Bringing 'The Peanuts Movie' to a New Generation: An Interview with Steve Martino and Craig Schulz

Bringing 'The Peanuts Movie' to a New Generation: An Interview with Steve Martino and Craig Schulz

Shakefire sat down with The Peanuts Movie director Steve Martino and its writer Craig Schulz, who also happens to be the son of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, to discuss bringing Peanuts back to the big screen, updating the animation style after all these years, and what it's like introducing the entire Peanuts gang to a new generation of kids. Long time fans of the franchise shouldn't worry, though, because everything you love about the original still remains in tact.


Shakefire (SF): Why did you decide that now was the right time for a new Peanuts movie?
Craig Schulz (CS): Now is really the time. It’s been a long time since we did a movie, 1980. It’s been 15 years since my dad’s passing, and I think the world has changed. Newspapers are disappearing, and kids aren’t reading Peanuts in print anymore for the most part unless they dig deep into their iPhones. So I thought we wanted to generate new interest with the new generation yet at the same time satisfy the older generation that really missed the medium. They see Christmas every year, they see Pumpkin every year, but I think it’s time to bring a movie to the big screen again and in a new medium and with a bigger story that’s ever been told before was really exciting to me personally. It was just a matter of selling it to a bunch of other people; the family in New York, studios, and so forth. But we were ready for it.


Steve Martino (SM): You didn’t have to sell me.


SF: The movie has a different look compared to the traditional Peanuts special. Can you talk about creating the animation style for the film?
SM: Well, when I was starting on the project I listened to an interview by Bill Melendez, and he was looking back on his entire life and career. He was talking so wonderfully about all the specials that he worked on, the Christmas special in particular, and he talked about the feature films. He felt in this interview that a movie going audience expected something maybe a little bigger. I believe that a movie screen is a big canvas. The opportunity, I thought, was to use some of the tools we use in computer animation to bring this wonderful world to life with a little more detail. Make us feel like that world really exists, but it had to be in the styling of Charles Schulz’s hand. The mantra from me to my team was I want to find the penline in everything we do. Even though we’re using computer animation, you see that in Charlie Brown’s smile, his eyes, and whenever there was a question we don’t come up with the answers. You go to the comic strip and you find the answers there.


CS: I don’t think the leap from 2D to 3D to me is not as big a leap as it was for my dad to go from a single panel cartoon strip to animation. To me, that was the big leap of faith because this was his baby up until the early 1960s and then to have someone say, “Okay, now we’re going to make your characters move,” that would have been both exciting and terrifying, which is the same way I felt when we were going to do the movie. You get into this project and all of a sudden you realize what if I can’t pull it off? What if Steve can’t pull it off? Or a year down road here we’ve spent millions of dollars trying to pull this thing off. I didn’t know where we were going to go, so I had many a sleepless nights. But I think it was a natural jump to go 2D to 3D and a very successful one if you ask me.


SM: What was interesting stylistically is that we didn’t employ the techniques we’ve used or that I’ve been a part of every other computer animated film that I’ve been a director on. We looked to what Bill Melendez did in the original specials, and we approached the animation style in much more of a 2D approach. In other words, our animators were thinking like 2D artists; very posed to posed animations, sometimes holding on 2s or 3s and then snapping to a new pose. It was a totally different way of working for us but one that was very refreshing for our animation team.



SF: What was the casting process like searching for the kids to voice these iconic characters?
CS: I had come fresh off the show I had done earlier for DVD which is Happiness is a Warm Blanket, and we had done a cast there of all new kids. That was a totally new team from the ground up. I had discovered that in the casting thing we went through hundreds of kids in that one. I learned that when they sent me the voices, all I wanted to hear was them say their name, where they went to school, and what their hobbies were. When we came up with the cast we had Christian Kaplan come in. He interviewed well over 1,500 to 2,000 kids, and I told him the same thing I told Steve. That’s the best way to hear them; don’t let them act, just let them talk. We both had the same sort of ear to it, because we wanted the voice to come right out of the Christmas special. That’s all I keep hearing in my mind.


SM: Yes, same here. Those voices imprinted on me from the time I was a child. And I had a lot of nervousness in particular for one character and that was Linus, because I think Linus was so charming in the original specials. He had this little lisp, and I wondered if we were going to be able to find that. I know working with actors, trying to put that on in a fake way the audiences will see right through it, and it will be terrible. But we found this wonderful actor, Alex Garfin, who just had that natural lisp. He was at the studio last week, because we record with him outside of Blue Sky Studios, and he walked through the studio and all the animators were like, “Just say something! Say Charlie Brown!” just to hear that wonderful voice we all know. I couldn’t be happier with the cast from the perspective of them sounding very close to the originals. We recorded with old ribbon microphones from that era. But on top of that the kids were wonderful performers. They’re natural.


CS: And if I learned one thing out of doing the Blanket movie was that if one hair was out of place on Snoopy our Peanuts fans are going to catch it. They are fanatical for details. At the end of the movie we had Snoopy talking and we came down to what voice we were going to use for Snoopy. Our director at the time, because we ran out of time, decided that since Bill did the voice in the movies he would do the voice of Snoopy in the Blanket movie. And the first comment I get when the movie came out was, “Snoopy doesn’t sound right.” So this movie the first thing we did was go to Bill’s studio and see if we had original recordings of Bill being Snoopy and Woodstock. And then for me, personally, I wanted to Bill a credit in the movie. So we got the authentic voice there.


SM: I second that as well. I couldn’t be happier to have Bill Melendez’s name up there associated with Snoopy and Woodstock.


