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Craig Schulz Talks “Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown”

Craig Schulz (photo courtesy of Koichiro Hayashi)

On March 29, 2011, a new era will begin for the Peanuts Gang with the release of the newest special “Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown.” Created in partnership with Warner Bros., this direct-to-DVD feature gives fans a new look at one of the most beloved periods in the history of Charles Schulz’ creation. To commemorate the occasion, I spoke with Craig Schulz, son of Charles Schulz, about the challenges behind creating this new feature; what makes this one different from all the previous specials; and how casting one particular character proved to be most challenging of all!

(Oh, and at the end of the interview I have a contest to give away some copies of the DVD along with a special “Happiness is a Warm Blanket” prize package!)

Geek To Me: Craig, thanks for taking this time to speak with me.

Craig Schulz: Glad to do it.

G2M: You’ve got a new DVD release coming out, it’s called “Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown,” a new video with a new book and graphic novel associated with it. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how it came to be?

CS: I’d love to. What happened was we ended up partnering with Warner Bros. as Paramount sold off the rights to the video library, and within that contract and purchase we had obligated to do two specials for them. And for them it’s very important to do these direct-to-home DVD releases.  So we sat around for a while and discussed who was going to do it, how it was gonna get done,  and the family had already decided that they’d want everything based on the comic-strip, and right from what my dad’s created.  So the team at the studio, including Stephen Pastis and myself decided that the people that knew the comic-strips the best would be the team right there at the studio. So we decided to sit down, put together a story, and run it by the family to see if they would like it or not. And from there we went to Warner Bros. And everybody else and that’s how it evolved. It was a very slow process, but we thought that was the best way to keep it very genuine to my dad’s work.

G2M: I know the last time I spoke with Jill (Schulz) she told me that was a real challenge.  When creating these new types of media, not changing anything from the original cartoon strips. What kinds of challenges did you guys face in creating this video?

CS: Definitely, it was a real challenge. After my dad died in 2000, I believe that Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez got together two or thee of them. And the last one, was one we called “He’s a Bully, Charlie Brown” which I helped Lee work on a little bit – he did most of it but I helped a little bit on that one – and realized the challenge of stringing comic strips together.; and making kind of a cohesive story; and making the scenes of the comic strip end in the next one was a difficult task.  So, the challenge was that the family members were again wanting to stick with the comic strips and the essence of the comic strip. And we literally did that. So Stephen – from “Pearls Before Swine” – and I started laying this thing out, and what we realized was that we wanted to take a deeper look at the Peanuts and not just skim the surface. Not just make it a child-type special, but appeal to all the Peanuts audience, from the smallest children to the die-hard Peanuts fan.

So the first thing you have to decide is what decade you wanna hit. There are so many different decades there. And the strip obviously changes as it goes through the decades. And we both felt that we were kinda gonna mine the 60’s. We felt the late 50’s and 60’s were really the most rich in humor, both visual and emotional. And that’s kind of what we targeted. And then we worked on how to visually make the blend from comic-strip to comic-strip work the smoothest.

And then we stepped back. My son’s a screen-writer, we’ve worked a lot of film, trying to take that movie industry feel and try to blend some of these scenes together. And that’s kind of where we went with it. And I think we smoothed a lot of that out by creating the visual ties between those comic strips. We broke a lot of those comic-strips up, and stole from certain ones. We’d only use one panel from one and a couple panels from another, so it didn’t read with the pacing of a comic strip in a newspaper.

G2M: And how about the translation to the graphic novel from BOOM! Studios? How did that one work out?

CS: It’s the first time we’ve done something like that, and I just saw it myself the other day. It comes out the end of this month. It’s new for us and it’s kind of what the kids are looking at these days. I think it came out (well), it’s cool. The show’s 44 minutes long and to convert that into a graphic novel – a relatively short one – isn’t the easiest thing to do.   But we had a team at the studio get together – led by Paige Braddock our Art Director, and Alexis Fajardo who does Kid Beowulf – and it came out really good. It follows the TV show but not frame-for-frame. They changed a couple of little things, the look of the graphic novel is totally different from anything that’s ever been done for Peanuts before.

You know it the late 50’s my dad had some gentleman come on and do some comic books, years and years ago.  And people remember those thinking my dad actually did those, he didn’t. He handled the stories and stuff, so this is the same sort of idea. But it’s been a long time since we’ve had a comic-book looking thing in Peanuts so that’s what’s exciting for us.

G2M: I hear there’s going to be a screening at the Peanuts Museum and that Andy Cohen is going to be moderating a panel discussion at it. I’m told there’s an interesting story surrounding that.

CS: (laughs) I might not know the story you know. We have Andy coming out — Museum director Karen Johnson put this together — you know they were watching something online where Andy was kind of giving a tour of his office in New York – his brand new office on the 65th floor – something like that – way up there in New York. He’s looking around and you see Snoopy sitting on a ledge of one of the windows, and he opens a closet up and he’s got this bag full of Snoopys that are wrapped in plastic – I guess were ‘suffocating’. So he opens the plastic and lets all three of them free -

G2M: (laughs)

CS: (laughs) So Karen thought ‘let’s ask Andy of he could come out and do this.’ She’s a fan of his other shows and so forth and we thought it would be cool too. And he said he’s a big Peanuts fan so yeah, we’re excited about that. It’s gonna be on the 31st, 2 days after the DVD comes out, and we have a limited number of seats to watch a screening of the show. And we’re gonna have the panel with Andy Cohen, similar to the “Housewives of Santa Rosa” I guess. (laughs)

G2M: You know, I actually have a Snoopy in a plastic bag on my desk at work. I should free him too.

