Remembering a Legend: A Conversation with Jeannie 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, starring Charlie Brown and his loyal dog Snoopy, is the first big screen CG film based on the indelible comic strip by Charles M. Schulz. It’s a hilarious and heartwarming animated adventure that is thoroughly immersive, staying true to Schulz’s art, and bringing the legendary cartoonist’s work to life in 3D.
All Charles Schulz’s beloved characters appear, from Lucy and Linus to Pigpen and Peppermint Patty.
One of the people who knew the artist best, his wife, Jeannie Schulz, sits down in Santa Rosa, California, where the cartoonist lived and worked, to discuss the film and the man himself…
What led to the family decision to go ahead with a major feature film based on your husband’s comic strip?
It was a combination of things, all the planets aligning at the right time. Blue Sky Studios had been showing us (the family) the work they had been doing for several years, including DR. SEUSS’S HORTON HEARS A WHO!, and they had proved to us that they could take an author’s treasured, very personal work and turn it into a film without fiddling with it or taking away anything from it. The right time for THE PEANUTS MOVIE just seemed to come along. Then little by little, people were writing contracts and we were actually moving along and the film was being made.
Did you have any qualms?
Well yes and that’s why it took so long. We did several television shows after my husband died and there were mixed feelings about how they fared. So there were qualms. It was the sincerity and skill of Steve Martino that really made the difference. He put us all at ease so we knew that this was going to be very true to Charles Schulz’s comic strip and would be respectful. Blue Sky, with Steve Martino as the director, became the perfect answer for us in terms of making a family feature film. Once we had moved forward with that, everybody was completely on board.
Can you discuss the main characters we meet in the movie?
There is Charlie Brown, who we call ‘the loveable loser.’ But he is a very good friend. Sparky would always say, ‘Charlie Brown is the kind of friend I’d like to have.’ He loves baseball, but has never won a baseball game, or so most people think. Actually his team did win a game once … when he wasn’t there! I think he got hit in the head and had to go to the hospital and the team won. Charlie Brown of course has a best friend, Snoopy. Snoopy fantasizes about being anything he wants to be. We would all like to be more like Snoopy. We would all love to be so uninhibited that we could be whatever we wanted to be. Lucy pops your bubble with all her screaming! Linus, of course, is philosophical. Sally’s silly, she is worried about everything and full of fears. She doesn’t want to go to kindergarten; she doesn’t want to go to camp. All the characters are in the film.
What appealed to Sparky about the relationship between children and their dogs?
Sparky had an obstreperous dog, Spike, who chased all the neighbourhood kids and scared them to death. But he was a wonderful dog at home, he was quite a memorable dog in the family. Also, boys and their dogs have featured in comic strips for years, for example if you look at THE LITTLE RASCALS and many American television shows. Sparky grew up with comic strips in which a dog was always a part of the gang of kids. The difference with Snoopy is that he is not a normal dog. Sparky once said that as soon as Snoopy took off and stood on his hind feet and began doing all the amazing things that he does, he could have drawn a comic strip just about Snoopy, because the dog gave him so many ideas.
What can you reveal about THE PEANUTS MOVIE?
It’s about Snoopy and the imaginary world he lives in, how he fantasized about being the Flying Ace. It is also the story of Charlie Brown and his pursuit of the Little Red-Haired Girl who moves into town and his unrequited love for her. The Little Red-Haired Girl is shown in the comic strip, but only in a silhouette, and she appears in some of the television shows. But in the new movie, they’ve actually created a beautiful little girl with perfect red hair and a perfect dress. All the familiar characters have something to do and to say in the film.
There’s an interesting story about your husband’s inspiration for the Little Red-Haired girl I believe?
She is based on a girl called Donna Johnson Wold who was a secretary and worked with Sparky in the fifties. They used to leave little notes for each other and he’d do little drawings for her. He actually coached the women’s baseball team because Donna played on it! He was in love with her and asked her to marry him but she married someone else. Because he didn’t recover from that for a long time, he put the character inspired by her into the comic strip: The Little Red-Haired Girl. Sparky had that sense of total failure and rejection and disappointment. But he did recover and become a happy husband!
How much of the insecurity, humanity and foibles of Charlie Brown are your husband’s do you think?
All the insecurities in the strip are his and I don’t think he ever got over them actually. Despite that insecurity, he did understand how much people loved his work and he appreciated the global reach of the comic strip. People would seek him out at the ice arena, which is very near the studio right here, and they would say, ‘oh I love your comic strip, I follow it every day.’ Or: ‘you led me to go into cartooning.’ So he understood that reach, but on another level he didn’t understand it. He remained the same person he always had been.
How much of Sparky was in the other characters?
He always said, ‘I am all the characters. I’m Charlie Brown. But, I also have Lucy in me. I’d love to be able to do all the things that Snoopy does in his fantasy world.’ He said, ‘I can be cranky like Lucy; I’m philosophical like Linus.’ He wasn’t messy like Pigpen though, that was his son Craig! (laughs). Craig was messy in those days, I don’t know about now!
How did he name his characters?
He was careful about naming characters because someone could come to him and say, ‘you named me in your comic strip, that’s me. And now you owe me something! ’ Charlie Brown was the name of a friend who he worked with at Art Instruction [the art school in Minnesota where Schulz studied and later taught]. Shermie was another good friend. Frieda was someone who worked at Art Instruction too. I think Lucy’s name just came out of the blue, but van Pelt [Lucy, Linus and Rerun’s last name] was inspired by an old army buddy. They didn’t have a last name originally.
How did your husband get the name Sparky?
