surprisingly, in the wake of "Heavenly Creatures" - which earned Walsh and her partner an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay - Jackson was heavily courted by Hollywood and Walsh returned to screenwriting for a project that placed the couple in familiar territory with the horror-comedy "The Frighteners" (1996). Armed with a budget far above any of their previous efforts and starring Michael J. Fox as an ethically-challenged ghost buster, "The Frighteners" unfortunately failed to find its audience that summer. It did, however, give Walsh her first credit as a producer, alongside Jackson and Robert Zemeckis, who had initially hired the couple to write the script with the intention of directing it himself. Despite the film's commercial failure, Jackson was still an in-demand filmmaker and began making plans with Universal to undertake an ambitious remake of RKO's 1933 monster classic "King Kong," a lifelong inspiration for him. When plans stalled for "Kong," Jackson turned his attentions to another proposed project, an epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After the films' original studio, Miramax, dropped out due to the monumental financial commitment, New Line Pictures agreed to finance a massive three-film interpretation of the literary masterpiece. Serving once again as Jackson's co-writer, producer and all-around creative partner, the production would occupy the Jackson-Walsh household for the next several years.
Joined by playwright Philippa Boyens, Walsh and Jackson tackled the enormous challenge of adapting Tolkien's three-part tome into an equal number of film installments. Although told in a more chronological manner than the author's book, Walsh and company's script miraculously retained the tale's numerous character and plot elements, even expanding on certain events merely mentioned in novel. With principal photography shot in New Zealand over an 18-month period between 1999 and 2000, and boasting an international cast that included Sir Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm, the end result was truly a cinematic achievement of historic proportions. When "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" opened in December 2001, it was greeted with critical praise and audience enthusiasm. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, the film enraptured longtime Tolkien fans, even as it introduced scores of new admirers to the realm of Middle-earth. An integral part of the production, before, during and after filming, Walsh seemed content to enjoy her success from the sidelines as Jackson took the spotlight and the accolades heaped upon him after the releases of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (2002) and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003). Capping off the incredible journey was yet another Academy Award - each film had taken home statuettes for Visual Effects and other categories - for "Return of the King" for Best Picture, just one of the 11 it earned that night. No less significant was the fact that one of those trophies was for Best Original Song ("Into the West"), which the musically-inclined Walsh shared with composer Howard Shore and singer-songwriter Annie Lennox.
With "The Lord of the Rings" having completed its near decade-long journey, Jackson was ready to revisit his cinematic obsession since childhood, once more drafting Walsh and Boyens to collaborate with him on the script for "King Kong" (2005). Starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Adrien Brody as members of a film expedition who discover a terrifying secret on an uncharted island, the film's biggest star was Andy Serkis, who, using the same motion-capture technology that brought Gollum to life in the "Rings" trilogy, gave an astonishingly emotional performance as Kong, the 25-foot-tall gorilla. In a choice as seemingly incongruous as "Heavenly Creatures," Walsh and Jackson next chose to adapt Alice Sebold's best-selling novel about a young girl who, after being raped and killed, watches her family and her killer from heaven. A rarity for the filmmaking duo, "The Lovely Bones" (2009) was coolly received by audiences and critics alike. In addition to co-producing the true crime documentary "West of Memphis" (2012) with Jackson, Walsh returned to Tolkien's world of fantasy with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (2012), the first in another trilogy of films based on the English author's debut novel. Featuring the familiar faces of McKellen, Wood, Blanchett and others, it followed the early adventure of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) a young hobbit enlisted to aid a group of dwarves on a dangerous mission to the mountain lair of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
By Bryce Coleman