Script Analysis: “Big Eyes” — Scene By Scene Breakdown
Here is my take on this exercise from a previous series of posts — How To Read A Screenplay:
After a first pass, it’s time to crack open the script for a deeper analysis and you can do that by creating a scene-by-scene breakdown. It is precisely what it sounds like: A list of all the scenes in the script accompanied by a brief description of the events that transpire.
For purposes of this exercise, I have a slightly different take on scene. Here I am looking not just for individual scenes per se, but a scene or set of scenes that comprise one event or a continuous piece of action. Admittedly this is subjective and there is no right or wrong, the point is simply to break down the script into a series of parts which you then can use dig into the script’s structure and themes.
The value of this exercise:
- We pare down the story to its most constituent parts: Scenes.
- By doing this, we consciously explore the structure of the narrative.
- A scene-by-scene breakdown creates a foundation for even deeper analysis of the story.
Today: Big Eyes (2012). You may download the script here.
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.
By Rachel Sheridan
P. 1: Montage focusing on the popularity of the artist, Keane: A Keane Big Eye waif painting being mass-produced, headlines boasting of Keane’s wealth, various images of everyday America with Keane’s waif paintings in the background.
P. 1: The year 1958, Pleasant Valley Sunday suburbia, identical houses, moms playing in the yard with kids. Title card: Ten Years Earlier.
P. 2: Margaret Ulbrich is rushing around the house, packing a suitcase for her and her 8-year-old daughter, Jane. Margaret grabs her art supplies and all her paintings from the wall, but leaves a picture of her and her husband on their wedding day. Margaret and Jane bolt.
P. 2: Margaret and Jane speed down the interstate.
P. 2: Inside the car, Margaret’s expressions reveal worry and possible regret for leaving.
P. 2: Back to 1958, Margaret and Jane sit in a car outside a furniture store where Margaret has a job interview. Margaret leaves the car for the interview after a well-wish from Jane.
P. 3: Inside the interview, Margaret reveals she’s never had a job before, but she’s separated and needs the money to help support her daughter. The interviewer is unsettled by her energy and naiveté.
P. 4: Margaret landed the factory job. She’s one of many painters painting Humpty Dumpty on baby cribs.
P. 4–5: Margaret meets up with an old friend, former bridesmaid, Dee-Ann in a Beatnik part of San Francisco. Margaret reveals more of her naive side when she doesn’t know what espresso is.
P. 5–9: Margaret sits with Jane in an Art Show booth, trying to sell her Big Eye paintings. Margaret meets an arrogant Walter Keane for the first time, is smitten. He’s selling his Paris street scene paintings in a nearby booth. Walter dotes on Margaret’s work.
P. 9–11: Margaret and Walter are on a date at a French bistro. Walter brags about his time as a free-bird in Paris studying art. Margaret admits to never have flown before and her identity has always been relegated to a daughter, wife and mother. He further dotes on Margaret’s talent and admits her paintings are better than his. Their attraction to one another deepens.
P. 11–13: Margaret and Walter are set-up to paint in a park. Margaret paints Jane, Walter hasn’t started yet. Margaret explains her fascination with eyes stems from a brief period of deafness when she was young and her need to rely on eyes for understanding. After a conversation with a passing man, Walter is forced to admit that he sells commercial real estate and is not the hot-shot painter he passed himself off to be. Margaret is charmed by his honesty in coming clean.
P. 13–15: Back at Margaret’s apartment after a date, Margaret opens mail informing that her ex-husband is fighting for custody of Jane. The letter cites Margaret as an unfit mother because she can’t provide more than an apartment to live in. Walter seizes the opportunity to propose marriage, she accepts.
P. 15: In front of a Hawaiian waterfall, Margaret and Walter marry, Jane the Maid-of-Honor.
P. 15–16: Margaret and Walter lie on the beach, Margaret head-over-heels for Walter. They both admire the beauty of Hawaii.
P. 16: Still drunk with love for Walter, Margaret paints a guest on the hotel grounds, she signs the canvas, Keane. Walter sees it, Margaret looks at him playfully.
P. 16–17: Back in San Fran, Margaret talks to Dee-Ann about Walter over lunch. Dee-Ann is critical of Walter, tells Margaret he’s slept around quite a bit. Margaret insists she knows who she married, reiterates her appreciation of his emotional and financial support. Margaret’s fortune cookie says she’s, “on the threshold of untold success”.
