Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Big Eyes

Welcome to Wednesday at Scriptshadow. A little busy here in the darkness, so thank God for Michael Stark, who's come to rescue me with another review. Today he's taking on a biopic about Margaret Keane. As for me, I'm readying tomorrow's review, along with my promised mystery post which will give you, dear readers, an opportunity to get your script reviewed on the site. So stay tuned for that. Also, you guys have been writing in about the special $80 April Script Notes deal. Unfortunately all the slots have been filled. But if you're still interested in getting notes, e-mail me about May. Here's Michael...

Genre: Biopic
Premise: A drama centered on the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works. (Logline graciously provided to us by IMDB.)
About: Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (Ed Wood and Man on The Moon scribes) set to direct their own screenplay with Kate Hudson as Margaret and Thomas Hayden Church (who will totally rock) as her hack husband.
Writers: The conjoined twins from a different mother, Larry and Scott.
Details: 125 pages. Undated or specified draft. (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Margaret Keane

''I think what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it.'' -- Andy Warhol on Keane in 1965

“It’s Keane! It’s Pure Keane. No, no! It’s greater than Keane. It’s Cugat!” -- Diane Keaton in Sleeper

Put on your berets and take out your sketchpads, Kiddies, cause Professor Stark is gonna take our class out on a little art history field trip. Carson, please stop doodling on Roger’s back. I don’t care if you’re making chalk outlines of all his dead lice. Must, I turn this bus around, Children?!! You’re the future screenwriters of America, for goodness sake; not friggin artists!
Class. Class? Class!!!

Today, we’re gonna study a script about one of America’s most popular painters, Walter Keane. Yup, the man behind those sad, doe-eyed waifs that infested every freaking, suburban living room in the early sixties. Just take out those old Kodachromes of your parent’s house back then. They had a few kitschy Keanes hanging, didn’t they? Right next to the tiki sculptures, the poker playing dogs and the bullfighter posters. Or, if you were Jewish from up north, next to the obligatory Ben Shahan lithos.

Oy. Stop complaining. Why couldn’t it about some sexy garret-dwelling, turbuculer, alcoholic like Modigliani? Or a volatile, Hamptons-dwelling, womazing. alcoholic like Pollock? Why aren’t we reading a script about some tortured Abstract Expressionism alcoholic who’d rather slice and dice his wrists then sell out like Rothko?

Why? Well, 1. Those have all been done and 2. Cause the auteurs behind this biopic are none other than Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, who would never ever write about the usual Biography Channel suspects.

In fact, they avoid them completely. You’re not going to see them tackling the likes of Amelia Earhart, Nelson Mandela, Charles Darwin or Queen Victoria (four flops that had Newsweek’s Ramin Setoodeh asking last month, “Are Biopics History?”) anytime too soon. They’re more the go-to guys for the wacky, the odball and the offbeat life stories.

They relish in the underbelly of the underdog – The prolifically bad, got-it-in-one-shot filmmaker (Ed Wood), the Pornographer who went to the Supreme Court to battle for our First Amendment rights (The People vs. Larry Flynt), and the baby-faced prankster extraordinaire , Andy Kaufman (Man in the Moon). They even produced (but didn’t write) Autofocus, the flick about the obsessively horn-dogged Hogan’s Heroes, Bob Crane.

The dynamic duo had been attached to other quirky bios including: Liberace, The Village People, Billy Carter and Roland “rainbow man” Stewart, the flamboyantly afroed, super sports fan who was arrested after a shootout with police.

So, what’s the story behind those big, sad, hyperthyroid-meets-them-melting-Dali-watch-sized blue eyes?

Although still immensely popular and influential today, Walter Keane perpetrated perhaps the greatest crime ever known to the art world.

No, he wasn’t a dashing art thief. He wasn’t a master forger. And, it doesn’t have anything about his work being a punchline for critics and the good taste police.

It’s the fact that Walter Keane couldn’t paint. Not a lick. And, the charming huckster for years took credit for his wife, Margaret’s work, banishing her to a sweat shop studio to churn out more and more waif paintings as demand and his fraudulent fame kept growing.

Even the Art History minoring, Professor Stark didn’t know this. And, I though I was a real pop culture vulture when it came to these kind of fun facts.

