Tim Burton: "There's a fine line between good and bad" in movies

The "Big Eyes" director on outsider art, casting Christoph Waltz, and his own creative evolution

Published January 3, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

Tim Burton       (Reuters/Yuriko Nakao)
Tim Burton (Reuters/Yuriko Nakao)

"Big Eyes" tells the fascinating, little-known story of art world plagiarist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), whose kitschy paintings of skinny children with big eyes catapulted him to success and made him a multimillionaire during the '60s, despite garnering widespread derision from the high art establishment. Yet in a remarkable twist, it turned out that Walter hadn't painted the "Big Eyes" children at all: They were the work of his wife, Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), who had been forced into years of secrecy and submission by her domineering and psychologically abusive husband. Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote Burton's "Ed Wood," another film about an outsider artist, the film is a portrait of '60s marriage and sexual and psychological oppression, as well as a love story to the act of artistic creation and an interrogation of the culturally imposed divide between "good" and "bad art."

"Big Eyes" is the smallest and least special-effects-driven film that Burton has made in years (and also the first in a while that doesn't star Johnny Depp). Yet as much as it's a departure from the CGI-filled spectacles of recent years, it's also distinctly a Tim Burton film, grappling with many of the same themes that the iconic filmmaker has dealt with over the course of his career, particularly the idea of people living on the margins. I talked to Burton about being shunned by critics, the shadow of "Batman," and the similarities between Margaret Keane's career and his own.

The first thing I noticed about the film was how much the "Big Eyes" characters looked like Tim Burton characters.

Their pupils are bigger than mine!

I know you've said at various times that you grew up looking at these paintings. Do you think they influenced your artistic vision in your career at all?

Well, I think as a cultural thing. I don’t think, artistically, they were necessarily an influence. But just growing up in that sort of cultural moment, it’s very much part of that era. Sort of like a weird dream -- these images stayed with you. And I think they stay with you not because you love the paintings, I actually find them quite disturbing. I think it’s just the juxtaposition of these cute children and yet at the same time being slightly frightening and weird and disturbing in a way.

I guess I’m thinking of the guy in "Night Before Christmas." They have similar facial proportions.

Well, he has no eyes! But I guess, you know I think most inspirations, the truest ones are not ones that you consciously think about. That’s what I’m saying. Because it was so part of your DNA at that time, in some ways anything like that is an inspiration. You’re not even aware of it but it’s just part of your culture.

The film is in one sense about an outsider artist who failed to find acceptance from the mainstream art world, and your whole career has sort of dealt with these people who are on the margins. Is that a story you identify with personally?

Oh, absolutely. I’ve had that happen my whole life. That’s why I loved doing "Ed Wood": There’s a fine line between what’s good and bad, and I’ve been there many, many times myself. When there was that MOMA show a few years ago of my stuff it got completely trashed by critics: “Worse than Keane," you know. Yet at the same time it had one of the highest attendance ratings of any show. So I've experienced those ups and downs and highs and lows and polarization of opinions about things. So yeah, I definitely felt very connected to that.

Do you see this film as a creative evolution for you?

Not really -- I feel like after doing all these big-budgeted special effects films it was nice to move quick. I mean, it had its limitations, but that was fun. It kind of reconnected me to why you like making movies; you kind of get in there, you move fast, and I really enjoyed that. So in that particular sense, I’d never really quite done that.

I heard getting all the paintings ready for the film was quite a feat.

Yeah, you know Amy spent a day with Margaret [Keane] and she actually picked up quite a lot. She’s a quick study, Amy. When Margaret leaves Amy could take over if she wanted to, because she’s quite good.

And I understand you have a number of Keane paintings in your personal collection at home.

Yeah, well I actually commissioned a couple. It was interesting because obviously I’d worked with Scott and Larry on "Ed Wood" and I didn't know they were writing a script, but in a parallel universe a friend told me the story and I got interested kind of separately. And then I was in San Francisco and I tracked Margaret Keane down and met her and commissioned a painting from her. And then it was a couple of years later when I found out that Scott and Larry had written the script. So we were kind of working on parallel universes in the lead-up to this project.

Did you have any qualms about casting Christoph Waltz as yet another villainous charmer?

