Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriters of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, talk about the “stranger than fiction” real life of Margaret and Walter Keane.
The easiest way to shorthand Margaret and Walter Keane’s story is to call it “stranger than fiction”.
Perhaps we fought for ten years to make a film about them, because this was truly one of the most insane real-life tales we’d ever encountered. In the 1960s, their ubiquitous paintings of wide-eyed, sad children took the art world by storm. Yet Margaret actually created them in secret, while her showboating, controlling husband Walter took all the credit.
Years later, Margaret acknowledges that the psychic energy and emotion devoted to this cover-up eventually become a bigger, more grotesque monster than the fraud itself.
Right off the bat, Walter’s outsize personality seemed to fit into the mold of the films we like to make. Traditional biopics are fine for Great Men, but to us it’s more interesting to portray a passionate, cockeyed anti-hero. We love obscure iconoclasts. We also love to mix tones, since that is real life – a mix of drama, tragedy, and strange comedy. We’d approached it that way with Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, and Andy Kaufman.
With Big Eyes, we stumbled onto a piece of pop culture Americana that had unfolded as weirdly as possible, with two fascinating main characters: Walter, a virtual madman who personified the debate between high art vs. low art, and Margaret, whose slavery behind the easel and ultimate fight for justice was a metaphor for the soon-to-explode Women’s Movement.
Our research process, before we began writing, was a blast. In their heyday, the Keanes were gossip mainstays, receiving tons of media coverage. We got a rich sense of Walter’s vanity from all that newsprint. Only Walter could turn a bar fight into a promotional tool. Only Walter could refer to himself in the third person, telling Life magazine “let’s face it, nobody could paint eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.” Only Walter would openly compare his influence on the world to that of Renoir, Picasso and Rembrandt.
But then, the trial – the trial! – was Walter’s undoing, where his ego, delusion and cuckoo overconfidence spun out of control. The infamous Honolulu court shenanigans between the battling Keanes were a total hoot, and the Hawaiian newspapers relished this Marx Brothers-like blowout.
A 1986 article from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin describes Judge Samuel King threatening to cut off Walter Keane “at the knees”. The Judge tells Walter, “we’re going to have to take a recess and shackle you to a chair”. He calls Walter “stupid” and says he has “concrete between his ears”. The Honolulu Advertiser joined in on the circus, reporting that Walter asked the Judge, “what if I talk for two or three days”. The Judge’s response: “I will call the sheriff to remove you bodily from the witness stand.”
We found ourselves howling with laughter at Walter’s behavior. He treated the courtroom as his final desperate spotlight on the world stage, and if he wanted to babble for hours about how a Japanese man once saved him from drowning, who could stop him?
But, when we finally had the opportunity to meet Margaret Keane in 2003, we realised that our focus shouldn’t lean on Walter’s eccentricities, entertaining as they were. It became clear that Margaret must be the main character – not Walter — as she was the one with the journey. We couldn’t let Walter’s outrageousness overshadow the importance of Margaret’s story.
Some people who have seen Big Eyes are startled when we tell them that we actually toned down Walter’s more extreme behaviour, because the character is at times unbelievable. After seeing the film, the real Margaret told us that Walter was more outlandish than we portrayed him — that Christoph Waltz actually downplayed Walter’s craziness.
Was truth stranger than fiction? Much more so. Margaret was the victim and the proverbial man – or woman, rather – behind the curtain of one of the most absurd con jobs in history. It took her decades to finally demand justice. And yet, somehow, she miraculously ended up victorious in the end. We hope that this film earns her a bit more of the credit she was deprived of for so long.