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Tim Burton leaves behind his usual dark canvas to frame a colourful true story of art-world artifice in the film Big Eyes.

By Donna Walker-Mitchell.

Tim Burton sketches artist Margaret Keane in Big Eyes

Filmmaker Tim Burton.
Credit: SUPPLIED

In a small, tidy home on an ordinary street in the Los Angeles working-class suburb of Burbank in the 1960s, a quirky kid named Tim Burton would sit in his bedroom with pencils and paper.

The young Burton would sketch monsters and other enigmatic creatures. Inspiration for his drawings was not far away. His parents – Bill, a former baseball player who after an injury went on to work for the local council, and Jean, the owner of a cat-themed gift shop – adorned the walls of the family home with cheap prints of oil paintings by the American artist Margaret Keane.

Back then the Burtons, along with the rest of the world, thought the artist was Keane’s husband, Walter.

The prints featured waifs with huge, haunting, saucer-like eyes and could be bought at the local supermarket for a couple of dollars.

“People in Burbank didn’t have Matisse or van Goghs hanging on the wall. They had Keanes,” the 56-year-old Burton tells me.

Sitting in a Manhattan hotel suite, he is struggling with the flu and has a pile of used tissues lying next to him on a black leather couch. As usual, Burton, one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers, is dressed from top to toe in black, except for the black-and-white striped socks I spot when he stretches his legs.

His hair, as is also the norm, looks like it hasn’t been brushed for a year.

“I must say,” Burton, pausing to wipe his nose again, says, “I always found the Keanes slightly disturbing.”

For decades the world believed Walter, a publicity-seeking hawker, was the artist who created the big-eyed child paintings, but it was the shy Margaret who secretly churned out the artworks behind closed doors.

It was not until an absurd, stranger-than-fiction court case in Hawaii in 1986 that the Keanes’ dark secret was revealed. Margaret sued Walter, finally finding the strength to stand up to him.

The judge, exasperated by Walter’s courtroom antics during the trial, came to the conclusion there was only one way to discover the truth. Easels, paints and brushes were brought into the courtroom and Margaret and Walter were given one hour in front of the jury to produce a painting.

Walter, representing himself in court, came up with excuses as to why he couldn’t paint. Margaret whipped up a big-eyed waif and won her case.

“It wasn’t until about the mid-1990s that I found out it was Margaret and not Walter who had done the work,” Burton said. “Even though it was documented, it was in newspapers, but I think because it wasn’t really considered art necessarily, the story wasn’t on the front page of The New York Times. It was more third page of the Honolulu Times. It was so fantastical and so surreal in terms of what happened.”

Burton could relate to Keane’s journey, suffering his own tumultuous time attempting to become an artist and filmmaker. The quirky kid became a quirky teenager and his dark, often disturbing artistic style did not fit with the mainstream.

Burton won a Disney fellowship to study character animation at the California Institute of the Arts and, based on his short film Stalk of the Celery Monster, was hired as an apprentice animator on Disney’s iconic lot.

But Disney, with its family-friendly fare, did not know what to do with the talented kid with the weird sensibility.

Burton, too, had trouble assimilating.

He remembers there was a single, defining moment back in his student days that he has lived by throughout his career.

“I was at the Farmers Market in LA,” Burton says. “I was at CalArts and, you know, you go through art school and they say, ‘You’ve got to draw like this, you’ve got to draw like Disney and this and that’, and just sort of bubbling underneath the surface I was getting frustrated.

“I remember we were sitting sketching people going by when I said, ‘Fuck it, I can’t do that.’ I’ll never forget. It was a mind-expanding moment. All of a sudden I didn’t care and I just started drawing however I wanted and my life completely changed.”

Burton did work on Disney’s G-rated The Fox and the Hound, but also managed some side projects, including the 1984 live-action, black-and-white short Frankenweenie, about a boy who resurrects his dead dog.

It didn’t sit well with the conservative folk at Disney so Burton and the studio parted ways. Ironically, 28 years later, Disney and the filmmaker released a 3D Frankenweenie feature film. 

In 1995 Burton met Margaret Keane. By this time he was well established in Hollywood, with a résumé that included Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Batman Returns and Ed Wood.

He remained a fan of Keane’s big-eyes paintings while directing and producing another mixed bag of films, including Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride.

In 2006 he commissioned Keane to paint a family portrait of himself, his partner, two-time Oscar nominated actress Helena Bonham Carter, and their then three-year-old son Billy.

As expected, Keane painted Bonham Carter and Billy with big eyes, but Burton remains confused about how Keane depicted him.

“She ominously put me as a dark cloud in the sky,” Burton laughs. “I’m not sure what to make of that.” 

While curious, he never asked for an explanation.

“She gave Helena and Billy big eyes, but me, I’m just more of a, I don’t know …” he says. “Maybe she sees me as some sort of Walter character.”

Bonham Carter, who fell in love with Burton while working on Planet of the Apes in 2001, announced just before Christmas through her publicist they had “separated amicably”.

