A Revealing Chat with Larry Karaszewski, the Cowriter of Big Eyes
By Danny Peary
One of the most anticipated films of the season, Big Eyes opens nationally on Christmas Day, including at the UA Southampton 4. I suspect that it is on your list of must-see movies. Its stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are doing the talk show circuit and Adams hosted Saturday Night Live, and it’s likely you’ll hear their names at most award shows, but its main drawing card is its celebrated director. Big Eyes is being promoted as a “Tim Burton film,” and surely his fans will attempt to confirm his auteurship by pointing to the twisted story and slightly surreal imagery, hallmarks of Burton’s work. Burton’s influence is undeniable, but in truth Big Eyes is the brainchild of its screenwriters extraordinaire, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. These long-time writing partners have been responsible for a number of offbeat and highly intelligent screen biographies of idiosyncratic celebrities: Ed Wood, which Burton directed with Johnny Depp as the world’s worst director and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi; The People vs. Larry Flynt, directed by Milos Foreman and starring Woody Harrelson as the publisher of Hustler; Man on the Moon, Foreman’s film with Jim Carrey as inscrutable comic Andy Kaufman; Autofocus, directed by Paul Schrader and starring Greg Kinnear as sexually-perverse actor Bob Crane; and now Big Eyes, directed by Burton and starring Adams and Waltz as famed artists Margaret and Walter Keane. Actually, only Walter was a famed artist back in the 1960s. His paintings of big-eyed waifs were attacked by critics for being kitch or, worse, garbage, but they were the rage among the masses–and celebrities. Mass produced, his paintings, posters, and prints were so popular that for a time Walter was the most successful artist in the country. Then came a bizarre twist. Years after she escaped his clutches and filed for divorce, Margaret revealed that Walter didn’t know how to paint at all and that she had painted every big-eyed child. Years ago Alexander and Karaszewski were astonished to learn this story and realized that it fit in with the strange tales they’d already told. Years later they showed Burton their finished script about the Keanes and his eyes grew big, too. He agreed to direct. Screenwriters often don’t get the attention they deserve, so I was delighted to meet with Karaszewski (who like me and Alexander attended USC film school) over breakfast at Bubby’s in Tribeca and do this interview.
Danny Peary: Although you went to USC film school and remained in L.A., you are originally from Indiana.
Larry Karaszewski: I grew up in South Bend in a very working-class household. My mom was a waitress and my dad worked in a factory.
DP: You grew up in a basketball state, in a football town, so did you feel that you had to find somewhere you belonged?
LK: I actually enjoyed sports, even if I was never really into them. My first experience was being on a Little League baseball team. My brother, who was really into sports, was a coach. I just said, that’s it, he can have the sports thing and I just totally threw myself into the movie and theater world, which in South Bend means you’re probably gay.
DP: And instead of going to Notre Dame football games, you saw a lot of movies growing up?
LK: My parents got divorced when I was about 9. My dad got me one night a week and didn’t necessarily know what to do with a kid. This corresponded with my new interest in movies, so I talked him into taking me to the drive-in. He’d have a beer and I would watch drive-in movies. My dad was oblivious to the fact that I was seeing women-in-prison pictures. We’d also go to the grindhouse downtown so from 1969 to around 1976, I saw three or four movies a week. What was great is that I got to see a total mix of movies. If a drive-in or grindhouse played a triple-bill, it would often book any print it could get rather than films of the same genre. I saw Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn! with Marlon Brando when I was only about eleven years old. I didn’t go to the drive-in to see it but it opened for the film I wanted to see and I got lucky. I’d just see a weird combination of things and I became really obsessed with movies.
DP: Were you interested in writing?
LK: Always. When I was in high school, there was a new junior achievement project for the NBC affiliate in South Bend. The idea was to have kids run cameras and write and act. We had to audition to be part of it. There was a very, very smart guy who ran it, Dave Williams, who viewed it as a way of tapping into youth culture as well as his own comedy writing skills. He turned what we did it into a weekly half-hour television show. It was a Saturday Night Live-style sketch comedy at the time SNL was starting out and it was very funny. It had a great gimmick–viewers lost control of their television for half an hour so whenever a sketch got boring or long there might be a switch to another channel or a commercial before returning to the sketch in progress.
