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The Keanes, sad-eyed art and the journey to 'Big Eyes'

 The Keanes, sad-eyed art and the journey to 'Big Eyes'
Married American artists Margaret and Walter Keane (1915-2000) paint in their home in 1965. (Bill Ray / The Life Picture Collection / Getty Images)

Why'd we make a movie about Margaret and Walter Keane? Well, script ideas can come from the strangest places. …

Eleven years ago, we were rewriting a science-fiction movie that took place on another planet. It was a comedy, and we needed examples of earthling pop culture kitsch that could destroy a higher civilization. In our research, we stumbled across a two-page article about the Keanes, which astonished us.

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In their heyday, the 1950s and '60s, the Keanes were the top-selling artists in the world. Their big-eyed art was everywhere. But their personal story was utter fraud: Walter claimed to be the painter, but the true talent was Margaret, despondent, locked in a room in the back of the house. This was a great untold story — our favorite kind.

We love pieces of Americana that happen in the margins. Everybody knows the sad-eyed images, but nobody knows where they came from. And certainly nobody knew the pain behind the paintings. We were hooked.

We spent a few weeks in the UCLA Research Library, scrolling through microfiche from the old San Francisco Chronicles and Examiners. The Keanes were society column stars up there, and there was tons of coverage. Our friend, rocker Matthew Sweet, is a rabid Keane collector, and he gave us access to his piles of Keaneabilia. The story finished in a Hawaiian courtroom, and we tracked down all the Honolulu papers.

As we organized the material, we had a realization: Walter was the showboat, the obnoxious, funny, outsize type of personality we love. But … Margaret was the character with the journey. Even though Walter does the talking, we decided to make Margaret the protagonist. This was a big decision, as we had never told a bio script from the woman's point of view. We realized we could shape the story to parallel the women's movement. Margaret starts as a repressed '50s housewife, and she ends as a liberated '70s woman. She gains her voice.

The story also fed into themes of high art and low art, which always fascinate us. Like director Ed Wood, Margaret and Walter were outsiders, blocked by gatekeepers. In the Keanes' case, they couldn't get past the fancy art galleries and withering critics. Modernism and abstraction were the vogue. To us, these issues shouted for satire and debate: If the crying children provoke emotion, aren't they real art?

In their time, the paintings were labeled extreme kitschiness, because the "painter" was Walter — masculine, cocky, with a drink in his hand. Why on earth would this man paint crying children? But once you knew the truth — that Margaret was the artist — the art was suffused with great meaning — a sad woman expressing her feelings.

After all our research, there was still much we didn't understand. Why had Margaret made these choices? Why did she let this lie go on for so long? The public story didn't answer these questions. Walter had died, but Margaret was still alive and painting. We had to track her down.

In summer 2003, we flew up to meet Margaret, in a rural area outside San Francisco. She is very private, and we had to win her over. We wanted her life rights, as well as the rights to use her art. This was a big mountain to climb.

Over a very long lunch, Margaret opened up. Incredibly, her key concern was that people might watch the movie and think Walter was the painter. This concept blew our minds. How could anyone think that? Margaret won in court. Walter didn't produce any paintings for 30 more years. Margaret still painted daily. Yet, like the abused wife she was, she still feared that Walter's PR spin would win in the court of public opinion.

The lunch also revealed a side to the story we knew nothing about. During the years of deception, Margaret had been lying to her daughter, Jane. The three of them lived together, and it was patently obvious, even to a child, that Mom was in the painting room all day. Yet Margaret misled her for a decade. It was wrenching — the biggest regret of Margaret's life. The person she was closest to in the world knew she was being lied to. It created a terrible gulf. This was very touching, and we realized this would become the emotional center of the movie.

By the end of the lunch, Margaret knew she could trust us. We finished with hugs goodbye and promises that we would make a deal, write a script and do her proud.

When we met Margaret, she was 75. Our goal was to write an intimate drama that we could direct, on an independent budget. We funded all development ourselves, as we believed so strongly in the material. By 2006, we had a script that we were happy with. By 2007, we had a cast, crew, a budget and $12 million in financing. But then, the stock market crashed, and financing sources dried up.

Margaret was disappointed. Undeterred, we relentlessly kept reconfiguring the movie, recasting, at times prepping shoots in Portland… Salt Lake City… New Orleans… even Buenos Aires. The budget kept dropping. We brought in Tim Burton as a producer, because he is a Keane collector and a fan. We thought Tim's involvement would help make the film happen. But, no.

We kept chasing this dream, which started feeling like madness. So many years went by that we had to keep extending our rights deal with Margaret. It was ridiculous. Margaret was patient, but not getting any younger. Every few months, she would call: "Are you ever going to make our movie?" We were guilt-ridden.

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Finally, in early 2013, a phone call came in. Would we be interested in Christoph Waltz as Walter? Wow. What a spectacular idea. We asked Tim his opinion, and he responded enthusiastically. And suddenly … we had an epiphany. We should hand off the film to Tim. At this point, a decade had passed without results; we just needed this movie to see the light of day. We loved our experience with Tim on "Ed Wood" — we knew he would nail the tone, look and performances.

So, we pitched our scheme — and he bit. Tim was in. He met with Christoph. A few days later, we had a casting meeting. By the end of that week, our first choice — Amy Adams — was set as Margaret. Suddenly, we had a green light and a start date. Friends called to congratulate — wow, you guys put this movie together so quickly! We laughed, dumbfounded. "Quickly? It's been 10 years."

In July 2013, we started filming. We arranged for Amy to meet Margaret, and they spent a happy day together, with Margaret tutoring her in brush technique. During production, we could afford three days in San Francisco, and we brought Margaret to those sets. It was like magic — suddenly, she was standing in North Beach, 1958, once again. Finally, this summer, we started pushing everybody to let us show Margaret the movie. It wasn't quite done, but she had waited too long. For goodness' sake, she was almost 87.

This July, we flew back up to San Francisco, just like that day 11 years earlier, to meet Margaret. But this time, we had a film to show her. Margaret brought Jane and her family. Our tiny group sat down in the plush theater at Skywalker Ranch, and the film started rolling.

Larry and I sat behind Margaret and Jane, so we could watch their faces. A few scenes in, a Sunday art show appeared, with young Margaret and 8-year-old Jane in the park. In the theater, we could see the real Margaret and Jane nudge each other in recognition and grin, delighted. At other times, the film turns very sad, and it made Margaret weep. But when it was over, she just sat there in joyful disbelief. We came over to her, and we all hugged. The long journey had been worth it.

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Alexander and Karaszewski's credits include "Ed Wood," "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "Man on the Moon."

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