While Tim Burton usually relies on a fictional premise to create the highly visual worlds that backdrop his distinctive movies, he made the fact-based story behind Big Eyes the rare exception. While he’s created a vivid image of Americana and populated the film with actresses bearing the biggest eyes you’ve ever seen, the core of the film is the real tug of war between Walter and Margaret Keane over who painted those sad, haunting Big Eyes paintings that were the first mass marketed arts and made a fortune for the couple before they divorced. It is a story too far fetched to invent.
“What I loved about the story is that is so weird it’s just hard to believe it is real, from the artwork to the entire premise. It was an interesting balancing act with the actors to try and make the unbelievable believable,” Burton told Deadline. His movie is one of the last surprises coming during awards season, and the outlandish comic treatment given the material makes it a strong addition to contenders for the Golden Globes as The Weinstein Company opens is on Christmas.
Burton had remained close friends with writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski since they did the director’s last fact-based tale, Ed Wood. The scribes tried forever to tell this story, and planned to direct it before Burton’s commitment got the film its funding. Burton was intrigued by the Big Eyes artwork, but never knew the backstory of how Walter Keane took the credit for works painted secretly by his wife Margaret.
“I’ve known Scott and Larry since Ed Wood, but it turned out we were on this weird parallel track,” he said. “In the mid-1990s, friends of mine in New York were collectors obsessed by the Big Eyes paintings. I grew up with the Keane art, just like every kid raised in the suburbs during that period. They weren’t actual paintings, they were prints and we didn’t know the difference. My grandmother had some at her house, and you’d see them at friends’ houses and any dentist or doctor’s offices. They looked at you, like Big Brother, and we all had mixed feelings about them, the same way people still do. I even went to San Francisco where I met Margaret and commissioned a couple of paintings from her. Though the story was documented in the paper, it flew under my radar and even then, I thought those Big Eyes paintings were by Walter Keane.”
Finally, the writers showed him their script. “It’s so what they excel at, and was what I loved about Ed Wood. Some of their strongest work is weird real stories, torn from headlines you never actually read, that existed on a low page in the National Enquirer.”
Christoph Waltz brought the requisite oily charm to Walter, who is best remembered for conning his way into high society as the author of paintings he didn’t generate, but who actually was something of a twisted genius in finding a way to mass market paintings to make a fortune. The tricky job went to Amy Adams, who portrayed a woman smart enough to create world famous paintings, but who somehow went along with a ruse that left her cranking out paintings, cloistered in a small sweatshop art studio, while her husband, who probably couldn’t paint a wall with latex and a roller, dined out on the fame on paintings that many didn’t even consider art.
“You could see Walter on the page, but Margaret, it was hard to see her on the page and Amy played her in a restrained way,” Burton said. “I love actresses with big eyes, but she was the one who most reminded me of a silent film actress, showing the shyness, the intelligence, the shame of being complicit in this ruse, and yet being something of a victim, and still showing the quiet seeds of feminism and becoming her own person. It seems hard to imagine now that she’d go along like that, but when I was a kid I grew up in that kind of suburbia, and I don’t think in my neighborhood that any wife worked.”
Burton, an artist himself who has watched his work get judged as it hung on museum walls, straddled the line over whether the Big Eyes line was art, or pure schlock. “You see the snow at MOMA, where you’d hear catty comments like somebody had cleaned out their closet and yet they had one of the highest attendances of any show. I, luckily or not, have never gotten a middle response to anything, but I was drawn to discussion of the Keane art as I was Ed Wood. Yeah, maybe he was the worst director, but somehow his movies stand out because there is real poetry to them. It’s the same with the Keane work. I can remember, growing up, there were people who wanted to rip those pictures off the wall, or run screaming into the street, but millions more had them, and as Warhol said, ‘If so many people like something, it can’t be bad.’”
Burton spoke as he struggled to shake a cold he’d caught from his young children as he completes preproduction on his next film Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. Looking for the bright spot in spending a whole winter with a bunch of kids who get over colds in a day, but not before they spread them to adults whose immune systems take weeks to recover, Burton hoped that he was bolstering his resistance.