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How Christoph Waltz Got ‘Big Eyes’ Made

How Christoph Waltz Got 'Big Eyes' Made

Filmmakers Tim Burton did embrace “Ed Wood,” and Milos Forman championed both “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and Andy Kaufman portrait “Man on the Moon.” But many other scripts sat on the shelf, from “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” to biopics about the Marx Brothers, The Village People, Sid and Marty Krofft and Rollen Stewart a.k.a. “Rainbow Man.” 
This time Alexander and Karaszewski were hoping to direct “Big Eyes” themselves. But when suddenly Christoph Waltz offered an opportunity to get the film made, they grabbed that chance. We spoke on the phone about how their Weinstein Co. Christmas movie finally came about, below. 

Next up for the duo: they’ve spent almost a year writing a ten-hour FX mini-series, their first foray into television, for producer Nina Jacobson (“The Hunger Games”).  It’s about the OJ Simpson trial, which is too “unbelievably rich,” says Karaszewski, to be done as a movie in just two hours. It’s based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book “The Run of His Life: The People vs. OJ Simpson and makes connections to Rodney King and the LA Riots and Johnny Cochran’s life-long obsession with the LAPD’s sorry relationship with South Central, as well as how the way the media covered the trial brought the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and reality TV, among other things. Ryan Murphy directs the pilot and some episodes; the series starts shooting in April. 

Anne Thompson: How do you two write together? 
Larry Karaszewski: We treat it like job, we go back and forth to an office. Scott sits at the computer, I pace. 
Scott Alexander: I’m on the keyboard and Larry’s on the couch. He’s supine, I’m pacing in my mind. We talk on, we talk to each other. 

What grabbed you about the story of Walter and Margaret Keane? 

Kareszewski:
 Primarily, we wanted to find a fascinating story. We love these sort of fringe tales away from the mainstream. We stumbled on a great piece of Americana that had ever been told. The Keanes seemed to be so successful in the 1960s, but people don’t know what happened behind the scenes. When they were successful, Walter was the face. When Margaret proved to the world that she was the artist, they were way past their peak. People still come into the Keane gallery thinking it’s Walter. 
The movie marks the intersection of high art and low art art and commerce. And it’s a little bit of a feminist story from the 50s through the 70s, as Margaret, like a lot of women, went from a suburban 50s housewife to a woman able to speak in her own voice. The elements came together of the story we had to tell.

Alexander: 
We started to conceive the movie back in 2003. We thought it would be the little indie that we were going to get into production nine months later. On a basic level, as soon as we did a day of homework looking into it we got excited. It has two great parts and great stuff. Any time you come on one of these true stories and they seem like great characters, you ask, ‘is it an interesting story?’ This was one that nobody knows with good themes.
As we started to shape the movie, the Hungry Eye jazz club where many of the scenes take place kept reminding us of “The Sweet Smell of Success,” with all those scenes with [newspaper columnist] Dick Nolan and Walter planting stories with newspapers. They weren’t getting reaction from art critics or curators or fancy people in Sausalito to throw wine and cheese galas. They didn’t want to meet them. It was Nolan writing his gossip column. Walter was a colorful guy who could fill column inches. They’d hang out together. 
It’s about that desperate need get yourself famous. We had lots of scenes in cramped jazz clubs, we loved that feel—good-looking people in the late 50s falling on top of each other. The club was exciting to us, it was the final nail in the coffin. 
So you tried to make it independently?

Alexander: We wrote the script to be made cheaply with two characters on limited locations. We got Margaret’s rights in 2003 and thought we were going to make it a couple of times. The money was outgoing, nothing was incoming. We were always funding it, all the time. We scouted locations in 2007, then the crash happened, an actress got pregnant and pulled out, we couldn’t get it accomplished. It’s been 11 years.

What made the change to getting a green light?
Karaszweski: Two years ago, Christoph Waltz’s agent asked “what do you think of him in this part?” We thought it was interesting and told Tim who was a producer on the project. He got excited, could totally see him in the film, he hadn’t seemed excited like that before. He wanted to make a smaller film away from the blockbusters. We looked at each other. We wanted to get it made as soon as possible after 11 years. We didn’t tell the producers. We went to Tim personally and said “you can make this now. If you don’t, we’ll do it ourselves. You’re the only person we trust with this material, who will get the tone we’re trying to create.” He was great, he shot “Ed Wood” off our first draft word for word.  Within the week we got Amy Adams and the Weinsteins right away. It took 11 years. but it came together quickly.
Alexander:  The opportunity to chase Christoph was an incoming call. He can do American. Casting Walter was an interesting problem. We were always inundated with 30-year-old-actresses chasing the part of Margaret. But with the guys, maybe we were shooting too big, for the five biggest guys in the world, it was a problem, very upsetting to us and infuriating to Tim. The big superstar guys kept passing, because Walter was a horrible sociopath.

We pictured Robert Mitchum, lots of guys from the 1960s who were perfect: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, those three guys made careers playing flawed anti-heroes. It was a different era. You make the argument that these character actors found their ways into being leading men, they brought a rough outsider quality to their star vehicles. Now you have these blow-dryer good-looking guys who star in movies who don’t have that inherent edge about them. They want to be Euro-friendly and be liked. They found the script distressing. For 30-40 pages, Walter is cool and charming. But what the hell just happened? It’s Margaret’s movie!

This sounds like a foreign sales problem. 