DP: Were you getting encouragement about your writing?
LK: Yeah. It’s a huge thing in any young person’s life when someone says, “Hey, you could do this professionally.” For me it was Dave Williams. He was our mentor and definitely made me and a bunch of other people feel special. Unfortunately, he died halfway through my high school years and the show was in jeopardy for a while, but it kept running and we kids got power to do almost everything by ourselves. We directed, wrote, and acted. I was primarily in the writers group, which was the most powerful group because we actually came up with stuff. The group included Dan Waters, who later wrote Heathers and Batman Returns, and David Simkins, who wrote Adventures in Babysitting. It’s really weird that we were all in this small town in Indiana and learning how to write. We’d have writers meetings on Monday and Tuesday nights, cast on Wednesday, rewrite on Thursday, build sets on Friday, shoot Saturday morning, and air the show on Sunday. I did that for four years straight.
DP: What did you learn about writing?
LK: How to write with partners, for one thing. I compare what we did to what the comedy writing team did on the Dick Van Dyke Show. I also learned to get things done. I think a lot of young writers are very precious with their work and in our computer age they revise and revise, but for that show, in good days and bad days, I just kept going to work and finishing my writing on time. It taught me to be very professional.
DP: Then at one point you decided to leave Indiana and go to film school?
LK: Dave let us know there was nothing wrong about staying in South Bend but there was a bigger world out there. Because of my background, I could have just been a factory worker, but I always had a sense that I could make it as a writer. I was never that intimidated by people who were saying, “I’m gonna go to Hollywood and I’ll write a script and I’ll make a movie.” That’s what I would do.
DP: When you announced you were going to USC–Notre Dame’s biggest rival in football–did most people in South Bend say you should go somewhere else?
LK: Yeah, but when I applied that rivalry didn’t even cross my mind. USC and NYU film schools were the only places really offering what I wanted.
DP: How long were you at USC film school?
LK: From 1981 to 1985. I was in critical studies.
DP: Did you take production classes, too?
LK: There were only a few production classes they would let me take, but I figured a way to work around the system. I always had to be on a waiting list, but I wound up taking just about every production class. I totally respect USC and I’m glad I went there because it allowed me to go to California and meet a group of like-minded people, but because I spent so much time there battling to be a part of it, it was a bit of a frustrating.
DP: Did you know Scott Alexander from critical studies?
LK: No, Scott was in production. We met standing in line to get our food card and we started talking about movies. There was a vacancy in the room where I was staying, so I manipulated the system a little bit to get him for my roommate. I did this because Scott was a local boy, from L.A., and I knew he’d go home on weekends and I’d have the place to myself. We’d be roommates off and on for the next four years.
DP: When did you start talking about writing together?
LK: Not until before our senior year. He was visiting me in Indiana over the summer, and we read an Ann Landers column about a kid who broke into a school and because he was injured while vandalizing the gym, he sued the school district. We said, “What if that was funny?” What if a thief is robbing a guy’s house and gets hurt and sues the homeowner for negligence and winds up getting money through the legal system? We were thinking it would be like Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie. Scott had one of the very first word-processing programs and when we got back to school we just started writing. He sat at the computer and I walked around the room talking. It’s funny, being the writing partner who was not on the keyboard, I had to keep a lot of different balls bouncing around in my head. Today I still have to know everything that’s on the page and keep all the other ideas moving back and forth. It’s an interesting dynamic. We have never been partners who say, “You take the first act and I’ll take the second act and we’ll meet up again in six months.” From the beginning, we’ve worked everything out together. In our writing class at USC, no one was expected to write a feature screenplay, just thirty pages of the first act and an outline for the rest. We were the first students we knew who decided to write the script to the end. So in our senior year, we wrote a feature script.
DP: Did you submit it to an agent?
LK: I was a TA for a production class and one of the kids in that class had an internship at ICM, where there was a young agent who asked him, “Who are the hot writers at USC film school these days?” And he gave her two or three names. She called me up and it was one of those times when opportunity meets preparation. She asked if I had anything to show her and I had the screenplay that we’d just finished. She knew she could sell it. Two weeks after Scott and I graduated, she sold it to 20th-Century Fox. I was working in a record store and next thing I knew I was being offered money that I’d never had before. Scott and I were now professionals.
