Craig Schulz Explains why The Peanuts Movie Was a Tough Nut to Crack

The late Charles M. Schulz devoted his life to developing Peanuts. His aviator son Craig dedicates his days to preserving its legacy, so that the long-beloved comic strip doesn't just end up yesterday's news. To this end, Schulz, along with his son Bryan, are bringing Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the rest of the gang to a new generation that's never picked up a paper, through The Peanuts Movie, opening Nov. 6.

SF Weekly spoke to Schulz about the challenges of bringing the classic comic strip to the silver screen, creating a closer relationship to his son Bryan than he had with his own father and honoring Charles M. Schulz's legacy without sacrificing his own. 

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What were the challenges of bringing the Peanuts franchise to the silver screen?

Number one, there was the challenge of making the characters in CGI. It took Blue Sky Animation a whole year to make Charlie Brown look right. The other challenge was to make them move right. What we found is that when Charlie Brown moves, that as he turns his head, the ears go down and the nose goes up. In a typical CG model, you'd take something and scan it, and no matter how you moved, it would stay perfect. It doesn't work that way with the Peanuts characters, so they had to reinvent their whole computer models to make them move the way they’re supposed to move and the way Bill Melendez made them look in the 1960's.

I loved the parallel love stories in the movie: As Charlie Brown vies for Little Red-Haired Girl's affection, Snoopy goes after the Red Baron to save Fifi.

It was a hard story to craft going in and out of the two worlds. For me, when I watch the film, I’m so invested in each world that I hate to leave it. So to make that transition in and out took a lot of work. But if flows pretty good now. 

For me, the big thing in the Charlie Brown story is that every kid asks himself or herself the question, 'Am I liked? Am I worthy of this person's love or not?' They have deep thoughts, as the comic strip represents. So we wanted to craft the story as two love stories running in parallel with Snoopy falling in love with Fifi, who gets kidnapped by the Red Baron. That ends up being an origin story because as we started crating the story, my son came up with the question and asked me something I couldn't answer: 'Why does Snoopy chase the Red Baron? He’s been doing it for 40 years, and we really don't know why.' That's why we crafted the story, to explain why he pursues him for the run of the comic strips.

How did you keep the Peanuts franchise relevant to a new generation?

It was challenging. What we absolutely didn’t want to do was have it be contemporary with the kids having iPads and have any stupid, trashy humor like fart jokes. It was all going to be true to the comic strip. I thought the key thing was to touch a new generation by getting people invested in the Peanuts world. I thought the best way was to invent a world that they can relate to, which is being in school, having to do book reports, going to the school dance and doing the local talent shows. So when the movie starts, they'll think, 'Yeah, I’ve been there. I’ve seen that new girl coming into school, and how do I get the nerve talk to her?' Even Linus, who's so strong, philosophical and intelligent, has that stupid blanket that he drags around. We all have our insecurities.

I read that your dad wasn't crazy about the Peanuts title.

He hated it.

So would he approve of this movie's title?

Probably not, but around 1970, 1980, he realized he wasn’t going to change it. It is called Peanuts, but around the world it has different titles. In some places it's called Snoopy and Snoopy has sort of taken over, but for marketing globally we had to do that. What I did, my little fight back, was if you listen to the last line very carefully, it's what he wanted the comic strip to be called, which is Good Ol' Charlie Brown.

The project took eight years to complete?

Yeah, the original idea for the movie came to me about eight years ago. I was listening to “Snoopy's Christmas,” which is an old song by The Royal Guardsmen. As I listened to that song, I pictured what that song would look like if it were put to video. From there it escalated into different phases. Originally I designed it as a TV special and then my son who's a screenwriter said, 'Dad, this is too good of a story to show in 17 minutes. You need to make it bigger.' So we came up with a movie idea and sat down with his writing partner Cornelius Uliano and blew it out into the movie that it is today.

How was working with your son, Bryan?

It was tremendous. It's funny how we had so many things in common. Our senses of humor were so aligned, and maybe it was an osmosis thing we got from my dad because a lot of people say my humor was a lot like my dad's. So we worked together well. It was special for me because in my later years to be able to do something with my son for three years, is something I think he'll look back on years from now and think what a special time that was to make this movie with his dad.

How would you compare your father-son relationship with your dad to yours with your son?

I think it was different. I think when my dad was around, in the '60s, we'd watch him draw the comic strip. Then when he came out, we did a lot of family interaction stuff. I think as a parent you try to correct the mistakes you experienced.
So in raising my son, we were really close. He grew up racing motorcycles with me. He jumped in the motor home, so we were together every day, and we got a lot closer than my dad and me, because my dad was spending time building his career. He would participate with us, but it wasn't nearly as close as my kids and me, simply because what he had done gave me the luxury to spend that time with my son. I didn't have to go out there and work eight hours a day. 

You've said that your dad gave you the freedom to do whatever you wanted to do professionally.

Yeah, and that was a lesson he learned as a child. When you think back on it, he was a young man and was trying to figure out what he wanted to do, and he told his parents he wanted to be a cartoonist. His parents thought, 'Are you insane?' There’s no money in being a cartoonist, but they backed him; they paid for him to go to correspondence school to learn how to draw. He ended up making 1 million dollars in the '60s, which was unbelievable back then.

I think he passed that on to all his children. He never said to me, 'No, being a pilot might not be the smartest thing in the world. You might not live very long.' I think in the long run that really pays off. Give children guidance, and eventually they'll find their way on the path that they'll really enjoy.

How do you strike a balance between maintaining your father's legacy without sacrificing your own?

What helps is that I’m not chasing a career. I have no intention of being a screenwriter or an artist for Peanuts. My whole intent from the get-go is simply to continue his legacy and what he's done. A simple analogy is farms being passed from generation to generation. Some kids say, 'I’ll just take the cash and go and close the farm down.' I think this movie for me is more of keeping the farm going.

This is a new generation, when kids don't read the newspaper anymore. The film is the vehicle to drive people back to the comic books, back to the books and to delve deeper into what Peanuts is all about. I know this is a one-time project for the most part. I have no aspirations. I already have a career. Our intent was to honor his work.

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