At first glance Big Eyes doesn’t seem like the kind of movie Tim Burton would direct. It doesn’t feature a flamboyant yet melancholy hero with unusual features and Johnny Depp makes zero appearances. But there are those waifish children with the big, beseeching eyes.
The movie is based on the real stories of Margaret and Walter Keane, whose kitschy paintings went viral in the ‘50s. Prints and knick-knacks based on these works were so ubiquitous in suburban America that you couldn’t walk into a store without seeing a pair of sad eyes staring at you. For years Walter took credit for the paintings, while Margaret, the true artist, kept quiet. The sham came to light in an over-the-top courtroom drama which ended with a paint-off between the couple.
Last night Tim Burton, Christoph Waltz, and Amy Adams showed up to debut the film at LACMA, the first premiere of this kind for host Film Independent. The audience was abuzz as many of the people who had worked on the film were in attendance including costume designer Colleen Atwood, production designer Rick Heinrichs, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and producer Harvey Weinstein, who sat in the back.
Burton said he remembers and the Keanes’ art being everywhere when he was growing up. “They were like Big Brother watching you,” he said. Whether you were at the dentist, the doctors, or the grocery store, you couldn’t escape. When he read the script for Big Eyes he was drawn to it because (like Ed Wood) it features his favorite kind of hero: an unconventional artist whose ambitions don’t match his talent. The movie also blends two topics he adores, dysfunctional relationships and art.
The artists revealed more about the making of the movie, which will be released December 25:
1. Burton first met Margaret Keane in the mid-‘90s in San Francisco and commissioned a painting. He had no intention of making a movie about her until Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also wrote the screenplay for Ed Wood, showed him the script years later.
2. “Nobody believes this, but we toned down the courtroom scene,” Burton said, commenting on Walter’s ridiculous antics during the litigation.
3. Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams both initially rejected the idea of playing the leads. Christoph remembers growing up in Europe and thinking the paintings were American kitsch. It took a long talk with Burton to change his mind. “Tim opened my eyes to it,” he said. Adams said she was focused on playing confident women when she first read the script so she passed. But after giving birth to her daughter she began to see Margaret’s quietness as strength. “When it came around the second time I wrote to Tim and said, ‘Can I do it?’” she said.
4. To help Waltz find his character Burton gave him Walter’s autobiography. Waltz said it got hard to read after page 27 because of the delusional ramblings. It gave him the impression that the “actual man must have been beyond portrayal.”
5. Adams flew to Hawaii to visit the real Margaret Keane, who is now in her 80s. “She really is very quiet,” she said. “It took an hour to get eye contact.” Adams wanted to find out why Keane had stayed quiet while Walter took credit for her success, and why she finally made the decision to come forward. “For her it was about telling the truth,” she explained, saying the situation was, “less about a victimization than she felt complicit.”