Tim Burton's "Big Eyes" tells the story of an epic art fraud centered on "the most quiet, under-the radar feminist you've ever met." In many ways, Margaret Keane's story embodies the early women's movement. That, along with the rise of the kitsch -- and another "worst" artist to add to the list with "Ed Wood" -- is what Burton has set out to explore here. HuffPost Entertainment interviewed the director to talk about creating his lowest budget film in years (and whether he would ever re-consider making "Superman Lives").
You commissioned Margaret Keane’s work before this film was even pitched to you. What drew you to “Big Eyes” and telling her story?
I felt like it was suburban art. There weren’t Matisses or Picassos hanging on people’s walls. There were Keanes. You would see them in people’s living rooms, dentists’ offices and doctors’ offices. It was very present, and very much a time of that when I was growing up. I think they stayed with me, because they were all over the place, but also because I found them quite disturbing. I liked that kind of juxtaposition of things. I found it fascinating that so many people had them up in their houses.
That rise of the kitsch and suburbia have always been prevalent themes in your work. Is that something you wanted to explore here?
Even for people who hated it, you had to acknowledge it had a power to connect with people. There were a lot of artists who tried to rip it off. A lot of people who bought it. It became like a movement. Look at artists who were trying to copy it ... This sort of came to me growing up in suburbia: this idea of the American dream, and then you have this couple -- this sort of horrific couple -- creating these strange mutant children. That seemed slightly representative of the end of that American dream era. This is sort of a twisted version of that idea of the nuclear family.
The true story of the Keanes is actually much more insidious than what we see on screen. What made you leave things out like Walter abusing Margaret’s dog or keeping her locked in the attic?
You know, truth is stranger than fiction. For instance, in the courtroom scene [in which the Keanes have a paint-off for ownership of Margaret’s body of work], we had to tone it down, because it was even worse than that. In fact, people have trouble believing that even now. So, it was fine line between trying to create the extremity of it and do it in a way where you’re still semi-believable. With Margaret mentioning how she is in the attic, you get the idea of it.
In a way, Margaret Keane embodies the early women’s movement -- surviving her husband's psychological abuse and striving for her independence in spite of it.
She’s one of the most quiet, under-the-radar feminists you’ve ever met. She doesn’t have a big voice. She’s not out there on the streets, saying, you know, “Vote for women’s rights!” She did it in her own private, personal way, which I found amazing given the type of person she is.
Toning down this story is certainly another way “Big Eyes” is a departure for your work. There are not a lot of visual effects, it’s much smaller. How was the process different?
Well, it was low-budget. For me, after doing a lot of big-budget movies, it was kind of reconnecting me to having to move quickly and be resourceful. I mean, you have to do that on any film. But this you’re moving locations four or five times a day, you know, trying to make Vancouver look like San Francisco is not easy.
What was the biggest challenge with the low budget?
I think Vancouver to San Francisco, because the actors were all great. I was lucky to deal with solid people who were willing to go into the same thing of moving quickly, being there, not having to wait for people to move out of the trailer. Everyone got into the same spirit, which helped make it.
You’ve made films for two distinct generations. Do you think of this one differently?
You pick projects based on feelings. That’s why you can’t pick projects too far in advance. You don’t know how you’re going to feel. I think I felt that this one, basically because of "Ed Wood," I like these characters that are sort of marginalized and the connection between what’s good and bad. Those are the themes that I relate to. Also, just wanting to do a low budget film after doing so many big budget films.
What do you think about the rise of the superhero franchise. How would your "Batman" do today?
It is amazing. I feel lucky to have been around in the time before franchise was created. I was lucky on “Batman” to never hear the word “franchise,” that was a real pleasure. Now, that’s all it’s become. The amazing thing is that trends come and go. That’s a trend that obviously not only stuck, but continues to keep going. How many tortured, you know, people that become superheroes are there going to be? It’s the same story.
Okay, half joking here, but how about "Superman Lives"? Would you ever reconsider making that one? Superman films are in, meta commentary is in ... the Internet would explode.
Oh, good. I’d love to make the Internet explode! That’s a good idea. I’d love to see that happen.
"Big Eyes" is out in wide release Dec. 25.