No, because Christoph’s the type of actor — I mean, I don’t think he would consider Walter a bad guy, but he always finds a different shade to something. In this case, I’ve never seen him be so out there, just, "Let’s put on a show," so outgoing. And it's not easy to mix heart and humor and charm and bullying and scariness altogether, and he always finds a different shade of that in anything I’ve ever seen him do. So he’s great that way.

The film balanced a lot of different tones; it was serious in parts but others were very cartoonish and over-the-top. I’m thinking a little of the courtroom scene where Walter plays both lawyer and defendant.

Reading the transcripts, it was worse than that. Some people, when they watch the film they think we’re making a mockery of our court system, but in fact we had to tone it down; he did cross-examine himself, he did do all that stuff and worse. It was so outlandish nobody would believe it.

The film certainly inhabited that surrealist tone.

Well, that was Walter. Walter was — I don’t know what psychological term — sociopath, delusional, whatever you want to label it as. But that's what he was, and probably even more so.

I know Christoph Waltz said he didn’t look at source material to research the part, whereas I know that Amy did quite a lot of research and spent some time with Margaret.

Every actor has their way of working, and I always try to allow people enough freedom, because you want to allow people to get the best out of themselves in their own way. And obviously Amy had the luxury because Margaret was alive, and also it's a much more subtle, internal character. So i think from her perspective it was a good thing and really necessary and I’m really glad she did it. Like I said, Amy’s a quick study and I think she really got Margaret like that. Because it’s hard to put that kind of character on the stage. Walter is something you can see. Also, if you read his autobiography that he was writing near the end of his life, I think Christoph said he made it to about page 20. I get it, from his point of view -- there's not much you can really get from it, and I get that. So you put that in conjunction with the way actors approach the way they like to work, and I tried to allow each one to work the way they like to work.

The film asks this question about what art is, whether it's just something that resonates emotionally or whether it needs some sort of stamp of approval from the establishment. Is this something you worry about with your films?

Well, this is something I’ve experienced. Like I said, with the MOMA show I had that exact same experience. With the films, same thing. In some ways I feel quite lucky because the first couple films I did, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Beetlejuice," were on many top 10 worst movies of the year lists. And then at the same time they were enjoyed by some people and later on they became classics, even though they were on the worst 10 movies of the year. And I remember "Batman Returns," half the people come in and go, "It's so much lighter than the first one!" and half go, "It's so much darker than the first one." And I found that fascinating. How can something... dark and light are opposites! So I found that again fascinating, people’s perception. That's why I tried to put Jason [Schwartzman] and Terence [Stamp] as the voices of a lot of people that felt that kind of thing. And then there were the other people that loved it. And that quote from Warhol about "If it was so bad why did so many people like it"; it’s an interesting question that doesn’t quite have an answer.

Like many of your films, the Big Eyes paintings sort of attained cult status after the fact.

Like I said, in the time I grew up they were very present in the culture. You forget a lot of things in your life as you get older, but those images sort of remain. And so whether you hate it or not, there's still something there, because there's a lot of people ripping it off. It did become like a movement. And it's like, jeez. But there were lots of other artists that tried to copy it, so it shows that it did have a lot of power to it.

Speaking of "Batman Returns" -- have you seen "Birdman" yet?

I haven't. I would love to because I hear Michael is amazing.

Is that exciting for you, to see him experience this sort of career renaissance?

It's great. I love him, and I lose track of time and I’m so happy because he’s such a great actor; that’s why I worked with him. We received a lot of flak on "Batman," casting him, but at the same time,  it’s a bit like Margaret Keane, I found, in the sense that yeah there’s the Joker and everything, but his performance I found really, really great, in that you’re hiding behind a mask and you’re doing all this. From "Beetlejuice" to that, the guy has amazing range.

It's funny because the film was kind of about the psychological damage that being Batman inflicted over the years.

Has "Batman" damaged me? [Laughs]. It's kind of interesting because, again, it’s perception. "Batman" got a lot of criticism at the time. It did well obviously and that's the thing that stuck out, but critically it was not necessarily the most well-received film in the world and yet here we are 50 years later and it's still going on. And that got lambasted for being too dark and now it looks like a lighthearted romp comparatively. So it's interesting how something that gets sort of criticized can become something that continues on for 20, 30 years.

By Anna Silman

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