Tim Burton has gotten very good at placing his easily identifiable stamp on a number of high profile studio projects. And with good reason. His 3D “Alice in Wonderland” made over a billion dollars worldwide and even supposed flops like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (which he didn’t direct but has his name above the title) have proven to be merchandising juggernauts down the line. But with “Big Eyes,” Burton returns to small scale, independent filmmaking for the first time in 20 years, following 1994’s “Ed Wood.” Like “Ed Wood,” “Big Eyes” is a true story, and he collaborated once again with screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, this time to tell the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) took credit for her famous and fabulously popular paintings. We got to sit down with Burton to discuss what drew him to the project, his switch to digital, why “Alice in Wonderland” was “disturbing” to make, what went wrong on “Dark Shadows” and where “Beetlejuice 2” is now.
What is striking about Burton, when you sit down to talk to him, is how much of a true artist he is. Not in the sense that he’s a visionary (but he’s that too); just in the way that he’s more like a fine artist, led by emotions more than technical or thematic concerns. At one point we asked him why only two of his films had been shot in anamorphic widescreen, and he struggled to answer in any kind of technical way. To Burton, movies are more about feeling than anything else, which you can definitely tell by watching “Big Eyes.”
So this wasn’t supposed to be your first reteam with Larry and Scott; you were supposed to do “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not?” What about their writing speaks to you and what was “Ripley” going to be like?
The thing about Scott and Larry, and they’ve written lots of things, but their forte is that they’re great at finding these truth-is-stranger-than-fiction kind of people. And also, not dissimilar from “Ed Wood,” this question of: what’s good and what’s bad? And just the artistic process of whatever you’re doing, a film or a painting; Ed Wood thought “Plan 9” was probably “Star Wars” and the Keanes thought they were making the Mona Lisa. I understand that passion. I wouldn’t call it misguided but it’s just what happens when you put your heart and soul into things; I’ve had this happen as well, because that’s why I was drawn to this – critics hate it, people love it, critics love it, people hate it.
It also seems to be about an artist recognized for a certain style who decides to change course, which seems to be what you’re doing here. Was that part of the appeal?
I didn’t think about it, but when you’re creating something you’re in your own world. You don’t think, oh this is going to be for that audience. You just do it because you feel it and you want to do it. So all of those kind of things are both in “Ed Wood” and in this. And also with “Ripley,” there was a similar kind of thing about enthusiasm. The Ripley character had an enthusiasm that Ed Wood and that Walter has; this kind of misguided enthusiasm. So those kind of things speak to me and I can only really do things that I really understand.
This is the first small movie you’ve done in a while. Did that experience get you creatively reinvigorated?
Yes. Definitely. Honestly, it was a real pressure. It gets the blood flowing – trying to make Vancouver look like San Francisco and asking, “How much is this cup costing? Can we do this? Can we afford that?” You get in there and I was lucky with everybody, both the crew and cast, because they enjoyed it. You’ve probably visited these big sets. It just looks like a wax museum. Are people moving? Is something happening here? So to get that energy back was something very special. And it will help me even when I do a studio movie, just to keep that spirit in line and maintain that.
The last movie was “Dark Shadows,” which was seen as something of a failure. What was your experience on that?
Well it was a weird tone. Because I grew up on that show and the weird thing about it is it had a cult following but it was actually pretty bad. It had the weirdest tone. I always found the tone, even though it was deadly serious, quite comedic. And your feelings always come out. So I always knew that it was dangerous territory because I tried to capture the tone and yet the tone is funny.
You had famously fought the Prince songs in “Batman,” but there are two new Lana Del Rey songs in “Big Eyes.” Has your stance softened?
Well, this particular case… I’m always a bit leery of it… Because I had done it without and then with it. For me, it had a different thing going on in the sense that her voice fits the tone of the time and also I was very interested, because it’s such a turning point for Margaret, it did something very interesting for me in terms of going from the supermarket to discovering her new painting style and without saying it in lines, it showed a shift in Margaret. For me, this is a case where it worked emotionally as opposed to just putting something in.
Are you happy with the Prince songs today?
Look, I loved them. But that was so many years ago and it was a different time and there were other elements. It had more to do with producers and my relationship with them than it did with the music.
You’ve only shot two of your movies anamorphic. The rest are flat, including “Big Eyes.”
That’s interesting you bring that up because I just had this conversation with the DP yesterday, for the next one. I just find that, for the type of things that I do, the 1.85 feels a little more right. It’s just an emotional thing; it’s not an intellectual decision. It’s just something that you feel. You have that esoteric conversation, but it’s usually pretty clear to me.
Why “Planet of the Apes” and “Mars Attacks,” then?
They just felt that way. It’s an emotional decision, with whomever the DP is. Every DP I’ve worked with, when we discuss it, we’ve never discussed it on an intellectual level. We’ve always discussed it with “this feels like this, it feels like that.” This just felt right.
How has the transition to digital been?
Initially, when people first started using it, I was very against it, because it felt digital. But it’s gotten to a point now where you can really get the feeling of film without over-processing it, because films that get overly processed — you can tell. Now you can achieve things that you want to achieve that it still feels like film. What’s interesting is that, at least in England, they’ve closed down film labs. There’s been a slight resurgence of people who still like film, sort of like how people still like vinyl records, and they both have their strengths and weaknesses but I feel like it’s gotten to a point where you can achieve the feeling of film. But in terms of projection and closing down all the labs…
When you made “Alice in Wonderland,” a lot of the set just wasn’t there.
Well, no one had ever made a movie like that, nor will anyone make a movie like that again. Because it wasn’t motion capture, it was a combination of anything. There was never anything ever, because she was a different size all the time and the Queen’s head was big or Johnny [Depp]‘s eyes were big and I’m not a big fan of motion capture so I wanted some things to just be pure animation… So, literally, if there was one person on a set… It was the craziest. And we were designing as we went along. Honestly, since it was all done like puzzle pieces, I didn’t even see the movie until it was done. And Danny [Elfman] is scoring to, like, “What is happening?” It was the most backwards, disturbing process I’ve ever been through.
This explains why you’re not doing the sequel.
But at least with that one, now they’ve got some things, little set pieces that the actors can interact with. This was completely green, adding every single element. It’s just crazy. I don’t think you could do it again.
Have you seen “Birdman” yet?
No I haven’t. I hear Michael is amazing.
Do you still talk to Michael about doing “Beetlejuice 2?”
Oh yeah. There’s only one Beetlejuice.
Is that something that’s happening in the foreseeable future?
Let’s put it this way: I miss that character and I would love to work with him again. There’s a freedom and a catharsis to that character that only he could do.
“Big Eyes” opens on Christmas Day.