In person, Tim Burton looks a bit like a sketch out of a Tim Burton movie. His hair is frizzled, his clothes are dark; he speaks in quiet but rushed tones, with a slightly manic gleam in his eyes. This description has undoubtedly been made before, but it’s worth repeating here, particularly since Burton’s new film, Big Eyes, looks so very un-Tim Burton-like. Gone are the macabre backdrops and characters, instead replaced with the bright, picturesque landscape of 1950s San Francisco. But underneath those pastels and shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll find the same things that made Burton’s earlier worlds so memorable: isolation, sadness, and that fish-out-of-water, outside-looking-in mentality.
Based on a true story, Big Eyes follows painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) — best known for her iconic portraits of children with, yep, big eyes — and the years of psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, Walter (Django Unchained‘s Christoph Waltz), who took credit for her work. The paintings eventually became a worldwide phenomenon, hated by the critical elite but beloved by millions of fans, who happily threw down money for reprints. Years later, Margaret would finally admit the truth: She was the one behind the art, not her husband. Her forced seclusion and willingness to fight back via a lengthy court battle were two of the things that initially attracted Burton to the story. The 56-year-old director also loved the challenge of taking on an independent movie with a smaller budget. (A $200 million bells-and-whistles fantasy blockbuster a la Alice in Wonderland this is not.)
Burton sat down with Rolling Stone right before Big Eyes hit theaters to discuss the new film, why a sequel to Beetlejuice would work, the critical backlash he faced regarding his recent work and how he feels about Batman 25 years after its release.
Big Eyes lacks the darker cues people usually associate you with. But there are a lot of “Burton-esque” qualities to the movie, specifically with the main character being so isolated.
Absolutely. I tend to be very quiet, very internal; back when I was an animator, a lot of people didn’t even know that I could speak, you know? So I identified with Margaret. Unfortunately, I understood certain aspects of Walter as well — the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the character, the ups and the downs. But in a sense, the style of the film…[the screenwriters] Scott [Alexander] and Larry [Karaszewski], who wrote Ed Wood, they specialize in these sort of truth-are-stranger-than-fiction-type people. So the story itself is so outlandish, so weird and so unbelievable, it felt like the best way to do it was to just play it straight. It was a change for me. It was the first real independent thing I’d ever done.
Personally, when I read Big Eyes…it has a lot of the same feelings that I look for in films, in a sense of a mixture of the light and the dark, the funny and the tragic and that scary dysfunctional relationship. And the artwork itself — it was always very present in the culture when I was growing up, in everybody’s living room and offices and things like that. There’s something slightly disturbing about them. I like them not because they are images of cute children, but….
…There is something distressing about them.
Distressing and creepy. Plus they were popular; artists were trying to copy the Keane look. I have a black velvet painting of one of their works that was done in Thailand or something. So even people who hate it have to admit there is sort of a weird power to it.
You do a lot of sketches before you go into your films. Did you try doing any of the Keane figures at all?
No, though I have drawn characters with big eyes…their pupils are usually small, however. Or there’s no eyes. But I do think it’s influenced me in some weird way. There are a lot of contemporary artists that do the big eyes.
You mentioned the lower budget for this film. Did that feel constraining at all?
Even if you have a big budget, it’s never enough — anybody will tell you that. But I enjoyed it. You’re dealing with a smaller crew, you don’t have to worry about McDonald’s tie-ins or hear the word “franchise.” Everybody pitches in. Sometimes some of the best stuff comes when you don’t have the resources to do things. So it just keeps the energy going and I really, really enjoy that. Because a lot of times these big productions are just longer and slower, and it’s hard to get a momentum going. With something like this, you’re kind of forced to just do it quickly [and move on].
Some reviewers have said that Big Eyes is a “comeback” or a “return-to-form” for you.
[Rolls eyes] I don’t listen to them. The whole “what’s good” and “what’s bad” thing has been around since the beginning of my career. I mean, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice were on the 10 worst films of the year awards…
…But you ask reviewers about those movies now…
…[they’d say] I haven’t done anything better — and that’s kind of scary. Even Batman; that did great at the box office but it was not well critiqued. “Batman‘s too dark.” You do films that the critics hate that make a lot of money or that critics love that bomb. So that’s why I try not to take either good reviews or bad reviews to heart. When you make something, it’s like you’re taking your clothes off and showing everybody. That’s why I have trouble watching my films or watching with an audience. It just makes me feel too nervous and feel vulnerable.
You’re dealing with a smaller crew, you don’t have to worry about McDonald’s tie-ins or hear the word “franchise.”
Then how do you evaluate yourself as a filmmaker after the work is done?
I don’t. And that’s the other thing too: When you start your career, if you’re lucky enough to get a few successes, then they start to look at you as a commodity: “Oh, that’s what he does.” Then you don’t do something like that and they say “Well it’s not like a Tim Burton movie.” It’s like [throws hands up in the air], OK, I lose either way.
That could be one of the reasons that Michael Keaton sort of retreated from bigger films — not wanting to be boxed in.
You get pigeonholed. Nobody likes it. I didn’t like it when I was a child, and I still don’t like it. In a weird way, it’s a form of control and putting a person down in a funny way. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, it’s a backhanded way of doing it.