So under the layers of this kitschy canvas, Larry and Scott have uncovered a gem of a story -- The egotistical, huckster Keane and the liberation of his wife, culminating in a classic courtroom drama.

There’s a good reason why those huge eyed tots are always teary!

“Everytime I look into your big brown eyes, I get paralyzed, paralyzed.” – The DBS.

“Movies are life with the boring stuff cut out” – Alfred Hithcock

Seemingly, Dear Readers, you’re gonna accuse me of brown nosing Karaszeski and Alexander (well, I am hiding behind my real name here) or being a very over-generous grader. Cause, you’ll dare say that Big Eye’s first fifteen minutes reads like a flippin’ Lifetime drama.

Well, I agree. But, I believe they did it on purpose. Of course, I’m possibly reading too far into the subtext that might not even be there. But, I think they’re opening in a cliché way to establish how this very passive female got taken in by a smooth talking criminal and why it’s took so many years till she grew a pair and stood up for herself. They’re boldly recreating the whole Feminist Movement of the time. You’ve come a long way, baby!

The script starts off with Margaret leaving her first husband with her eight-year old daughter in tow. It’s 1955 and they land in San Francisco, the Beatnik Epicenter of the cool and the crazy. It’s all Calder mobiles, espresso bars, bongo jazz and reefer -- and all totally foreign to Margaret. But, it seems a damn good place to become an artist.

She gets her start sketching cheapskate tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf when she runs into Walter, who very much looks a true artiste in his black beret and turtleneck. He sells his pedestrian Parisian street scenes with flirtations and outrageous carnival barker banter. He takes great interest in shy Margaret’s work and her figure, chiding her for selling herself way too short and much too cheaply. Something, he’ll be a maestro at doing a little later on.

Learning that her ex is out of the picture, they quickly court and set up easels together in the park. It’s a nice scene when the hipster Walter is outed in front of her as having the ultimate squaresville day job -- he’s really a commercial realtor. It’s Margaret’s daughter, Jane, that’s the first to notice that Keane’s canvas has been blank the whole time.

When a letter from her ex arrives, calling her an unfit mother, Walter quickly proposes and they’re off to Hawaii for a whirlwind honeymoon. Now, I understand why they chose not to draw out a long custody battle on screen (they’ll have that courtroom scene for the custody of the waif dynasty later), but this news via letter was a big misstep for me. I understand you don’t have to cover the subject’s entire life and that one must frame the story economically and give a reason for their very quick nuptials, but a letter? That just seems so something starring Dame Valerie Bertinelli. Okay, class, what would you have done???

When Walter’s work is snubbed by a snooty gallery owner, his realtor’s training of “Location, Location, Location” finally works for him. He gets the big idea of renting the walls at a hip jazz club, The Hungry I, to exhibit his and his wife’s art.

As both artists in the family now signed their work “Keane”, Margaret’s sad-eyed-ladies-of-the-lowlands are mistakenly attributed to Walter. And, as not to jeopardize a sale, he plays along.

When the dueling egos of Walter and the club owner explode into fisticuffs, a photographer captures it and it’s suddenly front-page news. Suddenly, the club is hot and people are lining up to see the sappy paintings that two grown men were actually fighting over.

Hudson will play Keane.

As the waif painting start selling like latkes and lava lamps, Walter, trapped in his lie, can’t stop taking credit for their creations. And, then, like any good liar, he starts totally believing it himself, boasting to journalists that “Nobody could paint eyes like El Greco and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.”

Although panned by the critics, the masses fell in love with the waif paintings. The I-don’t-know-a-lot-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like set had to be suddenly accommodated to. People were stealing posters of their exhibits off the walls. So, Keane, started selling posters and post cards and mass producing cheapo framed posters to keep up with the demand. He brought art ownership to the common man – and made a mint doing it!

Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of Keane. He opened his own gallery across the street from the very snob who shunned him. He dutifully and brilliantly worked the press and gave portraits freely to luminaries like Kim Novak and Natalie Wood to drum up more and more photo ops. He even sent one of John Jr. and Caroline Kennedy to the White House.

