“Everyone has a big but. Simone, let’s talk about your big but…You can’t just wish for something to come true—you have to make it happen.”
Pee Wee Herman
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
“The reason why most [comedy screenplays] don’t work is they’re not about anything.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)
The screwball comedy (living cartoon?) Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is a guilty pleasure for many. I just recently saw the Tim Burton directed film for the first time and think I know why it has such a strong following even though it was released back in 1985. It not only addresses everyone’s “big but”—which I’ll look at in a minute— but it’s a simple story well told.
1) The opening scene begins with Pee Wee doing what he loves to do best—ride his bike.
2) In the first 10 minutes we are introduced to the quirky hero and his colorful world.
3) In the set-up we understand that Pee Wee’s bike is special to him and he wouldn’t sell it for any amount of money.
4) At the 19 minute mark he learns of his stolen bike. A clear inciting incident.
5) Pee Wee’s goal is simple “To find my bike.”
6) He begins a quest to get back what was taken. (Just like John Wayne in The Searchers and Liam Neeson in Taken. Active hero=Thumbs up.)
7) Along his journey he meets many bizarre characters, including Large Marge—an 18-wheeler truck driving ghost.
8) There are as many roadblocks as there are set-pieces (Western, Biker, James Bond, Godzilla, Beach, etc.).
9) It has a clear ending and Pee Wee returns from his journey a better man.
When the answer to “What’s at stake?” is just a stolen bike, they get by with it because; A) It’s a comedy, and B) Pee Wee really loves his bike. And to show his emotional attachment to his bike they have several dream/nightmare sequences that actually gets mentioned in one book.
“Anxiety is a particularly frequent subject of dreams, both in real life and in films. The anxiety dream sequence is typically portrayed as a state of paranoia, in which everyone and everything is menacing and destructive, and the dreamer is confronted by his deepest fear. In Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee Wee is plagued by terrible nightmares in which his bicycle is destroyed. The dreams cue the audience in to the emotional intensity behind Pee Wee’s anxiety over his beloved bike. “
Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick
For Pee Wee to lose his bike for good would be a sort of death.
But where the screenwriters Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, and Michael Varhol really nailed it is in theme. Three different places in the film, by three different people, the words “I’m a loner… A rebel” are spoken. I won’t totally spoil it for those who never seen (or heard of) the movie, but by the end of the film Pee Wee is “humbled” and sees the need for community.
Kind of like the movie 127 Hours. Say what? Am I the only one to make that connection? James Franco starts out riding his bike and boldly proclaims, “I can do everything on my own.”
It you want your movie to be remembered 30 years from now it better be about something.
“Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives.”
Pathways to Bliss
“Stories are equipment for living”
Which brings us back to the big but.
When I was first told about Pee Wee’s Big Adventure it was a friend paraphrasing Pee Wee— “Everyone has a big but—what’s yours.” Not as in big butt of the Sir Mix-A-Lot variety, rather what’s the “big but” that’s stopping you from doing that thing you’ve always wanted to do. (“I want to _______, but ________.”) For Simone it was leaving her jealous boyfriend and living in Paris.
For you it’s something else. What’s the “big but” that’s stopping you? Simone was inspired to live her dream and my guess is that audiences over the decades have been inspired by Pee Wee’s words of encouragement: “You can’t just wish for something to come true—you have to make it happen.”
Or as the German writer Goethe put it, “In action there is power, grace, and magic.”
Speaking of magic and bicycles—and if Pee Wee is too silly for you—check out the classic Italian film The Bicycle Thief.
Happy New Year. And thanks for being a part of this journey. A journey that at times is like a bike ride in country with Pee Wee Herman, Joseph Campbell , Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and John Wayne riding along side us. Hope these posts help you and your writing. Here’s a little related JB quote and song to finish out the year.
“I bought a red bike shortly after I decided to stay in Key West, and it served me well. Key West has changed drastically from the days when you didn’t have to lock up your bike, but it’s still the best place I know to ride.”
P.S. If you ever kicked around Burbank, California back in the ’80s you may get nostalgic when you watch Pee Wee’s Big Adventure because they shot some scenes there. Places like the former Golden Mall (“Beautiful downtown Burbank”) and the old drive-in (also used for shooting Grease). And there are many other interesting layers to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure including Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman composing the music, and cameos by Milton Berle, Morgan Fairchild and Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (The Sting).
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) Just learned yesterday via my WordPress annual report that this now almost 3 year old post was the most viewed post this year.
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6) “As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.”—David Mamet (The Verdict)
Related links: Did you know there is a Bicycle Film Festival. (I once made an award-winning short film called Bicycle Dreams that I wanted to submit to that festival, but I forgot. One of my big buts.)
Get A New Story: What’s Your Story About Not Writing? by Jenna Avery at Script