The story of Margaret and Walter Keane hits close to home for 'Big Eyes' director Tim Burton, as he invites moviegoers to ask: 'What is art?' and 'What makes it good or bad?'
Tim Burton Photo

Tim Burton with Margaret Keane's 'Big Eyes' paintings. (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

“I try to pick the most important figures in history,” Tim Burton joked at a panel event for his new film Big Eyes. While most directors may gravitate towards landmark politicians or vital inventors, Burton has an affinity for artists struggling to be their idiosyncratic selves. Ed Wood, his only other film based on a true story, centered on the titular filmmaker, known for his sci-fi kitsch. Big Eyes is even more intimate, chronicling the behind-closed-doors lives of Margaret Keane, known for her “Big Eyes” paintings, and her husband Walter, who purported to be the artist of those works for more then 25 years. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz inhabit the lives of the married couple, whose story, Burton said, was never really told, even after a 1985 trial vindicated Margaret's claims. “It wasn’t a scandal on the front of the New York Times, it was on the third page of the Honolulu Times. Documented, but most of us didn’t know about it.”

Throughout the 1960s, Margaret Keane produced hundreds of Big Eyes, sold in galleries and reprinted for mass distribution. Despite New York Times art critic John Canaday calling the Big Eyes “the very definition of tasteless hack work,” the Keanes' paintings carved out their place in pop culture, eventually nabbing a spot at the 1964 World’s Fair. Millions were made, but it took Margaret painting an original Big Eyes in the presence of a Hawaii jury to finally earn her a chunk of the cash.

Burton, Adams, and Waltz participated in a conversation at New York's 92Y for Big Eyes, a film that earned both actors 2014 Golden Globes nominations. Here are six insights we picked up at the event:

- Known for darker fairy tales like Alice in Wonderland, Edward Scissorhands, and Beetlejuice, Burton said that he was attracted to Margaret Keane's story because of critical reactions to his own art. Growing up in the 1960s and '70s, the director saw the Keanes' artwork all over the California's suburbs. “People didn’t have Picassos and Matisses on the walls. They had Keanes. That was my introduction to art,” he recalled. When he began shooting Hollywood studio movies, the fantastical dramas that made his name synonymous with the macabre, he ran into a problem the Keanes faced. No one considered his work “art.” For Burton, Big Eyes was a story worth telling because of the “question of what’s good or what’s bad. How people see things. Is it art? When I was a child and I’d see these things hanging in someone’s living room, I questioned, 'Why do these people have a crying child in their living room?' [The paintings are] like a dream. They haunt you.”

Christoph Waltz Amy Adams Big Eyes Photo

Christoph Waltz plays the conniving Walter Keane, while Amy Adams plays wife Margaret, the true artist of the 'Big Eyes' paintings. (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

- The moderator asked Burton what made Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz the right fit for their real world counterparts. He called Water Keane a charm, humor, threat, and sadness. Waltz added a bigness to that, a cinematic showmanship. “[Walter] was a combination of all the things people have in themselves but at an extreme level,” Burton said. “When Margaret saw the film, she was amazed how much. 'That’s how he was,' she said.”

Burton said that Margaret was more difficult to understand, even with an insightful script from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who previously wrote Ed Wood for the director (and first met the painter in 2003). Being so internal meant leaving most of her thoughts unsaid, out of dialogue, out of the script. It’s hard to put on the page because it’s so internal. “When I talked to Amy, without really knowing her, I 100 percent trusted her to get it,” Burton said. “To play something so internal, so emotional without doing something, it’s like a silent movie actor. I almost cried every time I saw her — and I mean that in a good way!”

Jason Schwartzman Big Eyes Photo

Jason Schwartzman plays a gallery owner who shuns Margaret Keane's work as real art. (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

- Adams acknowledged that a complex mind grappling with major life choices worked tirelessly behind Margaret's silent exterior. Walking away from one failed relationship, Margaret landed in Walter's arms, sped through marriage vows, accepted a subservient role painting for her husband, then fled to Hawaii, leaving Walter, when enough was finally enough. The trial that eventually pulled back the curtain on the Keanes's life story was one last big leap. Adams had the advantage of meeting Margaret in real life — a necessary asset, as there were no interviews, television appearances, or historical records on her life as a painter.

This was an essential moment for Adams, who picked up mannerisms and speech patterns from Margaret. Accuracy was important to Burton. “Sometimes you want to honor them and the director’s artistic vision takes you off. Tim’s didn’t,” Adams said. Not all biographical roles demand that kind of precision, and not all subjects appreciate that fudging of truth. Adams said that her character Charlene in The Fighter was one instance where fact and fiction completely blurred. “That was a girl you did not want to crush,” she said. “She was not happy with several of the wardrobe choices, she said she didn’t swear that much, and she said the only time she got in a fight was one time at a bar. She was very mad about the fighting. But I really liked her! And meeting helped. Margaret was a lot more supporting of everything.”

- Adams tipped her hat to two interesting personal facts during the interview. The actress said that during their meeting together, Margaret was finally comfortable with the idea of Adams portraying her in Burton's film after talking about faith. Where was their religious common ground? When Margaret walked out on Walter and moved with her daughter to Hawaii, she became a Jehovah's Witnesses. Adams has experience in more modern Christian iterations; She grew up Mormon before leaving the church in the wake of her parents' divorce.

Amy Adams Christoph Waltz Big Eyes Photo

(Photo: The Weinstein Company)

- “[Walter] was probably one of the first ones to shamelessly and consciously commodify art,” Waltz said of his character. Despite being an abusive figure, both the actor and Burton acknowledge that, without Walter's devious actions, no one would know of Margaret's Big Eyes paintings. Walter took the paintings to the public, wooed potential buyers with their mystique, then, when popularity exploded, became one of the first artists to open his or her own gallery and replicate art prints. “He was a maniac,” Burton said. “At the same time, Margaret says without him it would never have seen the light of day. He was crucial.”

- While conversation veered toward research and understanding of reality, Waltz insisted that the crowd be lenient on Big Eyes and all biopics when it came to the details. He went on the offensive when it came to his own relationship to the real-life Walter Keane (who passed away in 2000). “What’s that obsession with true stories? Why does it have to be true in what we call 'real life'?” he wondered aloud. For Waltz, Walter's manipulative, charming nature glowed off the page. Everything we see is a version of the man fit for Burton's film. "I really think our work is not the work of biographers or scientists," Waltz stated. "We’re not academics. I’m an actor and Tim is an artist. That’s a reality. It’s just not necessarily the reality of vernacular terms. It’s not unreal what we’re doing."