Tim Burton, Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz & the Screenwriting Team Behind ‘Big Eyes’

‘Big Eyes’ Opens December 25th

Dec 24, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


In the late 1950s through the early ‘60s, San Francisco’s Walter and Margaret Keane built a multi-million dollar art empire on top of a silly little lie. Their stylized paintings of young children with oversized eyes were printed off in unlimited editions, slapped into cheap frames, and sold for discount prices at gas stations and supermarkets. They were marketed as Walter’s work, but the paintings – every single one – were made by his wife, Margaret, in secret. Men’s art sold better than women’s in that era, and Walter’s larger-than-life personality helped build a marketable mythology around the work. The deception was eventually exposed following the couple’s divorce, which led to a circus-like court case where Margaret reclaimed ownership of the “big eyes” paintings.

Screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander are masters at penning true-life tales of oddball characters: their previous credits include Man on the Moon, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, and Ed Wood. They started work on Big Eyes a decade ago, originally intending to direct the feature themselves. After a number of stops and false starts, they eventually turned to filmmaker Tim Burton.

“I stole [Big Eyes] from them,” Tim Burton jokes.

“He’s our Walter Keane,” adds co-writer Larry Karaszewski.  

“We were working in parallel universes,” Burton goes on to explain. “I didn’t know Scott and Larry were writing this script ... I knew Keane’s work, because I grew up with it. I didn’t know the real story.”

“A couple years after that we approached [Tim] about producing the movie,” explains Karaszewski. “We did Ed Wood together, so we’ve had this relationship for a long time. We discovered Margaret’s story while we were working on a script that took place on another planet. We needed examples of Earth kitsch to sort of destroy this higher civilization … and then we discovered this painful, truthful story behind these paintings. And we thought: that’s a movie.”

Burton took over directorial duties on the project, and Big Eyes gained steam. The screenwriters became the producers, actors Christoph Waltz and Amy Adam signed on to play Walter and Margaret, and the film moved quickly into production.

Watching the final product, Big Eyes looks and feels very different from any film Burton has made in the last decade. The material is relatively grounded for the director; as unbelievable as the Keanes’ story seems, it’s totally true. It’s a period piece, with much attention paid to the 1950s and early ‘60s settings. The color palette is much brighter, warmer, and more colorful than the dark, cold ones the filmmaker is famous for using in his films.

“The paintings suggest strange color schemes,” explains Burton. “And then the story between Margaret and Walter, the other characters—in my mind it started to feel like a weird, sixties, slightly Hitchcock [film]. I’ve always loved the films of Mario Bava, but the color schemes in some of his films really fit the era, and fit the paintings, and fit the psychological relationship and feel of the movie.”

Most notably, though, is that Burton is working with an entirely new set of actors. His mainstays – Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter – are nowhere to be found in Big Eyes. Joining Waltz and Adams in this film are co-stars Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, and Krysten Ritter.

“It was fresh energy for me to work with new people,” Burton admits. “Everybody’s been getting sick of the people I was working with.”

“I was also getting sick of the people he was working with,” adds Christoph Waltz, with a laugh.

Waltz was posed with a challenge when he agreed to play Walter Keane. The character’s manipulative, controlling nature becomes more and more abusive as the couple’s success increases – co-star Krysten Ritter described his character as a “total vampire.” Waltz had to make sure Walter somehow remained likeable through his performance.

“If he weren’t likeable, you wouldn’t have a story,” says Waltz. “Why would Margaret hook up with an unlikable character? The story asks you participate in one way or another in that development of this relationship. The relationship only makes sense when you can, to some degree, identify with it.”

“I think he has a buried sociopath within him, and the attention sort of brings it out,” Amy Adams elaborates. “But I don’t think that when we meet him, he’s a sociopath. I think he develops some [sociopathic] tendencies."

“The pressure of market economy is something that brings out the worst in all of us,” suggests Waltz.

For Adams, it was important she wasn’t simply playing the role of a victim. One of the things she found most interesting about Margaret Keane was that she owns up to her part in the couple’s deception.

“It was a lie which she chose to be a part of,” says Adams. “To this day she gives Walter credit, saying ‘I wouldn’t be known if it weren’t for him,’ and ‘he was a genius at what he did. I would have never had the following that I have today.’ … She still [takes] responsibility.”

Although their empire was built on a lie, their work revolutionized the way artwork is bought, sold, and distributed. The Keanes’ impact on the art world is still felt today, even though their paintings have slipped into the realm of retro kitsch.

“I don’t know if Walter’s been given the credit he’s due for cheapening art and spreading it in every direction,” says co-writer Scott Alexander. “You can totally draw a line from Walter to Warhol, to Peter Max, to Thomas Kinkade. It took a certain genius to say, ‘Why do we have to sell originals when we can just make cheap posters and staple them into frames and sell them in pharmacies for 25 cents?’ It hadn’t occurred to anybody before he did it.”

Keane and “his” paintings were never accepted by the critical art world, despite his being one of the bestselling and most popular artists of the 20th Century. The blurry line between highbrow and lowbrow art is something Burton has dealt with throughout his entire career, and Big Eyes’ exploration of that topic is part of what attracted him to the project.

“There’s a fine line between what’s perceived as good and bad,” says Burton. “When they had [the Tim Burton exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art], to the critics I was one hundred times worse than Walter Keane. It got so lambasted, but at the same it had a high attendance rate. So I’ve experienced that kind of thing.” He continues: “When you do something, you’re very passionate about it. Whether [you’re] Ed Wood, or the Keanes, there’s just such enthusiasm. They probably thought they were making Michelangelo, where Ed Wood probably thought he was making Star Wars when he did Plan 9 From Outer Space. So you can understand that misguided enthusiasm, and the polarization of people’s responses.”


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Big Eyes opens in theaters on December 25th. For more information about the film, check out its website.

To read our one-on-one interview with actress Krysten Ritter about her role in Big Eyes, click here

You can read our review of the film here.



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