Tim Burton on ‘Big Eyes,’ ‘Batman,’ ‘Birdman’ and ‘Beetlejuice 2’
A few months ago, the Internet celebrated the 25th anniversary of Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ as the Internet is wont to do: retrospectives, lists about things we may or may not have known about ‘Batman,’ embeddable clips from Prince’s ‘Batdance.’ So it’s kind of fitting that both the director of ‘Batman,’ Tim Burton, and its star, Michael Keaton, currently have movies out that are considered respective departures. Burton, for dropping his signature style to make the Margaret Keane biopic, ‘Big Eyes,’ and Keaton for playing off his own persona as Batman in ‘Birdman’—a movie Burton has yet to see, but that fact doesn’t stop Burton from saying many wonderful things about Keaton.
And ‘Big Eyes’ is a departure for Burton, even though Burton doesn’t really think so, other than the fact that he’s working with a lot less money than he’s used to in recent years. Sure, there’s the scene in which Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) is haunted in a grocery store by passersby who all have her signature “big eyes” that she made famous in her paintings—paintings that her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), has taken credit for. It’s a very Burton scene, which is striking mostly for the fact it’s one of the few in the entire film that feels that way.
Burton called early on Monday morning. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect because I had always assumed Burton would be an aloof personality. Burton is pretty much the opposite of that: surprisingly jovial and up for talking about anything really … from his reaction to watching Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ (after Burton had been replaced on his Batman franchise for ‘Batman Returns’ being “too dark”) to the possibility of working with Michael Keaton again—and Burton sounds really confident that a ‘Beetlejuice 2’ will happen.
‘Big Eyes’ still has some of your signature style, yet it still feels a lot different for what we know you for.
It’s funny for me, because I grew up with this artwork and I can relate to Margaret. And I can relate to the craziness of the relationship and what’s art and what’s not. And what’s good and bad—those sorts of questions. So, for me, it was very personal, so it didn’t feel like any kind of departure. And, actually, because it’s based on a true story, it felt so fantastical, it felt even more surreal than some of the fantasy films I’ve done.
So you look at this at something that’s weirder than, say, ‘Dark Shadows’?
As they say, truth is stranger than fiction sometimes. And that’s definitely the case in this. An example being: People think we went over the top with the courtroom scene when, actually, we calmed it down based on the transcripts [laughs].
What did you have to tone down?
I mean, the judge was going to shackle him and wanted to put tape over his mouth. So, the point being, the story is so outlandish that it’s hard for people to believe that it actually happened in that way.
And when he defended himself, that doesn’t seem like normal behavior...
Well, he’s crazy! He was Walter, you know? And I think by that point, the wheels were coming off the cart, so to speak.
I remember reading that you were only going to produce ‘Big Eyes.’ Why did you change your mind?
It took so long to get going and by that point I had done a couple of big budgeted films and, just for me, it was a catharsis just to do something really low budget … and the elements just came together.
I never know what “producer” means. I assume you would have been involved in ‘Big Eyes’ as a producer, but you were also a producer on ‘Batman Forever,’ and I’m under the impression that you didn’t have much involvement.
Well, in that particular case, that was more of I think basically they didn’t want me to do another one [laughs].
You had a lot of fun with Terence Stamp’s critic character.
You know, that was the great thing on this movie. I got to sort of meet and work with all these people that I admired, you know [laughs]? And meeting him and talking to him, we talked for two hours about working with Fellini—it was incredible.
You mentioned working with a smaller budget, is this something that now appeals to you?
I did enjoy it. It was quick; we moved fast, which was great. It kept the energy going. And asking on a daily basis, “How much does this cost? How much is that chair?” Which kind of helped reconnect you. With these big budget things, they get a bit more kind of heavy.
Have you felt disconnected?
It’s just when you do a big thing, there are lots of other elements that you have to deal with besides making the movie. On a movie like this, there’s no Burger King tie-in. You’re not hearing the word “franchise,” which is kind of refreshing.
