When screenwriter Jessica Welsh ’14 was 5 years old, she was obsessed with her mom’s Shania Twain album Come On Over. “I’d listen to it over and over,” she recalls. After seeing the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, about country music star Loretta Lynn, Welsh realized that Twain’s story of escaping poverty in rural Canada to become a globally known singer would make a great film in the popular genre of movies about music legends.
Welsh’s screenplay, Shania!, which she wrote on spec, was selected for the 2021 Black List, an annual ranking of the year’s best unproduced screenplays and a list that generates lots of buzz in Hollywood circles. Just before the list was published, Welsh’s screenplay was purchased by Sony Pictures. It currently is in development at the studio.
Welsh studied screenwriting at Princeton with lecturer Christina Lazaridi ’92. She was an English major with a concentration in film history and theory, and for her thesis, Welsh wrote a screenplay about a female superhero who rebels against the writer penning her tale after he cuts her out of the story.
Two weeks after graduation, Welsh moved to Los Angeles and landed a job as a director’s assistant, where she worked on the set of films such as the thriller The Disappointments Room. Her responsibilities ranged from making sure all the gummy bears on the set were made by Haribo to creating a path through a jungle in the Dominican Republic for a scene in a remote cove and serving as a hand double for a film’s lead actress.
She now is a staff writer for Stillwater, an animated series on Apple TV+ for preschool-aged children that tackles topics such as grief and loneliness. She started on the show as a script coordinator, which gave her an opportunity to be in the writers’ room and pitch story ideas.
In her free time, Welsh penned her script about Twain, using the research skills she honed at Princeton. Mining books, interviews, and fan websites, Welsh studied the dramatic ups and downs of Twain’s life. The singer, who grew up in a household unraveled by domestic violence, went on to record several albums that shattered sales records, but lost her voice at the peak of her career after contracting Lyme disease. Then in 2008 she announced she was separating from her husband, who produced her music, after he had an affair with her close friend.
Welsh credits the Scriptnotes podcast, hosted by Craig Mazin ’92, for providing essential guidance in forging a career in movies. “It’s a free film school in a podcast,” she says. Welsh adores movies, but she also hopes to work in other entertainment fields down the road.
Another Princetonian who inspires her is Winnie Holzman ’76, a writer who was able to achieve success both in television — with shows such as thirtysomething — and on Broadway by penning the book for the hit musical Wicked. Says Welsh, “I’d love to be able to do what she did.”