Tag Archives: Margaret Keane

Interview: Tim Burton photographer, writer talks ‘Big Eyes: The Film, The Art’

Director Tim Burton’s acclaimed new film “Big Eyes,” of course, tells the strange but amazing true story of famed big-eyed children paintings artist Margaret Keane created and her fight to reclaim her identity. And thanks to the sharp lens of Burton’s longtime photographer, Leah Gallo, the film and Keane’s portraits are being examined more in-depth.

New on store shelves and with online retailers Tuesday, “Big Eyes: The Film, The Art” (Titan Books) features behind-the-scenes and photographs by Gallo during the production of the film, which recently earned Golden Globe nominations for stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, and songwriter Lana Del Rey – and a win for Adams in the Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical category. In addition, Gallo includes several of Keane’s original paintings, as well as rare, behind-the-scene photos of the artist at work.

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Left: ‘Big Eyes: The Art, the Film.’ Right: Leah Gallo, Derek Frey.

Gallo, a Pennsylvania native who first worked on “Sweeney Todd” in 2006 and officially started with Tim Burton Productions in London in 2008, said while companion books have been produced for all of Burton’s films since the film about “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” there was a burning creative desire to make sure “Big Eyes: The Film, The Art” made it to shelves.

“We thought ‘Big Eyes’ was a very special film, and while it’s not as fantastical as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or ‘Dark Shadows,’ the film reflects the interesting history of Margaret Keane’s life and artwork, so there was a lot to say and show with the book,” Gallo told me in a recent call from London. “About half of the book is about the making of the movie, and the other half is her actual artwork. It’s the first time her artwork has been published since the ’60s.”

Interview: Tim Burton talks “Big Eyes”

Gallo, who previously edited and wrote “The Art of Tim Burton” (Steeles Publishing) in 2009, said “Big Eyes: The Film, The Art” was very much a “hurry up and wait” process, while she and Tim Burton Productions designer Holly Kempf need to line up a publisher and take care of other business matters. Amazingly, Gallo, who also co-edited the book with Kempf, said the production of 192-page tome was completed in very intense two months.

Starring Adams as Margaret Keane and Christoph Waltz as her husband, Walter Keane, “Big Eyes” reveals a complicated time in Margaret’s life in the 1950s and ’60s where Walter scammed the public and art world into believing he was the creative genius behind the art of the big-eyed children, until Margaret found the courage to expose the hoax to the world.

A 10-years-in-the-making passion project for screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who also co-wrote Burton’s “Ed Wood”), the film also stars Krysten Ritter as Margaret’s best friend DeeAnn, Danny Huston as San Francisco newspaper columnist Dick Nolan, Jason Schwartzman as a snobby art dealer and Terrence Stamp as a pompous art critic. Margaret actually appears in cameo in the film, too, sitting on a park bench in an early scene while Adams and Waltz “paint” nearby.

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“Big Eyes” once again has personal meaning for Gallo in that it’s executive produced by Derek Frey, her husband who has also been a collaborator of Burton since “Mars Attacks!” in 1996. The book captures Burton in a very unique environment that the filmmaker hasn’t visited for 20 years — a small-budgeted movie — and Frey believes the intimate atmosphere brought out something unique in the filmmaker.

“It’s probably the smallest movie Tim has ever made,” Frey told me in a separate interview. “He kept saying, ‘I’ve made a movie for this budget before, but that was “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” in 1985.’ Because of that, ‘Big Eyes’ was a very different approach for Tim as a filmmaker. It was like he cleared out of his life all the big Hollywood franchises and all the movies that came with extra baggage, like a remake or a reinterpretation, and took on something that he could make his own and run with it. I’m really glad he did it.”

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Behind the ‘Eyes’

Gallo said the book features interview excerpts from Adams and Waltz, naturally, as well as Burton, whom she sat down with on a couple different occasions to discuss the film. And while talks with Burton all the time as one of the core members of his office, interviewing him for the “Big Eyes” book was fun and unique because she discovered little tidbits of information from him that she never knew before.

