Last night, I had the opportunity to attend the world premiere of Tim Burton’s newest film, Big Eyes, hosted by Film Independent at LACMA. It’s the true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a housewife who put her soul into paintings of children with huge eyes that became an art sensation in the 1960s, and her scheming husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), who took credit for them and made millions before Margaret ultimately revealed the truth to the world. Adams does especially great work, and the film feels unlike anything Burton has ever done save for his biopic of another unique artist, Ed Wood (Wood was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the same duo who wrote Big Eyes).
Burton, Adams, and Waltz were in attendance for a Q&A session with Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell after the screening, where the trio spoke about the script, the real Margaret, and more.
On reading the script for the first time:
Burton: Scott and Larry excel at these weird people that are real, but I had a connection to the art because growing up, it was kind of like Keanes were everywhere. It was kind of like ‘Big Brother watching you.’ Very suburban art, the only kind of art I ever experienced, sadly enough, growing up – it’d be in the dentist’s office, the doctor’s office, grandma’s house – and so it was very much a part of the culture I grew up in. When I heard that Scott and Larry were writing this, I was amazed. I hadn’t known the story until another friend of mine had told me about the story of the Keanes, but with the art and the dysfunctional relationship, it seemed perfect. I understood it.
Waltz: I remember the paintings everywhere, just from the other side. We were taught to chuck it in the wastebasket. ‘It’s kitsch. That’s American stuff’…Tim really opened my eyes to it.
Adams: I read the script first a long time before we actually decided to do it. At first, I was like, ‘I kind of want to focus on strong characters.’ I was in a place where I felt like I’d played some women who were a little more meek and I was really focused on confident women, but I read it again after I had my daughter and had been a mom for a while and saw it from a different point of view. I really began to understand the the quietness of Margaret was a strength, and when it came around the second time and I read it, I actually wrote Tim and said, ‘Can I do it?’
Talking about thematic connections in Burton’s work, Mitchell pointed out that often Burton’s characters “have an ambition that doesn’t quite match their talent.”
Burton: Well, I understand that completely. [crowd laughs] It’s my life story. That’s what I like about Ed Wood. He was known to be a horrible director, but somehow his work had impact, and as we’re talking about with Keane, even though I have major memories of it, I found it disturbing as well. You get quite a response from people who love it or hate it – it’s quite polarizing. Those kinds of figures, I think, are quite interesting, ones that people think are bad, but there’s something about it that’s powerful. There are lots of artists today that are inspired by these big eyed characters. You see it in a lot of contemporary work.
As for the real life Margaret Keane, Burton met her in the mid-1990s. Long before he had even considered making a movie about her, he actually commissioned a painting from her. Adams had a chance to meet Margaret in Margaret’s studio outside San Francisco and watch her paint, and during this time she had the opportunity to speak with her about some of the choices she made during her life that would help Adams come to understand how to portray the character better on the big screen.
When I met her, there’s just such an integrity about her. She was really open and really willing to talk to me, but what you see is what you get. She’s really quiet and very generous and she’s not a large person. She speaks through her art, and that’s something I very much identified with…
I don’t think she felt like a victim. I think she felt like she was complicit. I think that’s why she stayed [with Walter Keane for as long as she did]. She didn’t stay out of being victimized, she stayed because she had begun to believe she was complicit. It wasn’t so much that she blamed him. Ultimately she saw his manipulation, but she always held herself accountable. Even when I talked to her today, she holds herself accountable for the lies that she told. So it was less a victimization than it was a complicit situation that she got herself in.
The real Walter Keane passed away in the year 2000, so Waltz wasn’t able to meet his true-life counterpart. But he found another way to inform his version of the character:
There is an autobiography that Tim gave me, and I must admit that after page 27, it’s hard to read. (Burton butts in: “You made it that far, huh?”) It’s delusional rambling, basically. It’s interesting from a phenomenological point of view…overall, it gave me an impression that the actual man must have been beyond portrayal. [everyone laughs]
Waltz gets some of the film’s biggest laughs, especially in a climactic courtroom scene that has to be one of the craziest ever put to film. But believe it or not, Burton says, they actually toned down the final version of that sequence before they showed it off last night. (“I’ve always wanted to do a very serious courtroom drama,” he joked.) For Waltz, the real event sounds like something he very much wanted to witness for himself: “Unfortunately I wasn’t there when it really happened, because it must have been the wildest, wildest thing ever. What we did was tame and timid compared to what must have gone on in that courtroom back then.”
Big Eyes opens in theaters on December 25th, 2014.
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