On the surface, Big Eyes — which tells the story of how a charismatic fraudster became a celebrity artist by passing off his wife’s paintings as his own — marks a change of tone for director Tim Burton, known for his darkly supernatural, highly-stylized oeuvre. Set in California, the film is an account of actual events, shot in vibrant color. But with a closer look, this real-life narrative could be ripped straight out of a warped fairytale.
“It felt like material I could relate to,” Burton told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s New York City premiere, held on an unseasonably warm Monday night at the Museum of Modern Art. “The story is fantastical, and it’s real. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.”
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski penned the script. “We worked with him twenty years ago [on the biopic Ed Wood]. It’s a great combination, us and him — we both love these fringe characters on the margins of pop culture,” Karaszewksi explained. “We look at them in a very sympathetic light.”
In this case, the fringe characters are Walter and Margaret Keane, played by Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams, a married couple who unleashed a flood of paintings depicting children and animals with unnaturally big eyes onto the cultural scene in the ’50s and ’60s. In 1970, events took a profoundly strange turn when Margaret revealed that she, not Walter, has been producing the “big eyes” portraits all along.
Grounding the film in real events allowed its performances to come to the forefront. “Tim has always been great with very simple scenes with actors. People often overlook that because his movies are so full of spectacle and effects, but he always gets amazing performances,” explained Alexander. “This is just stripping it down to the basics. I think Tim came at it in a very unadorned fashion — as a director, he was going to tell the story and not try to impose anything upon it.”
Waltz was drawn to the fervid complexity of the emotionally abusive Walter, he told reporters. “I really got passionate about it, because this man was extraordinary! He had a vision, and followed it without really knowing the consequences. Those people are usually who change the world. He was experimenting, and when the experiment worked, he followed it with everything he had. When one does that for too long, without a careful plan, I suppose you push it over the cliff, sooner or later.”
Waltz, Adams and Burton were joined at the screening — presented by The Weinstein Company in partnership with Fiji Water and Lexus — by fellow cast members Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston and Krysten Ritter, along with guests Patrick Stewart, Brooke Shields, Cuba Gooding Jr, John Corbett and Helena Christensen, among others. The premiere was directly followed by a bash at Kappo Masa, Larry Gagosian’s restaurant located directly beneath his flagship gallery.
Introducing the film, producer Harvey Weinstein recounted watching footage of the real Walter Keane on The Merv Griffin Show, and thinking, “Margaret Keane is right — this guy is as crazy as I’ve ever seen anybody,” he recalled to the audience. Soon after, Weinstein called Keane, now 87, to the stage, and in what must have been a surreal moment, she was escorted to the front of the theater by Waltz, her husband revitalized.
When asked how it felt to see her story come to life on the big screen, Margaret told reporters, “It’s like being in a Tim Burton movie — I just can’t believe it.”
Big Eyes hits theaters Dec. 25.