DP: Was that movie made?
LK: No. But it put us on the map. It’s a funny script that we wrote with two actors in mind—Albert Brooks and Morris Day. Crazy. This was right around the time of Purple Rain, and we well in love with Day, Prince’s costar. We even named the character Morris. The script never got made, which was frustrating, but it got us meetings instantly and our career took off from there. Scott and I never imagined that we’d be writing partners for the rest of our lives, but we haven’t stopped working since.
DP: You two have had a number of scripts produced, from the comedy Problem Child to the Stephen King adaptation, 1408, to Screwed, your directorial debut. However, you’re best known for writing quirky celebrity biographies–Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, The Man on the Moon, Autofocus, and now Big Eyes. The two of you must talk endlessly about structuring biographical material for the cinema.
LK: Well, we’re constantly being offered biographies or thinking of possible biographies ourselves. If we are interested, we always stop and really look at someone’s life to see if there is a three-act story. People hate most movie biographies because they are great-man stories that start with them as children and go on forever. We try to find the drama and figure out how it connects to telling a story on the screen. Often we’ll just very simply ask, “Why should this person be remembered?” If we can answer that question, we work backwards and that’s what our movie is. We don’t try to tell someone’s entire life story. For example: Why should Ed Wood be remembered? The two reasons are that he made the worst movie of all time, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and he had a relationship with Bela Lugosi that people remember fondly. So we say, “All right, page ten he meets Bela Lugosi. Page thirty he makes use of that connection to get his first movie made. In the second act, Bela dies. Can he possibly make the movie without Bela? Well, he’s shot a few seconds of footage of Bela, so in the third act he completes Glen or Glenda? and Bela Lugosi is his lead.” Why is Larry Flynt remembered? He’s remembered for being the smuttiest man in the 1970s and for his Supreme Court case that was very essential in regard to free-speech and libel laws. Oddly, it wasn’t our protagonist Larry Flynt, the plaintiff, who speaks in court, but his lawyer [Edward Norton as Alan Isaacman], so we had to give him an important part in our story. We had to construct a movie where Larry being quiet in front of the Supreme Court is actually his arc. Larry had disrespected so many courtrooms and the American Way for so long but when he finally is in front of the Supreme Court and doesn’t treat it like a circus, he gets respect from the country. The Supreme Court case had to be the climax of the movie, just as we knew instantly that the Keane court case sounded so fantastic that it had to be the climax of Big Eyes.
DP: How did you and Scott come up with the arc for Big Eyes?
LK: Once again, we looked at non-traditional Hollywood subject matter for form and content and pushed that into the traditional Hollywood three-act structure. In the first act, Margaret meets this man Walter in the park, where they are both selling their art. She takes a leap because he seems to be her perfect mate and they can be fellow artists. She’s living that 1950s-early 1960?s dream of San Francisco, beatniks, and paintbrushes–and bam, her art becomes successful. But there’s a catch. It’s successful under her husband’s name and not hers. So the second act of the movie is Margaret trying to live and cope with that situation as their success keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Then in part three, she can’t do it anymore. She stands up for herself, and he threatens her violently, and she winds up escaping in the middle of the night with her daughter. That third act, I often say, is “the Ike and Tina Turner story in the art world.”
DP: Do you portray Margaret as an abused woman?
LK: She’s psychologically abused. Walter really wasn’t hitting her. He hit her once and she drew a line. That’s a true story.
DP: But he got worse?
LK: He got worse and worse, and I think a lot of that was because once the lie that he was the one who painted the big-eyed orphans became solid in his mind, her art was a daily reminder that he wasn’t really the artist. I think there was an anger that came from that and it contributed to his drinking. It’s only shown a little in the film, but he was a hard-drinking man.
DP: What’s the selling point of the movie?
LK: It’s a female-empowerment movie. It’s about a woman who learns to stand up for herself and take what’s rightfully hers. I talked about my parents briefly, but didn’t say that my mom put up living with my father for twenty years. My dad treated her terribly and didn’t talk to her for six months at a time, but my mother was a Catholic and divorcing him was out of the question. I don’t know if her priest specifically said what the priest says to Margaret in the film about staying with Walter, but I took it as that’s what she was going through. It got to the point where she was worried that violence would occur to us, and she escaped in the middle of the night.
