SXSW Interview: Paul Rust discusses the writing process and working with Joe Manganiello in Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

The Iris found themselves locked in a room with screenwriter Paul Rust last week to talk about his role in bringing Pee-Wee to new audiences without losing the sentiments of the Tim Burton original.

Congratulations on the film, it seems like you’re doing so much on Netflix right now, do you find it affords you the freedom to do multiple projects at the same time, both writing, directing and everything else?

Yeah, it’s been really great working with Netflix, it’s certainly a place that’s very creator driven. It started off (with me writing) on the last season of Arrested Development and then when I was watching how that process worked, I thought oh man, these are the people we should be in business with, they’re so supportive and don’t give guff. So Its been really great and I was working simultaneously on Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday a lot of the time

Did you get any sleep?

I got some, but I did think that if it was with two different companies it might be a little tougher to make stuff work, as one would be against the other. So it was good to be on the same team

Obviously Paul has had this character in his head and he’s been acting and living it for the past thirty-plus years, how was it that you sort of came into the process and translated what he already had, while bringing your own spin to it, how did you talk Pee-Wee?

I came into it definitely not wanting to put my own spin on it. I felt like that was sort of the best thing a collaborator could do with Paul because his instincts about the character are so correct that I didn’t want to get in his way. So it was basically taking his lead, knowing what he wanted and then trying my best to execute his visions

When you are doing a road trip, there’s this certain type of character that you have drawn here that he meets out on the road. Are these the types of characters that you’ve experienced in your own life or are they something from your head or even just sort of a result of talking with Paul?

I mean for all the characters, Paul and I just made a list of characters that were thought were funny, we watched Faster Pussycats Kill Kill and we loved those bank-robber-vixens so we wanted to do something like that. And I guess from my own life I grew up in Iowa, so the whole farmer Brown sequence with the daughters and when he says ‘no ones a stranger in the heartland’ I was like that’s true, that’s true.

You also have a small little role for yourself as a member of Fairville, can you talk about how it came about that you were actually going to do some acting in this movie as well?

Well that came from Paul Rubens, the director John Lee and Judd Appatow. They were kind enough to give me a part which I really appreciated and also my characters name is Ernie so I was happy that a lot of characters from the Pee-Wee universe names end in E, like Pee-Wee, Ruby, Dudley, so I was happy to be a part of that gallery of characters with similar names.

What ended up on the cutting room floor, or what didn’t make it into the movie?

I think a lot of it was not sequences but sort of individual lines or moments. One thing that didn’t get cut from the movie but we were trying to fit into the writing was that if Pee-Wee had a philosophical moment where he says ‘I know you are but who am I’ and we couldn’t get it into the movie, as far as stuff that got cut it was mainly moments near the end when you’re wanting to ramp up the action so stuff was pulled from there.

Was this film written with Joe Manganiello in mind?

We definitely knew that Paul Rubens and Joe had met before and had hit it off and me and Paul would always laugh at how this guy’s not only super handsome and cool but he’s also really funny, like god dammit.

He was also a tremendous Pee-Wee fan so even though he looks like the guy who would throw you in a locker and steal your lunch money he was actually so sweet and we’re really happy he did the movie because when I first watched him act in a scene I was amazed by his sincerity. He was playing it so real and I think that tone wise it helped the movie tremendously.

In terms of scenes that you actually shot that didn’t make it into the movie, what’s going happen to that, because fans will want to see the directors cut, or the outtakes, with Netflix where does that material go?

That’s a good question. I am a huge fan of deleted scenes and commentaries and it would be my dream if they started having that stuff embedded.

Well you obviously have much love for the character Pee-Wee, and Pee-Wee Herman kind of represents innocence, so in the process of writing did you ever struggle with ‘Pee-Wee wouldn’t say that or, that’s just too much for Pee-Wee’, describe the process of trying to maintain that innocence of Pee-Wee Herman.

Well its funny, when I first met Paul it was at Judd’s office and the three of us where talking and Judd was like so just tell us what are the rules of Pee-Wee and Paul was like you’re going to catch me, I have zero rules for Pee-Wee.

So it ended up being more about instincts than rules, so in terms or would he do that or say that, it was more of does that feel right, but if it was funny it stayed in that was usually the rule.

Would you like to write any more adventures for Pee-Wee?

