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Tim’s Big Eyes: a break from the Burton-esque.

interior-burton1Published in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald on February 20, 2015

The poster for Big Eyes shouts its pitch in all caps: “FROM THE VISIONARY DIRECTOR TIM BURTON.” He gets first and second billing in the credits, too. Big Eyes is a Tim Burton Production and a Tim Burton Film. Its stars, Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, are an afterthought.

Then it begins, with a wide shot of a suburban street. Rows of identical bungalows and pristine front lawns, under a blue sky. It is Northern California, 1958, and of course it’s Tim Burton. Somewhere out there, Edward Scissorhands is trimming a bush, Pee-Wee Herman is searching for his bicycle and Vincent is taking his only friend for a walk.

By the end, it’s clear why the Weinstein Company is laying the brand on so thick. The movie’s themes will be familiar to Burton fans – an alienated protagonist, judged by society and forced to conceal her true identity – but visually, Big Eyes is the least ‘Burton-esque’ film of his career.

There are downsides to becoming an adjective. Burton’s aesthetic has been imitated to death. Studio executives would no doubt be content for him to make scary-sweet fairytales forever. He could mine his old sketchbooks for characters, set them down in graveyards and enchanted forests, dial the Victorian grotesque to eleven, dig up Vincent Price, re-animate Ray Harryhausen and cackle all the way to the vault. A good thing is never too much in Hollywood.

Burton has signed on to produce a follow-up to Alice in Wonderland. A Beetlejuice sequel has been in the works for years. He is about to start filming Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, a supernatural fable set in an abandoned orphanage. Big Eyes is either a busman’s holiday or a declaration of independence. There’s one telltale, creepy moment, when the ghost world of Burton’s imagination breaks the surface, but otherwise, you’d be hard pressed to identify the film as his without all the signposting. It’s a taut little psychodrama, and a pointed departure.

The press day, like all movie press days, is at a posh hotel. Waiting my turn in the corridor, I get a kick out of the wind whistling through the vents, thinking that the eerie sound, more haunted castle than five star suite, is somehow fitting. The modern art on the walls, a golden splodge worthy of a three-year-old Jackson Pollock, is perfectly awful too.

Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret Keane, whose paintings of children with huge, exaggeratedly expressive eyes were the first mass-market art product. Her images hung in millions of living rooms, but she never got the credit because her husband Walter, a failed artist with a genius for sales, said he painted them himself and bullied her into playing along with the charade.

A Keane original.

A Keane original.

“I call it suburban art,” says Burton. “People didn’t have Matisses or Picassos on the wall: they had Keanes.” In the closest thing he has to an autobiography, Burton on Burton, he wonders whether his parents liked the pictures on their walls at all: “It was almost as if they had always been there and yet no-one had ever looked at them.”

Burton is notorious for losing his train of thought – his wife, actress Helena Bonham Carter, calls him “a home for abandoned sentences” – but when we meet, he’s charming and entirely present. His answers sometimes come out in fragments, as if he’s constructing and editing them on the fly, but he’s happy to talk.

“As a young person, I barely spoke,” he says. “People didn’t know I could speak, sometimes, so I could try to communicate by drawing.” Burton’s alienated childhood in Burbank, California, much of it apparently spent in a bedroom with bricked up windows, has been the subject of endless amateur psychoanalysis. He describes it as a “surreal, bright depression” that lasted until he moved out to live with his grandma at the age of twelve.

Horror movies were his salvation. He would spend all day at the cinema watching triple bills – Jason and the Argonauts, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde – or catch them on late night television. Some were wildly inappropriate for a small child, or would be considered so by many parents, but he loved and learned from them. More often than not, he identified with the monster.

The first film he showed his daughter, aged three, was War of The Gargantuas. “Adults get afraid of what kids are gonna think, but kids can take, y’know…” he trails off. “They’re the best judges, in a funny way. If they start turning their eyes…”

Burton was never any good at school, but his drawings showed enough promise to win him a place at the California Institute of Arts. The programme was run by Disney, to recruit the next generation of animators, and when he’d completed it, the company offered him a job, drawing panels for The Fox and the Hound.

An early Burton drawing of Edward Scissorhands.

An early Burton drawing of Edward Scissorhands.

He found the work numbing – “like being in the army” – but it came with access to mentors at Disney that spotted his unique talent and gave him the resources to develop it: $60,000 to make a short about a boy who imagines he is Vincent Price, then almost double that to make a version of Hansel and Gretel with Japanese actors. Few people ever saw the films.