DP: Were you thinking about that when you started writing the script?
LK: It was definitely on my mind, whether it was translated to Scott or not. Even when you have a partnership, there are certain things that you feel a little more personally attached to than your partner. It would be in the film anyway because it actually happened to Margaret, but certainly I can relate to the sequence where she grabs her daughter Jane and they take off in the middle of the night. I remember very well my mom throwing me in the back of the car and taking off in the middle of the night. I was thinking, “Where are we going, what’s going on?”
DP: Was the story of Margaret and Walter Keane of interest to you long before the making of Big Eyes?
LK: Yes, Scott and I tried to get this movie made for close to eleven years, I knew the story and Scott read about it while we were doing research for another project. He said, “Oh my god!” We tracked down Margaret ten years ago and got her rights and also Jane’s rights.
DP: How much did you know of the Keane story while it was happening?
LK: Very little. I don’t think most people did. I knew the art because I think it was up in my house when I was growing up. Those paintings and posters were up in everybody’s houses. The big-eyes art was ubiquitous but not everyone knew the name of the artist. I think few people ever knew the full story because when Margaret decided to stand up for herself and tell the truth, the big eyes paintings were no longer in vogue. And when they sued each other in court [in 1986], it wasn’t front page news but was way back in the newspaper. We were very close to rock musician Matthew Sweet, who in the early days of eBay was able to get Keane art cheaply and became a big collector. He’s the first person who ever told me the tale of the Keanes. Some time in the ‘90s, the New York Times did an article about Margaret, and Matthew and Tim Burton were quoted in it. [Sweet’s 1999 album In Reverse features one of Margaret Keane’s oil paintings on the cover.] Before Scott and I started writing this project we already knew that Tim was a big fan of the art. It turned out he had commissioned a bunch of Keane paintings, so there was something about them that really connected with him. When you look at Tim’s art and some of the Keane paintings, there’s a similar sadness and creepiness.
DP: Did you write Big Eyes with Tim Burton in mind to direct?
LK: No. It was a movie that we originally planned to direct ourselves and we had numerous false starts. About two years ago, after the movie fell apart one more time, we decided to approach Tim. He was already on board as a producer. We said that if he wanted to direct it we would swap places and act as producers. That’s because the whole Ed Wood experience had been one of those perfect, magical things in our career. And we felt an obligation to Margaret. She was in her late seventies when we optioned her rights, and now she was in her late eighties. We wanted her to see the film.
DP: Did Tim Burton bring a fairy tale look or heightened realism to the movie?
LK: There are Tim Burton touches in the movie but they’re very minor. I think people are going to be shocked when they see the film. It’s unmistakably the work of a visual artist, but Tim has really made an old-fashioned women’s picture. This is a Universal International film, much like a Douglas Sirk film. I believe this movie has potential in that it is a movie biopic but it fits into that that female-driven, women’s-picture genre. It looks absolutely gorgeous, but Tim played it straight. I think he really wanted to stretch himself with this movie, working with actors and telling a good tale. It’s likely people will go right to the Ed Wood comparison, but Ed Wood had a heightened and gothic quality even though Tim was dealing with real people. Ed Wood had a sense of oddity, and I don’t think this movie does. It feels almost mainstream, not like an art movie.
DP: Though you say the two films are visually different, do you see any similarities between the stories of Ed Wood and the Keanes?
LK: I think there is some similarity. Ed Wood is regarded as the worst filmmaker of all time, and many people in the art world look at the Keane paintings as completely ridiculous. Ed Wood is a really good movie about the filmmaking process, and I think Big Eyes is a really good movie about the art world. Big Eyes is much different than a movie about Jackson Pollack or another artist who was really good at what they did. It is about people with questionable talent who are outsiders and can’t get into the art world. Similarly, most people’s experience of the film world is closer to Ed Wood’s than David Lean’s. They worry about finishing their movies because they have no money and all these bad things are happening that wouldn’t happen to David Lean, for example.
DP: Even on Wikipedia, Walter Keane isn’t categorized as an artist, but “an American plagiarist.” Do you think he was in any way an artist?