P. 17–20: Walter tries to find wall space at an art gallery for his London street scenes. Ruben, the gallery manager, finds Walter annoying and his paintings too. Rejects him. Walter whips out Margaret’s Big Eye paintings for consideration. Ruben pans those too, sends Walter away shocked.
P. 20–22: In a trendy nightclub, the Hungry I, Margaret and Walter wax about the state of the art scene, Walter disenchanted. Walter approaches the owner of the nightclub, Enrico Banducci, about renting space on his walls for his street scenes art and Margaret’s waifs. He goes for it.
P. 22: Walter and Margret pose for promotional pictures with their paintings as their display at the nightclub draws near. Walter is really pumping up their image.
P. 22–25: The art display at the Hungry I was disastrous, the owner put them outside the bathrooms and Walter sold one waif painting to a drunk couple who thought he painted it. Walter ended the night depressed and with a physical fight against Banducci. Walter smashed a big eyes painting over his head.
P. 25: A headline of the San Francisco Examiner shouts about the fight between Walter and Banducci.
P. 25–26: Margaret posts Walter out of jail. Walter admits that he sold one of her paintings and let the buyers think he painted it. Margaret is ticked, tells him never to do that again.
P. 26: Walter returns to the nightclub to retrieve paintings he left behind. Banducci spots him, runs to Walter and drags him the kitchen.
P. 26: Banducci is stoked, the headlines packed his club and the patrons wants to see more waif paintings that “made grown men fight”.
P. 26–27: Walter and Banducci stumble out of the kitchen, pretending to be bitter at each other. Interest from the patrons heightens. Dick Nolan, a gossip reporter for the Examiner, lassos Walter for an interview. He wants to know about the waif paintings, assumes they are Walter’s works. Walter is at first miffed, then continues the interview, withholding the truth as the Big Eyes are just signed, “Keane”.
P. 28: Walter bursts through the bedroom late, drunk. He tells Margaret they sold out of her paintings at the club and he needs more stat. His future plan is for her to paint at the apartment while he sells the Big Eyes out on the market. She assumes she was given credit for her paintings.
P. 28: Margaret is painting away at night, lost in her art.
P. 28: Walter makes lots of money selling the Big Eyes at the club.
P. 28. Margaret paints by day peacefully, a blonde girl in a blue dress, half done.
P. 29: Walter gets measured for a new suit.
P. 29: Margaret reflects on the paintings she finished, signed with “Keane”, and is filled with happiness. She realizes there’s no one around to share in her glee as Walter is at the club selling her waifs. She finds a babysitter for Jane.
P. 29: Margret is in a taxi, holding her finished waifs, elated with life.
P. 29–33: Margaret arrives at the Hungry I and is overwhelmed with joy as she sees her waif paintings covering all the walls. She notices Walter talking with some Big Eye fans and overhears Walter take credit for painting the waifs. Still unnoticed, Margaret has a near panic attack. She confronts Walter after the fans move away. Walter talks in circles, minimizing his dishonesty and turns it around on her, suggesting she has an ego if she wants credit and too much of an emotional connection to her paintings. Suddenly, Dino Olivetti, a wealthy Italian business magnet, enters the club and is taken by the waif paintings. He wants to know who painted them, Walter takes credit in front of the crowd after Margaret can’t muster the confidence to do so. Olivetti pays $5,000 for one. Walter shows Margaret the huge check, reassures Margaret that they both are named Keane, so the deception is fine, as they are one.
P. 34: Walter burns all the brochures of him and Margaret in a fireplace as he begins developing the identity of the artist behind the Big Eyes.
P. 34: Walter gets a write-up in the Examiner by Dick, as he’s a celebrity artist now. It says Walter is up to something big.
P. 34: Walter presents an uneasy Mayor with a Big Eyes painting, “on behalf of the children of the world”.
P. 34: Walter gives a Soviet Diplomat a ballerina painting, “in the interest of peace through culture”.
P. 34: Dick from the Examiner is on the phone in a phone booth, mentions a reservation for Joan Crawford at The Purple Onion.
