Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pee-wee's Big Career

I'm at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference this week— (my employer) has a big presence at the event; we're the official Hiring Hub, we're showcasing a lot of our digital and mobile products, we're getting in front of influential bloggers, and we're covering news of interest to job seekers.

It's going to be a busy few days, and my schedule is packed. But of course when I saw that Paul Reubens was speaking, I made time for that in my schedule.

Paul Reubens (also—if not better—known as Pee-wee Herman) presented a funny, enlightening, and encouraging discussion of his long career.

One of the more encouraging elements was his discussion of writing the screenplay for his film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Reubens says that he dislikes writing and felt, then, that he didn't know how. So when it came time to write the screenplay, he read—and then followed the instructions in—a how-to-write-a-screenplay book. The result is (I believe) a timeless and very entertaining movie, and, Reubens says, the screenplay is now taught in some film-theory classes as a perfect example of a well-paced and classic sort of hero's-journey plot, with all the right elements in the right places.

Reubens says, "The film is 90 minutes long, and 90 pages. On page 30, the bike gets stolen—a classic MacGuffin—and on page 60, Pee-wee finds it again."

Here are that story's encouraging takeaways, for me: First, not knowing how to do something doesn't mean you can't learn how to do it (and then do it well). Reubens followed the rules and learned as he went. Second, you don't need to start from scratch when you create something. Putting your own spin on, or bringing your own viewpoint to, a well-tested formula can be a great place to start and can perhaps even help you spur your creativity.

I thought this was interesting, too: Reubens says he originally started by trying to write an unauthorized remake of the classic film Pollyanna—in part because he was obsessed with Hayley Mills, and in part because he loved the idea of Pee-wee in the Pollyanna role. And don't you love that idea? If you're not sure, view these clips and then answer the question.

Another good Hollywood tidbit from this era of his career: Reubens was introduced to the director of Pee-wee's Big Adventure by a mutual friend, the actress Shelley Duvall, whom I adore. Reubens says that after watching the first seconds of Burton's Frankenweenie, he just knew that Burton would be perfect. (Apparently, the movie studio had been trying to get him to go with another director, whose work Reubens didn't like. So here's another good lesson, and a piece of career advice I give all the time: A great network of contacts is indispensable!)

Reubens talked a bit about the iconic nature of the character he has created, and the difficulty of continuing to play the childlike Pee-wee (though Pee-wee's age remains a mystery) as he (Reubens) ages. He jokes, "You'll be seeing Pee-wee in a turtleneck real soon."

Reubens also touched on a notion that is appropriate to SXSWi, at which people are discussing all things related to social media—the difficulty of maintaining a work persona that is separate from your personal persona. For many years, Reubens was photographed and interviewed only as Pee-wee; it was an extended and complex piece of performance art (though Reubens is too modest to call it that).

That is, Reubens was photographed only as Pee-wee until, as he says, this one day. ... And because, perhaps, Reubens kept his true identity so private and appeared only to the world as Pee-wee, this photo seemed even more shocking, amplifying the resulting scandal (which was blown so out of proportion as to approach the level of farce). We live in a different era, and nowadays it's even harder to separate one's "work persona" from one's "private persona." It's a good caution: Your private life is likely to find its way into the public eye.

For the first movie role he took after this scandal (in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Reubens asked that his character look as much like his mugshot as possible. Now that's facing negative press head-on and turning it into a positive.

(Top photo: Pee-wee Herman at the Academy Awards in 1988; photographer, Alan Light [courtesy of Wikipedia Commons].)

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