That too-small suit. That candy-wrapper bow tie. That nasal bray. It can mean only one thing: Pee-wee Herman is back.
His creator, Paul Reubens, along with producer Judd Apatow and Netflix, announced in February a deal to make and distribute an entirely new film about the lovable man-boy. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday will be the character’s first feature film in more than two and a half decades. (More recently, the outfit was brushed off for the 2010 Broadway revival of the character’s original stage show.) We talked with Reubens, now 62, about his return and the plans for the movie. Excited? I know you are, but what am I?
EW: When was this movie first conceived?
PAUL REUBENS: We’ve been writing it for five years almost, on and off. It was just announced, but the offer from Netflix came a year ago. It took a really long time to get from there to where we are now. I went on Jimmy Fallon before Halloween—the announcement was going to be made on his show—and at the last minute they weren’t ready. I just thought people had stopped believing me when I told them it was happening. Now people are like, “Oh my god, you weren’t a liar!”
What can you tell me about Big Holiday?
It’s a road-trip movie across the country. It’s very similar in style and tone to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. But it’s not about a bicycle. I never really thought of Big Adventure as a family movie, but I didn’t try to make an adult movie or a kid movie. We wanted to make something that appealed to a wide age range, and I think that’s the case with this movie also.
You’ve hired John Lee, the man behind very odd, subversive shows like Wonder Showzen and The Heart, She Holler, as your director.
I love John Lee. I didn’t know him at the time but I certainly knew Wonder Showzen and his work. It’s super-exciting working with him. He totally gets it. Anyone who knows who John is and who is a fan of mine is going to be really excited he’s the director. Because—I hate to say this and I don’t know how to say this the right way—he’s arty. He’s in the art world. That’s why I hired Tim Burton to direct Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Not to be too pretentious. We don’t think we’re making an art film, but you know what I mean.
Sure. I mean, you had Gary Panter doing the sets on Playhouse. Speaking of which, will stuff be coming out of storage for the movie or is everything going to be made anew?
It’s all new. And we’re shooting in locations all over, in a 60-mile radius of L.A. We start [this month]. They’re putting the finishing touches on my suit—my new suit—and I’m getting new Pee-wee shoes made. The bow ties aren’t done yet, though, and the clock is ticking.
Are there any folks we might recognize from Pee-wee’s past?
I think there may be an actor returning, someone who’s familiar, but not as the same character. None of the characters are recurring ones.
This August marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Will it be strange to put the suit on so many years later?
I don’t think it’s real different. But it can’t be the same because nothing’s the same. I’m older—physically, mentally. But I want to rise to the occasion. I don’t want it to be a movie where people go and say, “Wow, should he have made this movie?” I haven’t put the suit on other than for costume fittings, but that’s been the amazing thing about Pee-wee Herman over all the years, even right from the get-go when I first did it: It’s just something that’s inside me somewhere, and I’ve always been able to switch it on and switch it off. So it feels the same way to me in that respect. I put that suit on, I make a certain face and get in a certain mind frame, and there he is.
I imagine you’ve had a lot of people who grew up on your work, saying “I’m weird because of you.” What has been Pee-wee’s legacy for you?
It’s been really really gratifying and exciting, and it’s kept me going. The kid’s show went back on the air on Netflix right before Christmas. I did not realize the show being on Netflix would be like being back on television. Every day I get hundreds of notes from people on Facebook and Twitter, all over the place, “My 3-year-old, my 4-year-old…” and that’s super exciting to think that kids are going to see it now who didn’t know about it before.