Imagine for a moment that you're Dan Butts, Hollywood Production Designer. One ordinary morning, you get a phone call. The phone call. You've just been hired to design the look and feel of an upcoming Netflix Original film by comedy director, John Lee. Yup. It's Pee Wee's Big Holiday, the highly anticipated return of Paul Reubens' iconic alter ego. Now, bear in mind that you're Dan Butts, so you're no amateur, and your resume is stacked with award-winning comedy credits like Arrested Development and Flight of The Conchords. But still, this must have felt big. Real big. So you have one obvious task-- do your thing.
And that's what you do. You work with the tireless commitment of a carpenter ant from scouting locations to pre-visualization to the daily shooting schedule, and every image in between. It's hard work. You're finalizing each detail before the filming even begins. The payoff: you help John Lee realize his vision, you make Mr. Reubens feel like he's born again, and you spend some time watching Pee Wee come to incredible life. That must have been one of the coolest set experiences ever.
I'm intrigued by the art of production design, and pound for pound it may be one of the more under appreciated jobs in Hollywood. Not by the filmmakers or studios themselves, trust me, they know how important a job it is, but by us. We the fans and we the media. I want to change that, and I was lucky enough to sit down with Mr. Butts recently to sing the praise of Hollywood Production Designers like him, and ask him some questions about Pee Wee's Big Holiday. Here's what we talked about:
You've got a great comedy resume, tell us about your projects in the past, and explain the art of design in that particular genre.
DB: " I’ve been fortunate to work on a lot of great comedies in the past, from Mr. Show with Bob and David to Flight of the Conchords and Arrested Development. The big thing design-wise has usually been to make the worlds as real as possible and allow the writing to tell the jokes. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday was fun in that we were allowed to let some of the sets be a part of the joke: beds flipping into other rooms, chairs rising out of ceilings, etc.."
Are you or were you ever a fan of Pee Wee, or not, and so what kind of research went into creating the feel of "Fairville" (PW's hometown), and the world according to Mr. Herman?
DB: "I have always been a fan of Pee-wee! Turns out that I am a pretty big fan of Paul Reubens as well! It was such a crazy opportunity to be able to work on this film. We did a ton of research on towns that had a timeless feel. We tended to lean toward a look that had a lot of 50’s elements to it. Our eventual town of Fairville was actually made up of a few different towns outside of Los Angeles: Fillmore, Santa Paula and South Pasadena."
It seems like you and producer Judd Apatow have some history, tell us about him and the experience of working with director John Lee.
DB: " Judd Apatow and I have worked in similar circles for years. He was an amazing person to have be involved on this project. John Lee is an amazing director and wonderful person. If I could just work for him the rest of my career I would be happy. He is very smart, funny and really just a great guy. He created a very low-stress environment that was conducive to collaboration and creativity."
Jen Lukeheart was the Set Decorator on this project, and you two also have worked together on Arrested Development. What does someone like Jen bring to your team?
DB: "As the set decorator, Jen added so much to the sets on this show (and the others I’ve worked with her on). She is a complete pro and gets very deep into the reasons behind every piece of set dressing that goes into a set. She had much of the artwork and items in PW’s room custom made to fit his character. I’ve always said that I am really only as good as my crew and was extremely lucky to have such a great team on this. Everyone was so excited to be a part of Pee Wee’s return."
Can you give the fans any clues or Easter eggs to look forward to?
DB; "I don’t think I am at liberty to divulge anything currently. "
(I admire Dan's respect for the film's integrity, and would expect nothing less than a “no comment” prior to the release.)
Lastly, what are the first three words that come to mind when you describe working with Paul Reubens?
DB: " Fun, crazy and amazing."
It's safe to assume that those three words are gospel.
Personally, I'd love to be Dan for just a day on that set, but to clarify, he doesn't do what he does for the hope of fame, fortune, or press, and neither does anyone in his field. They're purely satisfied with being an essential piece to a much larger scope of art. They might even prefer to remain in the shadows of what we in the media and we as fans tend to glorify, if you can believe it. They're inspired by the results of what dedicated work can achieve, and the hope of what future projects might lead them to discover about themselves.
I'm a Dan Butts fan, and I'm going to follow his career with the proud satisfaction of what promises to come. That excites me. I'm anticipating the premiere of the new Pee Wee film this Friday, March 18th , on Netflix, and I wish him the success and notoriety he's earned.
Dan Butts grew up in Laguna Beach, CA. He attended film school at Boston University, and has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 20 years. He's represented by United Talent Agency, and currently working as Production Designer on the upcoming Netflix Original comedy series, Lady Dynamite.
Check out the trailer: