Sometime during the mid-'90s, screenwriting team Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander decided to fashion themselves as the vanguard of eccentric biography pictures, giving fringe artists and iconic weirdos like Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, Andy Kaufman and Bob Crane what they were denied in their respective careers — mainstream acceptance.
Alexander remembers the decisive moment, which came while they were working on The People vs. Larry Flynt. During a meeting, Hollywood juggernaut James L. Brooks asked them what was next. “I said … we've been on the [Ed Wood and Larry Flynt biopics] forever and we probably need to try and go off and do something different,” Alexander says. “And he looked at us and said, 'Are you insane? Most writers spend their whole careers trying to find a niche that they're known for. You guys have actually figured out something that you're known for, you should run with it — and milk it.'”
The team milked and ran — going on to make Man on the Moon and Auto Focus — and is now back with another cultural underdog in tow for Big Eyes, their new Tim Burton-directed film about early 60's painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her struggle to reclaim her work from her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), who co-opted it as his own to achieve international fame. The paintings behind the controversy — strange, sentimental portraits of big-eyed waify children — are now often dismissed as mere kitsch.
“We try to be really non-judgmental about the people we write about,” Karaszewski explains. “Because I think the whole world is usually judging these characters.”
Their tolerance has contributed to a mass cultural interest in forgottens and misunderstoods, and a steady narrowing between “high art” and “low art.” “There's barely a separation anymore,” Karaszewski says. “So much so that our movie about Margaret Keane, who has never been taken too seriously, is going to be the centerpiece of Art Basel Miami, which is like the big, hip art thing in America.”
The American Cinematheque is acknowledging the team's cohesive effort to exalt oddballs with a three-day retrospective series, Holy Fools: The Anti-Biopics of Scott and Larry, running Dec. 3-5 at the Aero Theatre.
The series includes an advance member's screening of Big Eyes, and double bills of The People vs. Larry Flynt (about the Hustler magnate's landmark Supreme Court case) and Auto Focus (detailing Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane's lascivious downfall); and Ed Wood (the endearing tale of the world's worst filmmaker) and Man on the Moon (tracking the rise and demise of comedian Andy Kaufman).
Underpinning the films' contrarian spirit is traditional three-act Hollywood storytelling that Karaszewski and Alexander studied together at USC film school, where they were roommates their freshman year in the '80s.
The birth of their enduring partnership, which is approaching 30 years, is cinematic in its own right. Alexander, an L.A. native, drove cross country one summer to visit Karaszewski in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana. Along the way, Alexander became fixated on a story that advice columnist Ann Landers was covering about a high school kid who fell through the gym roof while vandalizing his school and ended up paralyzed. His family then sued the school. Alexander cut out each daily update and handed the pile to Karaszewski when he reached South Bend.
When the school year started, they began the process of turning the clippings into a screenplay by working every night from midnight to 2 a.m. The tragedy-tinged story morphed into Home Wreckers, a comedy about a thief who gets injured while breaking into a house — and sues the owners of the house. Two weeks after Karaszewski and Alexander graduated, they sold the script to 20th Century Fox. The film was never made, but they got their showbiz “in” without any real industry connections.
After petering out as the hot new writers on the block, Karaszewski and Alexander wrote the successful family comedy Problem Child, which was sold and greenlit. Then they were fired from the project.
During the ensuing unemployment they decided to write Ed Wood in a stroke of what-can we-lose genius. Through a series of “it just so happened” events, it ended up on Tim Burton's desk. Alexander and Karaszewski are best friends with Daniel Waters, the writer of '80s cult classic, Heathers. Waters' producer briefly became Tim Burton's partner. She saw the outline of Ed Wood and thought Burton might dig it. He did. Johnny Depp starred as Wood, the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space director who liked to dress in women's clothes.
The movie was a success, and the two have been working continuously ever since.
“We ended up embracing the eccentric biopic thing because it made us more essential to productions,” Karaszewski says. “When you make family comedies like Problem Child or a lot of mainstream Hollywood stuff, the writer can be disposable. We found on these movies, because for all of our biopics we sort of acted like journalists, doing all the research on these people, we ended up being the historians. We would meet with the costume people or the production side people because they would ask, 'What did Bela Lugosi's house look like?' and go through our boxes of research to find out.”
The team spent more than 10 years getting Big Eyes into production — delayed by diverse inconveniences like the financial crisis of 2008 and original lead actress Reese Witherspoon's untimely pregnancy — allowing them to amass a wealth of visual research and forge a personal relationship with the real Margaret Keane. By the time it was made, they could tell costume designer Colleen Atwood that Keane painted barefoot, in a loose fitting shirt and capris. When Keane finally saw the rough cut of Big Eyes this summer, she wept, remarking on how well it captured her and Walter, who the screenwriters never met.
Karaszewski and Alexander's research from their films — books, papers, posters, photos, memorabilia, life-sized wax sculptures of the Smothers Brothers — still lives in piles on their office floor, where they work together every day. Each pile is tied to intimate experiences — the two recall throwing back drinks with Andy Kaufman's writing partner Bob Zmuda and agent George Shapiro after a failed screening of Man on the Moon. They proudly mention that friends and colleagues of Ed Wood, at first suspicious of the movie, ended up being huge fans.
“We're thrown into all these different worlds, and I think because we love the research, we can spend so much time just getting to know that area,” Karaszewski explains. “These stories are fascinating to us.”
Fresh off Big Eyes, Alexander poses a personal ultimatum that doubles as advice for would-be Hollywood kin: “Always be hustling the next job.” He and Karaszewski are currently working together on an FX series about yet another complicated personality: O.J Simpson.
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