LK: He certainly wasn’t a painter. He was a salesman. He was a genius at marketing. I think that idea is in the film. Margaret will happily say that there is no way her paintings would have been exhibited anywhere but the park if it hadn’t been for Walter’s marketing abilities. He was able to take these things and make them explode. He was not an artist but he invented the mass production and mass marketing of art. Walter invented a story about seeing starving children in Europe after World War II to explain why he painted these sad big-eyed waifs. That tale made the initial sales take off. He was able to get on the television. He realized very quickly that art critics didn’t matter, what mattered were Hollywood celebrities. So he would give famous people the paintings and have a picture taken with them and that photo would get into a magazine and then the regular people who read them wanted those paintings, too. They sold because of the marketing machine that happened around them, and Walter was a whirling dervish making this stuff happen.
DP: You open the film with an Andy Warhol quote: “I think what [Walter] Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” Are you endorsing the quote?
LK: I’m endorsing the quote, there’s a tiny arched eyebrow at the same time. I think one of the big questions the movie asks is, What is art? And: Who are you to say that’s not art? If someone is touched or moved by a big-eye painting, why isn’t that art? Even Walter has a level of frustration, asking , “Why don’t people think this is good?” Margaret is sincere about her art, she is expressing her emotions in these paintings. The Warhol quote is there because we want people to know that the Keane art connected with people on a major level, and just because art is popular with the masses doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. It doesn’t mean it’s good either. Walter aside, the villain of our movie is the New York Times art critic John Canaday [Terence Stamp]. The Keanes receiving such contempt from the art world gave us conflict, gave us a motor–and that added to the insane personal story of theirs, in which Walter stole credit for the paintings of waifs with big eyes.
DP: We’re often told that art should elevate, not pander. In the movie, we can see, as you say, how sincere Margaret is. She’s thinking, “I’m not painting for the masses, this is what I want to paint.”
LK: What the masses are responding to is Walter’s salesmanship–he’s shoved down America’s throat the “fact” that the paintings are great art. And John Canaday is going, “No! I am the gatekeeper, you’re not allowed to go around me. You’re not allowed to just put out your own coffee table books and build your own galleries because I’m the cultural gatekeeper and I won’t allow it.”
DP: People generally like Margaret’s big-eye motif, so I wonder if her paintings would be appreciated more if they hadn’t been mass produced but were discovered in a garage by a collector who labeled them outsider art.
LK: We’ll see what happens with the film, because I think her paintings will be rediscovered by a whole new generation. Learning the context of her story will allow people to look at her paintings as outsider art, as folk art. Part of the reason it was regarded as so kitschy and silly is that came along with Walter Keane’s crazy tale. Now we realize that those paintings of crying children were the result of a sad woman being locked in a back room and not being able to express herself any other way. I think that her story is going to make those paintings take on a much richer, deeper meaning. It’s an easy comparison, but when we made Ed Wood, I felt a little different about some of Ed’s films. It had been very easy to joke and laugh about his work, because it seemed ridiculous. Glen or Glenda?, his movie about a cross-dresser, has all these cheesy things in it, but once you understand that Ed was a cross-dresser making a personal statement, it plays more like a really odd avant-garde film. It’s harder to laugh because you know the heartfelt sincerity that went into that movie. I think Margaret’s art connected to so many people because coming from her, there is a sincerity to it. The big-eye paintings became so successful that they were ripped off and a bunch of people made big-eye paintings. But Margaret’s paintings are better because they have more feeling. There is a sadness in the eyes of her hobo kids that the other painters can’t duplicate.
DP: The art is so personal to Margaret, but does Walter think, in a twisted way, this is my art?
LK: Absolutely, I think it happens with a lot of these frauds. If you read interviews with Milli Vanilli you’ll see that they really believed they deserved to win a Grammy for Best New Artist and could go up against the Rolling Stones because they, too, were in the pantheon. Never mind that they were lip-synching.
DP: Walter disparages Margaret because he considers himself the artist in the family, and I think he died thinking that [two days after Christmas in 2000].
LK: The lie became so big that I don’t think he even knew anymore who did the art.
DP: He silences Margaret’s objections to his taking credit for her work by saying nobody will buy women’s art. She believes him. Do you believe that?
