Bringing the Legend to the Big Screen: A Conversation with Craig Schulz
Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus and the rest of the beloved “Peanuts” gang make their big-screen debut, like they’ve never been seen before, in state of the art 3D animation. Snoopy, the world’s most lovable beagle – and flying ace – embarks upon his greatest mission as he takes to the skies to pursue his arch-nemesis The Red Baron, while his best pal, Charlie Brown, begins his own epic quest.
From the imagination of Charles M. Schulz and the creators of the ICE AGE films, SNOOPY AND CHARLIE BROWN: THE PEANUTS MOVIE will prove that every underdog has his day.
THE PEANUTS MOVIE is the first big state of the art 3D, animated movie, based on the iconic comic strip by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. The funny and heartwarming adventure, from Blue Sky Studios, features all the familiar characters from the strip. We meet the hapless but ever optimistic Charlie Brown and his best friend, Snoopy, the irrepressible beagle with a wild imagination – who sees himself as The Flying Ace. The plot of the animated film, follows the determined Charlie Brown, who falls for newcomer to the neighborhood, the Little Red-Haired Girl, and embarks on a heroic quest. Snoopy, meanwhile, takes to the skies in pursuit of his nemesis, The Red Baron.
The late artist’s son Craig Schulz wrote and produced the 3D film with his own son, Bryan Schulz and Cornelius Uliano. Acclaimed filmmaker Paul Feig is a producer, along with Michael J. Travers. Steve Martino is the director…
Craig, this room is full of fascinating historic artefacts, books, toys and cartoons, can you describe where we are?
We are at number 1 Snoopy Place, which is right across the road from the ice arena that my mom and dad built back in 1969. Right behind me is the desk where my father drew his comic strips every day for years and years. He had a standard ritual: he would come here in the morning, go through the mail, walk over to the ice arena and have breakfast; then he’d come back here and work until four in the afternoon, and then he would go home.
It sounds like he was very disciplined?
He was very dedicated. He always said he needed a schedule. He emphasised to all of us, his five children, that it’s nice to have something to get up in the morning for and to stay on schedule. I was actually running an aviation company out of an office here, and so I would stop in on a regular basis. He would have the comic strips laid out on a table right here so I could look at them and comment on them. There would be ones that I would really like and I’d say, ‘that’s funny.’ You know, looking back, I feel a little guilty because I wish I would have laughed and commented more on what he was doing. As a father now myself, I know how much that means when your children look up to you and say something that you did is good.
Of course Charles M. Schulz, known as ‘Sparky’, was your dad first and foremost. But what was it like being the son of a legend?
I didn’t have any other father so it’s hard to say what it was like compared to anybody else, but for all of us children, it was sort of like Disneyland. We had 28 acres in Sebastopol (Northern California). We had horses, cows, ducks and goats. We had a baseball field and a golf course and I rode motorcycles. It was a terrific lifestyle and we had a wonderful time. On the other hand, living with all that day in, day out, I wanted to leave and go hang out with my friends at their houses. I thought that was more fun than hanging out at my house, like any kid!”
What made you decide to write THE PEANUTS MOVIE with your son?
After my dad passed on in 2000, we had numerous requests, people calling up asking if we (the family) would be interested in doing a movie. In my family we had always decided we’d probably never do a feature film, because we didn’t think the risk was worth the reward. But time passed and we started thinking about the possibility.
What can you reveal about the plot?
I can tell you one thing, it’s about a kid with a big head and his little fluffy dog (laughs)! What I’d like to say is that it’s true to my dad’s work. We see the relationship between Charlie Brown and Snoopy, how one feeds off the other, Snoopy can learn from Charlie Brown and Charlie Brown can learn from Snoopy. Their relationship is intertwined throughout the movie. I think the greatest thing about the movie is that children and adults can relate to it.
What has been your experience of collaborating with Blue Sky Studios and the director Steve Martino?
We knew from Blue Sky’s achievements with the ICE AGE films that they would do a great job. Our movie was going to take place in the wintertime, we knew we had to deal with snow and ice and water, and who better than Blue Sky to do that? On top of that, we met Steve Martino and he was a godsend, because he was fanatical about using the comic strip and my dad’s line as the basis of this movie. Blue Sky were fantastic. Whenever they had a question, they always went back to the comic strip and pulled from it. They did extensive research; they spent over a year just trying to get Charlie Brown to look right. The details are great. Whether you look at the clouds or the snow or the buildings, they’re all basically my dad’s line.