His next, Frankenweenie, about a boy who brings his dog back to life, was pulled by Disney when it got a PG rating (Pinocchio, the movie it was intended to accompany, got a G for general release, despite being absolutely terrifying) but reached enough influential people to earn him a crack at a first feature film.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a critical write-off, made five times its $8 million budget. This was the start of an extraordinary run of commercial success. Beetlejuice showed there was a huge market for Burton’s morbid fixations and macabre sense of humour. Edward Scissorhands, his most personal film, spoke directly to sensitive teenagers, but crossed over with their parents, too. It was also the first of six collaborations with Johnny Depp, who calls Burton “a brother, a friend… a unique and brave soul, someone I would go to the ends of the earth for.”

In 1989, Burton directed Batman, a project that had been in development purgatory for a decade. The experience made him sick – he has claimed that he was “near death,” due to the stress – but despite the controversial casting of Michael Keaton, the movie was an unprecedented smash, the most profitable in the history of Warner Brothers, until he topped it with Batman Returns.

Burton draws every day, and although he doesn’t story-board his films the way he used to, his characters still come to life on the sketchpad first. In high school, he had an epiphany – “I thought ‘fuck it, I don’t care whether I can draw or not. I like doing it.’ And I swear to God, from one moment to the next I had a freedom which I hadn’t had before,” he says, in Burton on Burton – but whether his drawings are ‘good’ or not is something he has evidently agonised about.

At Disney, his foxes looked “like road kills,” so he only got to draw panels with animals in the distance. When the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York put on an exhibition of his paintings and sketches in 2009, several reviews went beyond criticising the work to wondering whether it should be on display at all.

In the opening credits of Big Eyes, as Keane prints roll off the presses, an Andy Warhol quote flashes up on screen: “I think what Keane has done is terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” But from then on, the art world’s response to the pictures is sneering, culminating in New York Times critic John Canaday’s put-down of their “appalling sentimentality… the very definition of tasteless hack work.”

I ask Burton what he makes of the comparisons between Margaret Keane’s art and his own. “It gets panned,” he replies instantly, with feeling. “That show they had here at the MOMA, critically, it was completely ‘this isn’t art…’ And at the same time, it had the attendance ratings of a Picasso show and inspired people to go to a museum that don’t go to museums.”

Burton recently got Margaret Keane to paint his wife and son. “She sort of strangely put me as an ominous cloud figure in the sky, which…” he peters out, unsure what to make of it. “People go ‘I hear you love the paintings’ and I say ‘love is not the right word.’ I find them disturbing. These cute children, it’s sort of like a horror movie image in a way.”

At one point in the film, Margaret experiments with a new Modigliani-inspired style, but is soon compelled by Walter to abandon it. Can Burton identify with feeling trapped by success? He volleys the question stone dead: “It must have been especially hard, when people were lambasting it, to get the brunt of it without getting the credit.”

I try again, suggesting there must be pressure to apply the winning formula of Alice In Wonderland (which took a billion dollars at the box office) to other beloved books. Burton admits that he is not keen to repeat the experience. He describes Alice as “the most backward, hodge podge movie ever made,” for its reliance on computer generated imagery to create the transfigurations dreamed up by Lewis Carroll. Plus, there was always the studio looking over his shoulder, concerned about the smoking caterpillar.

Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams as Walter and Margaret Keane.

Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams as Walter and Margaret Keane.

Big Eyes will satisfy the people who have asked Burton, throughout his career “are you going to do a real movie, with real people?” but as they are often the same people who ask “where did Edward get the ice?” he has no interest in pandering to them. He describes making a film without elements of fantasy or magic realism as a practical decision, based on the script. “It was a low-budget film, and that was something that I wanted to do. And the story itself was so surreal that I just felt like to tell it simply was the best way to do it,” he says.

It is his first ever independent film, albeit one backed and distributed by the Weinsteins. Was it a pleasure to be working on a smaller scale? “Yeah,” he answers emphatically. “We were moving quickly, smaller crew, and I really enjoyed that. After dealing with all the extraneous things that you have to deal with on a big film, it was nice to do it quickly, get in there and have that kind of energy.”

At the start of his career, Burton’s hero, mentor and friend Vincent Price said that he was “struck by Tim’s amateur charm – I mean amateur in the French sense of the word, in love with something.” But as the movies got bigger, making them became a chore and a trauma, almost guaranteed to make him sick.

Is he still that amateur, in love with the medium? “When I’m doing it, I love it,” he says. “I don’t like a lot of the stuff surrounding it, but when you’re there making it, absolutely, that’s your bubble of working with other artists and actors and people that surprise you. It’s long hours and it’s hard but it’s a beautiful experience.”