“In ‘Big Eyes,’ I found out there’s a little bit of (famed Italian horror director) Mario Bava in the film. It’s subtle, but you can see it in some of the lighting, it’s really interesting,” Gallo said. “It’s fun being reminded again and again how deeply Tim thinks about things. It may not seem so obvious, but he thinks these things through a lot. There’s a lot going on in his head.”

As Gallo found out, she wasn’t the only one fascinated by the untapped corners of Burton’s mind. Among the cavalcade of creatives she interviewed that have worked with Burton on many occasions — including costume designer Colleen Atwood and composer Danny Elfman included — the common theme she encountered that was that his collaborators keep working with him because they want to access those untapped corners, too.

“Getting perspectives of Tim in the interviews really made me aware of how admired he is. It’s easy to forget that when you work with somebody every day that they’re a creative genius,” Gallo said, laughing. “And then, after interviewing people who have worked around him before who’ve been in the film business for a long time, and hearing about their awe and admiration of him and illustrating all of his creativity, it reminds me that he’s pretty great at what he does.”

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Interview: Tim Burton talks eye-opening story of Margaret Keane with ‘Big Eyes’

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With nominations from the Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards and Critics Choice Movie Awards already to its credit, there’s no question famed director Tim Burton’s latest film, “Big Eyes,” is in serious  contention for more honors as the film world draws closer to the Academy Awards. But truth be told, the twice-Oscar nominated Burton has never been interested in winning awards himself, and would rather forgo a trip to any podium to make sure the people who most deserve the accolades finally get their due.

Burton said in the case of “Big Eyes,” any awards attention means a bigger victory for Margaret Keane, 87, the subject of one of the strangest cases of art fraud the world has ever seen. Passionately brought to the big-screen by Burton and his “Ed Wood” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the film tells the story of the artist (Amy Adams), who in the 1950s and ’60s stood silent as her scheming husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), took credit for her world-renown paintings of big-eyed children — until she found the courage to expose the fraud.

“Scott and Larry showed Margaret the movie while I was still finishing it, and she got quite emotional,” Burton recalled for me in a recent interview. “It was interesting to hear things like, ‘Oh, my God, that was like Walter.’ Because we weren’t there and the history is sort of sketchy to us, it was gratifying to hear that we sort of captured some emotional things that really touched her. It was really nice to hear those things because she really is a special person.”

Burton largely credits Adams with capturing the spirit of Margaret Keane, who appears in a background cameo early in the film, as well as in a photo with the actor during the end credits.

“From Amy’s point of view, after meeting her, she really wanted to do her justice,” Burton said. “It’s hard, because it’s a strange character. She’s very quiet, very shy, but not a victim. She has a really strong core, and she found her voice in a way that she only could do it. It was important to me, the writers and Amy to get things right.”

Margaret Keane and Amy Adams on the set of 'Big Eyes'
Margaret Keane and Amy Adams on the set of ‘Big Eyes’ (photo: The Weinstein Co.)

‘Big’ influence

Anyone familiar with Burton’s artwork well knows that the characters in his sketches and paintings generally have big, rounded eyes with small pupils — characteristics that have been most often realized on the big-screen in the director’s stop-motion animated classics “Vincent,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Corpse Bride” and “Frankenweenie.”

And while Margaret Keane’s big-eyed subjects have large pupils, Burton said he was no doubt influenced early in his life by the artist’s distinct style. Born and raised in Burbank, California, Burton said he vividly recalled the “Children of the Damned” meets Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery”-type of spooky images by the San Francisco-based artist thought to be Walter Keane hanging everywhere.

“What probably influenced me was the mixture of emotions that you get by looking at the images,” Burton

observed. “There’s sort of an eerie quality and sadness, as well as a darkness and humor and color. All those things together obviously resonated with people. There were a whole other artists that tried copying it, but couldn’t quite capture that unique strangeness of the images.”

