I recently had the exciting opportunity to sit down with ‘Big Eyes’ screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Enjoy the interview below!
You first met Tim Burton 20 years ago. You worked with him on Ed Wood. How did you first meet? What was that like?
We had, just through a sort of eccentric people who know people, six steps removed kind of thing. We had the idea to write a movie about Ed, and at the time, Ed was a figure of mockery. And after our Problem Child movies, we started identifying with Ed, and we sort of had this idea that nobody sets out to make a bad movie. It just kind of happens.
And we started saying, “What if you treated him sympathetically?” And so we started joking about this with a friend of ours, Michael Lehmann, who we had gone to college with, and Michael had just directed Hudson Hawk which was one of the big debacles of the century.
A cult classic.
It wasn’t a cult classic yet. It was a bomb at the time.
And so we were just riffing with Michael, saying hey, what if the writers of Problem Child and director of Hudson Hawk got together and made a movie about the worst filmmaker of all time? So it was like, ha, ha, that’s funny.
Write what you know!
And so we have a good friend Dan Waters who had written Heathers and then Michael had directed Heathers and producer of Heathers was Denise Di Novi, and Denise was now partnered with Tim. They had a production company, and so we thought with Michael, maybe we’ll take the idea for this project to Tim Burton. And he can do “Tim Burton Presents” and then we can go raise a couple million dollars to go make it independently and Michael can get back to sort of like the indie filmmaking where he thrived and sort of like a world we had been interested in but we had sort of just become studio guys. And so one person led to another person and Tim read an outline we wrote and he said, “Wow! I would like to direct this.” And it was like this incredible opportunity, and so Michael recognized this was a big opportunity for us, so he stepped aside and then we had six weeks to write the script before Tim had to go direct a movie called Mary Reilly, which he had been prepping for about a year and a half. So we were basically trying to knock Mary Reilly out of the way.
That was with Julia Roberts?
Yeah, correct, correct. I don’t think she was attached to it at the time. We just basically holed up and we wrote this script as fast as we possibly could. And it was on spec, nobody was paying. All we knew was that we had Tim Burton’s attention.
Every time you do a Tim Burton movie, it is on spec. What’s that about?
And so we pumped it out and after six weeks, we had a long draft, like about 142 pages, and normally we wouldn’t show that to anybody, but we were sort of nervous that we were going to lose, we’d lose Tim’s attention if we waited. And so we turned it in to Tim and Tim read it and…we turned it in on like a Friday, and Sunday, he called up and said, “You know, I’m going to drop out of Mary Reilly. I want to make this movie my next movie, and I don’t have any notes.” He said, “I don’t want this to be a development thing, I don’t want to take this to a studio and get all their input, I just want to shoot what you guys wrote.” And he kept his word. Ed Wood was always a first draft.
And he sort of did the same thing on Big Eyes where he really just took our script and sort of turned both projects into Tim Burton movies, but he was very, very faithful to what we wrote.
I mean, Big Eyes wasn’t a first draft. We had had years and years of trying to make it ourselves.
What was the biggest obstacle to bringing it to the screen?
It just kept falling apart. It’s just the whims of making an independent movie. I mean, it’s nothing in particular. We had many times when we thought we were at the starting gate with cast and crew and financing, and then the money would fall through or the actress would get pregnant or the completion bond would collapse. Something terrible would happen.
Also, I do think the movies that studios made 20 years ago are different than the kinds of movies that studios make now. So Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, these were all in-house studio movies where we knew that this was a special, smaller film. And so at that point, when we had a first draft, there were certainly the Fox Searchlights, but we weren’t going to go that route. We were just trying to make the movie independently, but when you make a movie independently, you open up to the whims of just about anything. Also, the combination of having a female be the lead and having it be about the art world.
And it’s a period piece.
A lot of independent movies are financed through foreign financing, and so they wanted, they hear a movie about the art world and they think it’s going to be Pollock, it’s going to be this serious art film. And then they hear about a female lead –
I like Pollock!
That’s not the movie we’re trying to make.
I don’t think they ever really appreciated that we wanted to make a romp.
I don’t want Ed Harris to think we don’t like him.
We like him!
It’s also a good movie.
What was the casting process like? Did you always have Amy Adams in mind?
That’s funny. We actually did always have Amy Adams in mind.
I mean, this version came together via casting through Christoph Waltz. We got a call from Christoph Waltz’s agent, and we thought, oh, that sounds kind of interesting, and we contacted Tim who at that time was a producer on the movie. And Tim got very, very excited about the idea, and he was about to meet Christoph. They were on the Oscars circuit together, and Tim had approached us a little earlier about making another project, very Ed Wood-like. So we knew Tim was looking for a movie to direct that was smaller, and so we sort of used this opportunity to go to Tim and sort of say, “Look, there’s no other director we’d say this to, and we didn’t even tell our agents. We didn’t tell anybody because we didn’t want people to think we were looking for someone else to direct the movie, but if you could make this movie right now, we will produce it. You direct it, and we’ll get Christoph to star in it,” and you know, he loved the project so much, he said yes. Christoph joined within a week, we had Amy in the week after that, we had the Weinsteins.
So, for a movie that took eleven years to make, it happened really quickly.
Wow, so originally you guys wanted to direct it?
What changed exactly?
