Many years ago I interviewed Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski right before Big Eyes opened in the UK. I sadly hadn’t seen the film yet at the time of the interview but did opening day and loved it! I just posted the audio at the time on a site I no longer write for but I never transcribed it. Jump ahead 8 years later I was thinking I should really get this typed up, my friend Darren Carver-Balsiger graciously transcribed the interview for me.
Scott Alexander: Hey, it’s Scott.
Ian Schultz: Hi…
Larry Karaszewski: Hey Scott, it’s Larry.
IS: Hi, I’m Ian Schultz, I’m the guy who’s interviewing you this morning.
LK: Hello Ian, how are you?
IS: How are you? I know it’s very early over there.
LK: You’re in England?
IS: Yeah, Leeds
LK: Oh, you’re in Leeds, ok.
IS: Yeah. And congrats on the nomination for the Indie Spirit Awards.
LK: Oh, thank you very much.
IS: I hope you win, because I can’t wait to see the film, I really can’t wait for it to come out in the next couple of days. It’s out on the 26th over here, so.
IS: Because Ed Wood is one of my all time favourite films ever. As is Larry Flynt for that matter. I love both of those films very much.
LK & SA: Thank you.
IS: Ed Wood was probably the first R-rated film I ever saw. I was like 5 or 6.
LK: Oh, that’s funny.
IS: But there’s nothing in it.
LK: No, it’s a weird R-rated movie. There’s not a whole lot going on in there.
IS: Yeah, it’s a weird one.
LK: I think Bela’s cursing makes it an R-rated film.
IS: And I guess the transvestitism, I guess, somehow gets an R.
LK: A touch. A touch. But I think if Bela didn’t say, if they didn’t say cocksucker and a couple of other things, I think we would have gotten away with it.
IS: Anyhow, the first question I have is, I know you were working on a sci-fi film when you first stumbled upon the story of the Keanes, so what attracted you to the story?
LK: Just the fact it’s a great story. It’s one of those things where we sort of love fringe characters kind of in the margin of pop culture. And just when you, y’know, when you just find out the details behind the scenes of those big eyes paintings you’re like “oh my gosh, I can’t believe this whole sort of strange Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf art fraud kind of thing was going on behind it all”. And it made us also look at the paintings in a kind of different light. So finding out the bare minimum about the story got us interested to do a lot of research and track down the real Margaret Keane.
IS: I know you tracked her down. What was it like meeting with her and talking to her about her life story?
SA: I mean, we had to approach her very gingerly. I mean, she’s very private. But there was so much of her story that wasn’t making sense to us from the newspaper pieces and the later magazine articles. And so it was really important for her… for us to get her to open up and kind of explain how the lie grew and why she agreed to it in the first place, and once she started talking then she started opening up and talking about her relationship with her daughter, which was something we hadn’t even considered before that, and how the lie between her daughter was this terrible thing going on for ten years, how much she regretted it, because her daughter could see that Margaret was the painter, it was very obvious if you were living inside the house, but Margaret was lying to her face and her daughter could see that her mother was lying and mom couldn’t look into her daughter’s eyes and know that her daughter knew she was being lied to, and it really pained Margaret.
IS: What research did you do before you met Margaret and talked to her and stuff?
LK: We went down to the UCLA library and really looked up a lot of old San Francisco newspapers, a lot of Honolulu newspapers. That was the thing about Walter Keane, he was the master of getting his name in the press, and so a lot of this stuff was the early ’60s and late ’50s, so it wasn’t available on the internet, and so we really had to go and really do a complete search and that’s one of the ways we discovered the Danny Huston character, that gossip columnist, because Walter clearly had him in his pocket and then he would just show up in that guy’s column just continuously, and it was always just made-up stories. And so that’s where we got the whole angle of, y’know, the way Walter can manipulate the press, and the way Walter was able to figure out that art critics didn’t really matter, what mattered was celebrities and that if he could get a picture in the paper of a celebrity with his painting then he could sell more prints to Middle America and you can sort of trace Walter’s journey. But that was also one of the reasons why we had to contact Margaret, because the newspapers were really giving us mostly Walter’s side of the story. We needed Margaret to fill in the pieces, the personal pieces, that were missing.
