When Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski came across the bizarre story of Walter and Margaret Keane, they thought they’d found a seamless vehicle on which to make their directorial debut. It was cheap, and had all the requisite characteristics of their best known scripts, Ed Wood, Man On The Moon and People Vs. Larry Flynt; charming oddball characters that never rose above the zeitgeist B-list. Tim Burton, who directed Ed Wood and Big Eyes, puts it best: “It’s what they excel at, their strongest work is finding weird real stories, torn from headlines you never read.” So why should their 11-year struggle to get Big Eyes made be anything but quirky and colorful?
DEADLINE: Where did you find this delightfully nutty tale of a man who stole credit for massively popular paintings art critics loved to slam, with his wife allowing herself to be shuttered in a studio, secretly turning out Big Eyes paintings like a sweat shop worker?
SCOTT ALEXANDER: Frankly, I stumbled across it in The Encyclopedia Of Bad Taste.
LARRY KARASZEWSKI: Yep.
ALEXANDER: Larry and I were working on a science fiction movie about a planet of higher intelligence that gets destroyed by a bunch of debris from earth pop culture when someone crash lands on this planet. MC Hammer albums and disco balls and all that kind of stuff.
KARASZEWSKI: My wife likes kitsch and had this book, The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. And I was just flipping through, trying to get ideas of random things we could put on this planet. There were two pages about Margaret and Walter Keane that just grabbed me. I was completely unaware of this story, just like 99.9 percent of the world.
ALEXANDER: Scott started talking about it and it turns out that I am actually good friends with a rock and roll guy named Matthew Sweet, who was a huge collector of Big Eyes art. He bought all these originals on eBay, cornered the market before people knew there was one. They’d find stuff in their grandma’s basement and he bought all of it and became a great resource for us in sorting out a lot of the story. We love the journalism part of biopics, and we just dove into research mode. We have the most fun with the old microfiche and the periodical index, doing it old school. A lot of the people we like to write about don’t live on the internet. If they were pre-1980s newspaper stories, nobody would have bothered to upload that stuff onto the net. For example, that Danny Huston character in the movie, San Francisco columnist Dick Nolan. Walter took over his column for a couple of years where you would just constantly find stories about Walter. That stuff isn’t on the Internet at all. We’d stumble across those columns on microfiche, and it got us imagining Walter and Dick like these guys out of Sweet Smell Of Success, the nightclubs and jazz music.
KARASZEWSKI: We approached Margaret in 2003. She was very timid and it took us a long time to win her trust, and then 12 months more to get her signature. She was very afraid that people still thought Walter was the painter. They would still come into the little gallery and ask to buy Walter Keane. And she was nervous that we would be disrespectful to her religion.
ALEXANDER: And she didn’t want it to R rated.
DEADLINE: She didn’t have a lot of luck with men she trusted. How did you persuade her to trust you?
KARASZEWSKI: We had to really show her that we wanted to tell the movie through her eyes, as the painter. That was a big decision for us, because Walter is more of the traditional lead in one of our movies. He’s more the Larry Flynt character or the Ed Wood kind of a guy, this big show boater who’s constantly talking about himself in the third person. We decided to make him the antagonist here, and her the heart and soul. She’s the one with the journey. This wasn’t easy, because you need to identify with the woman who is not talking in the scene. It would be silent movie time. Walter died in 2000, and we just missed him. Matthew Sweet once had a meeting with Walter when he was trying himself to figure out who was the real painter. He told Walter, “I want to believe that you’re the painter, but Margaret has been out there putting out paintings and you haven’t put out a painting since you guys got divorced.” And he’s like, “Oh, no. I’ve still got paintings. I just don’t put them on the market.” And he showed Matthew a small Big Eyes painting dated 1983.
ALEXANDER: They got divorced in ’65”.
KARASZEWSKI: A Walter painting from the 80s! It shattered everything. And Walter tried to ask for a high price for the painting.
ALEXANDER: He wanted five thousand dollars.
KARASZEWSKI: Matthew says, I don’t have that kind of cash, and he left and drove back to the hotel. By the time he got there, there was a message from Walter saying “I’ll take 500 if you come back right now.” So Matthew bought the painting and a few months later he was going through some of his Keane memorabilia, He saw a picture of their apartment from the early 60s and he looked in the deep background and there was the painting. He goes, oh, my God, what the heck? So he looked at the 8 in 1983 and he took a little pen and he just like clicked on it, and the part of the 8 fell off and it was a 1963. Walter had just simply used liquid paper to turn the 6 into an 8. That’s one of the things that inspired us to have that scene in the film where Margaret scratches off the signature of one of his paintings.