Well, what changed was that it kept falling apart, and in ten years, nobody ever paid us. So we were doing it all out of pocket, and every time we would start to put together a new version, now we’re shooting in Portland, now we’re shooting in New Orleans, now we’re shooting in Portland, now we’re shooting in Buenos Aires. Each one of those versions, you’ve gotta do a new schedule, a new budget, a new local crew, and it’s months and months where you don’t actually have income, where you’re just doing this work on the assumption that the movie’s going to happen, and then something will go wrong and each time we would come back to it, it’s sort of like just the state of the American indie over the last ten or fifteen years, the budgets kept moving downward. And you know, indie movies that were being made for $14 million or $18 million ten or fifteen years ago were made for $6 million. There was less money going around, and so it was getting very demoralizing. It was hard to keep getting back up after a bloody fight and get back in the ring again. Also, the budget gave us a load that we weren’t sure we were even being realistic or we were just kidding ourselves at a certain point. Right before Christoph called, we were trying to put together another version, and we had started at $12 million, then $10, then $9, then $8, and now we were down to $6 because that was sort of the state of independent film financing for this movie with these people and us and all that. We were just kind of looking at each other like, we’re not even sure if it is even shoot-able at this point. Because it’s a period piece. The movie by design was very contained because of budget, but at a certain point, you’ve gotta go outside and you’ve got period cars and period costumes and that all costs money. And so we sort of had the idea to sort of like take Christoph and Tim, with Tim as director, the movie will get made, and he’ll do a great job.
Also, I think we had some obligations to the real Margaret Keane. We had tracked down and got her trust and got her rights. She was in her early 70’s, now she’s in her late 80’s, and we really thought it was important that the movie get made while she could still enjoy it, while she could still possibly be re-evaluated for her work, and I’m certainly glad that we did because we actually had a big screening the other night in front of 1600 people with the real Margaret Keane, and that was insanely special.
And how did she respond to it?
She was very touched.
Yeah, she was very touched. What was nice was this summer, we wanted to show her the film, and Tim was like, Tim wasn’t finished yet. And he was like, “I want her to see it when it is perfect,” but we convinced Tim to let us show her a rough cut. So we flew down to San Francisco and we showed her the rough cut, and it was her and Jane, her daughter. It was this big theater, and it was just them and Jane’s husband and one of the representatives of the gallery that they run, and they wanted us to sit down next to them, and we were like, “No, no, no, we want you guys to enjoy it,” because we were too nervous to sit down next to them. We sat a couple rows behind on the side so we could watch them watch the movie.
I don’t think we’ve ever sat with the real person before the first time watching the movie.
But we watched them watch the movie, and it was really nice. There’s a scene at the beginning where the mother and daughter are at an outdoor art show and they kind of poke each other in recognition. But the real pay-off came at the end of the film. We walked over and Margaret was just weeping and weeping. She gets a big hug, and she really thought the movie really captured what she went through and really had the strangest reaction to Christoph, and she really thought, “Wow,” she felt like he had been back in the room with Walter. He nailed it.
I think it’s maybe easier for anybody to look back and see the person they were with being re-created as opposed to seeing themselves being re-created. I don’t even know what that would be like, because that’s never happened to me. To actually see someone portraying you in key moments in your own life, I don’t even know how you react to that.
That’s got to be strange to see.
But you’re seeing your spouse, it’s like, “Oh yeah, they did a pretty good job!”
Well, it’s funny, when we made the movie Man on the Moon…
Great movie, by the way.
Well, the real George Shapiro, who Danny DeVito plays, the real Lynne Margulies, who Courtney Love plays, and the real Bob Zmuda, who is played by Paul Giamatti –
Actually, he’s right around here!
We wanted to have a test screening outside of New York, and it didn’t go that great. And so we went back to our hotel afterwards, and they were staying nearby too, and they came over and we met them in the bar and we’re sort of getting drunk with these guys. And all of a sudden we realize, wait a second, we’re getting drunk with our characters! We’re not even getting drunk with our actors, we’re getting drunk with our characters, which is really a meta, completely meta experience.
Yeah, that’s cool. Kind of like The Last Action Hero!
Absolutely! Absolutely one of those kinds of moments. Our lives are really weird.
Good for you, that was a fine reference.
I was going for Adaptation, but you went with Last Action Hero.
Your filmographies are very eclectic. Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on? And I just want to thank you for Problem Child 1 and 2.
Oh, hey! There you go!
Last Action Hero!
No, it’s actually funny, we sort of ran away from the Problem Child movies because they were movies that we, we started our careers hugely successful, but we were always kind of a little embarrassed by them. But what’s funny is over time, what’s happened is what’s happening right now.
Enough years have gone by.
We’ll go in to meet some executives somewhere and –
They were ten years old when Problem Child came out! And TBS ran those movies into the ground! So there is twenty years of kids that grew up watching Junior, and now people come to us and say that was a cult classic. I’m thinking, the word classic is being misused here!
They are cult favorites!
They are funny, the movies are very funny.
But I will say that enough of our real personality got into those movies, and they are really weird.
The movies are out of their minds!
Different than Home Alone, you know?
Problem Child 1, you know, he’s a serial killer sleeping with his mother while his father is basically incoherent, and there’s just a lot of really strange things.
But it worked!
Yeah, how it worked, a serial killer put into a children’s film.
Well, Michael Richards pulled it off.
Yes, he did.