Interview with Tim Burton, director of BIG EYES.
By George Meixner.
ShowFilmFirst talked to Tim Burton about his Boxing Day release of ‘Big Eyes’ starring Christoph Waltz (‘Inglorious Bastards’, ‘Django Unchained’) and Amy Adams (‘American Hustle’, ‘The Master’). The truly surreal, true story of Margaret Keane and her ‘waif children’ paintings proved to be ideal material for the ‘Edward Scissorhands’ director to explore the absurd, the marginalised and the artistic through the ‘big eyes’ of Margaret and her increasing menacing husband Walter. It is however, a film about a dysfunctional interdependent relationship. Tim spoke about a refreshing return to the focus on narrative drama rather than the off-screen Hollywood drama to which he was becoming accustomed as well as his real-life relationship with the female protagonist herself.
The courtroom scene is very comedic. Can you fill me in on why?
People think we are making a mockery of the court scene, but in comparison to what really happened it’s actually quite serious. The judge was going to tape his mouth shut! We took it seriously but we knew it was absurd – that’s what I liked about the whole story. When I learned the story of them and their relationship, [a] dysfunctional relationship coming together to make these strange mutant children was something I could really relate to. It goes from romantic comedy, to psychological horror story to drama, to comedy.
When did you first hear about the story, what attracted you to it?
I grew up with the artwork so it starts there, it was prominent in people’s living rooms and houses, it was like suburban art. It was very present (like a weird dream) in my consciousness, then around the mid-1990s I was talking to a friend who told me the story about the Keanes. Even though it was documented in the newspapers it was a story that was under-the-radar, people considered it kitsch and not really art. I was in San Francisco and I went to visit [Margaret Keane] and commission a painting from her. Then I found out that Scott [Alexander] and Larry [Karaszewski] had written a script about it and I worked with them on ‘Ed Wood’ and knowing that their forte is these marginal people with real stories it made sense to me. I wanted to do something low-budget, with actors like Amy and Christoph that just reconnected me to it.
Looking at Terence Stamp’s character it could easily be construed as you saying something about what you think of critics. Was it?
I just thought of him as the General Zod of critics. The thing is that the review [we used] was verbatim. It must have been quite weird for Margaret because she was actually hiding this whole thing and at the same time there being criticised for it, which seemed like a double-whammy which must have been really strange.
There is a section in the film where the Keanes are preparing to exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair. You had your own art exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York. Did you find similarities between the two?
Very very similar, very similar… in fact worse than similar! I wasn’t the one that initiated the show, MoMA came to me and I let them go through everything but it was completely panned critically, “this isn’t art, what’s that sh*t, what’s this doing in MoMA?”[It was] probably worse than Keane in a way and at the same time [there was a great increase] of attendance at museums [of people] that didn’t go to museums and it sort of changed [the museums] thinking about what types of things [they might exhibit]… so I get that. The same with ‘Ed Wood’, that unanswerable question: “what’s good and what’s bad?” People loved the Keane work and a lot of people wanted to rip it off the walls. I understood both of that because I found it quite disturbing and that’s why it remained with me. I’d be in somebody’s living room and thinking “why do you have a picture of a child?” For all the people that thought it was bad there an awful lot of people that wanted to copy it, there were a lot of knock-offs, it was a real movement so you have to go “well even if you don’t like it, there’s something about it there that’s connecting to people on some level”
Are there artistic parallels between the protagonists of ‘Big Eyes’ and ‘Ed Wood’?
Yeah, if you’re looking for a connection they were both marginalised characters, Ed being the worst directors in the world and yet somehow you can still see his films have a weird poetry to them that means you can remember them (maybe it’s just me) more than some Academy Award-winning films. There’s a weird juxtaposition between that and also the passion with Ed Wood or with Margaret’s painting. It’s sort of like when Ed Wood was making ‘Plan 9’ he probably thought he was making ‘Star Wars’, or they’re painting this stuff and thinking its ‘The Mona Lisa’. Misguided, or not misguided passion; where they’re not really thinking about what the ramifications of it are, you’re just doing it. There are similarities that way between the two.
Did you enjoy going back to basics by focusing on the drama?
That was the thing that I liked about it, that I had to. It was about reconnecting to the basics of doing things quickly, moving several times a day, not having to deal with the side issues of having a tie-in with McDonalds or whatever it might be. Those bigger kind of things that are part of the job so in this case you’ve got to learn, you’ve got to move quick, it’s much more lean but I really enjoyed it, especially when you get to work with those kind of actors, they help, you’re just there watching them and that’s why it feels like a reconnection to why you like making films.
How involved was Margaret in production?
Not really. I think Scott and Larry talked her through the script a bit. She’s very private, very shy and she’d known me before so I think she felt comfortable with me and she felt comfortable with them. She came out one day to the set in San Francisco [but] when she saw it, that was the main thing. That was the scary thing for me to see what she thought about it, we had her blessing. I was very gratified to hear and feel the fact she was “Oh my god that’s Walter, that’s how that felt’, so even though we weren’t there and you can only ever do your best it was nice to hear it affect her so clearly. It’s nice to have the blessing of the person, [that] we did capture something that was accurate in their relationship”
Have you commissioned work from Margaret?
A couple of times. The last one we’ve got Helena and our son in a big painting and somehow she (it took me a while to see) put my outline ominously in the clouds. I don’t know if she was making me into a Walter type character [laughs]… but it’s possible.
How are biopics different to the way you usually work?
Between Ed Wood and this, it’s what I call ‘drunk histories’. It’s very sketchy and their not well-known looking people so it’s not like you’ve got somebody playing Elvis Presley or Winston Churchill. People don’t really know who [Margaret and Walter] are really so although we tried to get some of the physical thing in there you’re a bit more free to [take dramatic license because there wasn’t a strict timeline] it’s not that ‘real biopic accurate’, there’s a looseness to it that frees you to what you feel is the emotional, what you get out of it, what you read from it so I think that’s why I picked those two of any biopics to do. Sometimes you’re thrown by biopics when it’s a well-known figure you can be a great actor but be criticised for your look. These are a bit safer because nobody really knows who they are.
Is that why you let Christoph take artistic license with his Walter?
Well, it’s interesting because what Margaret said was that the thing with Walter was that he was a real chameleon. He had a weird quality to him where you didn’t really know, you couldn’t really place him anywhere. I think that’s the way he was as a character, he was just somebody who just… you didn’t know who he was, where he was. He could be different things at different times for different people. So I felt in that way Christoph embodies that kind of thing. That to me was more important.
Did you have difficulty with whose story you were telling, seeing as Walter seems to have as many problems as he ended up giving Margaret?
No. No because if you read Walter’s autobiography it is a completely different, I mean it’s amazing but it’s so out there. It’s funny because I gave it to Christoph and he got through about 20 pages because it wasn’t really helpful. [Walter] is the big demonstrative character so obviously that eats up a lot [of screen time] and [Christoph] was brilliant at it. The thing with Amy is that it’s so understated which is who [Margaret] was. That’s what I found brilliant in her performance as she’s the quietest, most under-the-radar feminist I’ve ever met in that you could look at her as a victim but she never really was a victim, in that she admits she was part of the cover-up. Even going into the trial she wasn’t doing it out of vindictiveness. It felt like a weight that she just wanted to be lifted. When she won the case she wasn’t out there blowing her own horn, so it’s just her personality to be completely internal so you do have a definite imbalance in the situation. For me, like Christoph said, he didn’t see [Walter] as a villain because he definitely brought things to the table. The whole printing of art and opening your own gallery is commonplace now, but at the time was very new. She acknowledges that.