Just in time to get you warmed up for the holiday season there is a new take on the classic Peanuts comic strip called “The Peanuts Movie.” A new girl is attending Charlie Brown’s school, and Charlie tries to figure a way to get the courage to talk to her. Meanwhile, Snoopy is embarking on his most dangerous mission: flying his doghouse in World War I. I got to interview co-writer / co-producer Craig Schulz, son of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and the director of the film, Steve Martino.
What made you want to make this movie?
Craig Shulz: We wanted to reach a whole new audience. People aren’t reading the comic strip as much, so we wanted to reach a new generation and at the same time, satisfy the older generation who missed that medium. They see the specials every year, but I am excited to bring them to the big screen again, with a new medium and a new story that has never been told before. It’s exciting to me personally. It was just a matter of selling it to the family, New York and the studio. We were ready for it.
Steve Martino: You didn’t have to sell me.
This movie has a different look than the traditional specials like “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Talk a little about your decision to give Peanuts this new look.
Steve: When I was starting on the project, I listened to an interview by Bill Melendez, who produced and directed a lot of the specials and he was looking back on his entire life and career. He was talking about all the Charlie Brown specials he had worked on and the Christmas special in particular. He talked about the feature films. He felt that the movie going audience expected something bigger. And I believe that. A movie screen is a big canvas. I thought this would be a good opportunity to use some of the special tools that we use in computer animation to bring this wonderful world come to life with a little more detail. Make us feel like that world really exists but still in the styling of Charles Schulz’s hand. So the mantra for me and to my team was: I want to find the pen line in everything we do, even though we are using computer animation. You see that in Charlie Brown’s smile, his eyes and whenever there was a question that you needed the answers for, you go back to the comic strip because the answer is there.
Craig: I don’t think the leap from 2-D to 3-D is as big as the leap my dad did from going from a single panel strip to animation. To me, that was a big leap of faith because this was his baby up until the early 1960s and for someone to say “now we are going to make your characters animated” had to be both exciting and terrifying. And that’s the same way I felt when we first started making this movie, because you wonder, what if we can’t pull it off. What if we are a year down the road and having spent millions of dollars trying to pull this off, and we fail? I spent many a sleepless night thinking about that. But I think it was a natural jump to go from 2-D to 3-D, and a very successful one if you ask me.
Steve: What was interesting stylistically was we didn’t employ the techniques that I have used in every other computer animated film that I have been a director on. We looked to what Bill Melendez did in the original specials, and we approached the animation style with a much more 2-D approach. In other words, our animation editors were thinking like 2-D artists. Using a posed style of animation by holding the animation for two or three beats and then snapping a new pose. It was a totally different way of our usual work process. It was very refreshing for our animation team to do it that way.
Talk a little about the casting process for the kids. What did you look for with the voice talent?
Craig: I had just come off working on a straight to DVD Peanuts movie called “Happiness is a Warm Blanket” and we had a whole new cast of kids for that project. We went through hundreds and hundreds of kids in the casting process, and I learned that I all needed when hearing their voices was them saying their name, where they went to school and what their hobbies were. So when we starting casting for this film, and we looked at between 1,500 to 2,000 kids for the roles, I told Christian Kaplan, the casting director, “don’t let them act, just let them talk.’ We wanted their voices to come straight out of the Christmas special. Those are the voices that I hear with my mind.
Steve: Me too. The voices from the Christmas special are imprinted on me since I was a child. I was very nervous about casting one character, and that was Linus because I thought Linus was so charming in the Christmas special. He had that little lisp, and I wondered if we were going to be able to find that. We didn’t want to work with one of the actors and have them try to put on a fake lisp because the audiences will see right through it and that would be terrible. But we found this wonderful actor, Alan Gardin, who had that natural lisp. He was at the studio last week, walking through the Blue Sky studio and all the animators were coming up to him saying “just say something.” They just wanted to hear that wonderful voice that we all know. I couldn’t be happier with the cast from the perspective of them sounding very close to the original cast. We recorded with old ribbon microphones from that era. On top of that, the kids were wonderful. They are naturals at it, and that’s what we worked for.
Craig: If there is one thing I learned from working on the “Blanket” movie is that if one hair is out of place on Snoopy the fans are going to catch it. They are fanatical for details. At the end of the movie, with Snoopy talking, we came down to one voice for his character in the “Blanket” movie, and we decided that since the director at the time, Bill Melendez did the voices in the original, he would do the voices in this film. When it came out, all we heard was that Snoopy’s voice wasn’t right. So when we started doing this film, we went and found original recordings that he did for Snoopy and Woodstock and used those. So we have the authentic voice in the movie. The fans won’t be complaining this time.
Steve: I couldn’t agree more. I am happy to have the original voice that is associated with Snoopy and Woodstock.
