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  In the Playhouse with Paul Reubens
By Jeffrey Wachs

  Since the mid-1970s, Paul Reubens has led a double life. Though Reubens has amassed a healthy list of career credits under his own name after originally rising to prominence with the Los Angeles-based comedy troupe the Groundlings, it was as one of his characters that Reubens solidified his fame: Pee-wee Herman.

Throughout the 1980s, Pee-wee Herman was an irrepressible fixture of pop culture, with talk show appearances and a stage show (he sold out Carnegie Hall in 1984) giving way to movies, and ultimately his own Saturday morning television series on CBS, which ran for five years. The career of Pee-wee was cut short in 1991, when a now-infamous incident at an adult movie house in Florida sullied Reubens' reputation as a kids' show host, and the performer more or less vanished from the public eye.

Though Reubens has appeared on-screen in non-Pee-wee roles over the past several years, including turns in the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mystery Men, he stays out of the media spotlight, and rarely grants interviews. In celebration of the triumphant release of Pee-wee's Big Adventure on DVD, the Once-and-Future-Pee-wee granted Reel an exclusive interview, sharing his insights into his beloved character's past career, and his imminent return to the Playhouse.

Q: The original Pee-wee show was definitely not for kids — what made you decide to take a more kid-friendly path with the character?

Paul Reubens: I would not characterize the original Pee-wee show as "definitely not for kids." It turned out to be both for adults and kids. Initially it was more for adults, since we knew it was going to be played on-stage late at night when kids really wouldn't be in the audience. Everything in that original stage show was similar to what was done on the real kids' show on CBS — if kids didn't understand something, it would just go over their heads. So actually, while the original stage version was something aimed a little bit more toward adults, kids could certainly watch it.

Q: Did you intend Pee-wee's Big Adventure to be a family or kids' film? What are some challenges you encountered in taking the character from a night club act to the movies and, later, TV?

PR: I planned Pee-wee's Big Adventure to be an anybody film. We were trying to write a script that would appeal to all ages, kids and families. I took things out that were dubious in terms of what kids really, really shouldn't see.

There weren't really many challenges I can think of in taking the character from the night club act to the movies. I didn't really have a night club act. I had done a series of appearances over a two year period on the David Letterman Show about every two or three months. I basically took a lot of the material I developed there and some of the stuff I did with the Groundlings, and put it all together into an act that I took to a comedy club in Minneapolis, then to Caroline's Night Club for two one-week engagements, and then on a 22-city tour. That's really the extent of my night club experience.

Q: Phil Hartman was a frequent creative collaborator of yours, co-writing the movie and appearing on Pee-wee's Playhouse. Can you discuss how that partnership came to be (in the Groundlings, I assume) and how it went as your character became more recognizable?

PR: Phil and I were in the Groundlings together along with just about everybody else who was in the original stage version of the Pee-wee show. Phil and I were very close friends and we loved working together on different things apart from Pee-wee. I asked him if he'd write the movie with me.

  Q: According to your DVD commentary, it was Shelley Duvall who recommended Tim Burton to be the director. For those of us who haven't yet seen the DVD, can you relate how your working relationship came into place?

PR: I didn't actually say that on the DVD. What happened was someone I was talking to at a party who had seen Tim's short film Frankenweenie mentioned that its director seemed to be right up my alley. She suggested I call Shelley Duvall, who was in the movie, about her experience with Tim. Which I did and, of course, she raved about him. So I screened Frankenweenie the next day and I knew in about the first minute and a half that Tim was the guy.

Prior to that, I had turned the script in to Warner Bros. and then gone on a vacation. Just before I left, I made a list from the Directors Book. I probably had between 150 and 200 names on that list — people whose work I knew, or people who just sounded right from their credits.

When I came back from vacation, Warner had approved a director who wasn't even on that list and said if I agreed, the project was green-lit to go. But it was someone who I just didn't feel was appropriate. I'd seen two or three of his movies, and while they weren't bad movies, I just didn't think he was the right one to direct my movie. I remember meeting with my two managers at the time and saying, "This guy is not the right one. I want to do something different with this movie."

And they said, "You've got a green-lit picture if you approve this guy." And I said, "Well, I don't think you understand. It took me more than 10 years and a lot of hours of writing to get to this point, and I know this isn't the right guy." The studio wound up giving me a week's extension to find someone that, in their words, was "approvable, affordable and available."

And — I think this is all on the DVD commentary — then I went to this party. I asked everyone there for names of new young directors. That's when Tim was mentioned, and then my call to Shelley …

The Frankenweenie screening was the very next morning and I sent Tim a script that day, and a day or two later he agreed to do it and that was that. There are quite a few versions of that story but this is the one that really happened.

Q: How did that work out in terms of actually making the movie? Can you describe the dynamic on the set? Did the fact that you had created this character give you the right to direct yourself in some regard?

PR: Of course, it worked out amazingly well. Tim and I were really like brothers. I knew the first time I met him that I would be completely comfortable with him, and I think he felt the same way. We'd communicate in shorthand because we'd had a lot of the same experiences. We also had a lot of the same concerns and obsessions with things like art direction and style.

I had created the character and written the script, so I knew a lot about it. Tim was very open to any of my opinions, suggestions, and ideas, but Tim was the one who directed the movie and directed me in the movie. We did a small rewrite with Tim on the chase sequence, mainly to keep expenses down. So he had some input into that, and we were open to anything else he wanted to do with the script.

As far as my input, for all intents and purposes, while I wasn't credited with producing Pee-wee's Big Adventure, I certainly think I did. I chose Tim Burton; it was my decision to hire Danny Elfman, and I also had a lot to do with production design and those kinds of things with Tim. But it's Tim's film in terms of the direction.

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