SXSW Interview: John Lee on Directing Pee-wee’s Big Holiday

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, released on March 18 on Netflix, stars Paul Reuben’s Pee-Wee Herman alongside Joe Meganiello as himself in an adventure written by Reubens and Paul Rust.

The Iris caught up with director John Lee (Wonder Showzen, Inside Amy Schumer, The Heart, and She Holler) at SXSW to talk about the challenges of re-imagining such a well-known and loved character, his experience working with Netflix, and the personal significance Pee-Wee holds for him. 

Directing a film when you’ve got such an iconic character to play with – was there a sense of dread at any point?  

Yes, there was only a sense of dread [laughs].I got hired on my birthday, besides that glee of like “Oh my God I got the job!” It was then immediately like, “Oh my god . . . I got the job”.

You know, for sure, I’m a huge, long-time fan, and the responsibility of, like, is my interpretation of the character everyone’s interpretation of the character? You know, I felt that. I basically told everyone that my goal was to not fuck up.

How much, in that goal of not fucking up, how much did you feel you were able to bring to the table that we hadn’t seen in the Tim Burton film, or we hadn’t seen in the CBS series, do you feel like you got to leave your mark on the character, so to speak?

Yeah, I mean, I just tend to not even think about leaving my mark. I just tend to think about what will help the movie. You know? That’s not my goal as a director. But in avoiding it – avoiding the references to the other ones – yeah for sure.

I didn’t want to use things that are so Paul and Tim, like claymation. I’m sure people will be upset about that, and disappointed, but I can’t do that – that’s their world and that’s his world.

The other one was the dream sequences. How do I make a dream sequence my own? Or, not even my own, but [in a way] that’s not just a reference? Because this movie is going to be written about in reference to those things, right? That’s what this movie is for many people, and those expectations are just impossible. You just try to make your own, unique thing that honors the script itself.

I like the opening sequence – it’s very Wallace and Gromit. So, there is a bit of claymation referencing.

Yeah, well it’s a real puppet, and we –

Oh no, sorry, I mean the sequence with the car –

Oh, yeah the Rube Goldberg. Rube Goldberg is just the next level of the other things he’s made. It’s just like “oh, now he’s in it”, which is, you know, fun, and what’s not to love about Pee-Wee in a little car?

Here’s the pitch that I told Paul when I talked to him: So if someone asks you why you don’t connect the dots to the other movies, you can say Manganiello brainwashed Pee-Wee Herman at the beginning of the movie, that’s why he doesn’t remember Big Adventure . . .

I mean, there’s a lot of references. I just think of it as something that no one would do anymore, which is to just have a character and make a movie. It’s not a puzzle. It’s not like “oh my God, the first Star Wars was the third one . . .” You’re like, who cares? There’s so much discussion of that and I don’t care. Just show me something entertaining and good, and that doesn’t just reference the other movies. And I think this has references just as little Easter eggs, but it’s not the story.

I was so happy when I got the script. It was not just “where is he now?”, because I don’t care. I want to just watch a movie with the guy, I don’t need to be like “oh, he’s living by himself in an apartment or something”. No one wants that. It’s not an Alexander Payne movie where it’s somber and moody.

I think that was just the mindset that I had a problem with initially going in, because we’re so tailored to believing that this is a direct sequel to something. Like, how is he not aware that he’s on a holiday? That’s the one thing that, as a fan, and growing up and seeing the movie so many times, that’s the thing that stood out. And now talking to you and everyone else, it makes sense.

And it’s the same as the TV show. Everyone’s like “why isn’t everything alive and talking?”. It’s like, well that’s a thing for children. And so you have the excuse to do that – you have the responsibility to do that. But this is a movie and his movies are much different than his TV show – but everyone just wraps them into one thing.

He’s so precious to everybody – he has a secret place in everybody’s heart. It’s just impossible to appease all that stuff . . . so, you were wrong [laughs], but I’m glad you admitted it – it takes a big man to do that.

So you talked about the classics, and about how much you loved classic comedies. Who are some of your influences as a film-maker?

As a film-maker? Um, they don’t match. Jim Jarmusch – he’s probably one of the reasons I started making movies. I saw his movie “Stranger than Paradise” on PBS, and was just so confused [laughs]. I saw that and, um, who’s the woman who made “The Piano”? What’s her name? . . . Jane Campion. She made these very short films and they were just so odd and strange that I realized “oh my god, that’s an option? You can do that?” And, of course, Lynch and other very dark things, but nothing in the way of Paul.

So what does the character Pee-Wee Herman mean to you?

What does he mean to me? I don’t know, that’s private. [laughs] He’s all a little secretly inside of us. It’s like, you know, when your therapist tells you to talk to your nine-year-old self.

It’s like, just talk to your little inner Pee-Wee Herman and then live life like that. And then whatever that guy would do, that’s what you should do.

What would Pee-Wee do?

[Laughs] Yeah, I think that’s a way to live. What are we doing? What’re we doing here now? Like, right now let’s get the fuck outta here and go get sundaes [laughs]. Wouldn’t that be more fun? But we have jobs, and we’re adults . . .

