Middle-Earth Wizard’s Not-So-Silent Partner

By Brooks Barnes
The New York Times
December 1, 2012

“I CAN take you to see Fran now.”
At Stone Street Studios here, an expansive complex where the “Lord of the Rings” movies were made — and where Peter Jackson has spent the last two years deep in production on his “Hobbit” pictures — this is the equivalent of being invited behind the curtain to meet the Wizard of Oz.
Fran Walsh, a seven-time Academy Award nominee and three-time winner, was a co-writer of 12 of Mr. Jackson’s movies, including the blockbuster “Rings” trilogy, which sold almost $3 billion in tickets, and forthcoming “Hobbit” series. “Heavenly Creatures,” his breakthrough 1994 drama, was her idea. Warm and witty, Ms. Walsh — who is Mr. Jackson’s life partner — also produces his films and writes music for them. She has even directed scenes when Mr. Jackson was needed elsewhere.
“It’s impossible to overstate her importance,” said Andy Serkis, who returns as the craven creature Gollum in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which arrives in theaters on Dec. 14.
But Ms. Walsh, 53, is also one of Hollywood’s biggest living mysteries. She rarely grants interviews and refuses to sit for a photograph. Forget walking a red carpet alongside Mr. Jackson. Ms. Walsh has not even allowed her face to be shown on camera when contributing DVD commentary. She stayed home when Mr. Jackson visited the fan convention Comic-Con International in July.
Just who is this wildly important yet intensely private woman?
Ms. Walsh and her protective staff do not make answering that question easy. During a two-day visit to the “Hobbit” set last summer I largely roamed without supervision, watching as elves marched their perfect hair into battle and catching Ian McKellen, in costume as Gandalf, take a catnap on a cot between scenes. But Ms. Walsh was off limits. No, sorry, you can’t meet her.
Polite persistence won an off-the-record “handshake.” Dressed in black, Ms. Walsh had her hair piled on top of her head — a little like Helena Bonham Carter but without the practiced eccentricity — and was working in a windowless space at Stone Street near Mr. Jackson’s nestlike office. “She doesn’t suffer fools,” multiple people in her orbit had warned, an admonishment that came true when I slipped and referred to Mr. Jackson as her “husband.”
Her laughing retort was one she uses frequently, according to people who have interacted with her over the years: “He’s not my husband. He’s never asked me, and if he did, I probably wouldn’t say yes.”
Five months later Ms. Walsh was on the phone, having agreed to spend 30 minutes discussing how she collaborated with Philippa Boyens to adapt J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Hobbit” for the screen. (Mr. Jackson and Guillermo del Toro also have writing credits.) Ms. Boyens, who is Ms. Walsh’s best friend and neighbor and has produced six of Mr. Jackson’s films (and helped write eight), was also on the line.
“Destroyed, ruined creatures” — along the lines of Tolkien’s Gollum or Shelob, a spider — is how Ms. Walsh jokingly described herself and Ms. Boyens, who have toiled for more than a decade on the “Rings” and “Hobbit” movies. They were in a good mood, perhaps a little punch drunk from having just finished “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
Ms. Walsh: “Phil is definitely Shelob, with the hairy legs.”
Ms. Boyens: “Don’t hold back, Fran. Tell him what you really think.”
Ms. Walsh: “We started out extremely sensitive to the other person’s feelings. Now we don’t worry about it.”
Ms. Boyens: “We do disagree about things. It’s part of how we work off each other.” She paused for a moment, and added, “This is going to sound bad, but we collaborate in bed.”
Ms. Walsh: “In our jammies.”
Ms. Boyens: “Surrounded by dogs. We gave up going to the office.”
Ms. Walsh: “It just seemed like one more thing to do.”
Unlike the dark and dense “Lord of the Rings” books, “The Hobbit,” first published in 1937, is essentially a children’s fantasy — a bright quest by Bilbo Baggins, a hairy little humanoid critter, and the wizard Gandalf to find treasure protected by a fearsome dragon named Smaug and reclaim a dwarf kingdom. The novel, which has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, is heavy on episodic action but light on back story.
