3 Jun 2019

Dame Fran Walsh: The steel and the emotion

From King’s Birthday Monday with Anna Thomas, 9:08 am on 3 June 2019
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Photo: Park Road Post

She has for decades been known as Sir Peter Jackson's partner in life and on all his films since 'Meet the Feebles' in 1989. Together with fellow screenwriter Philippa Boyens, she has three Oscars for her work on the final episode of 'The Lord of the Rings', and a further 24 award nominations, a whopping 30 wins from the Australian Film Institute, the BAFTAs, the Grammys, the Golden Globes, and the Writers Guild of America. Dame Fran Walsh has been the co-screenwriter of 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy, 'King Kong', 'The Lovely Bones', the three-film adaptation of 'The Hobbit', and most recently 'Mortal Engines'.  Add to that, Heavenly Creatures, and the documentary 'West of Memphis'. Dame Fran has eschewed the limelight, carefully guarding her privacy, but we were fortunate to talk to her at Park Road Post, in the heart of Wellywood, the suburb of Miramar.  


When she received the letter from the attorney-general, Dame Fran said she thought it was a letter about superannuation.

"I put off opening it. I thought 'Oh, god, I just can't face it!'

"So eventually I opened it a day later and I completely fell off my chair; I had no sense of it at all. But I'm very appreciative."

Dame Fran's work in the film industry covers producing, scriptwriting, musical composition, casting, and second-unit directing.

She was first nominated for an Oscar after co-writing Heavenly Creatures in 1994.

The film explores Christchurch teenagers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme's friendship, and the events that led to the 1954 murder of Pauline's mother, Honora.

Dame Fran described the film as a reflection on her own adolescence.

"These very intimate and intense relationships as a young teenager you can have, you don't really have a footing in the world and you're quite powerless too. I think a lot of adolescents get caught up in that.

"I could identify with them. I could understand the basis of the friendship and how it derailed."

Dame Fran said the media had portrayed the two girls as monsters and she wanted to know and explore the personal side of the story.

The film was one of Dame Fran's first experiences using computer generated imagery - or CGI - to help tell a story.

"We had one machine in a lounge and one operator. It was CG and we didn't really know where that was going to go, but it was such a huge step in terms of cinema. Because up until then it had been physical effects, robotic dinosaurs and things like that. Then Jurassic Park came along and it completely shifted.

"It was a very exciting time and I knew that we weren't stopping at one machine at that point, it was just the beginning."

Dame Fran has collaborated with her partner Sir Peter Jackson on all of his films since Meet the Feebles in 1989, as well as several other separate projects as a script consultant and supervisor.

In 2004, she received three shared Oscar wins for her work on the final Lord of the Rings, including Best Song, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Reflecting on the award-winning trilogy, Dame Fran said creating the films was "very risky".

"There was no surety as to the outcome; there was a sense of fear - palpable fear ¬- coming from the studio as to what these films were costing and the risk they were taking. It got to a point where they just had to trust us to get it done and hope."

She described creating the trilogy as a "hair raising" experience.

"It wasn't what I would say, you know joyful or fun. Those things, kind of in retrospect, you can look back and say 'Oh, it worked out okay.' But we didn't have the comfort of that."

Dame Fran, who lives in Wellington, has been careful to stay out of the spotlight and made the decision to keep her life private when her and Sir Peter Jackson became parents.

"We had two young children when we went into filming The Lord of the Rings.

"I wanted to preserve our family life and I wanted my privacy, and their privacy.

"New Zealand is so little - people recognise you really easily and quickly, so it was about being able to go out with them and it not be a big deal."

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