SXSW Interview: Paul Rubens talks returning to his iconic character Pee-Wee Herman for Netflix’s Big Holiday

Pee-Wee Herman revival flick Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday hit Netflix last week. In honor of the occasion, we caught up with Paul Rubens to talk about returning to the character for the Netflix movie at this year’s SXSW.

Congratulations on the film

Did [you] see the film?

Twice actually, I watched it again this morning on Netflix.

Oh.. I haven’t watched it on Netflix yet, I am excited to do that.

Last night I saw it at the fan screening and that was what I was just going to tell you. Obviously seeing it with the audience last night, what were you most surprised that they laughed at or they were most happy to see? Because we see people clapping in my fan screening.

We all said this – John Lee and Paul Rust and I – after the first screening last night. We were saying it was just so gratifying to hear people laughing at all the places we hoped people would laugh in.

My biggest surprise was something that I feel too spoilery to bring up. But I thought there [was] stuff in the backyard scene with Joe where people laughed at the beginning, a couple of things happened at the beginning and then [they] missed a few things as they laughed over [that] couple of lines – one of which was one of my favourite lines in the movie – but you know you can have worse problems.

I guess that is a good problem to have then. What was it like working on this? You’ve worked with other writers, collaborators, what is it like working with Paul Rust for this one? 

Oh fantastic. I mean I love Paul Rust. He is like hilarious, he is young, he is a young person who has a huge film vocabulary and knows everything about movies and comedy and it was fantastic. We really enjoyed working with each other.

How is now balancing the adults that are now watching the film with you now knowing that you will be introducing this to the kids and making it to where it caters to two audiences at the same time? How is that balancing act?

We have always done that. [This] story has always been that thing. It’s fun, it’s not that much of a challenge really. I mean if you are leaving certain things out, if you are leaving sort-of, you know, dirty stuff or you know there are just a few things that I’m not that interested in anyway and so if you pull some of that stuff out then it appeals to everybody, or hopefully it did.

I know you are a big collector of things?

Used to be.

I wanted to know if anything on set were yours? Or did you get to keep any of the things from the movie?

Oh you are hitting a nerve.. [Laughs] I tried to get a few things from the movie and I haven’t gotten them yet. Otherwise you would have seen me out on that sidewalk riding that little red car. So yes, I don’t have anything yet but I have a list of things I’m trying to get and I don’t think there is any of my stuff in this movie. ‘Big Adventure’ has a lot of my stuff and Tim Burton. Tim and I both brought stuff in and put it up on the set. This time it didn’t happen like that.

You talk about Tim Burton and the time you made Big Adventure. He was a first time director and you sort-of did the same thing with John Lee. Is it something you like to do, to be able to work with somebody who is just sort of fresh and can bring something new?

There is something to be said for that, there is a big advantage to that. But we don’t seek that out or anything, I’m just not afraid of a first time director. You know I had enormous success with Tim Burton, somebody has to give you your first chance to do something you know! Somebody gave me that opportunity before and you know, its nice.

There are several actresses and actors on the set that we have never been in a movie before and that kind of thing is really infectious in a great way. The girl that plays Pepper, the ringleader of the bad girls, it was her first movie, her first big role in a movie and every time she was on the set she would be like “Oh my god I can’t believe this!”

Joe even was like that to some degree, it is just about us working together and you know some of that is really fun. And like you said a first time director brings like a kind of crazy naiveté to their work. They don’t really know what they are in for yet, but my gosh John Lee just rose to the occasion. I just can’t say enough great stuff about him. Really, truly a rockstar of a director.

I don’t know if I should give it away too much, but there is a certain cameo from somebody from Big Adventure who you get into car with. Can you talk about rekindling and getting back into a scene with someone from Big Adventure and doing it all over again? Did the two of you feel a little bit of nostalgia?

Well we have worked together in-between, and also in Batman Returns. We’re like husband and wife. [Laughs] I didn’t really want to cast somebody from Big Adventure. This is a little spoilery in that I like that people don’t know Joe plays himself in the movie. Like the plot is so lame and non-existent that I felt really good last night, actually, in the first screening when Joe says ‘I want you to come to my birthday’. It got like a really big laugh and I feel like that is a discovery laugh of what, ‘that’s what the plot of the whole movie is?’