DEADLINE: And always you planned to direct this?
ALEXANDER: We always were the directors…until we weren’t.
KARASZEWSKI: We designed the project in a very calculated fashion in response to us not getting us our Marx Brother’s movie made. That was a writing/directing deal that led to a script people really liked, but there was no conceivable way to make an inexpensive version. Five brothers, period Broadway and Hollywood and so many moving parts that there was no way to do it for a price. It just died at the studio and really bummed us out. When we thought of doing Keane as a movie, we were very calculated. We said, let’s do a course correction in our career here, design a movie that we can get made really quickly, for a price. It was designed on an indie budget, with two great parts in Walter and Margaret we knew would attract two great actors. All very contained. A lot of it takes place in the painting rooms and in a couple of key locations that were easy to slap together.
ALEXANDER: Key for us was we never wanted to set it up at a studio. We always maintained control and even on the various versions that came and went, we always made sure it reverted back to us. That allowed us to reconfigure the film several times, and keep putting our time and effort into making it. Had it been sold or set up at a studio it would have been long in debt.
DEADLINE: What could possibly have gone wrong?
KARASZEWSKI: We had four or five times over the years where the movie appeared like it was about to go. It was always in a different city, with a new crew, with a new cast, with new budget, a new schedule. One time it was being financed by a real estate mogul, one time it was a Japanese billionaire, one time it was a very mysterious, like a Nigerian email scam. I’m not sure how we got pulled into that one.
DEADLINE: Having a Nigerian prince certainly brings pedigree. I still get emails from probably that same guy, if I check the spam folder.
ALEXANDER: The one where, oh, my uncle granted me the mineral rights for our country. So each one of those versions of the movie, we did sign on the dotted line, but we always had it in the deal that the rights would revert to us if production didn’t start by a certain date. And so when every one of these people ended up double crossing us and the money wasn’t good, the movie would come back unencumbered. The upside was, we always kept control. The downside was, for ten years, we never got paid and everything we did was out of pocket; we were the entrepreneurs, the guys paying for the rights all that time.
DEADLINE: Did you ever give up hope?
ALEXANDER: It got pretty grim at times.
KARASZEWSKI: Grim’s the word, but I don’t know if we gave up hope. We probably should have; it would have been better for our careers. But because we constantly got encouragement from crew and from other actors who wanted to be part of the movie and because there was always someone nibbling on it, some great actor or actress would come for a meeting, that was just enough to encourage us to continue on this Keane quest madness where there no one actually paying for the movie but we kept believing it was about to happen.
KARASZEWSKI: I will say that’s part of the reason that we got Tim. Tim initially came on as producer and…
DEADLINE: You guys have been friends since Burton directed your Ed Wood script. Tim said he grew up with the Big Eyes pictures at his grandmother’s house, and even commissioned art from Margaret. He’s an artist himself and this seems so in his wheelhouse. What took so long?
KARASZEWSKI: He came on as producer…
ALEXANDER: In 2009.
KARASZEWSKI: We started cycling through indie producers we aligned ourselves with who we thought were going to help us get the movie made and it just was never happening. At some point we got rid of everybody else and we brought in Lynette Howell who came highly recommended as a scrappy younger indie producer who could get this project made at a smaller number. Even with her help it was difficult. We knew that Tim loved Margaret’s work, because we had seen some of the paintings he had commissioned years earlier. I don’t even think we showed him the script at that point. I think we just wrote him a letter and said, this is what we’re doing.
ALEXANDER: He loved the script, but he was definitely supportive of us directing it. We said, do you want to be producer, presenter, executive producer, to help us get the train out of the station? He said sure, sure. When we were trying to hustle an actor and they were in Europe, Tim would take them out to coffee or something on our behalf. Christoph Waltz’s people called us about Walter and things changed. We felt a real commitment to Margaret. We needed for this to happen. Tim had talked to us about doing a smaller project to take a break from these big tent pole studio productions. He replied with real enthusiasm to Christoph. Without telling our producers or our agents, we actually just approached Tim and said, ‘Look, if you want to make this movie right now with Christoph Waltz, we would love for you to direct it.’
KARASZEWSKI: He saw Christoph at the BAFTAs that Saturday. We got an email, they were both excited and they were having lunch. And we were sort of just seeing this adrenalin coming out of Tim. It really surprised us. He just seemed really pumped up.
