'Pee-Wee's Big Holiday' Director John Lee On Being The Right Kind Of Monster [SXSW Interview]

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.

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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.

Go ahead.

[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.

pee-wee's big holiday john lee interview

It's interesting you bring up these changes. One of the things I like about this movie is that it feels fresh and new instead of just relying on pure nostalgia. It's not a retread.

Nostalgia is just inherent to the thing. So what I tried to invoke...I tried to make this movie more emotional than the other movies. It's in the script, but we really pushed that in production. That's what the other movies don't have. That's what the kids' show doesn't have, because it's a kids' show. I wanted to evoke the feeling of nostalgia without it being nostalgic. I wanted you to get back to that innocent feeling and remember, oh right, this is why we love Pee-wee Herman. Because he's this perfectly sweet, loving, little devil. He just gets to be a child and act nasty but funny. It's not mean. You're one hundred percent right that there's nothing mean about it, but there is something a little anarchic about it. It's just a level of how much anarchy can you push.

I'm happy you said that, because I didn't want this to be a throwback because I think so many people will compare it to a throwback and I specifically didn't want to do a few things that his movies have done before and he's done before. Just so it won't be "Oh, it's the one we love and used to love and isn't that fun. You know, it makes me want to go watch the other ones." If I did that...then why did we even make this movie? You want [people] to go like "Oh, this one has a different feel! I want to watch that Pee-wee Herman and not the other Pee-wee Herman." They all have different reasons and purposes. That's a subtle distinction, but it seems like people and fans are picking up on it. People who know the different levels of Pee-wee are understanding it.

Did you steadfastly avoid the previous movies and the show? Did you specifically choose certain elements to not use?

I avoided claymation, for example, which I'm sure fans are going to be upset about. They so much relate that with Pee-wee, but it's also such a Tim Burton thing. I've done a lot of animation work, but I didn't want to do that because that would be too much of a throwback to another time. I didn't want to have Let's Share talk or the phone talk, because that's for the kids' show and you have to do that when you're making a kids' show. There were definitely decisions to step out of the big, giant spotlight of Pee-wee's Big Adventure because that's a giant, iconic movie and Tim Burton is a giant, iconic filmmaker. I can only scooch to the side to avoid that big shadow.

I expected Paul Reubens to be funny and he was, but the real surprise for me was Joe Manganiello. He's such a good sport. He's so funny. What was it like to get him involved?

Joe's willingness to be emotional and to be a nine-year old boy...so many people wouldn't do that. So many macho people wouldn't make that decision. They'd play all of those things for comedy and it wouldn't be funny. He played it from drama and that's what makes it funny. Because he's actually so upset that this guy didn't come to his birthday party and he's mad at himself...It's all in the writing for sure, but he makes the writing just sing the right amount. For him, it was so easy. He's such an uber-Pee-wee fan. He's a deep, deep Pee-wee fan. I think Pee-wee might have saved his life at one point. It's quite clearly special [to him]. He just does this stuff where he acts like a nine-year old boy his bedroom, sulking and eating a bag of chips.

I'm going to steal a quote from a friend of mine because it's too good. Jenni Miller tweeted that, between this and Magic Mike XXL, he's becoming the "big-hearted antidote to toxic masculinity."

Yeah! For sure. Which is great. Screw that!

The movie is so positive. Even when characters are threatening Pee-wee, it's the right kind of goofy and silly and innocent. Do you actively set out to make a movie for kids and adults? How do you find that right balance?

The joke is that we made a "hard PG" movie. I think we should coin that phrase. That is the balance. It's the first think I've made that I've been able to show my children, because I've made stuff that you shouldn't show children. That's the real balance. I think there's so many kids' things that are just so watered down, where you think why not make the bad guy an actual bad guy? Why not make that scene kind of racy because that's fine. The movies we grew up with are pretty edgy. There are some pretty strange things in the movies we grew up with. You don't get it as a kid and you get it when you're older. I don't think we need to neuter the world for children. I think you just want to make sure it's funny and interesting. If they know the story or the drama, they get it. Do they know what strippers are? No. That's probably the only thing the children don't know, but they get "Oh, those were costumes!" And that's fine. Did I get that Rizzo had a miscarriage? No, but I got that something stopped in Grease and they could get back together.

