Pressure mounts on all sides to declare Tim Burton’s sweet and understated Big Eyes either a return to form or a turned corner, but for screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander it’s just an exemplary marriage of maker and material. The film is a dramatization of the struggle of 1960s artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose paintings of crying children were as ubiquitous, for a time, as their decidedly less gothic successors in the Precious Moments franchise are today. But Keane’s husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), took credit for her explosive success, and despite toying with a few loftier notions (alcoholism, gimcrack curios versus capital-A art), Big Eyes is an essentially spare, straightforward celebration of Margaret’s successful campaign to reclaim credit for the paintings. The film is as over-the-moon for postwar modernism as it is a painstaking character study, and, like the pair’s last collaboration with Burton, Ed Wood, strikes a lovely balance between laughing at and with its eccentric protagonist. On the day of the film’s New York premiere, I met with the duo over coffee to try extracting their secret recipe for the modern anti-biopic.
So, I understand people were whooping and hollering at the L.A. premiere, for the draw-off scene between Margaret and Walter.
Scott Alexander: There were a bunch of applause moments, but for us, we know the applause moments and these were new applause moments. That was kinda cool.
Larry Karaszewski: Any time Margaret spoke up for herself, people went crazy. Which has kind of been the biggest surprise from this week of screenings: that people really get into Margaret’s journey. We didn’t think we were making, like, Rocky. It’s like, this one particular screening, they were cheering at her when she actually spoke up at the radio station.
Alexander: We always talked about it like we were writing a 1950s women’s picture. It kind of began with Margaret as a typical ’50s American housewife who believes she’s expected to let Walter speak for her. And we could have chosen to have the movie end at many different points in time, but we aimed for it to end near 1970. So it sort of parallels the beginning of the women’s movement. And these are choices we made, but I think that because it’s really touching a note with women who are identifying that this was really a distinct point in America where things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. As writers, we’re just in there adding plot points—because to get from B to E you need to get through your C and D. And there are moments to cheer, which is really kind of nice, that we weren’t expecting.
Karaszewski: I had two women come up after the screening last night and hug me. People I don’t know! One of them told me, “This is my mother’s story too.” That kind of thing. That’s what we weren’t expecting.
Interesting. I remember an interview where one of you guys described Ed Wood as a “plea for tolerance.” I’m wondering if, when you pitched Big Eyes, was there ever a version that was more pointed along the lines of an agenda: more capital-F feminist? The things people are reading into it are more implied than enunciated in the movie.
Alexander: There was never a pitch actually. It only lived as a spec script.
Karaszewski: It was never more pointed than Margaret was pointed. We were very true to who she is.
Alexander: Or even aware, really. I don’t think she would have looked at herself as, “Oh, I am a feminist role model.” It’s absolutely not something that would cross her mind in those terms. She doesn’t think that way. She was just trying to look out for herself and her daughter.
Karaszewski: But, I do think that’s something that’s happened to a lot of women. My mother was one of them; she stayed married to my father for 20 years in the same exact time period, and the only reason they didn’t get divorced was that she was a Catholic girl, and it was a sin, and, you know, she certainly didn’t consider herself feminist. But she wound up doing a very Margaret-like thing: grabbing all the kids in the middle of the night, driving away, getting a job, and working for herself. This was right around the same time period. So I think this is something that just happened to American women during this time. So Margaret’s story hits home.
Alexander: I haven’t read them in a while, but you have to look at the stories in the news from when Margaret went public. The first time she outed Walter. There was a People magazine profile, in 1971, I think, and I don’t think any of these issues appeared in it. It was really more about, “My husband is a liar, I’ve been living a lie, and now I’m telling the truth.” That was how the story was framed in its time period, so…
In the context of artwork alone, or…?
Alexander: In the context of Margaret coming clean after lying for all these years.
Karaszewski: It was framed as an art-world thing, not a feminist thing.
Alexander: So it’s interesting for us now to look back at it.
Karaszewski: At that screening the other night we had a woman come up to us, who was a painter, and she barely knew the story before she saw the film—and she’s a female painter who signs her name with her initials.
Alexander: She gave me her card with her paintings on it, and it’s her initials and her last name, because she says, “People don’t buy women’s art.”
Karaszewski: She’s like, “It’s gotten a little better, but not that much better.”