DEADLINE: How hard was it to give up directing, especially after you tailored this so carefully to not have a repeat of the Marx Brothers?
KARASZEWSKI: We needed to be pragmatic that became clear the previous year when we had the film ready with Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds. The money was all set. And then Reese got pregnant. And then we lost Ryan’s slot. And did we mention we had the California tax credit, that we’d won the lottery to shoot in L.A? How’s that for pain? And how do you get mad at someone for getting pregnant? You can’t. Sh*t happens. It always happened to us. So when we got excited about Christoph, we’d spent so much time with sales agents and foreign numbers and what actors are worth in different countries that we got scared. Christoph is from Austria and people think he’s from Germany but he’s mostly based in America. And now we want him to be a lead and pretend that he’s an American, but what are the sales agents going to say about how that impacts Europe? I was getting this pit in my stomach that we were going to put this whole thing together and six months down the road something terrible was going to happen again. We went five years without really making any money, because we kept redrafting to meet a budget or a new location. We needed this movie to get made, and we knew we could trust Tim. He literally shot our first draft of Ed Wood, and knew he would knock this out of the park and keep us involved. So we became producers, he took over as director, Christoph signed and a week later Amy Adams was involved. And a movie that took 11 years, came together really, really quickly.
DEADLINE: How quickly?
ALEXANDER: Tim said yes, and less than a week went by and we had Christoph, Amy, and Harvey Weinstein. And I’ll give Christoph points. He said yes to Tim the day before he won the Oscar. And I think most agents would tell their client to wait until the day after they win the Oscar. And Amy, the girl gets big props for this. This was a great part for 30 year old actress, so we’d gotten a lot of interest. But actors don’t want to be rejected and their agents and managers want to protect them so there’s this noncommittal dance. Amy, to her credit, wrote a letter to Tim saying I want to play this part. This is why I believe I would do a wonderful job and I would be so honored to be in this movie. And we were talking about our favorite choices and she was right on the top of that list and then this letter showed up. It was like oh, my God. She’s got the part.
DEADLINE: Look back on this long road from the perspective of how you felt at the beginning, when this seemed like such an easy to execute directing vehicle?
ALEXANDER: We have no buyer’s remorse. This was a story we fought to tell for a long time, and Tim took it the step further. Two things we found so interesting, the debate between high art and low art and the idea of Margaret as a metaphor for pre-feminism and then paralleling the women’s movement, people are really responding to those ideas. It is nice people seem to like the movie and the ideas there.
KARASZEWSKI: All that is true, but if you had showed up back then, as a little genie from the future and said, it’s going to take eight more years, I don’t know if we would have kept going. But I think of Amy Adams’ face, her eyes and how she played Margaret. I just can’t imagine anyone else in that part now, despite all the actresses who were involved over the years.
DEADLINE: Aside from having Tim Burton direct this script you were so passionate about, how else did the gestation period benefit Big Eyes?
ALEXANDER: It became more of a two-hander than we originally intended. Each time the film came together, we would write for a location, and found ourselves cutting out one scene or another. Always cutting, trying to make it cheaper. We cut out a lot of smaller speaking parts. We just kept stripping it down, focusing on Margaret and Walter. When Tim started prepping, we got this seller’s remorse where we remembered all these great scenes Tim didn’t even know about. We called him, all excited. We’ve got all this extra stuff, you’re going to love it! We did this Frankenstein cut and paste draft for Tim with all the stuff we’d lost, figuring, he’s Tim Burton, he can get the extra money. He read it and said, ‘nah. Thank you guys, but we don’t need any of this.’ Tim was really into the idea of making a lower budget indie, and this is the cheapest film he made since Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It was done for less money than Ed Wood and that movie was 20 years ago. He nailed the period and made it feel like a Tim Burton film. To us, he is Willy Wonka, this granter of golden tickets who has magically made two of our oddball projects happen.
DEADLINE: Rather than let another decade pass, have you given Tim your Village People movie, where a stadium full of rednecks are singing and contorting into the letters for the gay anthem YMCA, without realizing the connotations?
KARASZEWSKI: For all its notoriety, that project never got further than an outline, because the Village People didn’t want to be portrayed as gay, which is pretty funny. Right now we are getting into television, we’ve got to pay the bills after all these years. We’re doing the miniseries on OJ Simpson, and a biopic of John McAfee, the software guy who built this Col. Kurtz compound in Belize and was accused of murder. We just love these bio projects, these crazy real people, so it’s nice if we can get back to what we enjoy most.
ALEXANDER: Back to the microfiche.