For the past decade or so, Tim Burton was a bit lost in CG land. While fanciful and flamboyant blockbusters like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland boasted impressive visuals, they seemed to lack that touch of soul and childlike wonder that made the master of the macabre’s oeuvre so beloved in the first place.
With his latest film, Big Eyes, the Robert Smith-coiffed 56-year-old has stepped back into reality. It also marks a long-awaited reunion with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who penned the 1994 Burton flick Ed Wood.
Big Eyes is a biopic of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a mother whose ethereal “big eyes” paintings of children with giant orbs became incredibly successful in the 1950s, earning the praise of Andy Warhol. But Keane’s controlling husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), not only took all the credit for her work, but also mass-produced prints of her paintings against her will. She eventually stands up for herself, and takes her unhinged husband to court to prove authorship over her celebrated (and reviled) works.
Burton is, of course, the filmmaker behind a plethora of oddball classics like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Ed Wood, and it could be argued that his 1989 flick Batman was the progenitor of today’s vast array of superhero films.
The Daily Beast sat down with Burton to discuss Big Eyes and his beautiful, dark, twisted career.
You’ve been a fan of Margaret Keane’s work for quite some time, I hear.
I grew up with those “Big Eyes” prints surrounding my life. I thought of it as very suburban art, because people around didn’t have Matisse’s or Picasso’s—they had Keane’s. Growing up in that suburbia and air of pop culture, these images stayed with me like a weird dream. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that a friend of mine told the story because I, like everyone else, had thought Walter Keane did the paintings. When he told me the story I became more fascinated by it, and then I was in San Francisco and got to meet her and even commissioned some paintings from her. Then, a couple of years later, I learned that Scott [Alexander] and Larry [Karaszewski] had written a script. It was these parallel universes colliding.
Was it your wife Helena in the Keane painting you commissioned?
It was Helena and our son. It was quite amazing. And then she did my eyes, and then my kid’s eyes. You see her work and it’s not hyper-realistic—it has a naïveté to it—but when she painted my eye and my kid’s eye, she really captured them. I found that really amazing. Even though some people hate the work, there’s something to it that’s very powerful.
Artists like Keane and Warhol were so far ahead of their time, because that’s where we are right now in the art world with screen prints, posters, Art Basel, you name it. How do you feel about the current relationship between art and consumerism?
For as much as Walter was a maniac, he was at the forefront of printing art. But that’s kind of an unanswerable question, though it is part of life, and something that’s interesting. It’s a fascinating thing to think about: What’s good, and what’s bad?
Every poster that’s printed and sold of a painting has to cheapen the power of the original product though, right?
Somebody said it’s like going through the gift shop at the end of the gallery, you know?
It’s sort of like how the Native Americans say that every photo of you steals a part of your soul. Perhaps every reproduction of a piece of art steals a part of its soul.
I’m with that! When I grew up, most of the people that had paintings hanging in their living room probably didn’t even know the difference between the original and the print; it was just art that was hanging on their wall. That’s how uneducated we were about art in the place I grew up in
With Big Eyes a lot of people, myself included, were glad to see you emerge from the rabbit hole that is the CG world.
Exactly. I just try to treat anything like a necessary tool; I don’t try to treat it as anything else. On something like Alice, that movie was the most abstract, bizarre one, and I don’t think I’ll ever do anything like that again because there was never anything—no one was acting to anything. Alice was different sizes every time, I didn’t do motion capture, and every element utilized a different technique. And because it was that way, I didn’t know what the movie was until the very, very, very last minute, like a week before it was released. That was really terrifying. And the composers are composing to nothing. It was weird.
And that’s so different from a film like The Nightmare Before Christmas where you have a huge team handcrafting every character and set from scratch.
That’s why I still love stop-motion. It’s a beautiful process, and I love the handmade quality of things. Even on Beetlejuice, we were doing just really cheesy effects. Now, again, I’ll use CG in some cases, but even when we do it, we always try to do things live. When you see an old James Bond movie, you realize that they were actually doing it, and you watch CG movies and realize that, yes, they may be great and look real, but there’s a little bit of that soul missing.
