Inside Big Eyes — the outrageous true story of Margaret Keane, top-selling painter of the 1960s

Production design: Color, art — and is that Tiki Bob’s?

The much anticipated Tim Burton movie, Big Eyes, is in theaters on Dec. 25, and already the press is buzzing. Kate and I cannot wait to see this film — the story of artist Margaret Keane, painter of the iconic, midcentury Big Eyes paintings — the top-selling paintings of the 1960s. The fascinating conflict: Her husband took all the credit — “…one of the most epic art frauds in history.” Of course, we also cannot wait to see the interiors, set and costume designs in the film. Tim Burton does the 1960s — art and pop culture 1960s, no less!

Director of Photography BRUNO DELBONNEL (left), Director TIM BURTON (center), and AMY ADAMS (right) on the set of BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.
Director of Photography BRUNO DELBONNEL (left), Director TIM BURTON (center), and AMY ADAMS (right) on the set of BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

I started out this story thinking I’d keep it short and feature the photos from the press materials — especially the interiors — along with some information I was able to find online about the production design. But then, I read the extensive Production Notes — and oh my, I was drawn right into the many facets of this extraordinary truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale. So here you go, 2,500+ words excerpted from the press kit, which digs deep. I’ve asked the PR team if we can get more photos of the interior design… we’ll see. Watch the trailer — there are some great sneak peeks there, too.

(L-R) AMY ADAMS, KRYSTEN RITTER, and CHRISTOPH WALTZ star in BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.
(L-R) AMY ADAMS, KRYSTEN RITTER, and CHRISTOPH WALTZ star in BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

The story of Margaret Keane and Big Eyes — from the extensive and excellent Production Notes:


From the whimsical mind of director Tim Burton, BIG EYES tells the outrageous true story of one of the most epic art frauds in history. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, painter Walter Keane had reached success beyond belief, revolutionizing the commercialization of popular art with his enigmatic paintings of waifs with big eyes. The bizarre and shocking truth would eventually be discovered though: Walter’s works were actually not created by him at all, but by his wife Margaret. The Keanes, it seemed, had been living a colossal lie that had fooled the entire world. A tale too incredible to be fiction, BIG EYES centers on Margaret’s awakening as an artist, the phenomenal success of her paintings, and her tumultuous relationship with her husband, who was catapulted to international fame while taking credit for her work.

© 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.
© 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.


In 2003, writing partners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski learned the stranger than fiction story of Margaret and Walter Keane, the top selling painters of the 1960s. Intrigued, they began to research a story that would take ten years to finally go into production. [Editor’s note: I bolded first reference to team names for emphasis. This is a long story.]

“It’s a great piece of history that nobody knows,” says Alexander. “If it weren’t true, I wouldn’t believe it.”

“There were a lot of reasons why we wanted to make this movie,” says Karaszewski. “We thought Margaret was a great female character that embodied the beginning of the Women’s Movement. It starts with her as a 1950’s housewife who does everything for her husband. Through the course of the story, she learns to stand up for herself.” Alexander and Karaszewski have a tremendous track record with biopics, having written films about comedian Andy Kaufman (MAN ON THE MOON) and publisher Larry Flynt (THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT) and producing one about actor Bob Crane (AUTO FOCUS). “Scott and I are very attracted to these sorts of biographies of people who you initially didn’t think were important and who were marginalized.” He notes that ED WOOD, their first film with Tim Burton, “was about someone who people thought was the worst filmmaker of all time. And there are some people who think the Keanes are the worst painters of all time. We thought by making this film we could tell a very great personal story, as well as discuss issues of the art world and the Women’s Movement.”

JASON SCHWARTZMAN stars in BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN stars as a gallery owner in BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved. From he production notes interview: Schwrtzman “notes the scene in Woody Allen’s SLEEPER, when many years in the future, the Keane paintings are the only art that has endured. “The joke is that this thing that no one takes seriously is actually the thing that survives.”

The writers were spellbound by the Keane’s story. “Walter really invented the mass marketing of art,” says Karaszewski. “He wasn’t accepted in galleries and by art critics so he built his own galleries, put out his own coffee table books. He figured out how to make the paintings so cheap that the average man could buy them and he totally revolutionized the art world. Certainly, people who came along later, like Peter Max or Thomas Kinkade, borrowed from his playbook, and even Andy Warhol acknowledges stealing a little bit from Walter Keane’s philosophy. But what’s amazing is the secret behind it all: the paintings were his wife’s and he manipulated her into letting him put his name on them and taking all the credit. We were totally fascinated and thought this was a great American story that hadn’t been told.”

The writers spent weeks at libraries and pouring through San Francisco newspaper stories in microfiche archives, trying to piece together the sensational tale of the Keanes. “It was hard to get a straight story,” says Alexander, and they set out to meet with Margaret. “We needed to be able to earn her trust and show that we had integrity.”