I think that was all a level of tone. Paul, Pee-wee, gets away with so much great cheesy classic-ness and he gets away with it because it's also a celebration of how dumb that is. You get both. The one thing I remember thinking would be funny was when Yul [the alien in the opening scene] ascends into space and he tilts down really dumbly and really clumsily. I said right there, you just lift the wire until he's flat. And people where like "Really? We can go smooth!" And I'm like no, no, no, no, it's got to be dumb. People were suspect of that until you see it in the cut. You can get away with that really homemade filmmaking and it gets a laugh because it's so dumb, but it's also gleefully dumb. You get a laugh that's only a beneficial laugh. It's not snarky, it's not making fun of something, it's just preparing you for "Oh, this movie's that! This movie is about fun and stupidity and it's innocent without being evil."

pee-wee's big holiday john lee interview

I'm curious about Judd Apatow as a producer. His shooting style is very much about putting the camera in the right place and letting actors be funny, while this is very composed and feels very planned. What was it like working with him on a project that was very unlike his normal kind of movie?

That was one of my first questions in that meeting. I didn't ask it overtly, but I basically suggested that question and he basically said "I couldn't make this movie. I don't know how to make a Pee-wee Herman movie. And you clearly do." He knew, we all knew, that Paul knows this character better than anyone else in the world. Literally, our job is to make his movie better. [Apatow] was so hands off. He gave me some tips and advice on giving lines to actors, but he was basically hands off. His contribution is one hundred percent in the script. He worked on the script a lot and worked on honing it in and making sure it resonated with the audience in a larger way, which is what I think is the success of this movie compared to the other movies, what makes it different. At the end, you're sad, but out of joy. There's something very sweet and optimistic about it and that's very much Judd's influence. As producer, he's just like "Go make this movie, you seem to know what you're doing." And he would check in and help out and talk to people when we needed help. It was really easygoing.

Here's my one slightly hardball question, if you're ready for it.

Who am I going to vote for?

Who would Pee-wee Herman vote for?

Where do I stand?

Since Netflix owns this movie, the audience is unlimited. But seeing it last night in a 1,200-seat theater was a magical experience.

Yes. It was magical.

Are you even slightly upset that most people won't get the chance to see this in theaters?

I don't have any pressure of box office. I'm not spending these next few days freaking out to find out how much money it earned. No, not at all. I've done TV so much that it doesn't seem that different to me. The thrill was...last night was wonderful. People had a great time, laughing at all the right moments, laughing over other jokes, which I always think is a great sign... No, the great thing about Netflix is that they're super-supportive. They came on set as fans, not as business people, and they would say "I just wanted to see this scene." It was really great. I think it's kind of changing cinema. On-demand and Netflix are making smaller movies like this, which are very selective or not intended to be universal, although I think this movie is universal...it's giving them a life. Which is great. There's nothing wrong with that for me. I only have good things to say about Netflix.

Do you have a favorite joke in the movie? One gag that you're most proud of?

I have a couple. One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Pee-wee walks away from the wedding and he just walks backwards. I fought for that to stay in there for so long. Because no one else would walk out of that situation like the way he's walking out of it. Everyone else would run or do something like that. But the way he just stares and just slowly walks out is, to me, emblematic of Pee-wee and why he exists. It's so weird and strange. And, of course, the gigantic, long balloon sequence is hard to deny. It's like a tenth of the movie It's like two minutes long in a ninety minute movie. It's not a tenth, but it's a large chunk of the movie and it's just one shot of a many blowing up a balloon and letting the air out and that's its own little set piece.

What's next for you?

I'm telling everyone that I'm doing the Morrissey biopic. Because I want that to come true. I want to be directing the Morrissey movie. I want it to be in print so he can be like "No one's making–! Who's this guy making my movie?!" That's my goal in life.

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Pee-wee's Big Holiday is streaming on Netflix right now.