From director Tim Burton, Big Eyes tells the fantastically outrageous true story of one of the most unbelievable and epic art frauds in history. The paintings of waifs with big eyes that Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) worked tirelessly on, day and night, received huge international success in the 1960s, but it was her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), who took credit for all of her work.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon) talked about why the like to examine the previously unexamined, how obsessive they get with their research, what initially attracted them to the story of Margaret Keane, and how they feel Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz embodied the Keanes. They also talked about their work on the upcoming TV series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, that they’re writing and showrunning for Ryan Murphy to direct, how the story will be structured, and the fantastic cast (which includes Cuba Gooding Jr, Sarah Paulson and David Schwimmer), as well as their approach to the Goosebumps movie.
SCOTT ALEXANDER: I’m a little disturbed that I’m only 51. I’m not ready to die. That is the odd thing of getting a lifetime achievement award. You’re supposed to give that award to Billy Wilder and Robert Towne. But it’s quite an honor, particularly when you look at the other people that have won.
LARRY KARASZEWSKI: It’s a good list. The crazy honor that our mind is blown right this second on is the current issue of Written By magazine, which is the Writers Guild magazine, and we’re on the cover of, but drawn as Margaret Keane figures, by an artist named Drew Friedman, who does New Yorker covers. It’s mind-blowing to look at this caricature of us on the cover of the Writers Guild magazine.
When you’re writing biographical movies, of which you’ve done a few now, it seems as though it’s no easy task, considering the amount of information you have to sift through to narrow it down to a digestible movie. Did you intentionally set out to become the go-to guys for these kinds of movies, or was it more just about doing a good job at one, and then getting asked to do another?
KARASZEWSKI: It wasn’t so much about being asked to do another. We did Ed Wood because we were at a point in our career where we had written the Problem Child movies, and we just really wanted to do redo our career and write a movie that was cool and that we wanted to see. So, we did Ed Wood, and it changed our lives. We looked around and realized that the biopic genre was really musty. It was a genre where there were a lot of three-hour, dull films in the canon. We thought, looking at Ed Wood as an example, we could bring a new life to it by examining these lives that had, until now, been unexamined. We wanted to go for characters that were swimming against the mainstream, on the fringe of pop culture. There wasn’t this biopic before us. I can only think of one, which is Sid & Nancy, but the Sex Pistols had an impact. With Ed Wood, Larry Flynt and Andy Kaufman, who’s a comedian that didn’t tell jokes, those are guys off the beaten track a bit. So, what we’ve discovered is that doing that gives us an inherent sense of conflict because society is telling these characters that they’re wrong, right off the bat. They’ve got some crazy big idea, whether it’s telling Ed that he’s the worst filmmaker of all time, or that Margaret’s art is not fit to be in a gallery, and they are characters that are swimming in the other direction. We just came up with a bunch of thoughts about how to redo the genre, by limiting the amount of years and covering the least amount of ground as possible. And every time we did one, it got made and we were much more a part of the whole process. If you write a family comedy, a writer can sometimes be disposable. But on these movies, we were right next to Milos [Forman] and Tim [Burton], and the scripts came out the way we saw them, so it was a good experience.
When you take on a real-life story, how do you approach deciding how close you’ll stick to the story and where you’ll deviate, so that you write a compelling movie without getting too far off of the facts?
ALEXANDER: We really, really work to make it as spot-on as we can, within our obsession with sticking to a tight three-act structure. We do a lot of research. We do so much research that we would almost be self-destructive, if we weren’t trying to stick to the facts, as well as we can. It’s funny, when we did our first biopic, which was Ed Wood, we probably only research it for maybe a month or so because there was so little material out there. We just got the broad strokes, and then we had to fill in the rest with our imagination. But starting with Larry Flynt, and all the ones we’ve done since then, we’d happily spend six months, just in research mode. The joy for us is that these are completely obscure subjects. It’s fun, just to dig through the micro-fiche and the periodicals index. On some of the projects, we’ve had access to people and we do a lot of interviewing. We type up the transcripts, and then we highlight the transcripts and type up the highlights. And then, you organize the highlighting by characters, or in chronology of all the key events.