LK: Yes. One of the interesting things about her story is that it was in synch with what was happening in our country. Margaret starts out as a 1950s housewife who is told by a priest to stand by her man and think he is the head of the household and what he says should go. The movie wraps up in the early seventies, at the beginning of the women’s liberation movement, and she’s learning to stand up and speak up for herself. Finally, she realizes she can have a voice and be a brave person on her own.
DP: Was it difficult to cast an actress to play a woman who is so passive and submissive?
LK: We didn’t really have problems getting actresses interested in the part because at the end of the day there’s a lot going on with Margaret. It is interesting that it’s mostly men who ask why Margaret put up with Walter. Many women have been in a situation where they swallowed their pride to stay with a man. Or they saw their mothers in that situation or know friends who were. Guys are rarely in that situation. I think Amy Adams is amazing as Margaret. Because Walter is such an impressive character, he has more lines in the movie than Margaret, although she is the protagonist. So the really interesting thing about the editing is how much of a scene can you stay on Amy while Christoph is talking? What’s great about Amy is that she’s like a silent-movie actress and you can tell what Margaret is thinking by looking in her eyes–”I love this man, I’m afraid of this man, something’s happening that’s not right.” All these complex emotions are evident in Amy’s face. It’s an extraordinary performance, with a great deal of subtlety.
DP: Did you talk to Amy and Christoph Waltz about their characters?
LK: Yes, about certain things. Actors often talk to us because we’re the historians and have researched the story and their characters. Christoph actually didn’t want to know much about Walter, because he wanted to do his own interpretation of him. And he’s one of those instinctual actors who understands things that aren’t necessarily on the page. For instance, we didn’t know how Walter held his paintbrush or things like that, but Christoph made the right choices. With Amy we acted as a go-between her and Margaret. We arranged for Amy to go to Margaret’s gallery and spend the afternoon talking to her. Margaret could tell Amy exactly how she held her brush and other things she did. So that was really lovely.
DP: When they are just beginning their relationship, what do Margaret and Walter want in life?
LK: I thinks she’s happy to be a painter and he’s smelling success in a big way. You have to understand that when he takes credit for her paintings initially, in the restaurant, there’s no way for them to know it’s going to become the most successful art in the United States. When she gives up control and allows him to sell her paintings as his paintings in the basement of the hungry i, she in no way thinks this lie is going to continue for the next ten years.
DP: Is she thinking that eventually Walter’s going to give her credit?
LK: Either that, or he won’t. But for now it’s, hey, we’re sitting right under a bunch of paintings that people are buying because a man was the artist. I think Walter was like, “Hey, we’re making money, we can buy a house, we can do all kinds of stuff.” So he convinces her to say yes to that and then it’s a slippery slope. It’s almost like Watergate, when the cover-up becomes bigger than the crime itself. She is now complicit in her own debasement. And once the lie becomes so large she can’t tell the truth to anyone including Jane, because they’ve committed fraud by taking in all this money on the pretext of something that isn’t true. Walter is really adept at manipulating her into feeling that she has to stay suppressed. What makes him an interesting villain is that he can’t understand why she’s unhappy. Everything he promised her has come true–they’re making money, they’re living a fantastic life, they’re meeting Joan Crawford. And Jane has a college fund. So why isn’t Margaret satisfied?
DP: Obviously because she is like a slave in a locked room all day turning out new paintings for him to sell–and she has to live a lie in which he receives the praise she deserves.
LK: Margaret has talked about how when the lie happened and Walter took over her life, she felt she could no longer socialize with people. She was so uncomfortable telling the lie, she found it easier just to push people away. That’s the truth. Scott and I felt we had to dramatize that, which we did by using the composite DeeAnn character [Kristen Ritter]. DeeAnn’s a friend she knows from the old days, but as her life progresses it becomes increasingly difficult for Margaret to let her be part of her life.
DP: Shunning a friend is one thing, but I think the hardest thing for audiences to understand will be Margaret’s increasing neglect of her daughter, Jane [Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur].
LK: That is part of the movie. Margaret starts out being very close to her daughter, but because she must paint all the time in seclusion and lie to Jane that it is Walter who is painting the big-eyes art, they drift apart. In the film you get a sense of them coming back together. They lived a long time in Hawaii and now they both live in San Francisco. A few weeks ago Scott and I drove up there to see them. They’d been aware of the project for a long time and had read the script but we showed them a rough cut of the film. We felt like we needed to get them on board, so Scott and I sat to the side and watched them watch the movie. It was really an emotional experience for both of them. Jane’s husband was there along with the son of the gallery owner who exhibits Margaret’s paintings today.