P. 34: Joan Crawford is dining with friends at The Purple Onion when Walter suddenly appears and gives her a painting, “in recognition of your cinematic craft”.
P. 34–35: As Margaret paints in the apartment, Walter beams about Joan’s positive response to the waif given to her. Margaret questions Walter’s tactic of wanting to be so commercial with selling the paintings by so aggressively going to the people as opposed to the people coming to them. He puts her mind at ease with his selling, diverts her attention by being physical with her, they dance.
P. 35–36: Margaret, Walter and Jane are plastering posters advertising the Keane Gallery on Broadway. Jane mentions that she remembers when her Mom painted the picture on the poster. Margaret and Walter are stunned as it was a long time ago that Margaret made the painting. They lie and tell her that Walter painted it.
P. 36: Margaret is walking San Fran’s North Beach neighborhood where waif posters are everywhere. She’s disenchanted, sees a Catholic church, heads in.
P. 36–38: Margaret is in a confessional booth, tells the priest she lied to Jane after being pressured by Walter, feels guilty. The Priest doesn’t let her finish, assumes it was a white lie. He says lying to children is OK if it’s to shelter them from the world and advises her to trust Walter’s leadership of the family.
P. 38–41: A packed opening night at the Keane Gallery and every painting is now signed “Walter Keane”. Walter basks in the attention of the patrons, Margaret is a waitress at the event and is uneasy the whole time. Walter starts to act like he really is the artist.
P. 41–42: At the apartment, Walter watches a NYT art critic, John Canaday, pan his work and his place in the art world. Jane is forbidden from ever entering Margaret’s painting room, but knocks and tries to enter anyway while Margaret is working. Walter stops her, sends her out for ice cream.
P. 42–45: Walter tells Margaret he’s going on TV to defend his artwork, but doesn’t know how to articulate his motivation for painting little girls and boys. Margaret is not too helpful as she explains the reasons for creating art are personal to the artist.
P. 45: During his TV interview on a public access show, Walter says he started painting children as he watched them go through the horrors of war in Europe as homeless, starving orphans. His interviewers are fascinated by his story.
P. 45: Keane posters are ripped off walls, buildings, wherever they are outdoors.
P. 45–46: Outside the Keane gallery, Walter is flooded with fans-now everyday people, not just the wealthy-wanting photographs and autographs on Keane posters. Walter sees Ruben down the block, who is looking on dumbfounded at the fan fervor, Keane flips him the bird.
P. 46: Inside the gallery, the gallery clerk tells Walter no one is buying because the crowd can’t afford anything. However, they are taking full advantage of the free posters. Walter things of a solution to get money out of them.
P. 46–47: Walter is on the phone with Margaret, tells her he started charging for the posters and people happily bought them. So he wants to start mass-producing copies of her waifs to sell all over. Copies of the waifs are now being sold in pharmacies, gas stations, etc.
P. 47: Margaret shops in side a supermarket when she happens upon copies of her paintings for sale. She’s listless, en empty shell of herself.
P. 47–50: Margaret paints a new type of portrait with almond eyes, based on herself, signs it MDH Keane. She wants to display her new portraits with her credited as the artist. When she brings up the idea to Walter, he balks at first, then relents after Margaret’s pleas.
P. 51–54: Margaret, Walter and Jane are set-up at easels for another photo-op with the Examiner, as they’re now called The Painting Keanes. To Margaret’s shock, Walter’s 10-year-old daughter, Lily, arrives at the house with an overnight bag. Margaret never knew Walter had a daughter from a previous marriage until then. Walter shows fake affection for Lily, who rarely sees Walter. Walter brushes off how he never told Margaret he had a daughter.
P. 54–56: Jane shares her room with Lily and Jane learns much from cordial small talk. LIly lives 20 minutes away, Walter visits Lily every week and Walter has never mentioned Jane (although Lily lies and says he does). They agree, both of their moms cry a lot.
P. 56: The Keane Gallery is packed for the introduction of “America’s First Family of Art”.
P. 56–58: Margaret tries to sell her new paintings at the Gallery gala herself. She clearly doesn’t have a “salesman’s touch” as she drives away a rich patron speaking about numerology. Walter chides Margaret, tells her to shut her mouth. Two nearby artists bad-mouth Walter and Margaret, bitter that they make so much money from the Big Eyes when they can easily paint something similar.