That’s so lame you know, and you wait till a certain point before that even comes out and we were enormously successful till yesterday that people didn’t know that! The trailer doesn’t say New York and doesn’t say ‘my birthday party’.

I mean there is enough in there sort of piece it together, but not that information. It’s also incredibly clunky in the way the structure of the scene in the backyard, extremely long with a lot of  expository dialogue and halfway through that scene you find out that Joe is playing himself after you have already seen a full scene and half of another scene. It was awkward and clunky and there was a very simple way to fix that and change that to somebody as Joe enters the diner and going “oh my god you’re Joe Manganiello from True Blood!” That would have been very simple, but we didn’t want to do that. We chose to make it like weird, and odd.

I felt very strongly that it was confusing if Rosie O’Donald was the waitress, then like who is real and stuff. I tried really hard to cast the movie with people you have never seen before. Big Adventure is a strange movie in that many of the people in that adventure didn’t go on to do other work. So that guy who played Francis, he is in a lot of other movies but it is not huge movies. So a lot of people don’t know him except from that movie. The escaped convict [too], he’s done other movies but he is very recognizable from that movie. To see somebody recognized sort of pulls you out of the reality of the movie a little bit.

So I tried really hard not to cast her and she was just the best person in the world. Everybody was like “You’re crazy, cast her!” and you know I think some people don’t know its her. We added a line at the very end, ‘au revoir Pee-Wee’, so that if you didn’t know till the very end, then you might still know there. It was great. I kept in touch with all those people, so it wasn’t like I had to [say] “Find me Diane Salinger” again, you know, we still hang out. Another gratifying thing of my career is that I like to keep in touch with a lot of people and I feel like people are my friends. They might not feel like it but they are my friends. So it kind of a worked in reverse with Joe – we were friends first then we made this movie.

I love how the timelessness of the Pee Wee film kind of depends a lot on of ambiguity and I was talking to Alia about your big moment at the end of the film with her and how she sort of plays a pseudo love interest. Can you talk about how is your relationship with her and how that role kind of developed?

What do you mean? I didn’t meet her until the movie. [Laughs]

I mean her as a love interest in a Pee Wee film.

Well ,I’ve had a love interest in all three Pee-Wee films.

Were they all kissed like that too?

Oh I have the longest screen kiss in history in my second movie. Or it was at one time but I don’t know if it is still anymore. I’m sure it isn’t anymore. We had a really really long kiss in my middle movie, the circus movie and Big Adventure has the girl in the bike shop who a lot of people wrote in early reviews of that movie that Pee Wee didn’t sync very well with his girlfriend. [Laughs] But now, I don’t know it was just kind of an organic thing that happened. I can’t recall the gestation of how that came about but I really loved the moment in the movie later (this doesn’t answer your question) when almost at the end of the movie, Jessica, Pepper says “Pee Wee!” and we go “Yeah..” and then she says “Herman!”.

I just like that for no particular reason.

I’m curious about the setting – it’s a little 50’s-esque but also set in the modern time. Did you ever go through the movie and say no that is too modern, or lets .dial this back, put that put that prop in? how much control did you have there?

Absolutely, a lot. I am the producer of the movie also, so I get to work with the designer, hand in hand with the director, production designer and prop [manager] and all that stuff. We looked at everything and approved everything. John Lee had a lot of theory on the movie progressing from older times to modern times. Obviously we couldn’t control – not obviously cause we could do it digitally  -but we couldn’t really control New York so since we knew were ending in New York, he was just saying it just makes sense to sort of progress  across the country and kind of change the time a little bit.

This is very very subtle, but the cars are all 50’s cars in the opening then the cars get a little more modern and a little more modern and a little more modern and then once we were in New York, we were like whatever car drives by is okay, we controlled it up till then.

One other thing, this a dumb non sequitur but it turns out if you throw out a couple of 50’s cars anywhere, it changes like everything! We didn’t do hardly anything to that little town but park a bunch of 50’s cars there and it really made a huge difference.

There is a couple of other scripts in existence, but you’ve gone for Big Adventure follow-up, what made the decision to go down that road?

Judd. It was his big idea. Big, big idea. [He] talked about it for years.

Do you think the bow tie resurgence from Dr Hill had any impact on you?

I don’t even know about it. That is terrible. [Laughs]

Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is available on Netflix. The film also screened at SXSW. You can find more information here.