Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have spent much of the past decade championing their too-weird-to-make-up account describing how “Keane” portraits of saucer-eyed urchins became America’s biggest art brand in the 1960s. Re-teaming with Tim Burton, who directed their Ed Wood screenplay about the famously bad filmmaker, Alexander and Karszewski saw Big Eyes as another chance to explore the role of critically reviled artists who operate beyond conventional boundaries of “good taste.”
In Big Eyes, out December 25, Amy Adams plays shy single mom Margaret, who meets fellow painter Walter Keane, portrayed by Christoph Waltz, in beatnik-era San Francisco. Within months, portraits of large-eyed children, modeled on Margaret’s daughter Jane, became a nation-wide sensation thanks to Walter Keane’s marketing acumen. SPOILER ALERT. As the money rolls in, there’s just one problem: Walter Keane claims sole credit for the work secretly produced by his wife.
“Walter was so much in love with the idea of being a painter that he faked it,” says Karaszewski. “It’s a common thing with guys who are frauds: They figure ‘Why lie your way to the middle? If you’re going to lie, lie big.’”
Alexander and Karszewski talk to Co.Create about where they discovered the story, how they secured life rights from 87-year old Margaret Keane and why they love world-class bamboozlers like Walter Keane.
In 2002, Alexander and Karaszewski were re-writing a science fiction comedy about an alien civilization bombarded by pop culture detritus from planet earth. Alexander recalls, “Doing research, I flipped through my wife’s copy of The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste and stumbled upon a two-page article about the Keanes that basically said, ‘The top selling pop art of the early ’60s was a complete fraud and the guy who got all the credit wasn’t really the painter.’ I was dumbstruck.”
Alexander showed the article to Karaszewski, who happened to be friends with singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet. “Matthew’s the world’s biggest collector of Keane paintings and memorabilia so we learned a lot from him,” recalls Karszewski. “Then we read all these microfiche newspaper articles at the UCLA library and discovered Walter’s side of the story.”
Publicity-hungry Walter Keane generated plenty of press clippings about himself but “Margaret receded into the background,” according to Karaszewski. “We needed to reach out to her because a lot of the story just didn’t make sense. If Water didn’t even like these paintings, how’d he end up selling them as his own? What did he tell Margaret? Why did she agree that Walter would officially be the painter of the big eyes pictures?”
The writers tracked down Keane in San Francisco and spent an afternoon plying her for answers. “It took a fair bit of badgering on our part to convince Margaret that we had good intentions,” says Alexander. “She’s a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t want her religion to be made fun of. She also wanted to make sure the movie was PG-13. But once Margaret knew were coming at the story with the proper attitude, she spilled the beans, talking about having to lie to her daughter and trying to keep this huge family secret that nobody was allowed to ever talk about. A lot of big stuff in the movie came out of our visit with Margaret that afternoon.”
Though Walter Keane possessed zero artistic talent, he proved himself a brilliant salesman. “Margaret gives all the credit to Walter for getting her art out there,” says Karaszewski. “In terms of marketing, Walter was a pure huckster. He knew these paintings were never going to be accepted into fancy galleries or get good reviews.”
Instead, Big Eyes shows how Keane bypassed high-culture gatekeepers and sold cheap reprints to the masses. “Walter decided, ‘Let’s get into gossip columns, let’s take photographs of Kim Novak and Joan Crawford with our our paintings and get them into magazines, let’s have Natalie Wood go on The Tonight Show and talk about how much she loves our paintings, let’s get a supermarket chain to give us our own aisle.’ Nobody had sold art like this before. To Walter, it was just about moving product.”
Alexander and Karaszewski wanted to direct Big Eyes themselves, but after watching the project come together and fall apart a few times, they handed the reins to Burton. “We needed to get a victory out of this thing because it was taking way too long,” Alexander says. “Tim himself collects Keane art and we’d enlisted him to produce the film. When Christoph Waltz started circling the script we went to Tim and said, ‘We’re willing to swap places with you. We’ll produce, you direct.” Once Tim got involved as director, the movie happened in six months.”
Burton shared the writers’ sympathetic view of critically reviled artists. “It was the same kind of thing when we made Ed Wood,” says Karaszewski. “These characters are judged by society as outsiders but we find it interesting to look at them in a non-judgmental way: ‘Let’s not make fun of these people. Let’s appreciate them for their passion.'”
Alexander adds, “Particularly in the Keane story, the paintings may seem like kitsch if you buy a reprint at Woolworth’s or think that these pictures of little girls are coming from this masculine Robert Mitchum kind of guy with a scotch in his hand. But when you find out they’re being painted by this woman locked up in her house who has all those troubles, you realize the tears and the sadness in those eyes are coming from a sincere place. I think you look at the art a little bit differently.”
Margaret Keane is the hero of Big Eyes, but Waltz embodies the villain with a life force that puts Walter Keane in league with a personality type Alexander and Karaszewski have revisited time and again in bio-pics including Man on the Moon and The People vs. Larry Flynt.. Karaszewski says “If you look at our other movies about Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, even Andy Kaufman, it’s clear that we love the blowhard who swims against the stream and can’t stop talking about his agenda.”
Alexander adds, “We don’t like making movies about men of great worth and achievement. We like making movies about nutballs screaming in the corner who just hope someone will listen to them. And Walter Keane is 100 percent that guy.”