IS: What was the most surprising thing you learned in the research process?
SA: Hmmm (long pause). Maybe… this is more in hindsight, this isn’t something that seemed weird at the time but it seems really weird now that we’ve finished the movie. Very early on, Walter was promoting… I mean, this is in our script, but it didn’t seem to bizarre until recently. When Walter first started promoting their paintings, he promoted Margaret as the painter of the big eyes and he promoted himself as the painter of the Paris street scenes, and then when the big eyes started selling and he couldn’t give away the Paris paintings he changed his mind and he decided “no, now I’m going to be the painter of the big eyes” and now we’ve been talking about this it strikes really interesting that in a pre-internet age, pre-google age you could get away with that, that you could actually send out promotional material and then six months later completely change your mind and send out completely contradictory promotional material and nobody in the world noticed. Version B is the version that caught on with the world, and Version B is the version where Walter is going on The Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show and he’s in Life Magazine as the painter of the big eyes. But what’s so crazy is, in our notebooks of old microfiche articles we have San Francisco newspaper stories from 1958 where Margaret is the painter of the big eyes. It’s really interesting how it’s such a different era.
IS: It kind of reminds me of when Roger Corman would change the title of a film that didn’t make any money.
SA: Sure, oh yeah.
LK: Back in those days…
SA: He would play the same movie over and over.
LK: Or what didn’t work in one city he would just totally change and move it out to the next city.
IS: I mean, like Cockfighter had like five titles or something ridiculous like that.
SA: I mean, Larry, you would have that experience in Indiana drive-ins where the…
LK: Oh, absolutely … you go see a movie and all of a sudden you get to the titlecard and the titlecard would literally just be like – in the movie, it’d be in sequence and also there’d be frames would instantly be missing and you would just go to just a black card with a different title on it and then it’d jump back to the movie. I mean, even sound would cut out, it’d just be a different title in the print.
IS: I know…
LK: You’re right. But Cockfighter went out of y’know… it changed from Cockfighter to, I think, Born to Win.
IS: Yeah, something ridiculous like that.
SA: Born to Win. (Correction to both Scott and Larry it’s Born to Kill!)
IS: I know the film is…
LK: But the thing is, back to what Scott was saying, there wasn’t like anyone looking into this mystery…
SA: There was no truth police (?)
LK: Yeah, there wasn’t anyone out there who was saying “oh, wait a second, who possibly could be the painter here?” It was just y’know “wait a second, Walter’s saying he’s the painter, so why isn’t he the painter?” and Margaret was backing him up. Margaret was part of this lie as well, and I think that’s what she feels so guilty about after all these years, is that she would back him up. And so, if Walter says he’s the painter and Margaret says he’s the painter, why would anybody investigate?
IS: Yeah, exactly. I know the film has taken a long time to get off the ground and you were at one point supposed to direct it, so why did Tim get involved and when did you decide to eventually hand over the reins to Tim?
SA: I mean, we had the movie almost go into production a few times and after the third or fourth collapse we sort of waved our hands at Tim for help. We knew Tim was a fan of Margaret’s art. We knew he was interested in the story, and he’s always been a supporter of our writing, and we said “look, can we put you on -”, this was in 2009, we said “can we put you on as a producer to help us finance the movie”. And he said “of course”. And then occasionally – actually because Tim lives in England – occasionally when we trying to track down an actor or actress who was in Europe at the time we would hit him up and say “hey, can you go take him or go take her out for a beer and talk to them about our script” and he would do so. So that was kind of the extent of what we were asking of him, but then we continued trying to put the movie together, and in 2012 we had a version going with Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds and we had our financing and we had a great crew and we were going to be able to shoot in Los Angeles and then Reese got pregnant and it fell apart again. And this was sort of the final nail. I mean, it just became really hard for us to keep trudging up this mountain, when the mountain just kept collapsing on us.