Paul and I hope we’ll be able to do another Pee-Wee movie together and if he asked me I’d be more than happy to do it, Paul’s also written two other Pee-Wee scripts in the past and I’ve read them and they’re fantastic, so that would be awesome if he could make one of those too, I’d love to see that just as a fan.

Did anything from those other scripts end up in this film? You were talking about Valley of the Dolls being a source of inspiration, so was there anything that bled over into this story

Well when I read those two scripts there were gags and stuff in there that I was like ‘hey Paul can we take that for our movie’ and I think that because he co-wrote that (content) with other people he wanted to be respectful and not take anything.

So we didn’t and that’s good that we didn’t cannibalise the other scripts so they can be shot as they’re written and not have anything cross over. It’s funny when I first read them and started talking I was like ‘hey you should make one of these’; I was basically talking myself out of a job. But we ended up writing our own.

And did the Tim Burton original film play a reference once you sat down; it feels like (this film is) the sequel that we didn’t get with the sequel, if that makes sense.

I mean, I don’t know if people heard this, if they’d think that it’s the least creative way to write, but I put up cards of the Big Adventure and sort of looked at how that played out, and if somebody wanted to do the math, there are tonally connections like when he first hits the road in the Big Adventure, or when he encounters a convict or in this he encounters bank robbers, so we tried to make it as different as possible.

There’s also the point with the big balloon trick where he makes all the sounds and that’s at the point in the Big Adventure when the big shoe dance happens, which both (scenes) are kind of like show stopping moments and I like the fact its not just like we tried to do a big shoe dance, we just tried to do something that felt the same or emotionally did the same thing.

Were you at all involved with the Broadway production before you got involved with this, because I know that was kind of the catalyst for setting this film up?

Yeah I did get to see it, I went and saw it in LA and I went with my dad and girlfriend, and because I was with my dad, I remember my friend leaned over and was like ‘it’s too bad we couldn’t get high before this’.

You know how the entire Netflix audience is probably watching your show.

Then I saw it on Broadway because Paul and I started working in-between those two times and Paul was nice enough to ask me to help with the script when it went to Broadway, so I added some jokes and he was nice enough to give me credit.

Is that your first Broadway credit?

Yeah – no, I wrote Phantom of the Opera too

It seems like a lot of the performances from this movie draw from Broadway, or a theatre style of acting.

I think we felt that, the comparison I made was to Stella, the genius thing I thought they did was that they get really strong actors from theatre or acting schools so they could be as goofy as possible but there was still some sort of grounding in the performances, and I know that was really important for the director John Lee as well. I think that comes through in the acting and the movie.

I’m curious about these scripts you brought up, is one of them the more adult themed version that’s been talked about for the past ten years? I really hope it gets made and I hope that you can kind of push Paul (to make it), as much as I love this one, it’s just his origins of where he started out with the HBO specials, it would be so wonderful to see that kind of thing.

I hope so too that would be fantastic to be able to get that out to the people.

There was the odd adult (joke), I think my favourite line was ‘You haven’t seen Magic Mike? And he just goes, you’d think so’

Clearly had to get a Magic Mike reference in there.

The audience really seems to react positively towards Joe.

He’s so great, the fact that he played it sincerely, because I think a lot of other actors would have gone ‘oh I’m in a Pee-Wee movie so I have to be over the top’ its sort of like when you see someone host SNL and they’re like ‘I’m doing comedy so I guess I better speak in a weird voice and cross my eyes’ but the fact that he played it truthfully was really cool.

Going to the beginning scene where he wakes up, and kind of gets out of bed, that whole process, did you and Pee-Wee plan all of that out together?

That was the most (time) I’ve ever put into writing, us trying to figure that out and even just the actual writing of how you have to describe how a Rube Goldberg machine works but still make it interesting to read on the page that was impossible. We watched so many Rube Goldberg videos on YouTube and I’ve loved Rube Goldberg machines ever since I was a little kid, so to be able to write one was cool and have Pee-Wee be the marble was also very cool.

Now that you’ve done the television series on Netflix and you’ve done the film, which one was easier and which one was harder the whole writing-doing process?

I mean Love (TV Series) is much more biographical, and so it’s a joy to work on because I love working on the show but being in the writers room it’s constant self-analysis so you always feel like you’re in therapy, where as with the Pee-Wee thing just being able to sit down and just be like, I get to write the goofiest, extraordinary stuff, that ends up being a lot more fun than being racked with my own conscious.

Thanks for the interview.

Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is streaming on Netflix now.