Right. I don’t think people are aware of it. It’s just like, You’re this. That’s it. I was categorized as a weird person. I never felt weird. I can be the most normal person you could meet and make the nicest, cutest movie in the world. But people would still…[pauses]. Once you get labeled, it’s hard to get rid of that label.
People have been asking a lot about Beetlejuice 2. Is that actually going to happen at this point?
I hope so! Because there’s only one Beetlejuice, and that’s [Keaton]. I miss the character and I think it’s probably closer than ever in some ways. But we haven’t started yet. I’d love to work with him. He’s such a cathartic character.
I am not really into sequels. It’s like Nightmare Before Christmas: I know Disney wanted to do something and I just said no. The same with Edward Scissorhands. There are certain films that you want to keep protected in their form. I mean, I love the characters in Scissorhands and Nightmare, but I just feel like [not doing a sequel] keeps it special. Beetlejuice is slightly different because it’s just a character that kind of is…I wouldn’t even consider it a sequel. It’s just its own thing.
It feels like the right time for Keaton too, coming off of Birdman.
I haven’t seen it. But I heard he’s amazing.
I always wondered, with Nightmare Before Christmas, does director Henry Selick ever get mad that people inadvertently give you directing credit for it?
Well, it’s a hard thing to say, because animated movies, especially at the time…it was a different phenomenon. For me, the reason I felt comfortable with it was because it was something that I spent a couple of years devising. So between Henry and [composer and voice of Jack Skellington] Danny Elfman and [screenwriter] Caroline Thompson, it just felt like we were a group of people making it. I mean, people ended up thinking I did Coraline too, but I had nothing to do with that. That’s why when [Henry] did James and the Giant Peach, I tried to really step away. Because it wasn’t my creation. I said “Henry, take the reigns.” With Nightmare, I felt comfortable because it was more my thing.
This year was the 25th anniversary of Batman. Do you feel a sense of kinship with the superhero movies of today? Obviously, they are very different than what you were doing…
It feels a bit surreal. I mean Batman made a lot of money but critically, it was panned and considered too dark [laughs] — now, 30 or 40 years later they’re mining the same thing. Even though it’s slightly different, it’s still tortured souls dressing up in funny costumes. It’s amazing how it’s not only stayed but grown.
And people were upset about Michael Keaton [getting cast], but I thought he gave an amazing performance. The whole point of that was, he’s not Arnold Schwarzenegger; he was a guy who needs to dress up as a bat to create a persona. That’s what’s so brilliant about him. You just look at his eyes and go, “This fucker’s crazy.”
If anything, that’s the thing that hasn’t changed: people getting pissed about casting decisions on superhero movies.
Oh, well they got pissed off at Ben Affleck [for getting cast as Batman]. Thank god there wasn’t the Internet at the time we did Batman. We would have been murdered.
People were writing letters to the studio.
Yeah, that’s why I moved to England.
Do you feel a sense of ownership over these properties that you’ve spent time on, like Batman or Planet of the Apes? How do you feel as a filmmaker when they’re returning to material you’ve already done?
Well, I mean…that’s just what studios do. The thing that amazes me the most, when they’ll do a Spider-Man movie and then they’ll do the exact same story a few years later. That’s a weird new phenomenon. I get the fact of revisiting the material. From a studio point of view, I understand that. It’s just a bit frightening where that’s going. They basically change the director, change the actors, but do exactly the same story.
They also do it to build a cinematic universe and get more movies out of that. They are doing it now with the Universal Monsters Universe.
That’s not a bad idea. I love those. But it just depends on the thing. Look, it’s like fairy tales. If you read them, in every culture — vampire stories, Frankenstein stories — you can tell it a million times. Same with Beauty and the Beast. Somebody once said there are maybe five or six stories if you hone everything down. So I think you can tell a certain kind of story over and over again, it’s just a slightly different take on it.
Which is one of the things that’s enjoyable about Big Eyes. It’s a bit of a different story. You don’t expect it to actually be true.
Heaven help the people who have to try and sell this movie, because it doesn’t really fit into any category. It’s got a mixture of everything, which is what I liked about it.
There’s also an underlying message: What is art?
Yeah and there’s no answer to it. But it’s an interesting question. I have been through it myself.
With the MOMA retrospective?
Yeah, which was completely panned. Worse than Keane! But at the same time, it had the highest attendance ratings of any of their shows. So you get this weird juxtaposition of good and bad. I guess it just opens you up to the question of what is art and not, but about how people perceive things.
That brings it full-circle with Ed Wood too.
It’s similar that way. [Ed Wood] was considered the worst director in the world. But I remember his films; a lot of people do. There was a poetry to them, a weirdness, which made it stand out from other things. There’s a similarity between Ed Wood and Keane — when Wood is making Plan 9 From Outer Space, he thinks he’s making Star Wars. When Keane is painting, both Walter and Margaret think she’s creating the Mona Lisa. As a person who likes to make things, you get caught in a sort of enthusiastic, delusional world of euphoria of making something.
Do you have to get that every time you make a movie?
Yeah, obviously you go in with the best intentions to make the greatest movie in the world. But it doesn’t happen. Ever.