Tim Burton is best known for taking viewers on extraordinary flights of gothic fancy, in films like Alice In Wonderland, Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd. But his latest fantastical work is grounded in truth - which makes it even more alarming.
Big Eyes tells the little-known tale of American artist Margaret Keane, whose husband Walter took credit for her paintings of huge-eyed children in the late Fifties and early Sixties, until she finally fought for her name in court. A charismatic and canny businessman, Walter pioneered mass production of prints and made the Keanes very rich, at great personal cost to Margaret.
Burton, now 56, grew up seeing the ubiquitous paintings hanging in people’s living rooms and in doctors’ offices in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank.
“Even as a child, there was something about them that I found interesting and disturbing. They chilled me,” says the director.
Burton had long been a fan of Margaret Keane’s work so was excited when he discovered Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski had written a script about her life. He cast Amy Adams as Margaret and double Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as Walter - and the film won Margaret’s seal of approval.
The film portrays Margaret as a feminist who, after years of going along with Walter’s deception, eventually makes a stand to take credit for her own creations.
“He had a demonstrative, big personality and she was the opposite,” explains Burton. “She’s one of the most private, shyest people I’ve ever met and back then, in the late Fifties and Sixties, at least in the suburban world, women didn’t work.
“She admits she went along with it, and even in the courtroom, she didn’t do it for vengeance, she needed this weight lifted. And when she wins, she’s not out there on her soapbox - she’s the most quiet, under the radar feminist.
“And that’s what was amazing about Amy’s performance, she was able to show that conflict subtly.”
With the calibre of actors Burton had to work with (Adams has been nominated for five Oscars), you’d think he just had to stand back and let them get on with it.
“You try and get a sense of how each one works or likes to work.
“Christoph approaches something in a completely different way to how Amy does, so you just try and let them each breathe. I used to storyboard everything, but I got to the point where I thought, ‘We’ve got two great actors here...’. Sometimes it’s good to just let that energy happen.”