Tim Burton talks new film, Big Eyes: “We treated it seriously, but we knew it was absurd”

Burton shares his views on the strange true life tale.

Director Tim Burton leaves the gothic trappings and special effects mostly behind in Big Eyes, the true story of artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) who created a business empire around his strange paintings of big eyed children. Eventually however, it would be revealed that the paintings were never Walter’s work at all but that of his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams) and the strange tale of the “big eyes paintings” was exposed, becoming recognised as one of the largest art frauds in history.

DIY was invited to meet with Burton in a roundtable interview and the pleasingly friendly and enthusiastic director - he even got excited over our recording devices - let us in on his views on the strange true life tale, his nostalgic feelings towards the paintings and the relief in making a film that has no fast food tie-ins.

The courtroom scene - which is probably the most comedic in the film - has been toned down from what actually happened in real life…

People think we are making a mockery of the courtroom system. Compared to what really happened it’s a very serious courtroom scene. The judge was going to tape his mouth shut! But the cross examining… all that happened. We treated it seriously but we knew it was absurd, that’s what I liked about the whole story. I grew up with the artwork but then when I learned the story of them and their relationship, this dysfunctional relationship coming together to create these strange mutant children was something I could really relate to. There was something unbelievable about that. So the whole thing, even though it goes from romantic comedy to psychological horror story to drama to comedy… that to me encompassed the story of what it was.

When did you first hear about the story and 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, he was aware of it, even though it was documented in the newspapers it was a story that was sort of under the radar because I think a lot of people considered it kitsch and not really art so therefore it flew under the radar. But then when I heard the story, given my feelings about the artwork, I was fascinated by it. So I ended up when I was in San Francisco and I went to visit her and commission a painting from her. I don’t know how much time had lapsed then I learned 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 kind of marginal people you know? Real stories that are slightly unbelievable, it made sense to me. We were working in parallel universes at that time and I was just going to produce it for a while but then after a while of doing all these big movies I wanted to do something low-budget, with actors like Amy and Christoph that just reconnected me to it.

Terence Stamp’s character is based on a real critic but is it you saying something about critics?

I just thought of him as the General Zod of critics [laughs]. So I guess that answers that! [laughter]. The thing is that the review was verbatim. They were quite harsh. It must have been really weird for Margaret because she was actually hiding this whole thing and also then being criticised for it, which seemed like a double-whammy which must have been really strange.

You had your own exhibition in 2010 at MoMA. Did your experience with that inform on the experience in the film?

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 shit? Why is this stuff in the Museum of Modern Art?” It was pretty much across the board panned, probably worse than Keane in a way. Yet at the same time - you’d have to check the figures with them - but they had the highest attendance and got people to go to museums that didn’t go to museums and it sort of changed their thinking about, not the critics, but the museum itself about what types of things and broadening the scale of things [of exhibits] so I get that. It’s why I love the Ed Wood thing and I love this, it’s that question, which is sort of unanswerable which is: “What’s good and bad?” There’s a fine line sometimes between it. Because again a lot of 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 the stuff quite disturbing and that’s why it remained with me. I’d be in somebody’s living room that didn’t have kids and thinking “Why do you have a picture of a child?” and I wasn’t visiting Jimmy Savile’s house [laughs], these are people in Burbank you know? So there’s something about it that had a slightly disturbing [vibe]. And at the same time for those people that thought it was bad and crap and all this a lot of people tried 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.”

So would you say that there’s a parallel between Ed Wood and Big Eyes? Both films are about derided artists.

Yeah in the sense that if you’re looking for a connection they were both marginalised characters. Him being the worst director in the world and yet somehow you can still see his films have weird poetry to them that mean you can remember them - maybe I do anyway - more than some Academy Award-winning films. There’s a weird juxtaposition of that and also the passion. 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 it’s The Mona Lisa. There’s that kind of 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.

Compared to your most recent films, Big Eyes feels very back to basics.

That was the thing that I liked about it. It was like kind of reconnecting back to the base of doing things quickly, moving several times a day, not having to deal with the side issues of having a tie-in with McDonalds [laughs] or whatever it might be. Those bigger kind of things 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 at the same time 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 I said it kind of reconnects you to why you like making films.

How involved was Margaret in the production?

I think Scott and Larry talked her through the script quite a bit. Because 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 and knew that we were trying to tell it the best way we could.Because the history is quite sketchy and Walter is dead - so if you read his autobiography it’s a whole different story, it’s like Rashomon [laughs]. So she felt comfortable, she came out one day to the set in San Francisco. And then when she saw it, that was the main thing. That was the scary thing for me is showing her to see what she thought about it. 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.

Did her daughter Jane see it?

Yeah. Same thing. I get very nervous about those kind of things. It’s nice to have the blessing of the person. And to have the knowledge of the fact that even though we weren’ there we did capture something that was accurate in their relationship.

You mentioned that you commissioned some work from her…

Yeah a couple of times. The last one had Helena and our son in a big painting and somehow she - and 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 different is it approaching a topic that is a biopic opposed to your usual work?

Between Ed Wood and this, it’s what I sort of call, ‘drunk histories’. It’s very sketchy and they’re not well known people. It’s not like you’ve got somebody playing Elvis Presley or Winston Churchill, well known visual figures. People don’t really know who they are really so even though we tried to get some of the physical thing in there you’re a bit more free, it’s not that ‘real biopic accurate’, there’s a looseness to it that frees you to concentrate on 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. In Ed Wood the only one that’s a well known character really was Bela Lugosi but by that time he didn’t look like Bela Lugosi. Sometimes you’re thrown on biopics when it’s a well known figure you can be a great actor but be criticised for your look: “Oh he doesn’t look like him…” These are a bit safer because no one really knows who they are.

Is that why you let Christoph keep his accent?

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 couldn’t really place him anywhere. I think that’s the way he was as a character, he was just somebody who just slightly… you didn’t know who he was, where he was. He could be different things at different times for different people. So I felt like that way Christoph embodies that kind of thing. That to me was more important.

Did you ever have difficulty over whose story you were telling?

No because if you read Walter’s autobiography it is 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. He’s 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, and that’s who she was and that’s what I found brilliant in her performance is that she’s the quietest, most under-the-radar feminist I’ve ever met. 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. In going to the trail she wasn’t even doing it out of vindictiveness, she just felt like a weight that 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 him 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. So he did bring something major to the table there and she acknowledges that.

Big Eyes is out in UK cinemas on Friday 26th December.


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