How does the film remain faithful to your dad’s work and how has it lifted his stories off the page
Well I think it’s done it on multiple levels. I will say that there’s nobody who is more protective of my dad’s legacy than myself and I’ve passed that onto my son. During this process, his admiration for his grandfather has grown tremendously. On the animation side, Steve made sure this film was done right. Every animator that came onto the project had to go to what they called ‘Van Pelt University’, which entailed a week’s training on how to draw these characters.
What is the ‘university’ and what happened there?
It started with the very basics on the first day. They had to learn how to draw the circle for Charlie Brown’s head, because everything is based upon that circle. They spent a week training to do that. Also, Steve and I both flew out to St. Paul Minnesota [where Charles M. Schulz grew up] and toured the neighbourhoods and took pictures. They studied the shapes of the houses, and the trees. Every house in the film had to have the three little steps on every single porch like they are in St. Paul. They did so much research, going above and beyond on this project and it really paid off in the end, but it took a long time to get it right.
Can you discuss Snoopy and his role in the film?
I think Snoopy is like all of us, or what we would like to be. He lives the dream life. All he’s got to do is sit on his doghouse and sleep all day long. He gets food brought to him every night. And in the meantime he lives his fantasies. In this film we see Snoopy driven into this fantasy world of the ‘Flying Ace’ [the character he imagines himself as when he is fighting the Red Baron]. The story revolves around a couple of origin stories. For the first time, Snoopy takes out the typewriter and types. We see him typing in the comic strip but we never really know why that happens and in this movie it is explained. We know that for 50 years he’s been chasing the Red Baron and he’s never been able to catch him. The film explains why he’s chasing the Red Baron. The Red Baron was a real-life ace fighter pilot for Germany during World War I, labeled as the greatest aviator of World War I. He was a hero, not only to the Germans, but to the Americans, at the time. In the early parts of the war, the enemies would actually wave at each other and salute as they passed each other. It wasn’t until the war evolved that they became enemies. The Red Baron does something to Snoopy that makes him mad and we find out why.
Where do we find Good Ol’ Charlie Brown at the start of the movie?
Well it all revolves around Charlie Brown. It starts off with a question, when he asks himself: ‘am I really likable?’ Charlie Brown is a genuine friend, he never gives up, but we all know that poor Charlie Brown’s got his problems, and within those problems he seeks advice from Lucy, the psychologist in the neighborhood charging five cents for each visit. Unfortunately, in Lucy’s mind, she thinks she’s giving good advice, and he takes that advice, but it’s really not the best advice!
Can you explain who the Little Red-Haired Girl is? I believe we see and hear her in this movie, we don’t in the comic strip except in silhouette once!
Yes she does appear. Initially we were never going to show her until the very end, and we didn’t want her to have any speaking lines, we wanted that to all be in the viewer’s imagination. But after we started putting the film together we realized that we needed to have her say something, so the audience understands what the girl is all about. It was a fine balance deciding how we’d bring her in. There is a beautiful scene when she arrives in the neighbourhood and goes to school for the first time. She is a mysterious girl. Charlie Brown falls in love with her and tries to win her over.
What was your father’s inspiration for the Little Red-Haired Girl?
Well the original Little Red-Haired Girl was one of the loves of my dad’s life, a lady named Donna Johnson Wold from Minnesota. He had pursued her as a young man. He was very excited about selling his first comic strip and proposed to her. At the time though, she was in love with two people, my dad and somebody else, and she chose the fireman! But they remained friends for their whole lives actually. He wrote to her constantly and they’d converse. I actually got to meet her years later in Minnesota and it was wonderful.
Which other Peanuts characters appear in the film?
We run the whole cast from the 1950s on, which is fun for me because I’ve lived with them my whole life, and I wanted to have the complete cast in the film. We obviously have the classics: Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and Linus. We have Shermy in there, Schroeder, and we have Peppermint Patty and Violet, who were predecessors to Lucy. They were the original two who used to team up to pick on Charlie Brown. My dad phased them out in favor of Lucy. So there are what we call ‘legacy characters’. What’s been fascinating is that while Steve and his team have been animating these characters, I’ve actually fallen in love with them. I’m fascinated with Frieda now. Patty comes alive and she takes on a whole personality, which you don’t get in the comic strip. It makes you really want to go to that neighbourhood and play with those kids. It is fantastic.
Why has your dad’s work had such an amazing response globally for so long?