Also we were sort of being punished by the marketplace each time this would happen, in that when you make an indie movie you’re sort of going after the foreign sales guys and you’re kind of getting a valuation of how much each territory will give you for the movie, and then that’s kind of the budget you can raise. And because the movie fell apart sixty seven times each time we would go out the guys would say “oh it’s you again, oh it’s Big Eyes again, well we were going to give you ten dollars last week, now we’re going to give you eight dollars” and so the budget kept dropping and we got to a point, like in the end of 2012, where we were actually trying to put together yet another version with another Walter and Margaret and we were down to like six-and-a-half million. And it was becoming almost impossible to make the movie at that price. I mean, we had started it at twelve million and as the years had gone on it just kept dropping and dropping… it’s a period piece and every time you cut outside you need to rent old automobiles and you need costumes and wigs and there’s a certain minimum level required when the movie takes place, fifty years ago.
We just got kind of despondent about… like even if we nailed down the actors and the crew, we weren’t even sure if we could actually shoot the movie, I mean, we were just having these bizarre conversations with our other producer Lynette Howell in terms of like what pages do we have to tear out, what scenes are impossible at this number, is the movie even filmable? And so we were kind of giving up on that version and then we got a phone call out of the blue from Christoph Waltz’s agent enquiring if we’d considered him for the part, and we got excited and we ran the idea by Tim, and Tim got really excited and Tim started really aggressively trying to chase Christoph for us. Actually he ran into him at the BAFTAs a few days later and he cornered him and kind of hustled him on the project. And Tim got really giddy about the idea of Christoph in that part and we kind of realised y’know what, Tim loves this idea and we know Tim is available and we know Tim is sort of interested in doing a smaller movie, if we hand to him right now, and we wouldn’t hand it to anyone else, but if we hand it to Tim the movie will get made right now and Tim’ll do a good job, because we really trust Tim with our material. And so we basically shot an email to Tim saying “do you want to take it?” and four months later we were shooting.
IS: What part of the story did he find most challenging to turn into a visual script, because obviously Tim’s a very visual filmmaker. Was there anything that was very challenging?
LK: We never… we didn’t really change it from Tim as a director, I mean, Tim has this reputation as this gothic fantasy director but what we find with the two movies we made with him, Ed Wood and Big Eyes, is that he’s actually really good at simple things. He’s very good at just an office scene, he’s very good with two actors and a desk, or two actors – in Big Eyes – two actors up in the painting room. He’s a really good actor’s director. You don’t have to give him a car chase or vampires or y’know some kind of crazy scene to do, you give him something that’s just two people and real emotions, he’s very very good at it. Actually I think the only time we tried to write a quote-endquote “Tim Burton scene” was in our first draft of Ed Wood. We wrote like a cemetery sequence for Ed and Bella to run around in. It was one of those things where Tim wasn’t particularly interested in it, he recognised why he wanted to make Ed Wood and it wasn’t to turn it into a Tim Burton-esque kind of thing. Same thing with Big Eyes. He shot Big Eyes very, everyone would call it simply, because he’s amazing with composition, he’s amazing with colours and light and everything like that and he’s got Bruno, who’s one of the best DPS in the world, so they’re complex in the imagery, but underneath it all it’s just really y’know basic human scenes going on in there.
IS: Were there any big differences with working with him after so long?
SA: I’d say the big difference was that this was a really cheap movie. Humorously at the time Ed Wood was a cheap movie for Tim, he was coming off… was it Batman Returns?
IS: I think so, yeah.
