'Pee-Wee's Big Holiday' Writer Paul Rust On How You Write A Pee-Wee Herman Movie [SXSW Interview]

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.

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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.

pee-wee's big holiday paul rust interview

Was it always Joe Manganiello in that co-starring role?

We had Joe in mind for a really long time because Paul and Joe were friends. We also knew that Joe was a huge fan of Pee-wee. It's one of those things where, in addition to this guy being really cool and handsome, he's also funny and a Pee-wee fan. How dare he! We were so grateful that Joe was involved in the movie because when I first started watching him act in those scenes, in the dailies, I realized he was doing it sincerely and playing it sweetly. In another actor's hands, I think they would have thought "I'm in the Pee-wee world, so I have to play this madcap or over-the-top." The fact that he played it so sincerely really shifted the whole tone of the movie in a direction I'm glad it went in. I couldn't say nicer things about Joe Manganiello and his performance in the movie.

Did you have a "holy shit" moment? Either while writing it or on set, where you said, "Oh my God, this is happening!"

There was a day when we were shooting and Eddie Vedder and his kids, who are big Pee-wee fans, came to the set and met Pee-wee Herman. It was like having my childhood and my teenage years congeal in moment. It was fantastic.

One of the things I talked to [director John Lee] about was how the film doesn't run on nostalgia alone. How important was that to you and Paul? Making something that was very much its own thing and not just a trip down memory lane.

That's nice of you to say. We definitely wanted to make sure we weren't just coasting on "Oh, I remember that" or "That's a joke I've heard before." If we did do a reference... If somebody says "Take a picture, it'll last longer," it wouldn't be Pee-wee. It would be somebody saying it to Pee-wee. We could still have it in there, but in a different way. If we were going to do references, being a die hard Pee-wee fan, we would do something for people who would really appreciate it. There are few things in there. One of them that I like is a movie theater with a marquee that says Cartoon Festival. In Pee-wee's Big Adventure, there's a theater in the background with a marquee that says Cartoon Cavalcade. I always thought it was so funny that in the Pee-wee world, there's a movie theater that just shows cartoons, like some alternate reality. Stuff like that. Little references that I appreciate and if you're a big fan, you'll enjoy it.

I started watching Love before SXSW and I'm really enjoying it.

Oh, thank you!

The difference between the style of that show and Pee-wee is just huge. What is it like to work in such hugely different styles of comedy?

It's interesting. Writing on Love is so steeped in self-analysis. The writer's room can feel like therapy. I'm mining over and over the difficulties of my life and understand them. It was actually great because I was working on both at the same time. Whenever I couldn't analyze myself and my life anymore, I got to go into Pee-wee land, which is nothing but joy. It was fun. Both are great. You can compare it to getting in a hot tub before you jump into the pool. They're different feelings.

What's your favorite joke in the movie? Which gag makes you the most proud?

I like when the girls evade the cops by hiding behind a billboard on the side of the road. I've seen that in so many cartoons growing up. I remember a ride at Disney World, one of those rides where you're on a track, and there was a joke about somebody evading police by hiding behind a billboard. When I saw that in the movie, I got so excited. I was like "Finally! I get to do the hiding behind the billboard gag!"