How do you make one full cinematic meal out of that, let alone three? Complicating that task even further, the screenwriters did not have the rights to Tolkien’s posthumously published “Silmarillion,” an early draft of which was written as a follow-up to “The Hobbit.” “Part of the screenwriting challenge was establishing the somewhat lighter mood of ‘The Hobbit’ while still infusing it with the tone and spirit of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy,” said Toby Emmerich, who, as president of New Line Cinema, played a vital role in bringing the “Hobbit” series to fruition.
Ms. Walsh and Ms. Boyens, a former teacher and hard-core Tolkien fan, said part of the solution came from Tolkien’s appendices to“The Lord of the Rings.” Those materials helped the writers create a bigger part for Gollum, a fan favorite, and explain the relationship between Gandalf and Thorin, an exiled king played by the British actor Richard Armitage.
But that only got them so far. In Tolkien’s largely female-free “Hobbit,” Ms. Boyens said, “The lack of feminine energy becomes very evident.”
“And oppressive,” Ms. Walsh added.
To work toward a solution they added a “Lord of the Rings” character — the ethereal elf Galadriel, played by Cate Blanchett — to the “Hobbit” story. The move prompted a dust-up among some Tolkien fans, but Ms. Walsh and Ms. Boyens said it was important to them, both as storytellers and as women, to add a female character who could bring more emotional depth to the spectacle.
“That’s really important if you are going to touch the audience in a meaningful way,” Ms. Boyens said.
Length, Ms. Walsh added, is generally not a problem because they err on the side of overwriting. “We tend to write our way into a scene and write our way out,” she said. Mr. Jackson “will then revise us,” she added. “And he always makes it shorter.”
Mr. Jackson, Ms. Walsh and Ms. Boyens rewrite on the fly, sometimes for multiple units filming at once, and modify scenes and dialogue as they discover holes or need to play up or tone down characters to make the story more compelling and coherent.
“They are all so involved together in every layer and detail of their productions that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish whose voice you’re hearing in a particular scene or moment,” said Ken Kamins, a Hollywood manager who has represented Mr. Jackson and Ms. Walsh for two decades and who also works with Ms. Boyens. “They are perfectly blended.”
To boil it down: Ms. Walsh has a knack for conveying emotion, Ms. Boyens excels at structure (and line readings), and Mr. Jackson is the visual genius.
Everyone agrees, however, that credit for one of the most well-known scenes in the “Rings” trilogy goes to Ms. Walsh. She had a “eureka moment,” as Ms. Boyens put it, while working on “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and suggested at the last minute that Gollum, a character who started out as a type of Hobbit but becomes mad and addicted to the ring and its power, should have a conversation with himself. The idea was to crystallize how different parts of his mind battle each other and the pain it causes him.
“It’s a universal moment for people,” Ms. Walsh said. “We all have that voice inside: You’re not good enough and you never will be and you’re a failure. I certainly do.”
Ms. Walsh was born to an Irish family in Wellington. Her grandmother’s sister lived three doors down from the house where Mr. Jackson grew up in nearby Pukerua Bay. “We must have passed each other on that street in our pushchairs,” Ms. Walsh is quoted as saying in Brian Sibley’s 2006 biography “Peter Jackson: A Film-Maker’s Journey.”
As a teenager Ms. Walsh set out to become a fashion designer but quickly learned that sewing wasn’t her forte. She decided to focus on music by joining a punk band called the Wallsockets. She wrote songs, played electric guitar and did some singing. She also performed with Naked Spots Dance, another punk band.
(It was probably good practice for what “Rings” fans know as the “Nazgul scream,” a high-pitched screech made by Tolkien’s evil Ringwraiths and performed by Ms. Walsh. “I’m a very good screamer,” she said by telephone. “It’s not that I scream at people. But I can scream. I went into the room with the mike and let out all the stress and the horror and the terror of making those movies.”)