DP: After a few years, Walter continued telling the public that he painted the big-eye art, but he said that Margaret and even Jane dabbled as painters. That allowed Margaret some freedom to paint something other than the big-eyed waifs.
LK: I actually think Margaret’s other paintings are quite lovely. They’re my favorite paintings of hers. I think at a certain point painting the big-eyed children became work, because Walter demanded so many pieces from her so that they could be mass-produced. Whereas with the others–and this is purely my take on it–she had more artistic freedom. In some of those late-’60s paintings we know exactly what’s going on. A woman bursting out of her frame, a woman being torn in half–you can read the psychology of what’s going on in Margaret’s mind. You brought up the family angle. When Walter states that everyone in the family is a painter, it is really another way of keeping Margaret in her place. Margaret had her paintings up on the wall alongside Jane’s scratch drawings. She was allowed a spot in the gallery but it was at the kiddies’ table.
DP: How did religion fit into Margaret’s story?
LK: Margaret was always searching for something and she dabbled in a lot of different religions. She was raised Methodist, but she was in San Francisco during the sixties and looked into various New Age-y kind of things–numerology, stuff like that. She was a person looking for an answer, and it wasn’t until the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on her door in Hawaii, after she’d left Walter, that she felt she found one. She found a religion that actually spoke to what she was going through. The two women who came to her door and talked to her were the first people that she allowed into her house. They could console her and tell her that maybe there’s a life outside of this. I’d say that the things they gave her were all about telling the truth. Margaret got religion and it allowed her to take her work back. It allowed her to finally break free of the chains. She’s still a Jehovah’s Witness and it’s something she’s very sincere about. We wanted to be respectful of that, and when we approached her, we said we wanted to include that in the film and not make fun of it. I actually didn’t know that much about Jehovah’s Witnesses and had to educate myself. Scott and I went through all the literature and scriptures trying to find lessons and quotes.
DP: You mentioned that you started working on Big Eyes while you were working on something else. Do you still write several things at the same time?
LK: We do even though it’s always a little frustrating. The problem is that you always feel that if you’re working on one script you’re not working on the other. We’re writing a project right now for Warner Bros. and at the same time we’re writing a television miniseries about O.J. Simpson. The script for Warners is based on John McAfee, who started out developing anti-virus software and went off into the jungle. He’s an eccentric character and I think we’ve written a very interesting script about him, so hopefully that’ll happen. The O.J. Simpson miniseries we’re doing right now is the most ambitious project we’ve ever done. It has given us a bigger canvas than we’ve ever had. It’s ten hours starting with the night of the murder and ending at his acquittal. What we’re doing is a big a very juicy Altmanesque portrait of Los Angeles with all these different characters, the birth of 24-hour media, the LAPD and Rodney King and race relations, and, of course, the court case.
DP: Big Eyes is a script you wrote after many years in the business. Do you think you two write the same types of scripts now that you wrote when you were younger?
LK: I think so. I think we know what we’re good at. There was a period in the nineties when everything we wrote just got made, but then studios changed a bit. Problem Child today would be– what an irresponsible film, run those people out of town! And I can’t imagine studios making a movie like The People vs. Larry Flynt right now. But we still continued to write as we always had. I feel like there’s a better answer for this, but I think it’s a good thing that we still write the way we do. Often people do their best work when they’re young but I think Scott and I are still fiery.
DP: You’ve worked on Big Eyes for eleven years. You’re eleven years older than you were when you started. Is it the same film?
LK: It is very much the same film, I think, in that we always had a clear vision for it. Over the years we never got it made but we always controlled it, even though it fell apart a couple of times because of the financial crisis or an actor getting pregnant. We just had bad luck, but we always were able to extract it from that bad situation to keep it going, because we really believed in it. There was frustration but we kept thinking, “We’re going to keep it out of the system so that we can control it and keep it going until we can figure out a way to get it made.” Some people thought we were crazy because we were devoting so much time to this one project, but we managed to pull it off with this high level of talent attached to it. I’m really quite proud.