Speaking of, as we speak, I have a box of your ‘Batman’ movie trading cards on my desk.
And I love all that stuff, but it’s nice to kind of have a break a little bit. Part of it I love, but we’re dealing with a smaller crew and we didn’t build anything really. We just had to make Vancouver into San Francisco, which was quite challenging, but quite fun. It’s kind of going back to when you’re a student making a film.
Have you seen ‘Birdman’?
No, I haven’t. But I hear it’s amazing. And I hear Michael is amazing in it, so I’m really looking forward to it. It hasn’t come out in England yet. I’ve been in London, so I haven’t seen it.
In a recent interview with Variety, he was asked what he thought of Ben Affleck playing Batman and he replied, “I’m Batman.”
[Laughing] He did? And he’s got that voice! And that’s the thing, at the time, with Michael, when we cast him there was quite an uproar. “Oh my God!” And, luckily, it was before the Internet.
I could not imagine that casting announcement with the Internet existing.
It might have shaken it. There was a big uproar, but at the same time, the studio was quite supportive. Nowadays, who knows? They might have just succumbed to Internet pressure and whatever. The reason I choose Michael for that, I just thought, Well, here’s a guy who needs to dress up like a bat. And you look at Michael and you can see behind those eyes, there’s some weird, amazing thoughts at work. And that’s what’s so great about him. From ‘Beetlejuice’ to ‘Batman,’ just different types of things—so I would imagine he’s amazing in ‘Birdman’ because he’s a great actor.
With ‘Birdman,’ a lot of people are going back to your ‘Batman’ movie and discovering or remembering how great he was in those.
You know, it’s funny, because at the time, when the movie came out, obviously it did well, but it didn’t get the best critical response. And people are going, “Oh, the Joker steals the show.” And, for me, Michael gave it an amazing performance. He’s not supposed to be all out there, dancing through the streets. Like in the same way in ‘Big Eyes’ with Amy Adams, I find the hardest performances to do are ones that are internal. So, I think people sometimes miss, at least in my opinion, what a good performance is—those are the hardest ones to do.
I’m under the impression Warner Bros. didn’t want you doing ‘Batman Forever’ because they thought ‘Batman Returns’ was too violent and not kid friendly. When you saw ‘The Dark Knight,’ what did you think of ‘Batman Returns’ being called too dark and violent?
Right, I know. I mean, it just kind of made me laugh in a certain way. Because I went through such shit in a way, you know—such torture about it.
I feel confident saying ‘Batman Returns’ is less violent than ‘The Dark Knight.’
And also, it was an interesting phenomenon on that one, too. Because half the people on ‘Batman Returns’ when I did the junkets or whatever, “Oh, it’s so much darker than the first movie.” And the next person will come in, “Oh, it’s so much lighter than the first movie.” My head started to spin. It’s like, how can it be light and dark? So, that’s why I’m interested in how people perceive things and with ‘Big Eyes’ it’s fascinating how someone can see something light and how someone can see something dark, the polar opposites of each other. So, I found that quite funny and interesting and disturbing at the same time.
You’ve got a couple of projects coming up, ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ and producing another ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but does the small budget on ‘Big Eyes’ inspire you to make even more smaller movies?
I enjoyed it. There are energies I felt that can apply to a bigger film, so I think in some ways it was good for that reason.
Is it still a learning experience, even at this point in your career?
I mean, everything is. Sometimes, though, you do things and you kind of go, “Why do I keep doing this again and again?” So, you try to learn, but then sometimes it’s kind of what they say about childbirth, you do something and your forget how painful it was [laughs].
People would love to see you and Michael Keaton reunite.
You know, the ‘Beetlejuice’ character is something that I love and I miss working with Michael.
I’ve read those rumors, but I don’t know how seriously to take them.
Well, I think it’s pretty serious. Because it’s a character that I love and Michael is the only person—he is that character, so that’s that.
People would love that, but I wasn’t sure if that’s just talk or a real thing.
Well, I mean, it’s probably more real now than it ever has been.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.