P. 58: Ruben walks buy a store’s window display of Big Eye paintings along with rip-offs of the waifs except with subjects like animals and hobos. Ruben is shocked but dismayed, “it’s a movement”.
P. 58: A montage: The Tonight Show announces Margaret and Walter as guests, a TV commercial for a crying doll that is a waif copycat, a Spanish channels shows a Keane painting being hung in Madrid’s National Museum of Contemporary Art.
P. 59: Margaret works on waifs and her MDH portraits in her studio in a new, high-end California ranch.
P. 59–61: Dee-Ann pays Margaret a visit, Dee-Ann is a bit condescending about Margaret’s rich life. Dee-Ann spies Margaret’s painting room, wants to see what it looks like. Margaret tries to stop her, but Dee-Ann makes her way in.
P. 61–62: When Dee-Ann sees the MDH portraits and the waifs, she’s confused. Margaret tells her Walter paints in the studio too. Dee-Ann doesn’t buy it, she sees a Big Eye on an easel with a wet brush nearby. Learning Walter isn’t home, there’s heavy tension as Dee-Ann waits for Margaret to come clean with the obvious truth when Walter suddenly arrives home and walks in the studio. He’s ticked Dee-Ann is there, says he doesn’t like people seeing his work before it’s finished. He grabs the wet bush and attempts to finish the painting, a little confused on what to do at first. He makes a dot on the canvas and then calls it finished.
P. 62 Margaret, Walter and Dee-Ann sit in the living room drinking, silent, lots of tension.
P. 62–63: That evening, both drunk, Walter throws Dee-Ann out of the house in a tirade. They exchange insults, Walter calling her a fraud, Dee-Ann telling Walter he’s full of it. Walter tells Margaret never to invite Dee-Ann over again, Margaret sadly agrees.
P. 63 Margaret and Walter are in bed, not speaking.
P. 63–64: Jane is playing with their dog, a poodle named Rembrandt, when Margaret tells her she has to go to work. Jane wants to go to work with her, then pouts that she’s never allowed to before Margaret could answer. Both are sad.
P. 64–66: As Margaret closes her studio door, she doesn’t realize Rembrandt made his way in. She lets him stay, but needs to find a carpet for him to lay on in lieu of the new couch. She rummages through the closest, finds a battered crate filled with street scene paintings signed by a S. Cenic. Margaret runs to a street scene painting on an easel, flecks W. Keane off the painting to reveal that Walter has been putting his name over the original artist’s name on his street scenes. She realizes that she never actually saw Walter paint before.
P. 66–69: Margaret waits up late for Walter to arrive home. When she confronts him with what she found, Walter makes up a story about how S. Cenic was a name he used to be called. Margaret won’t believe Walter’s story, asks if he’s ever even been to Paris. Walter is defeated, only answers that he’s always wanted to be an artist.
P. 69: While waiting for the breakfast Margaret is cooking, Jane notices that Walter slept on the living room couch that night.
P. 69–70: Margaret is making her bed as Walter appears in the doorway. She’s fed up with the lies and tells Walter to take another bedroom. He’s somber, agrees.
P. 70: Margaret looks around the house walls, shell-shocked at all the framed photos, articles of Walter and the waifs. She opens a drawer containing the first-ever waif of Jane, gets emotional.
P. 70–72: Walter approaches Margaret in her studio and asks her to teach him how to paint the waifs and their problems would be solved. Margaret, annoyed, starts to teach him sternly, knowing he won’t be able to do it.
P. 72–73: Montage of Margaret starting a waif from scratch while Walter tries to copy her every trace. He can’t hack it, he resorts to tracing her sketch on a light table, then paints the sketch. His final product looks like child’s play and he becomes enraged and throws his failure against the wall. He then makes like he’s going to punch Margaret but destroys her canvas instead.
P. 73–75: Walter enters the Keane gallery in a huff, questions the clerk about the inventory on-hand and how long it would last. He has an existential crisis, does all the fame and fortune even matter? The clerk rings up a customer, Walter sees they’re buying an MDH portrait, gets miffed. He becomes interested in a newspaper headline about an upcoming World’s Fair.