While “Big Eyes” gives Burton the opportunity to tell Margaret Keane’s story through the medium everybody knows the filmmaker for, the material actually holds a deeper meaning for him because of his background as a sketch artist and painter.

“Big Eyes” executive producer Derek Frey — who has been collaborator of Burton since “Mars Attacks!” in 1996 — says the revelation of the depth of his friend’s work in the 2009 book “The Art of Tim Burton” (Steeles Publishing) and subsequent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that same year without question put Burton on the path to direct “Big Eyes.”

“‘Big Eyes’ is probably a film that he wouldn’t have made five or six years ago,” Frey told me in a separate interview. “When I started working with him, I knew of this hoard of art work he had and how prolific he was. People knew that he sketched and that he came from animation, but what they don’t realize is that he continues to draw something every single day.  It wasn’t until the MoMA show started that people started to understand that this was more than something he did when he was young. It’s something that still drives him as an artist and a filmmaker, and that is something that really drew him to the ‘Big Eyes’ story.”

Apart from connecting with Margaret Keane as an artist, Frey believes the similar reactions people had to Burton’s films and Keane’s paintings, respectfully (or disrespectfully, in the case of critics), were  major factors in his commitment to directing the film.

“Of course, he knew of Margaret Keane before getting the script and knew of her story in the 1950s and ’60s, but what drew him to the project initially was the fact that the work was embraced and consumed by the general public, but then panned by the critics. Tim could relate to that,” said Frey, referring to the uneven critiques of the director’s work over the years. “The reviews of the paintings weren’t positive, but yet the exhibits continued to break records with people coming all over the world to see them. They inspired people to go to museums or pick up a paint brush. As Tim the filmmaker, being able to relate to how critics viewed his work was definitely something very personal to him in relation to  ‘Big Eyes’ and Margaret Keane as an artist.”

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The windows to Margaret’s soul

Burton said that throughout his career, he’s been fascinated by certain actors’ eyes and their ability to help tell a story, from  frequent collaborators Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, to Winona Ryder and Eva Green — the “Dark Shadows” star who has the lead role for his next film, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.”

Perhaps it was a bit of a happy accident then that Adams — whom Burton cast to paint, in a cinematic sense, the big-eyed children — had a mesmerizing set of eyes herself to help reflect Keane’s view of the odd circumstances she was trapped in.

“What was so amazing to me about Amy was, by just staring, you feel so much emotion in her. At least I did,” Burton said. “You feel this sort of conflict going on inside of her without her doing anything. You feel it just by looking at her. I find those kind of actors amazing.”

Burton believes the reason Adams’ portrayal is resonating with preview audiences and yes, even with those pesky critics, is because her portrayal isn’t just merely about recreating brushstrokes. Instead, Burton captures through Adams’ eyes and the window to Margaret Keane’s soul the inner-turmoil of a woman in a time where females’ roles in society were greatly unappreciated and far under-valued.

What made the situation unique, of course, was that Margaret Keane was also an artist in  a time where women, apart from Georgia O’Keefe, were not accepted in the art world, and she was effectively being forced by Walter Keane to follow his lead without questioning his motives and churn out the big-eyed children for immense profit. The relationship — an odd dynamic of a man trying to suppress his wife’s self-esteem while she was expected keep her creative impulses intact — did not exactly reflect the typical portrait of a nuclear family 50 years ago, Burton said.

“They sort of represented the times to me in a way, where the idea of the American Dream with a husband, wife and kids was changing,” said Burton. “With the Keanes, you had this dysfunctional relationship where they were creating these weird, mutant children with these paintings. So in some way, their story represents, symbolically, something to me about the time and how it was changing from one era to another from the ’50s into the ’60s. They captured the spirit of the changing times, but in a weird way.”

-Tim Lammers

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