It's hard to believe that Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is already 35 years old. Certainly, it's weird to imagine Pee-Wee Herman getting older at all. This wacky, zany, family-friendly '80s comedy tells the story of an odd man-child, played by Paul Reubens (in his most iconic creation), who goes out on a cross-country quest to find his beloved bike once it inexplicably goes missing, and it's the sort of enjoyably bizarre character feature that's hard to explain but easy to enjoy.
Though expectations were mild upon its initial release, the film became a massive hit, resulting in Reubens' endearing character becoming a household name, while also launching the high-rising careers of first-time director Tim Burton and first-time composer Danny Elfman. Following this anniversary milestone, let's take a look back at the making of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and discover how it came to be. Here are some fun behind-the-scenes facts about the beloved comedy.
The Script Was Only 90 Pages Long
During the development phase of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, there were a number of ideas floating around for what the plot of the movie should be. There were talks of making it a a pseudo-adaptation of Pollyanna, for instance, before a custom bike given to Paul Reubens to ride around the Warner Bros. lot gave him a curious idea that was later developed into the movie known and loved today. Sure enough, for a film with as much simple charm as Big Adventure, it's perhaps not too surprising to know that the script itself wasn't especially long. According to Reubens, it was only 90 pages total, which makes sense since the movie itself is only 91 minutes. Nevertheless, the average Hollywood screenplay can often run between 100 to 114 pages. Therefore, this one is notably shorter, and not a single page was wasted.
Tim Burton Was Only 26 When He Directed Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
Every filmmaker needs to start somewhere. By now, Tim Burton is one of the most well-known directors working in Hollywood. Several of his movies, including Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and Ed Wood, to name a few, have become classics, and he's also behind several high-profile studio endeavors, including Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and, most recently, Dumbo. It's an astonishing career, and it all started with Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
While this feature directorial debut doesn't feature every Burton signature, it's unmistakably his movie. Therefore, it's very impressive to know that he was only 26 years old when he jumped behind the camera for this studio film. A Disney animator turned short film director, Burton was largely inexperienced. But Paul Reubens stuck up for him, resulting in their career-making movie. But he made it look as easy as riding a bike.
Phil Hartman Co-Wrote Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
The late Phil Hartman was an immense talent, and his legacy leaves a long shadow. In addition to his outstanding history on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, to name only a couple of his high-profile projects, he's also the the co-writer on Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. In addition to his writing credits, Hartman also makes a brief cameo near the end as an inquisitive reporter.
Paul Reubens And E.G. Daily Didn't Meet Until Filming
At its core, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is a love story between a man-child and his bike. It's a tale of an adolescent man trying to reunite with his favorite possession, and the hardships and outlandish occurrences that occur in the midst of this personal turmoil. But outside of this loose-fitting plot, there's also a burgeoning romance shared between Paul Reubens's Pee-Wee and E.G. Daily's Dottie, a bike shop employee who fancies a date with the store's well-dressed frequent customer.
Pee-Wee doesn't express interest in her desires, and even by the movie's end, he doesn't seem to show any strong romantic feelings for her. Yet, the stars themselves do share a casual, breezy chemistry together, which is why it's surprising to know that they didn't even meet until they were on-set. At least, that's what E.G. Daily said during an anniversary screening.
In 2014, Pee-Wee's Bike Sold On eBay For $36,600
Movie memorabilia holds a special place in the hearts of movie lovers anywhere, and it's certainly understandable why. When projected onto the silver screen, any ole' materialistic item becomes a part of movie history. A hat isn't simply a hat anymore. A dress isn't merely a dress. Similarly, Pee-Wee Herman's bike isn't simply a bike, though he would've proudly told you that anyway. It's an iconic piece of film history.
Sure enough, when one of the bikes that brought this piece of movie magic to life went on sale, it sold for a substantial price. Specifically, in 2014, when one of the bikes seen in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure found its way on eBay, it was auctioned for a whopping $36,000. That's a hefty price! But like I said, it wasn't simply a bike anymore. It was now a piece of movie history.
Tim Burton Makes An Unrecognizable Cameo
It's not uncommon for directors to make cameos in their own movies. Alfred Hitchcock is easily the most famous example/trendsetter, though several filmmakers have opted to hop in front of the camera for their movies. They're not always successful, but they're usually fun — if you're in-the-know. Director Tim Burton made a cameo in his first film, though you're forgiven if you don't remember or recognize it.