I think he touched on the human condition. If you look at almost all stand-up comics or any comics in fact, there’s always a dark spot in their lives from which they draw on for humour; you’ll find that almost universally among comics. My dad had some tragic moments in his life. He lost his mother just before he went off to World War II. Coming back, he had the high of selling the comic strip and then the low of proposing to the love of his life and being rejected. So there was a cycle of highs and lows and I think he drew upon that in his work. He also drew upon his ability to look at things from a slightly skewed angle. He could turn things and put a little twist on them. There was also his great vocabulary; he would always choose just the right word to create the fourth panel [in the comic strip] so to speak. He was a master at it. A lot of people have tried to duplicate that over the years and they haven’t been able to succeed.
How did you and the rest of the family inspire your father’s work?
I think he was very inspired by his children in the early years. If you study the comic strips, you realize that from the 50s to the 60s, he was coming of age and- and formulating the direction he wanted the comic strip to take, but from the 60s to the 70s, there’s a lot of influence from the children and from his marriage. But he really only gives his children credit for two or three comic strips. The tonal quality of the script changes in the early 70s when he went through a divorce and married Jeannie (his second wife). There is a softer tone, it feels more philosophical.
Which character did you influence?
The one he gives me credit for is Pigpen. There was one evening when I came to dinner and he looked at my hands and said: ‘Craig how did you get your hands so clean?’ I looked at him and said, ‘toothpaste.’ I had used toothpaste thinking it would really clean my hands. I was generally accepted as the Pigpen of the family. I take credit for being Pigpen. I was dirty pretty much my whole life. So I got credit for that one strip. My sister has credit for a couple of strips and generally speaking, we can see our childhood in those comic strips going through those years. There are strips based on my surfing, my helicopter flying, my motorcycle racing, my sister skating, my father playing tennis with Jeannie. He would find humour no matter what situation he was in. That was what made him so brilliant.
How much do these characters come from your dad?
He was definitely a mixture of all of them. We always say: Snoopy was who he wanted to be and Charlie Brown was who he really was. Poor Charlie Brown loses a lot but when you look at the reality of life we all lose a whole lot more than we ever win. Most of us have to learn how to put up with losing, and I think that’s why Charlie Brown’s so relatable. He’s the great survivor.
Can you explain what it was like living with your dad?
I think it was like any other normal family. My dad was fun. If you went into his office any time during the day when we were little kids, he would leave his worktable (that was the luxury of his job) to come out and play baseball or football with us. He was not a funny person per se, he wouldn’t tell jokes, but he had an extremely quick wit. He could find humor in almost anything and come back with a retort, just like that. His humour was clean and crisp. He didn’t appreciate any kind of dirty humour, he would say ‘those are the ugly words’ and he would never use them. I never heard him swear once.
He was very keen on sport, how did that play into his personality?
He was very competitive. In sport he played to win and I think that transitioned into his work. He took that very seriously and he strived every day to produce a great comic strip.
How encouraging was he to you and your siblings?
He was totally supportive. I did a lot of stupid things like racing motorcycles and he never said, ‘maybe you should become a doctor or a lawyer and give up motorcycles.’ My sister skated and my brother was always playing baseball and he always supported us. He was lucky enough himself, that his parents had supported his dream. And look what happened! He went from being a kid who wanted to be a cartoonist to being the best cartoonist in the world.
What have audiences got to look forward to with this film?
Our hope is that we reinvigorate the new generation to read Peanuts and come back to the comic strip and embrace the values of these characters. Often these days there are not good messages in movies, as they get more edgy and racy. The nice thing about Peanuts is that as a parent, you know that you’re going to be in good hands. There’s also humour, it is visually great and entertaining even for very small children.
Peanuts has remained relevant for so long, do you think your father’s work is timeless?
I think it will continue to be relevant. There is no chance of the interest slowing down. When A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS first came out in 1965, the studio thought it was going to be a disaster. But there was one animator standing in the back of the room who said: ‘are you kidding me, this show’s going to run for a hundred years!’ Well, it’s been 50 years, so he’s halfway right! I think he is right. People see something in Peanuts that they identify with. In the movie, you see these kids in school, having to do homework, all the things that every kid can relate to, you really feel like you’re attached to them. It’s a group of kids you want to be around.
SNOOPY AND CHARLIE BROWN: THE PEANUTS MOVIE IS OUT NOW ON DIGITAL HD™ & ON BLU-RAY™ & DVD ON 30TH MAY, COURTESY OF TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX HOME ENTERTAINMENT