Posted on Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016 by Jacob Hall
For any comedy writer of a certain age, working on a new Pee-wee Herman movie is a dream come true. And you can clearly see just how giddy Paul Rust is to have written Pee-wee’s Big Holiday alongside Paul Reubens. Rust, an actor and writer whose credits include everything from Arrested Development and Comedy Bang! Bang!, didn’t even try to mask his enthusiasm when I sat down with him the day after the film’s world premiere at SXSW. He was a kid in a candy shop.
During the course of our interview, we discussed old school Pee-wee fandom, his new Netflix series Love, and how writing a Pee-wee adventure is so very different than writing for most comedies.
When I entered the room, Rust claimed to be a /Film reader and I thought he was just being polite until he showed me the most visited sites on his phone. With my heart thoroughly warmed, he got things started by asking me about my SXSW experience.
Have you been having a good SXSW?
It’s been fantastic. This is my sixth year covering it. Have you been here before?
I’ve been to Austin before, but never SXSW.
Have you had the chance to have fun? See any movies?
I got in yesterday and I leave tomorrow. I wish there was more time. There’s so much great stuff to see. I wanted to see the new Richard Linklater movie. Did you see it?
I did. It’s so good.
Oh, damn it! I’m so jealous that I haven’t had the chance to see it yet.
At the premiere of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday last night, [producer] Judd Apatow said that when a new Pee-wee Herman project fell into his lap, brought it straight to you. How did he know you were the guy? How’d that happen?
I think he just knew that I was a tremendous Pee-wee Herman fan for starters. But I was working on a movie called Cheese Pizza that I was co-writing with Charlyne Yi and it was a very “hard PG” movie. So I think he knew that, tonally, it would be a good fit. He thought of me, which I am forever indebted to him for.
So you’re an old school Pee-wee fan.
Yeah. I grew up loving Pee-wee Herman. I was obsessed. I was the kid at school who everyone knew was obsessed with Pee-Wee. I would wear the merch. My mom even mailed me the red bow tie she made for me when I was a kid. I taped Pee-wee’s Big Adventure during a free weekend of HBO. My family didn’t have HBO, but they would have these free weekends to try to get you to subscribe to it. They would run phone numbers at the bottom of the screen. So the version of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that I grew up with was one where phone numbers were constantly running at the bottom of the screen. I doubt that’s Tim Burton and Paul Reubens’ vision of the movie. They’d probably hate to know that, but that’s how I saw it.
Paul Reubens has been playing Pee-wee for so long and he has a fully realized view on how this character behaves. What was it like to work with someone on a character they know so well?
It ended up being a tremendous benefit. In other reboots or re-imaginings, the original creators aren’t always involved. The big benefit was that the original genius and the brains behind this was Paul Reubens and he’s the one making it. It wasn’t like I was sitting in a room all by myself wondering “Is this right? Would Pee-wee do this?” I had the man behind Pee-wee right there. It was really tremendous getting to have him [there]. He was the captain of the ship. I just followed his lead and his instincts and tried my best to execute the vision he was going for.
Was there a point where you pitched a joke and he said Pee-wee wouldn’t do that? How did you collaborate?
When we first started out, I was pitching stuff like one-liners. What I quickly learned… When you watch Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Big Top Pee-wee, you realize that, a lot of the time, it’s just Pee-wee making a sound. So we just started writing dialogue that would be like “Haha!” or “excited squeal.” If you try to write a classic sort of one-liner, it sometimes doesn’t work for the character. That was one thing that we figured out together.
So much of the movie feels tightly scripted. Set-pieces are built on one thing leading to another and another. How much of that was fully formed on the page?
The toughest thing to write was that opening Rube Goldberg sequence. A lot of the time, a comedy script is just dialogue and that’s the main thing you have to worry about. When we were writing that Rube Goldberg sequence, I was like man, I now understand how hard it must be to write an action movie or a thriller where very little is said and it’s all about describing action. It was so tough. I’m never going to write one of those movies! Me and my comedy writer friends talk a lot about how we love Die Hard, but we’ll never be able to write Die Hard. It’s another part of somebody’s brain. So that was difficult to write. But other than that, it was all about having Paul right there to shepherd the process.