Up until that point, it’s not unlike someone who’s writing a new biography of Teddy Roosevelt. You’re just trying to compile as much information as you can. We try to figure out, as early on as we can, what period of time we’re gonna cover ‘cause that helps us focus our research. If we know that Big Eyes is going to stop at the Honolulu trial, anything that happens after that is unimportant to us. It’s funny, we do all this work and learn so much about these people, and then somebody will ask us a really dumb question like, “Did she ever get married again when she moved back to San Francisco in the ‘90s?” We might not know the answer to a really simple question because it falls outside of our time period. We’re obsessing so much over getting every piece of data from that time period that our brains can only hold so much trivia.
Once we have all that information, then we try to fit it into a three-act structure. We move things around a little bit, just so it has a forward-momentum to it, and it has a protagonist and an antagonist, and supporting characters that show up semi-regularly. The big decision with these kind of adaptations of real life into drama is that we have to drop a lot. People, a lot of times, don’t understand that. You’re taking someone’s whole life, or a big part of it, and turning it into two hours, so you have to make decisions.
This is such a quirky story about a bizarre relationship and an even more bizarre battle over art. What initially made you want to tell this story, and how do you stay so dedicated to something when it takes so long to finally get it into production?
KARASZEWSKI: One of the reasons we really fell in love with Margaret’s story is that it had so much going on in it. It had all the weird plot stuff, but it also had all this stuff underneath it with high art vs. low art and art vs. commerce, and female empowerment. It starts with this 1950s housewife who had the stand-by-your-man philosophy, and becomes this woman in the early ‘70s who stands on her own and speaks her own mind and stands up for herself. Margaret Keane would never call herself a feminist, but it’s there in the DNA of the material. So, we just fell in love with this. We stuck with it because we always had just enough encouragement to keep it going. We always knew that we wanted to make it as an independent project, so we always owned it and had control of it. And every time we were just about ready to give up, we’d get a phone call from a great actress, or we’d get a phone call from a producer who had found the money someplace.
It always had this feeling that it was just about to get made, which was problematic ‘cause we put our career on hold for a good seven years or so. We always thought we were just about ready to make Big Eyes. At a certain point, two years ago, we said, “This movie has to get made. How could we possibly get this movie made, right now?” When we got the rights from Margaret Keane, she was in her late ‘70s, and now she’s in her late ‘80s, and we really felt a commitment to this woman. Tim [Burton] was on, as a producer, and we knew that he was looking for a smaller movie to do, after all the tentpoles that he had been doing, so we approached him and said, “You’re the only guy we would say this to, but we will swap places with you. You direct it and we’ll produce, and let’s see if we can get this movie made, right away.” And Tim was game. It came together really quickly, at that point.
This is definitely one of those stories where the truth is far stranger than fiction ever could have been. How many times over the years, when people read this script or you talked about what you were working on, did they question that this was really a true story?
KARASZEWSKI: Honestly, that never really came up. They always knew it was a true story, but they always questioned certain parts of it. During all the years, we saw so many actors and actresses, as Margaret and Walter, over the years, and nobody ever said, “Did this really happen?” But a lot of people said, “He didn’t really cross-examine himself, did he?” And we have to say, “Yes, he did.” If anything, we toned down the court. He actually did that crazy stuff. What always grounded it was Margaret. My mom was married to my dad for 20 years longer than she probably should have been because she was a good Catholic girl and it was a mortal sin for her to get divorced, so she stayed with him. He wasn’t quite like Walter. He didn’t physically abuse her, but it was constant psychological abuse. We just got thrown into the back of the car, one night, when she couldn’t take it anymore. So, even though the story is so crazy, I felt like there always was this underlying sadness and universal truth about what was happening to women, at that time, that always remained grounded, no matter how crazy Walter and the whole art world story got.
ALEXANDER: After all these various versions of the movie, we really scored with Amy and Christoph. Walter is the showboat, but we chose to make Margaret the protagonist. It was a challenge to write, and probably even harder to play because Margaret is the main character, but she barely talks. Margaret was so introverted. Margaret didn’t have anyone to confide in. In terms of just giving an actress scenes to play, she’s on this journey of being completely subjugated, and then gradually getting frustrated and afraid, and then builds up her confidence where she can finally leave him. Amy had to play most of that silent. In a normal movie, the lead character would have a friend to talk to and say, “Boy, I can’t believe this crappy situation I’ve gotten myself into with this bad husband I’ve got. He’s taking credit for my paintings, and I’m just so frustrated.” She never has that conversation once, with anybody in the movie, because she’s not allowed to. It’s this giant secret, and Walter has made her feel completely afraid that she can’t ever discuss it because she’s complicit.