Keane agreed to a meeting and the writers flew up to her in San Francisco. “We had a really nice lunch,” says Alexander. “We asked the questions that the newspaper stories didn’t answer, which were: How did this happen? When was the first time Walter said he was the painter? What did he tell you? Why did you agree? And, as this went on for year after year after year, why did you continue to let him do this? Psychologically it didn’t make a lot of sense. We started to understand though that she came out of a 1950’s housewife mentality where the man was in charge of the household and laid down the rules and, in fairness to Walter, he promised a lot of things that came true. He said they’d become famous, make a lot of money and live in a big house. Years later, Margaret still says that without Walter nobody ever would have discovered her art. She still gives him a lot of credit.”

Margaret Keane agreed to sell Alexander and Karaszewski the rights to her life as well as her art. “It took us one more year to work it out so Margaret would be comfortable,” Alexander says. “We didn’t want to do anything that was going to make her feel bad about the film. We had to earn her trust at all times.”

Margaret Keane is 86 today, living in California

(L-R) MARGARET KEANE and AMY ADAMS on the set of BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.
Before the filming started, Margaret Keane and Amy Adams, who plays Keane in the film, spent half a day together. “It makes me nervous when people look at me,” Margaret Keane says, “but she wanted to watch me paint, and she made it painless and was so down to earth. It was wonderful.” Keane was delighted with the casting of Adams, who sports a vintage blonde bob in the picture. “When I first saw her with the wig on it was a shock. It was like seeing myself 50 years ago! She was absolutely perfect.” Margaret Keane also had a cameo in the film (this shot was taken that day, we guess). (L-R) MARGARET KEANE and AMY ADAMS on the set of BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

Today, Margaret is 86 years old and lives an hour out of San Francisco. Walter died in 2000, several years before the screenplay began to take shape. Margaret says, “Scott and Larry were so enthusiastic and they really wanted to do it the same way that I did, so I really felt secure with them. I had already gotten four other offers and turned them down, which is very difficult to do, but I couldn’t trust what they would do so I said no.”

“They made it come alive,” Margaret says of Alexander and Karaszewski’s script. “They found humor and tragedy in it. It’s just marvelous. I feel like I’m being showered with blessings, having a movie. It’s such an honor, and really sort of a humbling thing because I don’t think I deserve this. I just paint and all of a sudden this is happening. It’s like a dream. It’s surreal.”

Keane makes a cameo appearance in the film in a scene filmed in San Francisco at the Palace of the Arts. “I was supposed to be a little old lady sitting on a bench, enjoying the day. It was so touching. Tim came over and handed me a little Bible and I thought to myself, ‘How kind he is – he knows how much I like the Bible so he gave me one to read while I was sitting there.’ It was a day I will always remember.”

Above: A video from KQED TV interviewing Margaret Keane, uploaded to YouTube Dec. 4.

Tim Burton: His art and films, influenced by Margaret Keane

Tim Burton with his vintage Margaret Keane paintings, October 28, 2014. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.
Tim Burton with his vintage Margaret Keane paintings, October 28, 2014. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

Margaret Keane and Tim Burton knew one another before a screenplay was even in the works. “Tim commissioned me to do portraits and then he bought several of my paintings. I couldn’t help but like him. I can’t imagine anyone better than Tim Burton directing this film.”

…Having worked with Alexander and Karaszewski on ED WOOD and being a fan of Margaret’s art, Tim Burton came on board as producer early on. “Tim loves Margaret’s art,” says Alexander. “He identified with the idea of outsider art, and why does art have to be legitimized by what critics say. And that’s really what the movie’s about. The idea of outsider art, of primitivism art is what we did with Tim on ED WOOD and he really identifies with that, so it was always very close to him.”

Executive producer Derek Frey is a long-time collaborator of Burton’s and runs the filmmaker’s company. Frey says one of the reasons the Keane art resonated in America is that “It came at a time when art was at the forefront of society and maybe Keane art was a nice, comfortable introduction for mainstream society to enter into that world. You can’t have a kinder or more approachable subject than a child or a pet.” Tim Burton grew up during the heyday of the Keanes and was familiar with the work. “Margaret was certainly someone that Tim was familiar with for a long time,” says Frey, “and he had such an interest in her art, he hired her to create a number of pieces for him, long before there was even talk of this project.”

In addition to being the filmmaker behind a slate of spectacular motion pictures, Tim Burton is also a noted visual artist. His own work and the unique look of his signature style were influenced by the paintings of Margaret Keane. “A lot of people have drawn parallels between her art and his,” says Frey, who edited the comprehensive and award-winning publication, “The Art of Tim Burton,” and worked closely with MOMA curators to create the recent Tim Burton exhibit that toured internationally. “A lot of his characters have large disc eyes and that’s more than a coincidence. I think growing up it’s something that he gravitated towards. He found a connection to characters that have that certain look and the Keane art was definitely the first time that was ever seen in mass culture, so I think it must have had an impact on him.”