You mentioned Beetlejuice, and there were reports that a sequel was happening featuring the original cast of Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder. Is that still in the cards?
Well, let’s put it this way—we’re thinking about it, there’s a script, and I really miss working with Michael.
He’s so great in Birdman.
I haven’t seen that yet! I hear it’s amazing.
Is this script the unproduced Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian that was circulating some time ago?
No, not that one. But I really miss working with Michael. He’s so amazing and the only guy that could do that. It’s such a cathartic character that I’d love to revisit, so it’s closer than never I’d say.
Edward Scissorhands is a family favorite. When I studied in London back in 2005, I actually saw the ballet, too. Were there ever plans for a sequel to Scissorhands, or a continuation of that story?
That ballet was weird, wasn’t it? You know, I feel the same way about that that I do about The Nightmare Before Christmas. When it came out, it didn’t do that well but has grown over the years. With those kind of things, it’s good to protect them because it’s a fable and a fairytale in a way and you want to leave it be so it keeps them protected. Some things are great to have sequels, but for me, I want to protect those because it keeps it special to me.
Are those your two favorite films you’ve made?
I like all of them, in a way, but I like Scissorhands and Ed Wood. You make a connection to everything and find yourself in it, and I loved doing Sweeney Todd because I thought, “Well, that character is me.” But, yeah, Beetlejuice, Scissorhands, and Ed Wood are my favorites. You find love in each one of them. I can’t watch any of them, but I feel them.
For Big Eyes, you commissioned a pair of songs by Lana Del Rey. You two seem to have similar artistic sensibilities, both very interested in the macabre.
I don’t know her that well, but I can certainly hear it in her voice! I love her voice. I’m always a bit wary of putting music in, but her voice is so beautiful, and when I put it in that sequence, it really heightened it because it’s a huge turning point for Margaret Keane in the film. The weight and power and timelessness of Lana really fit that.
Where does your fascination with the macabre come from?
From living in Burbank, I guess! It’s more macabre than you might imagine. For whatever reason, I grew up watching and loving horror movies—perhaps as a reaction to the environment I was growing up in. I always saw the horrific side of this seemingly benign environment. I always felt very uncomfortable, and like an alien. I always loved monster movies because I identified with the monster and connected with it. So that time, and growing up in that environment, connected me to those films.
Do you ever feel like Cassandra? With Batman and Planet of the Apes, you seem to be operating around 15 years ahead of the culture.
Well, Batman got really lambasted for being “too dark.” It did well financially, but critically, it wasn’t one of the most well-received films of the year.
Critics get it wrong quite a bit. Even The Shining was up for several Razzies.
That’s what I like about this, and Ed Wood. And Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was on a lot of year-end 10 worst movies of the year lists, so I’ve definitely been there.
With Batman, you were way ahead of the game as far as this superhero hysteria we’re currently enveloped in.
It’s amazing that it keeps going on and on, and mining the exact same territory. The positive thing is that when I did the first one, the word “franchise” hadn’t even been created. I’d only heard about the word afterwards!
Pee-wee was also a family favorite, and we caught the show on Broadway. There was talk of a Judd Apatow-produced Pee-wee film getting made a few years back. Is that happening?
I don’t now! I have no idea. I remember when we were making the film that Paul joked that in 20 years time we should do the Sunset Boulevard version of Pee-wee… so there’s always time for that!
You’re working on Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children next with Eva Green, right?
I just love her. She’s one of the most mysterious people I’ve ever met; she has this real, old silent movie star persona.
I heard that at one point you were trying to put together a Batman musical on Broadway. What happened there?
They approached me about that and I was interested because I liked Jim Steinman; I met him a few times, and thought he did some great stuff. But at the end of the day, seeing this guy prancing around and singing, I don’t know. Look what happened to Spider-Man, right? [Laughs]