Posted on Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Director John Lee seems, at first, to be an odd fit for a Pee-wee Herman movie. With writing and directing credits that include Wonder Showzen, Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, and The Heart, She Holler, Lee seems to exist in a darker, more pointed universe than the colorful, silly world of Paul Reubens‘ iconic character. But as I learned when I sat down to interview him the day after the SXSW premiere of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, his experience operating on the darker side of comedy had left him hungry and well-equipped for something sunny and silly.
Our sprawling conversation begins with a discussion of our favorite sounds, touches on the magic of Joe Manganiello, and explores what it’s like to work with Judd Apatow and Netflix.
John Lee was digging into a bag of chips as I entered the room. It had obviously been a very long day. He was instantly apologetic for choosing to eat a snack during our interview.
I’ll only eat chips when you’re asking a question.
Eat as much as you want!
[Lee leans in close to my recorder and chews as loudly as possible.]
Do you know what’s really good?
What’s really good?
When someone else takes a bit of something. To listen to them eat a carrot. It sounds so much better than when you eat a carrot.
It’s an amazing sound.
It’s an amazing sound! What are your favorite sounds?
I like submarine sonar pings. That’s probably my number one.
Oooh. That’s pretty good. I have, in the movie, one of my favorite sounds. The sound of a freshly poured Coke.
[Lee does his best fizzing soda impression.]
It just makes you relax. And the sound of a coin spinning on a wooden table.
Those are good sounds.
They’re good sounds.
The movie is full of details like that. Little pleasures in every frame. How carefully thought out were all of those?
Oh, one hundred percent. One of my first jobs was in post-production sound and I’m really into sound. The sound guys were amazing. For the fireworks sound, I’d ask if we could get the sound of a freshly poured Coke. You can do that with sound. You can have a totally different sound. Because–
[Lee does his soda impression again]
–sounds very similar to–
[Lee does a fireworks impression].
I just wanted that feeling. When you hear that sound, you relax and you feel kind of chill. That’s the great thing about sound. You can put in the oddest things. I made this show, Xavier: Renegade Angel. Who knows it? A few people do. There was a sound of a guy shooting himself and we put in a strike from bowling. It worked so well because the perfect, crisp sound of that strike is so much better than a gunshot.
Since you brought up your early work, I might as well touch on something right now.
[Lee once again leans in close to my recorder and chews as loudly as possible.]
I was first aware of you from Wonder Showzen, which is the meanest show ever made.
It might be, yeah. I’ve been called a monster because of it. And people, meeting for the first time, have gone “Oh, so you’re not a monster?” And you’re not civilized, are you? We’re just regular people.
And now here’s my hacky segue. You started out making all of these dark, underground comedy shows, but there’s not a mean bone in Pee-wee Herman or his comedy. How do you make that transition?
A few people have hinted to me, who are fans of me specifically, the two hundred people that might be, that I’m, quote unquote, selling out. To me, I see the relationship very clearly. I don’t like eating at the same restaurant every time, so why would I want to make the same thing every time? All of the things that we’ve made, Vernon Chatman, Alyson Levy, and I, each project has been very different, even when they have a similar tone. I just really like Pee-wee Herman and it seemed like a great opportunity. So I’m fine being sweet all the time. I’m not always a monster. Even monsters don’t want to be called monsters.
At the premiere last night, Judd Apatow introduced you by saying that you stood out after a whole bunch of meetings with other directors. How did you show them that that you were the right kind of monster for Pee-wee Herman?
That’s a good way to put it! I basically went it and talked about the script and jokes. I didn’t talk about the visual work that much. I didn’t do what a lot of directors do and “paint the picture,” which I think is really so boring. I just basically…I’m a writer too, so I said here’s my issues with the script and here’s the way I think the script should be pushed. So I pitched a bunch of different joke ideas and Paul [Reubens] asked if these jokes were set in stone and I said of course not. I’m here to make your movie great. But this is where I would push it. I don’t think this part of the script works. I think we can eliminate this whole line and focus on this one issue. It worked. It was clearly what Judd and Paul and Paul [Rust] were feeling.
Sometimes you need that other person to come into a project and say “Remove that chair” and they do and the room looks amazing! They’ve been in the room the whole time and you’re like “Why don’t you just put the TV over there?” Sometimes, you need that and I think I was the right voice and the right jokester, the right prankster, to fit into both of those worlds. Because Pee-wee’s world and Judd’s world are opposite in many ways and I would be the opposite of both of them in many ways. You can see the connections.