I wanted to ask you about two things: the set pieces are awesome, they’re so elaborate, and they feel like they’re part of a Pee-Wee universe. For a lot of those, what kind of process went into, you know, making sure certain things were in the right places, but also did you do story-boarding at all?

I do my own story boards, and they look like – can I draw here? [draws] – this is how I do them. I get a piece of paper, and I divide it up like this, and it makes cinematic frames, and then you go, like, “oh, there’s Pee-Wee!” You know him ‘cause he has a bow tie. And then, like, “oh my God, he’s surprised!” Like that, and then he’s mad in this scene. But if you’re working on something elaborate, you have the little car, and you draw an arrow which way he’s driving, and then you want to camera to go . . . and then you see the little tire, you know, here on the ramp, and so you figure out – and you literally go like this. And then I hand it to the people who are giving me a lot of money and a company that’s giving millions of dollars, and I go “this is the movie!”

And invariably, they would always do the classic joke, they would go “what is this?” and they would flip it upside-down, and they would go “what is this?”, and I would go “See? He has the bow-tie!” And then they would just give up, like “I don’t need to sit through this, this is annoying”. So I do my own, because you just need to think about stuff like that. And then you come up with shots, and it’s just meticulous work. It’s not that exciting, but it’s fun when you come up with something really interesting.

There’s a lot of what I think is interesting in the movie, and I’m so happy that no one has noticed it. I’m so happy that it just exists in the movie. But the first part of your question was . . .?

Just about the set pieces in general –

Oh, for me, it’s all script. It’s all working on the script. You have pre-production and you have so many weeks just to make sure everything has its place. And then, adding jokes on top of that, I think, is the most important thing. I see so many movies where suddenly the story changes in the script, and you’re just like “oh, they don’t care! Oh so I don’t care! Oh great, so I can go get a snack, oh perfect!”

So it’s all that, and then Paul and Paul were so good at collaborating and they were so open to all my notes and just figuring things out and, yeah, it was really easy to work on. It was, you know, it’s not always fun, but it was fun work because we’re all really trying to improve this creative entity.

Did the directing experience change for you at all, knowing you were making the project for Netflix?

No, I’ve been lucky enough in my whole career to make stuff where no one ever bothers me. You know, I made this show called ‘Wonder Showzen” that was successful in the comedy world, and so then basically this network Adult Swim that makes totally weird stuff, Lazzo their head goes “here’s a bag of money, and we’ll see you guys in six months”.

So I’ve had creative freedom for ten years, and I was like “it’s Judd Apatow, it’s Netflix “and I was like “Oh no”. I was very worried, but they were so supportive. I don’t know, whatever I did or whatever said, who knows, or if it was just timing, but such freedom – they would come onto set just as fans, not as, like, “watching”.

I always think that if the producers are watching the monitor, it’s not going well. But if they’re off talking to someone, then they watch for five minutes and they’re like “oh, good, it’s happening”, then I’m doing a good job, and that’s how it was. So I don’t know what it is, but, no – such creative freedom in a way that I was really happy about. That was one of my biggest worries.

And what was it like seeing this film, with the studio and an actual audience?

Yeah, I mean all those people were basically clapping for the production the entire credits. You know? They were hungry for the Pee-Wee movie. And it was really fun. It’s the first thing I’ve been able to show my children. All the other things I’ve made are too, um, destructive, and so that was very enjoyable. And they laughed at all of the things that I thought were funny, that I think is funny about Pee-Wee at the time. And I was like “oh good, my view of him is resonating”.

OK so last question: You talked about how you get the phone call and you’re like “OK, now I have to do the job”. What was the most intimidating thing when you were first looking at the script that you were like “OK, this is the one that’s a little scary” or the one that you’re like “I especially want to nail this”.

I think I was the dream sequences for me. That was probably the most daunting. Because dream sequences in cinema history – there are some great ones. And you have an opportunity, basically to just be cinematic, purely cinematic. There’s no story involved, you’re just trying to capture a moment. And so there was a lot of versions that I kept going through and getting rid of, until I just basically meditated on “what do I love?”, which is giant ice-cream cones, and I like slow-motion fireworks, and I was just like “oh right, that’s what it means”. Like, if you were going to your friend’s house, and if you walked in, and fireworks were in slow motion, and people are just jumping around like idiots, like “yeah! I’m going to start jumping around and eating ice-cream!”

So, to me, that was hard, but that took a long time, and literally Paul didn’t have faith in me, even while we were shooting. He was like “what the hell is this? What’s going on?”

And then we got the camera that shoots in super slow motion and did the first take, and it’s really technical nonsense, and we would watch play-back, and he watches it, and he’s like “oh, you’re right, I see it”. So yeah, to me, it was a long fight, but I won it.

It was brilliantly edited too, I liked that the voice never really quite matched. Just that little bit off.

Yeah, it’s purposefully a little bit not quite right, because you’re in another realm. And it also feels a little hand-made – not perfect.

And Joe is so good – so funny.

Yeah, and him in a Pee-Wee suit. That was a discussion at the end where he’s on the motorcycle – for him to be in a Pee-Wee suit, and Pee-Wee to be in a Joe suit. And we actually had it all figured out, but we went normal, because you gotta go straight at the end. It’s more about their friendship than they totally switch places.

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