Tim Burton's newest film Big Eyes, out on Christmas, is in one way a bizarre true-crime tale. It charts the success and decline of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), an artist in the 1950s whose paintings of sad, waifish children with enormous eyes became a national phenomenon and an early example of mass production of art. But it's really the tale of Walter's wife Margaret (Amy Adams), who actually produced every single painting, eventually revealed the massive fraud of Walter's operation, and successfully sued her husband.
Fittingly for Burton, Big Eyes has an off-kilter, comic approach to its can't-make-this-up story. But it locates real melancholy in Walter's genuine romance with Margaret and how it slowly disintegrated into him robbing her of her work. Two-time Oscar-winner Waltz is well-cast as Walter, who needs to have initial charm before devolving into a figure of real malice and delusion. His mellifluousness and instant salesmanship (first of himself, and then of Margaret's work) helps show you just what Margaret saw in him, but Waltz invests him with embittered darkness right from the get-go, a sign of trouble ahead.
When I spoke to him about the role, Waltz said while he recognized the gravity of Walter's misdeeds, he appreciated how Big Eyes' script (by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) recognized his importance in the whole enduring brand of Margaret Keane and her big-eyed paintings.
David Sims: The film was more tragic than I expected, especially for your character.
Christoph Waltz: What did you expect?
Sims: I think I expected something more kitschy, perhaps, in line with the art, with a more heightened tone. But I thought it got to the struggle within your character, that he begins to buy into his own lie.
Waltz: Where is the lie? If you don't mind my saying so, you have your mind all made up. What's he buying into, what's he lying about? The fact that he sold the idea, that he is the artist, who did he lie to? Not her, she knew.
Sims: Maybe the child, but that's almost a lie of omission.
Waltz: Really, if you look at it from another angle, if I may invite you to shift your perspective ever so slightly, the fact that he followed this idea that he's the creator was not that crucial. He sold the product, he understood that it can be a product, that it can be made successful. So what's the creation, really? Who's the creator? She painted, yes.
Sims: And there was something almost compelling her to paint.
Sims: But you're saying he found something being spontaneously created, and realized how to harness it.
Waltz: If we were talking about a real artistic strive, if we were talking about an artist who in the true sense of the word tries to discover the expression of the perceived world and communicate this very individual vision in a way that cannot be depicted in any other way... I'm just trying to circumscribe the artistic quest. And that's what this person's life is all about. To then go and take that away, claim it your own, and sell it and make it a big commercial success without letting the actual artist participate, that's exploitation, abuse and lying. I claim that Walter Keane actually is part of the creator, because he created a commercial product. She's more of the designer.
Sims: And the film opens with a Warhol quote, that says that so much of why this must be art is because people like it. And he found a way for people to like it, and there's an artistic angle to that?
Waltz: I'm not saying there's an artistic angle, but there's a creative angle to that. He created a new device in commercial dealings.
Sims: Something that was happening more and more in that era.
Waltz: I love that line, where he says...
Sims: About Warhol's Factory?
Waltz: Yes, "Warhol, that fruit fly stole my act, I had a Factory before he knew what a soup can was." I love that. Now, I'm not totally disagreeing with you, you realize.
Sims: Of course. I came in thinking the film would be about this fascinating tale of what happened to this woman. But what I liked was that you were not some one-dimensional con-artist.
Waltz: No, the art is more or less the vehicle, but the story is more or less the relationship.
Sims: When you heard the story and read the script, what did you perceive that relationship to be?
Waltz: Well, as interdependent. And interdependency creates problems. And you cannot just let it go, and say, "Let's see how it works out, maybe we decide we just don't love each other anymore." To tell a story about that is wonderful, by means of telling a story about art. And the commercialization or commodification of art. I always wonder, could you tell that same story with a true artist.
Sims: With someone we universally, canonically accept.
Waltz: Yes, exactly, canonically accept as a true artist. I doubt it. Because it would immediately contort the story into the artistic quest, and the infringement and robbery of a soul.
Sims: Obviously she needs him in a lot of ways, in terms of her position as a single mother, in the era she lives in. And he needs her. It's funny, there's maybe not a warmth, but there's a feeling there, that he has a lot of trouble expressing, when he needs more art from her, or an explanation of why she paints.
Waltz: Initially, she wasn't "the" Margaret Keane, nor was he "the" Walter Keane. Initially they met and hooked up and it must have been a really emotional relationship. And he wasn't planning and scheming to peddle her art from the beginning.
Sims: It's not like he saw her Big Eyes and thought, "If I put these on posters, we'll be rich!"
Waltz: "I'm not called Larry Gagosian for nothing!"
Sims: He almost trips and falls into this situation.
Waltz: Right. Where she persistently pursues her work, he kind of discovers it.
Sims: And there's that tragedy that he can't even admit it to himself, that he's reliant on her.
Waltz: Well, in all of these things comes the tipping point where there's no return, or only with therapeutic or pharmaceutical help.
Sims: Did you research much into Walter's life after the film's events? I was surprised to learn about it.
Waltz: He lived on for another 27 years.
Sims: And never let go of his belief that it was his art.
Waltz: No, and you have that with almost everybody who superseded their own expectations about their own success, who went beyond their initial idea of themselves. All of a sudden, that rug is pulled out from underneath, and it takes a lot of wisdom and insight and understanding into the human nature to really come to terms with that. You get that with actors so much.
Sims: How so?
Waltz: Well, with older actors who were big and famous and in the limelight in their youth, you know, now they're 73 and haven't done anything for 50 years, and they're still clinging to that. Letting go of anything is an art that needs to be learned and trained.