SA: Yeah, that was his previous film, and whatever, Batman Returns was full… we were on the set, it was full of live penguins running around a giant frozen soundstage… so they had enough money to spend. Ed Wood twenty years ago was nineteen million dollars with, I don’t know, I think it was seventy-two or seventy-three days of shooting. And this movie was sixteen million dollars with thirty-nine days of shooting. So I think a big difference was Tim really had to fly, Tim was shooting a scrappy indie, it’s less money and almost half as many days. Twenty years later. When you have half as many shooting days that really sort of kind of determines the choices you make in terms of composition and coverage. So Tim had to be very clever, in terms of working with less.
IS: What were the challenges of toning down some of the more extreme aspects of the story? Like the courtroom actions of Walter Keane?
LK: Well Walter at some point sort of lost his mind a little bit, in that his behaviours became extremely erratic, and we certainly include that in the film, but at times his behaviour was so erratic that it sort of became either too comic or too strange, so like the courtroom scene, which is easily the broadest, most comic sequence in the film, it’s pretty much based in reality to be quite honest. If anything, we did indeed tone Walter down. His antics in the courtroom were even more outrageous. We didn’t want to break the tone any more than we sort of already did. I mean, Walter was being threatened by the judge in terms of telling… in terms of being shackled and having his mouth taped and he was calling all of these other character witnesses who would sort of melt down on the stand and he brought them there to confirm that he was a painter but once they put their hand on a Bible they sort of just wilted and admitted they never saw him paint. Even Wayne Newton shows up at one point as a character witness for Walter. As delightful as that would be, you don’t just bring Wayne Newton into the third act of a sort of serious movie and not expect it to seem extremely strange. So we just basically kind of have Walter’s cross-examination of himself.
IS: How were the time period and social changes that occurred during the story reflect in your script?
SA: We made a big point of wanting the movie to work as a parable for the women’s movement. So that helped determine when the movie would end. The movie starts in the 1950s and we could have easily started the film in San Francisco, but it was very important to us to kind of frame Margaret as coming out of the post-World War Two 50s’ suburbia and what that meant to women in terms of the husband as the head of the household and woman as subservient to him. And back then, if Margaret had had personal stationary, I’m sure the envelope would have said “Mrs. Walter Keane” on her return address, which was how it was done back then. And so we wanted Margaret to be coming out of that 50s imagery, suburban imagery, and then we wanted the movie to end about, I feel like it ends about 1970 as the women’s movement is starting. I mean, the actual trial took place in 1986, but Margaret and Walter had a lot of suits and countersuits over the years, and we felt that the Honolulu trial could stand-in for all of them. So we wanted the movie to kind of end with women starting to speak up for their voice, and Margaret certainly can kind of be seen as a metaphor for that larger journey.
IS: I know you’re doing a miniseries on the O.J. Simpson case. How did that come together? And can you elaborate a bit on your approach to the story?
LK: That came together… Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson had the rights to Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life, and the second we heard about it, we just said yes. We sort of loved the story and because actually see it as a miniseries as opposed to a movie. We’ve never done television before, but we thought this would be a very interesting way to sort of start. And because as a movie you would just have to go over all the bits and pieces that everyone kind of already knows about the O.J. Simpson case, whereas the thing that’s fascinating about the O.J. trial is just what happened to America and the discussion that sort of happened. And so we’re doing kind of a big canvas portrait of Los Angeles in a sense. It’s about the journalists, it’s about the lawyers, it’s about the LAPD and their race relations. It’s about the Rodney King verdict. There’s just so many things going on in this story. It’s about the beginning of twenty-four hour media, and reality television, and there’s just a lot of good stuff, and so having ten hours we can sort of explore all the implications and all of the interesting things that this trial sort of did, at least to America.
IS: I have read that you have several unproduced biopics that you’ve written. Are there any ones which you wish that had been made that you still plan to make, or?
LK: I think we wish that all of them got made.