After earning a degree in English literature from Victoria University, Ms. Walsh found her calling in screenwriting, working on TV programs like “Worzel Gummidge Down Under,” centered on a walking, talking (and creepy looking) scarecrow. It was on the set for that series in 1986 that Mr. Jackson, then just getting started as a movie director, first met her.
“I noticed a pretty young woman sitting in the corner of a greenhouse talking about the script,” he says in Mr. Sibley’s book. “I’ll always remember the fact that she made a striking impression on me, with her long black hair.” Ms. Walsh, who was dating a screenwriter named Stephen Sinclair at the time, recalled Mr. Jackson as having “sallow” skin. “Frankly, I didn’t quite know what to make of him, although I immediately took a liking to him,” Mr. Sibley quotes her as saying. “There wasn’t any pretense of any kind, no duplicity and no agendas.”
At the time Mr. Jackson was just finishing his first feature film, a comedy-horror-science fiction mash-up called “Bad Taste,” about aliens who need human flesh to serve at an intergalactic fast-food chain. Ms. Walsh and Mr. Sinclair, working from Ms. Walsh’s cramped apartment above a Chinese restaurant, then began to help Mr. Jackson with “Meet the Feebles,” a bizarre puppet movie from 1989 that is sometimes described as the Muppets on acid.
By the early 1990s Ms. Walsh had ended her relationship with Mr. Sinclair (amicably, he returned to collaborate on the “Rings” movies), and was pestering Mr. Jackson, with whom she was now romantically tied, to make what would turn out to be “Heavenly Creatures.” Her idea was to make a movie about two teenage girls who developed an obsessive relationship with each other that ended in murder, a true crime story that had gripped New Zealand in the 1950s. Mr. Jackson wasn’t thrilled with the idea. But Ms. Walsh didn’t give up, and he slowly decided to make “Heavenly Creatures.” “There were times they felt like co-directors to me,” said Melanie Lynskey, who Ms. Walsh discovered at a New Zealand high school and cast as the co-star. Ms. Lynksey, now known for her peculiar neighbor on the TV series “Two and a Half Men,” added: “Fran instantly conveys two things to you. You’re safe — protected — and you had better deliver.”
Ms. Walsh and Mr. Jackson, who have two teenage children, Billy and Katie, work in Wellington’s windy Miramar district and live five minutes away in Seatoun, a seaside neighborhood, commuting in understated black Mercedes sedans. They also have a home in the Wairarapa wine region north of Wellington; they saved the Bag End Hobbit home set from the “Rings” movies and reconstructed it here as a guest cottage.
She is not a recluse, people around her say. She made a decision with Mr. Jackson some years ago to avoid the spotlight as a way to preserve a normal life for their children. The couple wanted at least one parent to be able to take the kids to a park or shopping without being mobbed. But Ms. Walsh is also shy.
“I don’t like positive attention,” she said by telephone. (Whether she was joking or serious is difficult to say. Probably a little of both.) “I’m always slightly disappointed when somebody says, ‘Aren’t you that lady?’ Oh, God, bugger.”
People in Wellington refer to them as P. J. and Fran and note their civic good deeds. In 2007 they spent an estimated $10 million to save a church from demolition. They also swooped in to save the Bats Theater, a 84-seat nonprofit theater that has long been an incubator for Kiwi playwrights and actors. Ms. Walsh helped get the ball rolling for “West of Memphis,” a documentary about three men who were wrongly convicted of the 1993 murders of three Arkansas boys. (It opens in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 25.)
But as “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” rolls out in theaters, Ms. Walsh will be consumed with little else, helping to manage the publicity operation — from behind the scenes. What is the one thing that she wants people to know about the first “Hobbit” installment?
“But wait — there’s more,” she said dryly. Ms. Boyens said, “Fran!”
Ms. Walsh: “And more.”