P. 75–77: At the restaurant where they had their first date, Walter threatens to kill Margaret if she ever ratted him out as a fraud. He then convinces her to paint his magnum opus to debut at the World’s Fair.
P. 78–79: Margaret conceptualizes the painting for the World’s Fair on an 8’ canvas. Walter pipes in, wants to see waifs of all cultural backgrounds to fit the UNICEF mission, a main sponsor. He mentions he needs all kinds of old material for a Life Magazine article on him, Margaret agrees to it, throws him out of the studio in anger so she can work.
P. 79: Jane, in her teen’s, finds no one around and finally enters Margaret’s studio.
P. 79–80: Jane is amazed at the sight of all the paintings, she finds her mom asleep on the couch. She wakes up Margaret, who then tries to convince Jane that the paintings are Walter’s. Jane knows she’s lying, runs out. Margaret runs after her and they both break down.
P. 80: A Life Magazine spread reads, “The Man Who Paints Those Big Eyes.”
P. 80: The NYT Art Critic, John Canaday, reads the Life Magazine article and is disgusted, sees the mention about him at the World’s Fair, picks up his phone.
P. 80: At the World’s Fair Hall of Education, where the crème de la crème should be, Canaday views the large Keane painting with a civic leader in charge, it’s titled “Tomorrow Forever”. Canaday thinks it’s terrible. He learns Walter just had to call and ask if he could be featured there. Canaday is fuming that the World’s Fair wasn’t more discriminate in who they let into the Hall of Education.
P. 81–82: Margaret and Walter attend a high-society party at a New York mansion. Walter basks in the glory of being at such an exclusive event. Margaret disagrees, prefers selling her paintings in a park. She says she’s filing for divorce on Friday, Walter doesn’t take her seriously. A man approaches Walter and ask if he’s seen the Times. He hasn’t.
P. 82–83: Walter, Margaret and the man are in a den, looking at a review of the “Tomorrow Forever” painting: “Grotesque”, “Appalling”, “Lowest common denominator”. Both Walter and Margaret are hurt. Walter wants to have words with the author. The man tries to suggest that the Keanes leave since the author is at the party.
P. 83–84: Back at the party, Walter shocks the crowd, demands to know who wrote the review. Canaday has no problem revealing himself and standing behind his review. Walter is livid, grabs a fork as if about to stab him but stops himself. Him and Margaret leave the party, crowd stunned.
P. 84: “Tomorrow Forever” is taken down from the Hall of Education.
P. 84–86: Back at the Keane’s house, Walter is drunk and goes out of his mind. He blames all his woes on Margaret, starts lighting matches and throwing them at Jane and Margaret. They bolt for the art studio and lock the door behind them.
P. 86–87: Walter tries unsuccessfully to enter the studio, his verbal assaults are unrelenting. He tosses another lit match threw a keyhole. Margaret and Jane make an escape through the sliding glass doors in the studio.
P. 87: Walter notices moving car headlights from his front window, he’s confused.
P. 87–88: As Margaret and Jane are driving, Margaret tells Jane they’re going to Hawaii to make a new life because it’s paradise there.
P. 88: Jane stands on her porch overlooking a Hawaiian paradise while Jane hangs out with some local teens.
P. 88–89: Margaret is painting ferns inside the house when Walter calls her, Margaret is shocked. Walter is miffed about separation papers he got in the mail. He says he’ll grant a divorce if Margaret assigns all rights to the paintings to him and paints 100 more waifs in his name for “future revenue stream”. Margaret agrees.
P. 90: Margaret heads to the Post Office to mail off a waif painting to Walter. Margaret warns Jane that her friends aren’t allowed in the house so they don’t see the paintings.
P. 91–93: Two Jehovah Witnesses hit Margaret’s house. She lets the ladies in and Margaret unloads emotionally on them, searching spiritually. Margaret is interested in the honesty and truth factor of their religion.
P. 93–94: Jane reads the literature left behind by the Jehovah Witnesses. Margaret mentions how it says lying is forbidden and you should be speaking truth. A Eureka moment between them.
P. 94: Walter is partying at his house with women, tells them he’s better than Warhol. His delivery of a Big Eye painting arrives.
P. 94: Walter unpacks the new waif painting and to his horror, Margaret signed it with her signature: MDH Keane. Walter is ticked.