The pair, who never married and throughout their relationship lived in separate but adjacent London homes, have two children – Billy, now 11, and Nell, 7.

Understanding the subject

Burton says he identified with Margaret Keane and came to understand why she allowed Walter to dominate her.

“She’s one of the shyest people I know,” he says. “It’s interesting because she’s so shy. 

“It was a different time back then and it was harder for women in certain ways, and I think a lot of people have been in relationships where they go through it and you get out of it and say, ‘What happened? Why did I let this go on for so long?’ We’ve all done that.”

Burton kept reconnecting with Keane, regularly buying her artwork, and came on board as a producer of Big Eyes, a film about the artist’s life penned by Hollywood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the duo who wrote the Burton-directed Ed Wood, a 1994 comedy-drama biopic starring Johnny Depp. With the script complete in 2007, the writers decided they would direct the film. However, the green light never came and the project crashed and burned several times.

Once Burton agreed to direct, Big Eyes went into production.

After the big budget, visual effects-laden Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, and the animated feature Frankenweenie, it was an intriguing change of pace for Burton.

“A movie like Big Eyes doesn’t fit into any real category,” Burton says. “The only way you get a movie like this is [with] a low budget, there’s no question. 

“It’s not like the usual studio kind of thing. Certain films, like if you’re making a Marvel Avengers, you know it is going to cost a lot, but they feel more comfortable with that so that makes sense. But something like this? You have to make it according to budget.”

 Walter Keane died in 2000, but Margaret, today 87, was on set with Amy Adams, the five-time Oscar nominated actress who portrays her.

“She can do anything,” Burton says of Adams.

“I think some of the hardest performances to do are those which are internal and shy and quiet and yet not a victim … Amy is a shy person, but she has a strong core. I think she saw that in Margaret and I think that’s why she related to it.”

Adams had many questions for Keane, including how she could let her husband take credit for her work.

“Margaret said, ‘I don’t know how I let this happen to me’ instead of saying, ‘I don’t how this happened to me,’ ” says Adams. “She took responsibility to a degree. She said, ‘Yes, I was manipulated and yes all of this happened, but I lied over and over again and I couldn’t get out of the lie.’ And Walter would tell her, ‘They’ll take your daughter off you. They’ll put you in jail. They’ll take your money, because you lied, too.’ ”

Burton cast Austrian-born Christoph Waltz, a two-time Oscar winner, as Walter Keane.

“It is a fantastic part, a fantastic story and there are only fantastic people participating in it without exception,” says Waltz, who won his Oscars in the Quentin Tarantino-directed films Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012).

Waltz found himself comparing Burton to Tarantino, two filmmakers considered eccentric Hollywood outsiders.

“They both create worlds and their worlds are very different to each other,” says Waltz. “They are both artists. They’re more or less driven by one vision that can change a little bit, but they follow this quest and want to use the species of art they’ve decided to work in as a means to communicate and share and express that quest for that one thing they’re searching for.

“The strong drive is apparent in both of them. The actor can only participate and hitch a ride with them.”

While Burton detected Adams’ mix of shyness and strength, he saw the appropriate qualities in Waltz to bring the complex, arrogant, imperious Walter to the big screen.

“I think he has that, yeah,” Burton laughs. “If you read about Walter, he was very charming. He was a very big personality. At the same time, he was very dark and a bully. He was almost sometimes near violent, was a complicated person, and Christoph gets that.”

The dynamics of opinion

Burton, despite his relationship break-up, is settled in Britain and has no plans to move back to the United States. He remembers being in London in 1988 to shoot the first Batman film with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson and feeling as though he was at home.

“I was surprised,” Burton says. “I don’t have these past-life experience moments. But I felt as soon as I got there that I’d been there or I belonged there. Something struck me strangely.”

And back in London, Burton still has his pencils and paper. Wherever he goes he doodles, pulling out a small notepad from his pocket and scribbling something, most likely a monster that in some way reflects what feelings are going on in his head.

Some of the scribbles from over the decades were among more than 700 pieces – including paintings, photographs and items from his films such as costumes, puppets and maquettes – that were collected by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and exhibited from November 2009 to April 2010.

For the kid who once sat alone in his bedroom drawing and was an outsider at Disney, the exhibition was an overwhelming experience.

It travelled directly from Manhattan to Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image, opening on June 24, 2010.

“They did a great job there,” Burton said of the ACMI exhibition. “It was such a surreal thing, having the MoMA thing and then having to go to a few different cities. Each one gave it its own feel, but I was really impressed by the Melbourne one. It was one of my favourites.”

As with some of his films and Keane’s big eyes paintings, critics were not kind to the exhibitions. But, just like most of his films and Keane’s paintings, the public response was immense.

“The MoMA thing heightened that for me,” says Burton, describing the divide between critics and the audience. “Critics completely panned it, but it had a huge attendance from people who wouldn’t normally go to museums.

“I, as much as anybody, understand the dynamics and the polarisation of opinion.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "Un Burton regard". Subscribe here.

Donna Walker-Mitchell
is an Australian journalist based in Los Angeles.