SA: I want to go see all these movies. I mean, all the others are entangled at different studios and it’s all kind of out of our hands. Big Eyes is unusual. Because we controlled the rights to it the entire time, we could foolishly keep fighting to get it made. The problem with earlier scripts, such as our… we wrote an extravaganza about the Marx Brothers, which we loved that script, for all of our tilting at windmills and trying to get a new Groucho or a new Harpo to star in the movie, ultimately we don’t own that movie, Universal does, and Larry and I can do as much tap-dancing as we want but we would have to go and convince whoever is in charge over there that this script we wrote ten or twelve years ago is right for production.
LK: Right. That’s one of the reasons we actually did Big Eyes the way we did it, where we designed it so we controlled the rights, that we never sold it. At any point we were able to, if the project fell apart, to take it from the ashes and set up in a different way.
IS: I’m very curious about the Marty Krofft one.
LK: That’s not really a…
SA: That’s a silly piece of misinformation that people love to pass around. We worked with Sid and Marty Krofft for many years on an ill-fated feature version of Pufnstuf, which we…
SA: We sold it three or four times.
IS: That sounds amazing.
SA: But the project always fell apart. But Sid and Marty are such hilarious characters, as two comical brothers who’ve been working together in the world of puppets for about, I don’t know, six or seven hundred years I think, and they are really funny characters. I’m not quite sure what the movie would be, but they are enormously entertaining.
LK: Yeah. I mean, that is funny, it’s like people ask us about it all the time. But it doesn’t really… we were never writing a Sid and Marty Krofft biopic, but now that everyone brings it up all the time I think “hmm, Sid and Marty Krofft, that wouldn’t be bad”.
IS: It definitely suits you.
SA: It would almost… We’ve never tried to write a biopic about guys we were friends with.
SA: That might be crossing some just mondo cinema line that you’re not allowed to cross. Because it would get very awkward very quickly.
IS: How do you write together? Do you write in the same place or do you send different drafts to each other by email or whatever?
SA: I write in Los Angeles and Larry writes in Leeds.
LK: Strangely, I’m down the street from you. Let’s have a pint. (laughs) No, we write in the same room together. We sort of beat everyone out, every day. Actually, soon as we hang up from you, we’re off to the office to go write.
IS: I know you’ve done a lot of work on kids’ films over the years. What’s different writing for adults and kids?
SA: You can say fuck.
IS: That’s true.
LK: What did you say?
SA: I said, you can say fuck. That’s probably the biggest difference.
LK: What did you say?
SA: I mean, it sounds silly, but that is the thing. You have to sort of check yourself a bit on language. I think that’s really impressive. I think we have more fun when we’re writing to more grown-up projects. Although we started our career with a very strange set of movies, the Problem Child movies, which the original idea was to be a more grown-up approach to the kiddie genre, but they sort of got dumbed down a bit. But that being said, they’re still really bizarre movies, to be thrown into the family film genre. I mean, the kid is corresponding with a serial killer for a great deal of the film.
IS: My final question’s for Larry. In my research I discovered you’re a big collector of film soundtracks…
IS: What are some of your favourites? And are there any that you’re still desperate to find?
LK: There’s nothing I’m actually chasing after, I sort of inherited a collection that wouldn’t stop coming into my house, so I’ve got thousands of soundtracks, usually from 1964 to about 1983 or something. There’s one that Edgar Wright and I always play when he comes over, which is the soundtrack to They Call Me Mister Tibbs, but there’s a lot of just crazy ones. I have them, I’m looking at them right now. Fathom, the Raquel Welch movie, composed by John Dankworth, which is, that’s a crazy score. There’s just a lot of just strange… the Petulia soundtrack, the Richard Lester movie. These are things which I would not necessarily have on CD, but because they’re at my home I’ll throw them on the turntable and think “wow, this sounds great”.
IS: And hey, that’s it. Thanks so much.
SA: Oh, thank you.
LK: Well thank you.
IS: I can’t wait to see it on Friday, when it comes out.
LK: Yeah, see it on Friday.
IS: Alright, see ya!
LK: Alright, take care, bye bye.
Scott and Larry’s most recent work Dolemite is My Name is available to stream on Netflix