P. 94–95: Margaret and Jane sing happily at the local Jehovah Witness hall.
P. 95: At Margaret’s house, she pours her liquor down the drain, throws out her cigarettes, she’s pleased.
P. 95–96: During an in-studio radio interview, Margaret finally comes clean publically that Walter is not the painter of the Big Eyes, she is.
P. 96: Jane and Margaret walk away thrilled, particularly Jane, who proudly hugs her mom.
P. 96: Canaday is beside himself, reading the news of Margaret’s admission coming off the wire services.
P. 96: Dee-Ann reads the headline in the Examiner, she “knew it!”.
P. 96: Dick Nolan reads the headline about Margaret, chokes on his drink.
P. 96: Banducci at the Hungry I finds the news hilarious.
P. 96: Ruben responds sarcastically, “who’d want credit?!”.
P. 97: Walter reads the news at a coffeeshop, is beyond mortified, heads out.
P. 97: Walter is at a bar with Dick at night, trying to convince Dick to report his side of the story, that Margaret is lying. He abides.
P. 98: Margaret sits at her house with her Jehovah Witness friends as she reads Dick Nolan’s article on Walter, that names Margaret as the fake. Jane suggests they sue Walter.
P. 99: A circus outside the Honolulu Federal Courthouse as the trial against the Gannet newspapers and Walter starts. Walter expects the charges to be dropped by Noon. Gannet is being sued for libel because of the latest Nolan article, Walter for slander and related charges.
P. 99–101: Walter is at the courtroom table with the Gannet legal team. The charges against them for libel are quickly dropped as they present evidence of Margaret attributing Walter as the artist to them in several hundred articles. The Gannet legal team gets up to leave. Walter then learns that Gannet’s legal team isn’t there to represent him as well, he’s rattled. Walter decides to represent himself.
P. 101: Wire Service headlines, Keane trial takes shocking turn, “He’s a Painter’s and a Lawyer?”
P. 102: Dick Nolan types up a piece critical of Walter.
P. 102–104: Inside the courtroom, Walter questions Margaret, who is on the witness stand. Margaret reveals that she let Walter take credit for the work because he was so domineering, even threatening her life if she ever told the truth. Walter looks like an annoying, arrogant fool representing himself.
P. 104: One of the two courtroom artists sketches his figures with Keane big eyes. He laughs with the other artist about it.
P. 104–107: Walter takes the witness stand, he questions himself. He goes into a long, dramatic, bizarre life story, mentioning many details of his alleged storied life. The judge interrupts him, says the only way to settle the case is for both of them to paint. Walter is worried, Margaret pleased.
P. 107–111: Margaret and Walter each have easels set up for them near their tables, the jurors look on. Margaret doesn’t hesitate to move to her easel and get to work on a waif. Walter has no idea what to do, he sits in his chair, making people wonder why he won’t move to his easel. He then fakes a shoulder injury “flare up” and says he can’t paint. Shockwaves through the courtroom, Walter sits back in his chair, lifeless, he knows his end is near.
P.111–112: Outside the courthouse, Margaret emerges victorious with Jane by her side. They’re hounded by reporters. Walter was found guilty of defamation, emotional distress and damaged reputation. He leaves the courthouse, insults everyone and drifts off into the background. Margaret autographs a book of her work that Walter was given credit for. She’s proud.
P. 112: Margaret has a new gallery, The Margaret Keane Gallery, filled with waifs and MDH’s. The waifs have a different aura about them, defined by lush gardens and brighter colors.
P: 112: Title cards: Walter never admitted guilt, insisting he was the artist for the rest of his life. He passed away in 2000, penniless. Margaret remarried, moved to San Francisco and opened a gallery. She paints everyday. An image of a waif is shown, smiling this time.
Writing Exercise: I encourage you to read the script, but short of that, if you’ve seen the movie, go through this scene-by-scene breakdown. What stands out to you about it from a structural standpoint?
Major kudos to Rachel Sheridan for doing this week’s scene-by-scene breakdown.
If you’d like a PDF of the Big Eyes scene-by-scene breakdown, go here.
For 100+ movie scripts broken down scene by scene, go here.
Script Analysis: “Big Eyes” — Scene By Scene Breakdown was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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Author: Scott Myers