How the Schulz family made 'The Peanuts Movie' a reality

It seems fairly safe to say what may well have been Charles Schulz’s favorite aspect of the new 'Peanuts' movie: That his son and grandson co-wrote the script with a partner and worked to keep the film true to its comic-strip roots.|

It’s impossible to know what late cartoonist Charles Schulz would have thought of 20th Century Fox’s very big deal of a “Peanuts” movie that’s opening this week at more than 4,000 theaters across the land.

It seems fairly safe to isolate what may well have been Schulz’s favorite part of the technologically ambitious and massively promoted computer-animation project: the part in which his son and grandson in Santa Rosa co-wrote the script with a third partner and worked to a frazzle to keep the film true.

The opportunities for director Steve Martino and an army of Blue Sky Studios animators to stray from the essence of “Peanuts” were legion:

A punchline delivered too soon or outside the comedic range of Schulz’s legendary subtlety. A character drawn with lines inconsistent with those of history’s best known comics-page cartoonist. A remark or phrasing or action or sentiment of a type that simply would never have appeared in the “Peanuts” strip.

Said Bryan Schulz, a Santa Rosa-born screenwriter who was 19 when his grandfather died and is now 34, “If you change one word in a sentence, it’s not ‘Peanuts’ language.”

As he spoke, the Maria Carrillo High class of 2000 graduate sat with his dad, Craig, 62, in a party room at the ice rink near Coddingtown mall that Charles “Sparky” Schulz had built in 1969.

Craig Schulz recalled viewing an early scene of “The Peanuts Movie” in which rain pummels Charlie Brown as he stands forlornly on the pitcher’s mound. The elder Schulz, who works as a pilot and a partner in the skate-rink complex, sensed something was wrong.

He realized that the animated rain looked too much like real rain, too little like the streaks his father had scrawled to denote a downpour. “His favorite thing was to draw rain,” Craig Schulz said.

He spoke with the animators from Blue Sky Studios, creator also of the “Ice Age” animated films, and they redid the rain. “They went to great pains to make it exactly like my dad had drawn it,” Schulz said.

He cited, too, the movie-making moment when Fox executives pressed to ratchet up the kid-targeted humor to make young viewers laugh. The son of Sparky Schulz stood his ground, pointing out that the “Peanuts” comic strip “isn’t a laugh-out-loud strip, it’s a chuckle strip.”

“I told them that this is sophisticated humor,” Craig Schulz said. “We had four or five come-to-Jesus meetings.”

Realignments to the Schulz pair’s sense of true occurred all throughout the surprisingly complex process of honoring the simplicity and integrity of a pen-drawn, two-dimensional comic strip born in 1950 while evolving it into a 21st-century, computer-generated motion picture.

The animators at Blue Sky “said it’s by far the most difficult movie they’re ever made,” Craig Schulz said. He came naturally to the role of primary arbiter of what would or would not be consistent with the characters and the stories, actions, responses, humor, pathos, philosophy, relationships and all else that Charles Schulz sketched brilliantly into “Peanuts.”

“You almost had to grow up with my dad to be able to write this movie,” he said.

Craig Schulz’s son the screenwriter found a way to get unstuck while writing or re-writing the script. “If you needed inspiration,” Bryan Schulz said, “you go back and look at the old strips Grandpa had done.”

The making of the 93-minute “Peanuts” movie was a saga, and for the father and son to work together on it made it all the more powerful. Craig Schulz first went to Bryan about five years ago with his concept for a short film that he’d spent several years refining and attempting to promote.

He’s had some experience writing for the screen; a few years back he and cartoonist Stephan Pastis, who lives in Santa Rosa and draws the popular comic strip “Pearls Before Swine,” collaborated on the script for the straight-to-DVD “Happiness is a Warm Puppy, Charlie Brown.”

The movie premiering this week - it opens Friday at Sonoma County’s Roxy Stadium 14, Airport Stadium 12 and Raven Film Center - was born in Craig Schulz’s mind as a 17-minute short that would expand and introduce new cinematic effects to two familiar “Peanuts” storylines: Snoopy the World War I Flying Ace’s riddled, airborne pursuit of the Red Baron and Charlie Brown’s hapless obsession with the Little Red-Haired Girl. Schulz pitched it to studios with no success.

The pilot and businessman might have immediately recruited the assistance of his son, the young Hollywood screenwriter, but Bryan Schulz had made clear he would make it on his own and not as a link to the “Peanuts” legacy.

“I tried to stay separate,” he said. And he’d made a strong start; he and screenwriter partner Cornelius Uliano, a fellow film graduate of the Brooks Institute in Ventura, had worked on projects with Sony Pictures and Warner Bros. and they’d sold a script titled “Imaginary Friends” to Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks production company.

Bryan Schulz read his dad’s script and concluded that, foremost, it tried to cover too much ground in ?17 minutes. He proposed a full-length movie, and said he’d like to work with his dad on the script.

The younger Schulz’s screenwriting partner, Uliano, also was drawn to the creative challenge of deepening and advancing two key “Peanuts” storylines and upgrading the medium to cutting-edge computer animation and 3-D while also honoring the integrity of a 65-year-old comic strip.

The three of them set to work in 2010, Craig Schulz focusing on the Charlie Brown and Red-Haired Girl plot and his son and Uliani developing the tale of Snoopy and the Red Baron.

They produced a 28-page treatment and submitted it to 20th Century Fox. Bingo.

Fox signed on to “The Peanuts Movie” and brought in the animation crew of Blue Sky Studios, which Fox purchased in 1999. In time, storyboard artists from Blue Sky flew to Santa Rosa and encamped while studying Sparky Schulz’s work at the museum near his skating rink and laboring with his son and grandson, both of whom became co-producers, on loyally transferring the look and spirit of the world’s favorite comic strip to CGI.

The task proved to be incredibly difficult and time-demanding. Animators minutely analyzed the late cartoonist’s pen strokes and wrestled long with how best to create 3-D images of a comics-page Charlie Brown or Snoopy that Schulz had drawn quite differently in profile than when the characters look straight forward.

That was just one of myriad challenges. Said Bryan Schulz, “I still can’t believe all the hurdles we jumped over to get this thing made.”

The film did get made, on time. Sunday, Craig Schulz and Jeannie Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow, were in Los Angeles for the World Premiere of “The Snoopy Movie.” Today, Snoopy is to be honored with the 2,563rd star placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Craig Schulz will spend most of this week traveling the country from premiere screenings to national TV interviews. Bryan Schulz and Cornelius Uliano are returning to their screenwriting.

“I have a phone call in an hour and a half on our next movie,” the younger Schulz said.

All through the writing and making of “The Peanuts Movie,” he said, he and his dad worked to make it the best film it could be and to preserve the artwork and humor, wisdom and heart of his grandfather.

“I think we’ve got it there,” he said.

“I’m very happy with it.”

Now he’ll see what the world thinks of it.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and

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