It was really magical, especially watching Amy in dailies. When you’re watching dailies, if you’re on a close-up on Amy, you’re watching the entire scene in that close-up because the movie hasn’t been cut yet. And for most of that shot, odds are, she wouldn’t be talking because we gave Christoph all of the fun dialogue. So, he gets to carry the scene, but you’re watching all of these flickers of emotion and self-doubt. You can see her wanting to speak up, but then squashing that down. And then, you can see that she’s angry at herself. He’ll say something charming, and then she resolves herself that she loves him. You can always see ideas moving across her face, without her speaking, and it was really wonderful. When the movie was in post-production, you would feel more for Margaret, the more the movie played on Amy’s silent moments. It was really interesting.
Do you think Margaret Keane would have ever achieved the same level of fame, recognition and acclaim on her own?
ALEXANDER: Absolutely not! Margaret is the first to admit that without Walter’s showmanship and promotion, she would still be sitting in a stall in a park in San Francisco, painting charcoals for $5.
KARASZEWSKI: What makes Walter such an interesting villain is that he’s really good at what he does. The villain is usually fighting against the protagonist, and in an artistic way, he is, but Walter can’t understand what Margaret is complaining about. Everything he’s promised has come true. The success is unbelievable. He’s taken these paintings that were literally in the park and turned them into a worldwide phenomenon. They got a bigger house. They’ve got all the money they could possibly need. He’s like, “Why are you complaining? Why can’t you just be happy, woman?!”
KARASZEWSKI: We were developing it for quite a long time before Ryan got attached, and now Ryan is on board and he’s amazing. He’s fantastic. He’s primarily directing, and we’re primarily writing, but we’re working hand-in-hand.
How do you make a story like that compelling, when everyone knows the outcome of what happened?
ALEXANDER: That show is not about whodunit. The show is using Jeffrey Toobin’s book as a jumping off point, and the Toobin book says, “Okay, it looks like he killed them. Let’s examine why he got off, and let’s look at the political and racial media events of the time, and certain decisions by the prosecution and the defense, and the relationship of the LAPD with the black community of Los Angeles, and the invention of the 24-hour news cycle, and the invention of reality television and cameras in the courtroom.” All of that came together to force the issue, with a four-hour jury deliberation and O.J. walking. It’s a giant tapestry of events and people. We’re having a blast. It’s a big, ambitious extravaganza.
Are you guys just writing the first two hours?
KARASZEWSKI: We wrote the bible for the full 10 hours, and we’re working as showrunners. So, we’re probably officially writing four or five of the 10, and then we’re supervising the others.
You have a cast that includes Cuba Gooding Jr as O.J. Simpson, Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian.
KARASZEWSKI: Schwimmer is my dream Robert Kardashian. At one of our first meetings, I said, “This has to be David Schwimmer.” I’m so happy that we got him. He is going to be so great.
ALEXANDER: We got the A-team. Everyone is going to be so great in these parts.
KARASZEWSKI: I’ve always admired Sarah Paulson, as an actress, but Ryan has given her such a vehicle to play and shine. She’s going to be a perfect Marcia Clark.
KARASZEWSKI: There’s a weird connection, which blows our minds, as well. They came to us about doing Goosebumps. They had the rights to all these books and they didn’t know what to do with them because there were hundreds. We realized that you can’t base the movie on any one of these books because they’re slight. They’re meant to be for young readers, and there’s not really a lot going on. So, our approach was to do a meta version of one of our movies, where the story is about a fictional version of R.L. Stine, the author. We mixed the reality that R.L. Stine is the author of the Goosebumps books, but in this project, the monsters that he is typing up actually become real. It becomes a very weird, meta horror movie.
How did you guys come to be writing together, and what do you each bring to the table with your work, that makes you feel like you’re a stronger partnership than working individually?
KARASZEWSKI: Well, Scott does all the work, and I take all the credit, like Walter and Margaret. We were college roommates. We met talking about old exploitation horror films, and we became good friends. We wrote a script while we were in college and it magically sold. So, a couple weeks after we graduated, we have been staring at each other in an office, ever since. It just seems to work. We actually work together, every day. Scott sits down at the keyboard and I pace around the room, and we beat out the project on old-fashioned index cards. It sounds silly to say this, but we treat it like a job.
Big Eyes is now playing in theaters.