Alexander: Indie financing, everything is run through the sales agents. Foreign markets are driven by the guys. It’s the state of the world. One guy in Korea needed more bang bang. We didn’t have any bang bang. Christoph in the states is known as a character actor, but the Tarantino movies made him so famous. He’s a volatile character actor with rough edges, he’s good-look ing and masculine and charming, he has an air of malevolence. That’s why we got excited about Christoph, to have a character actor as our male lead totally worked for us.

Karaszewski: He’s fine with being an asshole in the end. The way he handles Tarantino speeches, we knew he’d handle Walter Keane’s sales pitch monologues with ease.

Is he sexy though?

Alexander: In those early scenes Christoph seems like quite a catch, he’s a good-looking guy, like a prince on a white horse.

Is it his story or her’s?

Karaszewski: It’s her story, interesting to us. We had never told a bio from the female point of view. On the surface Keane is one of our guys, like Larry Flynt or Ed Wood, he talks about himself in the third person and pushes things forward. But he’s the antagonist not the protagonist. The challenge of the screenplay and the film is to have your lead character not be the person with the most dialogue, to tell the story through her eyes. She has the journey.

I wanted her to stand up to him sooner. She’s a victim.

My mom stayed with my dad for 20 bad years and didn’t leave him because it was a moral sin. She was a good Catholic girl. It wasn’t ’till she couldn’t take it anymore, in the middle of the night, that she left him. It is frustrating, and I wish my mom had done that earlier but she didn’t. The same with Margaret Keane: wouldn’t it have been great if she had stood up to him earlier? But she didn’t. She stands for a lot of women in that period. They took it. It happened to enough women that it became a cultural phenomenon. 

We were so lucky with Amy Adams. She gives an almost silent movie star performance as she looks at him– afraid, in love. It’s like “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” a woman to whom so many horrible things happen. She’s reacting to it. 

Alexander: Christoph is provoking her off camera, and Amy would try all different versions for each take. Take one: a flicker of “should I talk back to him?” Two: a flash of squashing down, “I can’t do that.” Three: we see bit of anger and self-doubt. She’d signal different emotions all with her eyes, amazing.

Do you believe that these paintings are good art? 
Karaszewski: We just got back from Art Basel in Miami where we showed the film to the modern-day Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp characters, a room full of gallery owners and film critics. When you walk through the gallery, the line between art and commerce is totally blurred now, there’s a high art/low art conversation, from salesman Walter Keane to Andy Warhol, Peter Max, Thomas Kincaid, Jeff Koones and Julian Schnabel. If Walter were alive today he wouldn’t have to keep his secret: “I have other people paint paintings, that is my art concept.” Whether it’s good or bad, I’m not prepared to make a statement– it’s effective art. 

When Keane claimed he did the paintings that were in Woolworth’s, they felt like kitsch. When we know the real story of Margaret, that those crying eyes were coming from a place of pain, pressing into the canvas, they take on a different aspect. They had an effect on the art business world and the people who grew up with these paintings. Tim Burton was very influenced: see his “Corpse Bride” characters, or artists Mark Ryden or Yoshitomo Nara from Japan. There’s a school of artists reinterpreting what “Big Eyes” actually were. In the late ’90s Burton commissioned Keane to do a portrait of children and Helena.

Alexander:  We’re not asking you to take it seriously. It’s interesting to contextualize it back in the day. Watching Walter on The Tonight Show, the art seemed bizarre coming from this masculine guy, why is he painting it? It seems odd, for the rest of us, the art had no context, it was this weird animus thing with so many dopplegangers and copies, Eve and Eden and Franca were all out there. The art showed up at your Aunt’s house. Walter was so smart, selling it in hardware stores and Woolworth’s, it was everywhere. We had a section in the script in a longer draft where he meets the Aaron brothers and partnered with them to make him cheap frames, and with a printer for cheap offset prints. If we do it now, we contextualize it, instead of the animus of a big-shouldered male with a sketch in hand, it’s a sad woman having a miserable life, trapped in the back of house, not allowed to talk anyone, having to lie to her daughter, who knew she was lying. Does it make the art more interesting, does it legitimize it in art terms? 
Karaszewski: To Tim Burton growing up in Burbank and his family this was art, it was hanging on the walls in doctors’ offices. It was not taken to museums. This is what these paintings were, this was not a verbal person who expressed himself through his art. Margaret doesn’t have a voice, she has to smuggle her emotions into these canvases. So much of the movie is about the artist who can’t speak. She puts her feelings into what she’s creating.
Any big differences in the movie from the script?
Karaszewski: We were cutting the budget; Tim shot what we put out there. 
Alexander: One funny thing; New York art critic John Canaday was a big muckamuck in his era of what was appropriate art and not. We wrote him as a fussy New York Times art critic, a Wallace Shawn or Tony Randall in a bow tie.  With the casting, the only curve ball was that Tim had always wanted to work with Terence Stamp.

“For which part?”

“For Canaday.”

We were laughing. “He’s not Tony Randall, that’s for sure.”  So we reconceived the part. 

Tim did add a “Big Eyes’ fantasy sequence. He had 39 days to our planned 35, and had three days in San Francisco. He hadn’t made a movie this cheap since “PeeWee’s Big Adventure.”

Karaszewski: That’s the sad sate of arty ambitious movies. Twenty years ago we get “Ed Wood” through the major studios for $19 million—and 20 years we got $16 million.

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