It is a great name and nobody who knew him, except his teachers, ever called him Charles. Everyone called him Sparky. So if people come up to me and say ‘I used to play golf with your husband Charles’ I pretty much know that they might have played with him once but did not know him well. He said that when he was two days old in the hospital, an uncle came into the hospital and said, ‘by golly, we’re going to call him Sparky,’ after Spark Plug, the horse in the ‘Barney Google’ comic strip (by Billy DeBeck). That shows you the power of comics back in 1922. That horse had just appeared in the comic six months before. It had won a race and there was a lot of hoopla about it. If you look at the pictures of Spark Plug, he is a sway-backed horse with a yellow blanket. Sparky was born in November, so just five months after that horse hit the comic strip scene, it was in his family’s imagination so much that when his uncle said, ‘we’ll call him Sparky’ it stuck with his parents.
How prophetic that his nickname was a cartoon character!
Yes I always says there’s magic about this little kid who was named after a comic strip character and wanted to be a comic strip artist all his life. He died on the last day that his comic strip appeared in the paper. It is just amazing.
How faithful is the animation in THE PEANUTS MOVIE to Sparky’s original art?
It really is wonderful. The great thing is that when people read the comic strip, they don’t realise that when Snoopy turns his head, he has two eyes on the same side of his head. They don’t understand that Charlie Brown’s arms are only so long, so how can he catch a baseball? Blue Sky spent the first year of work on this film modelling the characters so that they could make the digital animation look like the flat art on the page. The animation looks very natural to me and I think Sparky himself would be amazed at how well they have rendered his art and the care they’ve taken. Our devoted fans were worried about what would happen with the 3D animation, but I think Blue Sky have done a beautiful job and fans who’ve seen the film already think it’s wonderful.
What do you think Sparky would think about your decision to make this film?
Oh I am sure he would think we were very brave. Sparky was very protective of the comic strip. He didn’t want anyone else to draw it, but going beyond the strip (into the TV specials) he understood that it was a collaboration with the animators. I think he would be very pleased with the way it’s come out and he would be happy that the result is such a great family film.
Sparky’s stories are timeless, but contemporary and socially relevant at the same time. What were his inspirations?
Well they were contemporary because he kept up with the phrases and things that were happening at the time [throughout his career]. Snoopy kept up with all the popular phrases. For example he used ‘cowabunga’ [to show his excitement and delight] in the comic strip in the sixties. He was inspired by his friends and family. When my daughter and Sparky’s daughters, who were about the same age, were getting their ears pierced, there was an ear piercing series in the comic strip. When one of his best friends, a golf buddy who was an ophthalmologist, was talking about amblyopia [an eye condition], he put an eye patch on Patty. Snoopy broke his foot playing tennis when Sparky broke his foot.
Would Snoopy and Charlie Brown be tweeting and on Facebook and Instagram now?
Woodstock would be the original tweeter, (laughs). I can see that he would have great fun with it. Charlie Brown and the gang would absolutely be taking up social media even though I’m not sure Sparky would have approved of it all.
Why do you think Peanuts continues to resonate around the world?
The characters transcend generations because my husband pulled on insecurities and fears we all have, the little moments of happiness that we celebrate. That doesn’t change. My husband exposed the foibles that we all live with. And because we recognise them, they’re funny. People are much more sophisticated these days; they have all kinds of devices to work on. They can look up things and get information, but human nature does not change. Sparky was dealing with human emotions and the great elations in life and then how we can suddenly be deflated. He was a solid Midwesterner. He was an honest, hard working person. He somehow tapped into all of those characteristics and was able to put them down on paper. Sparky used to say, ‘we know great art if it transcends its time, if it’s still around and still alive in years to come.’ So far, Peanuts is passing the test of time.
Can you explain what it was like living with Sparky? Was it in some ways like having another family, with all these characters that were living in his imagination?
All I can tell you is that when we were out and I would say to Sparky, ‘did you notice this?’ and ‘did you notice that when we were going down the road?’ No, he didn’t notice them, so the characters were always present in his mind. He didn’t notice the flowers and trees and the fact that they bloomed, then dropped their leaves. The only flowers he was aware of were roses. He was living in his own world all the time. But he was a wonderful, supportive husband so I guess I didn’t ever think that mattered. He was very easy to live with, let me put it that way.
Can you describe a typical day for Sparky?
Before we married, Sparky lived with his family, his five children, and he drew in a studio on the property. So he saw his kids coming and going and he drove them to school. By the time we got married in 1973, Sparky would wake up, drive down to the ice arena, eat his breakfast at the arena, drive over to the studio and get to work at nine or nine thirty, at the desk you see here. He would draw, maybe do some telephone calls, maybe look at a magazine if he needed some ideas for something, then walk over the ice arena for lunch. He would come back over here and draw again and maybe field some telephone calls or look at a magazine for a while. He had a television set so he might listen to the news when he was drawing. Then he’d go back over to the ice arena in the afternoon and have a cup of tea and he did that five days a week.
How are you preserving his memory?
I’m living with him every day, so it’s just really as if he’s here. We all talk about Sparky as though he were here. We talk about what he would like and what he would not like. When we talk about putting the exhibitions together at the museum, we say, ‘well, you know, Sparky thought this and felt that.’ I think the museum staff do a wonderful job of reflecting his belief system, his work and Midwest personality. We are preserving Sparky’s world at the museum. Sparky knew how well loved the characters were and I think he hoped they would still be alive in people’s imaginations in a hundred years.
What have audiences got to look forward to with this film?
For many younger people it might be their first real connection with the Peanuts characters, because people don’t read the comic strip as much anymore. The film is going to reintroduce them to the strip, to the characters, to the world of Peanuts. Everyone has worked so hard on this film to keep it true to the comic strip and I think old fans and new ones are going to be thrilled.
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