Tim Burton might be one of the most successful commercial filmmakers working today, but he’s not your typical one. Burton’s playfully gloomy visions of death and decay have developed into a brand unlike anything else produced by Hollywood studios. Burton may be Tinseltown’s resident goth auteur, but he didn’t have the easiest time getting there. He was fired by Disney more than once in the eighties and even now his darker works prevent serious marketing challenges for the studio system that has to date produced all of his feature work: Neither “Frankenweenie” nor “Sweeney Todd” could approach the box office fire of “Alice in Wonderland.” Whenever Burton creates his most typical work, he’s still an outsider.
Perhaps for that reason, Burton’s studio-based approach to his vision has always struck me as a futile cause. Successful enough to produce work beyond those boundaries without worrying too much about the commercial outcome, Burton has been poised to try out the indie experience for years. Finally, it looks like that’s going to happen, with yesterday’s news that Burton has been hired to direct the drama “Big Eyes” for The Weinstein Company after initially becoming involved as a producer. The movie, which focuses on real-life couple Walter and Margaret Keane — known for painting children with bulging eyes in the ’50s and ’60s that straddled a line between creepy and cute — stars Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams.
Working with one of the biggest indie distributors on a star-studded project, Burton isn’t exactly abandoning the industry. But he does appear to be trying out the sort of smaller scale production that he’s been contemplating for some time, as he explained to me when I interviewed him late last year. In a conversation ahead of the release of “Frankenweenie,” I asked Burton why he bothers making studio movies now that he has the capacity to work independently with minimum risk. “I’ve definitely been thinking about stuff that way,” he said. “When you don’t have the pressure of gigantic budgets…it can be good. Since I’ve only done studio things, it’s like stepping into a whole other world. At some point, I should be ready for it.”
It would appear that moment has arrived, although it’s not entirely unprecedented. By working on a true life story grounded in a handful of characters, Burton seems to be developing a project along the lines of his acclaimed “Ed Wood,” which many people consider to be his finest work even though it was his least commercially successful. Appropriately enough, “Big Eyes” was scripted by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, who also wrote “Ed Wood.” While Burton may have nothing to lose by returning to a smaller scale, he may have a shot at regaining the critical support he found with that movie. “Even right up until a film comes out, I don’t know how it will do,” he told me last year. “‘Ed Wood’ was probably my best-reviewed movie. Anybody who talks to me says it’s one of their favorites. And yet that was maybe the biggest bomb of all. And then some movies that people think are shit go off and make a bunch of money. I never know.”
With “Big Eyes” scheduled for production this year, we’ll all know soon enough.