SF: How do you feel about being able to carry on your father’s legacy?
CS: Well I take that burden on everyday. I work with Creative Associates, which is kinda the oversight committee of the Peanuts world. We look at every single product that comes through every single day, and try to enhance what he had done. I think the oversight is at a higher level than it’s ever been than in his lifetime. Even doing the movie it was a huge undertaking and burden and risk to do that. But again, I wanted to honor what he has done. He’s put 50 years into doing the comic strip, almost 18,000 comic strips. He worked on it personally almost every single day. I take it as an honor to be able to do this. I had a vision for a film. I knew in my mind it would look beautiful from what I was seeing in my head. And Steve could do that. What I was thinking about they’ve created, and I couldn’t be happier.


SF: You’ve mentioned earlier how the film is appealing to a new generation and how people aren’t reading the comics in papers anymore. Yet the film is still very classical. You have the rotary telephones, you have the pen and paper, there is little technology. Why did you decide to keep it in the classical sense?
CS: The objective from the outset, which I said to my son Bryan who co-wrote on the movie, was we wanted to make it timeless. And timeless in a number of ways. Everything from what Steve’s team created as far as objects, chairs, bedposts, lamps, and so forth, you didn’t want to necessarily recognize. You didn’t want to have a object that someone knew was from 1980 or any other sort of thing that would simply just date it. That was one objective. Then it was a matter of finding what time frame during the Peanuts we wanted to deal with. Looking from a character’s standpoint, we kinda went from the mid 80s to the late 1970s as the time that was really recognizable for everybody. Then Steve’s team morphed the characters to fit into that time frame.


SM: Time was the overall approach. Every prop, everything that we put into the film, I looked at it and said, “Could I find that in a store today? Could I find it in somebody’s living room today if I were designing the living room?” That’s how we decided what would go into the film. Through the years the furniture changed in the comic strip. You can find lots of different curtain designs, for instance. The only two things that really kinda set it maybe in that world are the typewriter, the rotary phone, and maybe the fact that the kids aren’t on their iPhones every minute. But the ideas are timeless, and I think that’s the thing that is really quite amazing about the comic strip. It deals with humanity. It deals with our own sense of insecurity at times, wondering whether we’ll be successful. Those are universal ideas and they’re timeless ideas. That’s why I think it still plays.



SF: The music has always played an important role in the specials. Can you talk about your choice of music you used for the film?
SM: The music was there to support the story. First and foremost we wanted to deliver a feature film that was hitting on all the emotional beats that were in the script and what we had animated. We wanted to enhance the movie going experience through the emotion the movie brings. With that said, we have the full palet. There’s a jazz combo in there. David Benoit is playing the piano. We even have some of the original recordings of Vince Guaraldi. So you have those touchstones for fans, and there are places where that jazz combo just kind of sits and helps support the storytelling. Then there are other moments where you want the full power of an orchestra. Christophe Beck was our composer on the film, and I think he did a really wonderful job of finding that balance. And all the way to the point where Meghan Trainor has added two original songs to the movie. We talked to her originally about one moment in the film, and she wrote this beautiful song. Boy, it’s a catchy tune. And about a month and a half later, because I had been telling her about the story and about Charlie Brown, this other song came to her, and it was purely out of who Charlie Brown was in this movie. It was such a wonderful song I was like, “We’re putting it in. We’re going to find a place.” So hang out through the entire credits and you’ll get to hear the full rendition of both of those songs.


SF: In line with the classical style, there are a lot of classic moments in the film. Everyone knows the scene of Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football. How did you pick which moments to include?
CS: I’m happy we ended up bringing in characters from the early days. We have the early characters from the 1950s. We started with Shirley, Violet, Patty, and Frieda; some of my favorites. And to see them in 3D was terrific to do to have them in there. I like all that.

SM: I think the other thing we looked at, and I’m going back to a lot of our storyboarding sessions, the story was most important. That starts with the thematic spotting of the film. We want to keep the narrative drive with Charlie Brown. It’s a feature film so you want it to be structured and have 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 and put it into the film in a way that felt in a new context. But it was never the idea to just go back and collect our favorite moments and stitch them together. It was story first and then if we intersected one of those moments, wonderful for those of us who are fans. For a new generation they get to enjoy it as well.

SF: How do you hope the film impacts the new generation of audiences?
CS: The nice thing about Peanuts is that a young mother can take her kids to a movie and know that it is going to be a safe movie to see. You’re not going be sitting in your chair wincing and wondering if something stupid is going to come on the screen you have to explain on the way home. More so than that what I would hope that you do is that you would take these books and sit down in the evening and read the comic strips to your kids. Then when your kids get older they’ll start reading the comic strips and discover things about themselves that they never even considered, things about their classmates they never considered. Again, you start learning about the human condition and the world around you through those comic strips. Because they are really timeless. That’s what we discovered in making the movie.

SM: My hope is that a new generation of kids will just get to know these characters. When I work in animation and work on a film, the process takes three years. The hardest thing to do is create great characters. With Peanuts it was a no-brainer. Here you’ve got the most amazing cast with really well formed personalities. You put them into a scene and they come to life. Lucy and her bossy style. Peppermint Patty and her great athleticism and then her kinda sleeping nature in the midst of classroom settings and Marcie. They’re just a great group of characters. I’m excited for a new generation just to get to know them. Snoopy is just the most fun to animate.


CS: And another thing is it’s also as an international film. When we wrote the film we didn’t consider international. As we were writing it we were kinda gearing towards adults and Peanuts fans. But internationally some countries they just focus on Snoopy and only Snoopy. For years we’ve been trying to get them to learn about Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Linus. So this film should really open that door we hope, and they’ll start learning more about the total cast instead of being fixated on Snoopy the character and really not knowing anything in depth about the comic strip.


The Peanuts Movie opens this Friday, November 6th. Be sure to check out our interview with the cast of the film, too!