How do you feel about caring on your father’s legacy with this new Peanuts movie?
Craig: I take that burden on every day. I work at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates which is the oversight committee for the Peanuts world. We work every single day on enhancing what he had done. The oversight is at a higher level than it’s ever been. Doing the movie was a huge risk and burden, but I wanted to honor what he had done. He had worked on the comic strip for 50 years, doing almost 18,000 comic stripes, and working on the strip almost every single day. I take it as an honor to do this film. I knew that it would look beautiful; at least what I thought it should look like in my mind. I had faith that Steve’s team could carry it out, and I couldn’t be happier.
You mentioned how you wanted to reach a new audience, but the film is still very classical in that you have a rotary phone, you have pen and paper, you don’t have stuff like cell phones in the film. Can you tell us what the idea was behind keeping it in that classical style?
Craig: The objective from the outset for me and my brother Bryan who worked on the film was that we wanted it to be timeless in a number of ways. Everything from what Steve’s team created, like chairs or lamps, we didn’t want objects that would date the film. That was a first objective. Then we had to pick from what time-period of the Peanuts world that did want. From a character’s standpoint, we went from the late seventies to the mid-eighties would be recognizable to everybody. Steve kind of morphed the characters into that type of time frame.
Steve: Timeless was the overall approach. Every prop, everything we put into the film, I looked at and decided if I could find it in a store today or would it be in someone’s living room today. That’s how we decided what to put into the film. Through the years, the furniture changed in the comic strip, like the curtain designs. The only constants that set it in that world were the typewriters, the rotary phones and the fact that the kids weren’t on their cell phones. The ideas are timeless, and that is what is amazing about the comic strip. It deals with humanity; it deals with our own sense of insecurity; will we be successful. Those are universal ideas, and they are timeless. That’s why it still plays so well.
Talk a little about the music in the film because that was so important with the specials, especially the Christmas episode.
Steve: The music was there to support the story. First and foremost we wanted to create a feature film that was hitting on all the emotional beats that were working on screen. To accompany the animation, we wanted to enhance the movie-going experience through the emotion that music brings. Now with that said we have the full palate; we have a jazz combo, we have David Benoit on piano. We have some of the original recordings of Vince Guaraldi in it. So you have those touchstones. That jazz combo that just sits and helps with the storytelling. And then there are other moments that you want the full power of an orchestra. Christophe Beck was our composer on the film, and I think he did a wonderful job creating that balance. Then you have Meghan Trainor, who has written two original songs for the movie. We talked her about one moment in the film, and she wrote this beautiful song. Then a month and a half later, this other song came to her about who Charlie Brown is in the movie. It was such a wonderful song; we had to put it in. If you hang out during the ending credits, and you will hear the full renditions of both songs.
Craig: Yeah, please stay until the very, very end.
In line with the classical animation style, there are quite a bit of classic moments in the film. I grew up with Peanuts, and it was great seeing such classics such as Lucy and Charlie Brown with the football. And some of our non-main stream characters like Spike being in there. Can you talk about your decisions to include some of those classic icons that you used and how did you pick which ones to use?
Craig: Yeah, it was fun seeing Spike in the movie. We had to pull a whole scene with him that didn’t quite work with the film, and that was sad. I am happy that we brought some characters from the 1950’s like Sherman, Frida, and Violet and to see them in 3-D was terrific.
Steve: Another thing that we looked at, going back to our storyboard sessions, was that the story was most important. It starts with the thematic spine of the film, and we want to keep the narrative drive with Charlie Brown because it’s a feature film, keeping the audience engaged. If along the way there was a great moment from the comic strip or something that would help tell that story, we would utilize that in a way that felt like it was a new context. But it was never the idea to go back and collect our favorite moments and just piece them together. It was story first, and then if we intersected one of those moments into the film, then it would be wonderful, not just for the fans but for the new viewers as well.
How do you want this film to impact audiences, both fans of Peanuts and ones that are new to the gang?
Craig: First to know that you can take your whole family to the film and that it’s a safe movie to see. I hope you will see the film and then go out and buy the books on the strip and enjoy them with your kids. When they get older, they can read the strips and learn about themselves through the strips that they never considered. Learning about the human condition around you, because they are timeless, which is what we discovered when making the movie.
Steve: My hope is that a new generation will get to know these characters. When I work in animation on a film, the process takes three years. The hardest thing to do is create great characters. With Peanuts, it’s a no-brainer because you have great characters that when you put them into a scene they come to life. Lucy with her bossy style, Peppermint Patty and her great athleticism combined with her sleepy nature in the midst of the classroom. There are just a great group of characters that I am excited for a new generation to get to know them. Snoopy is the most fun to animate, so I hope that the kids love him.
Thank you so much and great success for your film.
The Peanuts movie opens up nationwide on Friday, Nov. 6th.
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