BIG EYES was a perfect vehicle for Burton. “People tend to associate Tim’s world and his work with darker subjects,” says Frey, noting that before the art exhibit, he was seen predominantly as a director, but now he is recognized as a visual artist as well. “BIG EYES explores the turmoil and a darker side of the art world and I think it’s something that even a handful of years ago might not have been right for Tim. But I feel like it’s a nice, mature next step in his career. It makes sense. He found it a challenge, and a welcome one. Coming off of some larger films in recent years, I think this is something that he was looking toward to bring him back to earth and back to his roots and beginnings. It isn’t visual effects-driven, but rather story and character-driven and I think that was something he welcomed. He hasn’t made a film of this budget or scale since “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” and it excited him to be able to tackle a project like this at this point in his career. It was refreshing for him.”

(L-R) AMY ADAMS and CHRISTOPH WALTZ star in BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.
(L-R) AMY ADAMS and CHRISTOPH WALTZ star in BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

“A great cockamamie story” … and exploration of “what is art?”

Alexander considers Walter Keane a genius. “He was the guy who said, why can’t you sell art in a supermarket, or a hardware store or a gas station. The art was mysterious to people and a big part of the mystery was that Walter was being presented as the painter. Here was a masculine guy painting crying children, and a great cockamamie story about the orphans after World War II, the skinny fingers and big eyes and sad faces, but something seemed off. Once you know the real story, which is that Margaret was sad and she was painting sad children, suddenly, it legitimizes the art. The art became so popular there was a whole movement of rip off art. If you were a kid in the 60’s, you would see this art everywhere. He recalls his own introduction to the art as “Those kind of spooky paintings I’d see at my aunt’s house.”

While Keane was the top-selling artist, his work was not accepted by the conventional art world and considered “kitsch.” The literal, sentimental portraits of stylized children were a far cry from the abstract expressionism that ruled the art world in the late 1950s. Karaszewski says, “Tim doesn’t make fun of these kinds of things. He understands that there’s a lot of heart in these paintings. As an artist himself, he understands what goes into this and why it’s important. It’s similar to Ed Wood, a character that most people just laughed at. We wanted to concentrate on his passion and figure out a way for people to understand that it’s not a joke. That’s sort of what this movie is too: Margaret Keane is not a joke and it’s a very important story to tell.”

Producer Lynette Howell wasn’t familiar with the Keane art before reading the script. “When I first started to look at it, I was really fascinated by it. I think her earlier work is very sad and has a lot of soul and a haunting quality. It’s interesting to see how her work changed over the years, based on her mood, and her later work is much more colorful and brighter and has a lot more joy in it. I don’t think her work is simple. There is a complexity to it and I really love some of it. One of the biggest questions this movie raises is what is art. It’s so subjective, who’s to say that something is a masterpiece, who judges that? I think everybody’s individual opinion is of value and that’s what I think this movie is about. What is good art, what is bad art and who are any of us to judge – if it touches you then surely it’s art.”

“Art tends to be pretentious and serious,” says Alexander, “and we love the idea that in our story people can argue about art and yell at each other. The head critic of the New York Times (Canaday, played by Terence Stamp) hated the Keanes so much and it made him crazy that they were making all this money and on TV and he just wanted to stop them because it was terrible.”

“This is a genre that we really, really love,” says Karaszewski. “We like to stay as close to the truth as possible. We’re attracted to these offbeat stories because truth is way stranger than fiction, and it allows us to tell a lot of really interesting, weird things that we wouldn’t get to tell if it was purely a work of fiction. These stories are almost an alternative history.”

(L-R) CHRISTOPH WALTZ and DANNY HUSTON star in BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.
Tiki Bob’s! (L-R) CHRISTOPH WALTZ and DANNY HUSTON star in BIG EYES. © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

Production designer: Rick Heinrichs

Rick Heinrichs was production designer for the film. He has known and worked with Burton for some 30 years. He has worked closely with Burton on many films, including Sleepy Hollow, Dark Shadows, Planet of the Apes, Frankenweenie, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. Whew!  With other directors: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest; Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events; Fargo,  and The Big Lebowski.

I searched online to see if I could find any other coverage specifically focused on Big Eyes’ production design — the interiors, the sets. I found the video, above. One takeaway — When you watch the film, note the use of color and how it is used as a “visual narrative element.” Heinrich talks about how it goes from bright, fresh and optimistic … to darker and more foreboding … to an “unhinged reality.” Another: Beware Keane ripoffs — authenticating the vintage art used in the film was one of the production design team’s tasks. In some cases, they had to go to Keane herself to determine if a painting or print was really her work. Yes, this artwork was popular — and pretenders jumped on the bandwagon.

Guess where I will be Dec. 25 or 26th? How about you?

There’s a book, too. *affiliate link

More Mid-century Modern at the Movies:

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  1. Judy says:

    Oh, gosh, how I remember those paintings as a child. Seriously gave me the creeps. Most were so dark and sad. I prefer the ones shown that are more recent, more colorful, happier. I’m not much of a movie-goer but I will be waiting for this to come out on video so I can enjoy the story, sets and costumes. Sounds like a fascinating story!

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