So, this opens up a question about verisimilitude. One of the things about this and also Ed Wood is, there’s no real judgment made about the work in question. It’s an interesting approach for a biopic, as most would climax with 45 minutes of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.
Karaszewski: Because most biopics are the Great Man biopics. They’re being told because somebody did this one amazing accomplishment.
Alexander: I mean, who doesn’t like Louis Pasteur? [Both laugh] What’s not to love? Of course he deserves a movie.
Karaszewski: We deal with characters who are more on the fringe of society—kind of really isolated, just being people who are looked down upon, whether it’s Ed Wood or Margaret Keane or Larry Flynt. Even to a certain degree Andy Kaufman, who was certainly more successful than these guys, but still—you know, basically invented comedy that didn’t make you laugh. So he had a lot of scorn directed against him. Because we’re dealing with these characters with an innate conflict with society, we just find it so much more interesting, to let the audience judge their work for itself. I also think part of the reason we do this is, once you know these people’s personal stories, it does give the work a different feeling. Ed Wood, once you know he was really a transvestite, he made Glen or Glenda? for personal reasons, it becomes an intriguing experimental film, as opposed to just something to laugh at. Same with Margaret. Yes, it’s considered kitsch if you’re looking at it in the context of Walter’s masculinity. It makes no sense why this man is painting sad children and puppies. But if you’re seeing it at Woolworth’s, as anonymous art, it means nothing. But if you know it’s a woman who’s trapped, and those eyes are crying because she’s actually in pain, it creates a whole other feeling, a personal statement.
I’ve read that Christoph Waltz tried to avoid reproducing the “real” Walter Keane, and did a more interpretive performance. Were you guys aware of this?
Alexander: It’s cute that he says that. In fairness, we didn’t have one frame of videotape to work off of. Larry and I tried in vain, for years, to find footage of Walter and, I mean, really, all Christoph had available was text. If he wanted to read articles, or see photographs, you can. If you wanna talk about his side of the story. But there was no film. Now, yesterday, CBS News magically rediscovered a piece of a tape with Walter on The Merv Griffith Show, which we had never seen before. I actually shot the Weinstein Company an email asking them, “We gotta see this!” So, Christoph was sort of restricted, whereas Amy actually got to sit with Margaret.
Karaszewski: But also, he made a concerted attempt. He read Walter’s autobiography, but the problem is his autobiography is completely mad, he’s totally off the rails.
Karaszewski: Yeah. And so I read halfway through that, and I was like, “This isn’t helping me. This isn’t a real human being either, this is a delusional guy… “
Alexander: The guy in our script is a consistent character from beginning to end. But the guy in this book was flying on Cloud 28. You should read it, just for the entertainment value. He has “the gods of the arts pantheon,” and I don’t quite know who these figures are supposed to be, but he’s written a bunch of celestial beings floating in the clouds, with pillars like Michelangelo, Gaugin, and at the end of the book Walter is appointed and gets to be up there with the others.
Karaszewski: I believe it’s his dead grandmother telling him about this.
Alexander: Yeah. She comes to him and says, “Walter, you’ve been appointed by the others.”
It’s a whole other movie, then.
Alexander: A science-fiction film. Exactly.
Or you could do it Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby style.
Karaszewski: Well, it’s funny you should say that. Right there is something we were really trying to avoid.
Alexander: Making the movie three times over? [laughs]
Karaszewski: We really didn’t want to do the he-said-she-said thing. We were given the rights by Margaret, and we only did that by assuring her we were going tell her story. She was really worried that there was still going to be some mystery about who really did the paintings. She didn’t want the movie to take Walter’s side.
Alexander: That might sound like bullshit. I’m assuming you believed what you saw in the movie, right? Because Walter loved the propaganda wars. He loved the camera. He died in 2000 and, right up until then, he was still doing interviews, claiming he was the painter. “Ignore that lady in the corner.” And Margaret is a very reticent person, so when she would choose to allow a reporter to come by and talk to her, those instances were few and far between. And so in 2003, when we had the idea to make this movie, it was still confusing. Because Walter had put out such a convincing scenario, so much disinformation, that Margaret was completely, legitimately concerned: “Which version of the movie are you guys going to make?” Because the world was still kind of confused. Despite the Honolulu Opinion. Okay, fine, the jury decided Margaret’s favor…