Years before Warhol and Mark Kostabi had their “art helpers”, Keane turned art into commerce. Hell, he had a factory before Warhol even had a soup can. Only his sweat shop consisted of the poor, exhausted, friendless Margaret, locked in a room, painting all day, dazed off turpentine, mass producing as quickly as humanly possible. Slaving like a Cambodian Nike worker while Walter basked in the ill-gotten fruits of his self promotion.

No one was allowed to know their secret. Not even her own daughter!

The passive and voiceless Margaret meanwhile spirals deeper and deeper into depression; her waifs becoming much older and sadder. They’ve all become self-portraits. And, somehow, Walter has to explain to the world what has inspired him to paint all those cute kitten and crying, huge-eyed women. Jeepers creepers, everyone wanted to know how he got those peepers.

Usually Scriptshadow’s secret bylaws strictly forbid us from spoiling the third act, but this is a bio pic. The story has already played out. Let’s just say that like in Larry Flynt, Margaret does get her day in court, finally proving to the world who the real artist in the family was.

As life seems to provide more suspending of disbelief moments than movie usually do, Margaret’s sudden transformation from exploited door mat to hear-me-roar truth seeker all came about after a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on her door. Guess they were pretty damn good witnesses. It’s a little unbelievable and pat, but, hey, that’s exactly what happened in real life.

Vindicated, justified and finally happy, Margaret Keane’s saucer-eyed paintings still shed a tear or two. But, now, they’re tears of joy! As this film has already been cast, do keep Thomas Haden Church in mind while reading Walter. Watching him squirm at the end as his empire implodes is just gonna be a pure delight.

Now, for the grading. I wanna give these guys an A + for effort. Their ability to find truly unique source material is incredible. I give them an impressive for the research alone.

But, I have to dock a few points on the execution. Now, as I always preface every script review, I have no idea what draft I’ve just read. Could have been the first, could have been the shooting script. Who the hell knows. I’m hopeful that some of the kinks have already been worked out. But, these guys are directing Big Eyes themselves and I’ve seen their directorial debut, Screwed. Funny flick but not quite up to par with Tim Burton or Milos Forman, who I’m certain were quite real hands on during the rewrites.

Certainly, the ultra passive Margaret will get some life breathed into her by Kate Hudson’s people. I would like to see her transformation and realization of what a twat her husband is a little bit sooner. Also, the court case -- The Mister-Smith-Goes-To-Washington-Mailbag moment -- just flies by too quickly. This is the weighty scene we’ve been waiting for. We would like to see her really speak up for herself here.

Although Walter has some comic foils like the snooty gallery owner to parry with, the boys missed a wonderful opportunity with John Canaday, the snarky art critic of the New York Times. It was one of his scathing reviews that stopped the World’s Fair from displaying Walter’s masterpiece (well, uh, her masterpiece that he appropriated). The Critic’s mission to wipe the kitschy Keanes from the face of the serious art world comes way too late. He should have been brought earlier on as a common enemy that would bond the couple. By the time he comes on the scene, they’re already divorced. He also could have also been the one to suspect that Walter was really zooming the scene, a hack whose only talent was self-promotion.

Thus, I give Big Eyes a double worth the read. I wanted to be impressed, but… Oh, well, maybe next time when they tackle the Family Circus’s John Hughes lookalike, Bill Keane.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I had helped a writer buddy once adapt his published bio into screenplay form. The guy’s frantic life made for some wonderful scenes but it took a lot of tinkering to get his narrative to drive straight. You have less than two hours to tell someone’s life story. What exactly do you focus on? What are the defining moments? What are his or her character arcs? How do you keep your story from sprawling out of control like an Atlanta suburb? Big Eyes focuses on the ten year span after Margaret married Keane and became a virtual prisoner to his ego, culminating in their divorce and court case. We didn’t need to see too much of her life pre San Francisco nor did we need to see her in a flash forward today, remarried and still painting. What you leave out for the story is almost as important as the scenes you keep in. It also helps. in the cases of the Blind Side and the Pursuit of Happiness, when your main characters aren’t famous people whose every movement have been recorded in the history books. Excepting of course, if your history books have been published in Texas.

So, Kids keep reading. You just might find the next great Biopic in the Parade section of your local paper!