The first-time moviemaker jumps on-screen near the end of the first act as a thug who lurches at our title character in a dark alleyway and grunts, "Hey, man, you're new to this turf." This appearance amounts to less than 30 seconds of screen-time, and he's so cloaked in shadow, it's hard to know it's him. But that's Tim. Outside of his appearance, Burton also made a cameo in Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children.
Large Marge's Hair Was Modeled After Don King, According to Paul Reubens
To celebrate the movie's 35th anniversary, Paul Reubens stopped by Jimmy Kimmel Live! to promote a series of anniversary screenings for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, promising to reveal some never-before-heard behind-the-scenes facts about the making of this iconic film. When the talk show host pried for more intel, Reubens was hesitant to divulge any info, but he did let one factoid slip. In this televised interview, Reubens claimed that Large Marge's hairstyle was modeled after Don King, the famous boxing promoter.
Certainly, the truck driver character, played by the late Alice Nunn, and the controversial sports figure do share a similar 'do, though it's hard to tell if Reubens is sincere or if he's just joking. Either one seems plausible, especially for a jokester like Reubens. Nevertheless, if accepted at face value, it's an interesting inspiration.
Pee-Wee's Playhouse Was The Result of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Not The Other Way Around
It's a common misconception that Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is the big-screen follow-up to Pee-Wee's Playhouse. In fact, it's the other way around. When Paul Reubens was putting together this comedy classic, his character was known merely for his stage performances. He was a character at The Groundlings and, later, the subject of his own stage show.
Warner Bros. took a chance when it came to making a movie centered around this oddball creation, and while they weren't sure what to make of it, it proved to be a triumphant and unlikely success. Therefore, there were folks wondering how Reubens would follow it up. The idea was proposed to make a cartoon show based on the character, but since Pee-Wee is already such an animated personality, they opted to go live-action instead. Thus, we got Pee-Wee's Playhouse.
Danny Elfman Was Initially Apprehensive To Work With Tim Burton... If You Can Believe It
Over the past 30-plus years, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman have shared a fruitful working history together. The filmmaker and the musician-turned-composer have collaborated on 16 different productions, including (but not limited to) Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman (for which he won a Grammy), Big Fish (for which he was Oscar-nominated), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, which Burton produced but didn't direct.
This long-standing partnership began all the way back with Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, when the director attended the musician's concerts with his band, Oingo Boingo, and felt he was right for the job. But surprisingly enough, Elfman hesitated. As he noted in a Rolling Stone interview, he carried no former musical training, so he wasn't sure if he could do it. Nevertheless, it worked out splendidly. As Elfman said, he was aware of the Pee-Wee character, but didn't know who Tim Burton was:
The Animators Behind Large Marge's Haunting Shot Also Worked On Killer Klowns From Outer Space, Elf, Team America: World Police, and More
Undoubtedly among the movie's most memorable moments, the shot of a demented Large Marge bulging out her eyes and scaring the bejesus out of hitchhiker Pee-Wee Herman cemented itself in the minds of children and adults everywhere. It's a beguilingly terrifying image in an otherwise kooky but good-natured road trip comedy, and it showcases a spooky sense of style that was signature to Tim Burton's brand in the years to follow, particularly (and especially) with his follow-up, Beetlejuice. If there's only one shot you remember from this movie, it's this one. And you can thank/hate The Chiodo Brothers for it. They worked on several films/shows throughout the '80s, '90s, and early '00s, including (but not limited to) Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Elf, Team America: World Police, and several episodes of The Simpsons.
Tim Burton Had Ambitions To Shoot At The Dinosaur Location Even Before He Was A Working Filmmaker
Have you ever seen a distinctly unique place and thought to yourself, "This would make a great location for a movie someday!" If so, you're not alone. Filmmakers are always imagining what something might look like on the silver screen, and Tim Burton is certainly no exception. The director wasn't a filmmaker yet when he visited the Dinosaur location that plays prominently in the middle of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but he knew that he was gonna put it in a movie someday. Sure enough, Burton found a way to sneak it into his first film, and it's now a vivid cinematic backdrop for one of the movie's most intriguing sequences. It's a credit to Burton's young creative eye that he thought about the big picture this early-on, but he's a born filmmaker.
Do you love Pee-Wee's Big Adventure? Can you believe that the movie is already 35 years old? Let us know in the comments!
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.
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