CS: Set him free! He’s suffocating! Give him a cookie.

G2M: (laughs) I’ll give him a cookie. Another interesting thing to me that shows the wide appeal of the Peanuts characters is that you have the lead singer from DEVO compose the score for the video.

CS: Yeah that’s another interesting aspect. The special has, from the ground up, all new people on it. My dad has passed on; Bill Melendez has passed on; Lee we invited, but he opted out. At his age, he’s well in his 80’s now and he said ‘nah, I’ve done 50 of them.’ So basically we had new writers; new kid actors; our animator had left Pixar to come work for us, (director) Andy Beall; and Frank Moliere (co-director) had come from another company down in L.A.  So we had a whole new team. And from the very beginning of this whole thing I said even if you have the best story, the best animators and everything else, if the look isn’t right we’re in trouble. And if the music isn’t right we’re in trouble. So we got everything done, we’re down the very last step, and Andy, Stephen and I were sitting around trying to decide what kind of music we liked.  We all realized that none of us really kinda knew how to deal with this. I guess we didn’t know how to go about it.

It just so happened that Mark Mothersbaugh came up. We listened to some of his music, and initially all three of us agreed that his music was fantastic. We thought that the chance of getting him to do it would be about a million to one. But it just so happened that this film was animated through a company called “Wild Brain” in L.A. and one of the heads at “Wild Brain” – a lady named Marge Dean – happened to know Mark, and knew that Mark was a Peanuts fan. So she said ‘Let me call Mark and see.’ She called up Mark and his agent said ‘no, he’ll never do a direct-to-home DVD, he just won’t do that.’ And then when he found out about it, he found out it was Peanuts – yeah he’s a huge Peanuts fan, and this happens continuously – he was excited about it and couldn’t wait to do it. He signed on and did a wonderful score. It’s very Guaraldi-esque, yet it has Mark’s own touch on it. Mostly piano based, very wonderful and blends well with the story in the background.

G2M: Any kids from the last video or is it an all-new cast?

CS: Oh no, the kids grow so fast it’s hard to get voices anyhow.  We had a whole new cast. Probably auditioned over a hundred kids and got down 50 or 60, and that’s when they sent the voices out to myself and Andy Buell. And we sat around all weekend long listening to voices. And then we called each other and said ‘okay give me your picks.’ And then out of those 50 kids Andy and I agreed on every one except Pigpen, and there we could have gone either way. I basically sat at home and had “Charlie Brown Christmas” on one screen and  kids on the other screen, and just kept going back and forth, and seeing how they matched up.

We have a great cast, the voices are spot on. We have a wonderful Sally. We lucked out and have these two young kids who I think are twins, but both sound exactly like Sally, so that was quite the find there.  And it was wonderful watching the kids do their thing. Probably the most exciting part of the whole show. I love doing that.

G2M: With all the challenges that this feature presented, what kinds of new things can we look forward to from the Peanuts gang in the future?

CS: Well we hope to press on and look for new shows without duplicating what we’ve done in the past. You know after doing 50 shows, my dad’s covered pretty much everything that been done. So I think it’s really just a matter of looking deeper into the comic strip and seeing what’s there, and going after that stuff. I think it’s a way of how you present it, how you look at it, and that’s kind of what we’re going for right now. But in the meantime, being true to my father’s work, which is kind of a tough balance to do. I think if you look long enough and you look deep enough, and you spend enough time – this project took over 3 years from beginning to the end – you can do it.

G2M: I asked Jill which character from the strips she related to the most. Which character do you relate to the most?

CS: Well most people that know me say that I relate to Pigpen the most -

G2M: (laughs)

"Happiness Is a Warm Blanket" Prize Package

CS: (laughs) because I’ve been dirty since day one. I’ve always enjoyed playing in the dirt, raced motorcycles, and anything having to do with dirt and grease is kind of what I do. So, you’ll see Pigpen has a special part in the show, so it’s probably apparent that I love Pigpen.

G2M: Hence the difficulty casting the voice. (laughs)

CS: Exactly. (laughs)

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Yet again, the good folks from the Snoopy Store have given me some nifty prize packages to give away to Geek To Me readers! The packages includes: a copy of the new DVD from Warners Premiere; your very own “warm blanket”—just like Linus’s; a PEANUTS lunch tote; a “Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown” book from Running Press; and a Snoopy-and-Linus figurine from Hallmark. To qualify, all you have to do is comment below and tell me what was the one thing you owned as a kid that served as your “security blanket.” Was it a favorite stuffed animal? A t-shirt? Or was it, in fact, a blanket like Linus’?

Comment below and you’ll qualify for one of five prize packages! (Drawing will be held on Friday, April 1st, 2011 on or around 5 PM CST. Winners to be notified by e-mail. Prize packages to be provided by Current PR.)