Paul Feig is a self-described “Peanuts” expert, which is why he was the perfect producer to shepherd “The Peanuts Movie” for 20th Century Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios.
Since creating the beloved short-lived series “Freaks and Geeks,” Feig has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most trusted voices in comedy. He followed up his directorial debut “Unaccompanied Minors” with the global hit “Bridesmaids” and his career has taken off from there, with the Melissa McCarthy vehicles “The Heat” and “Spy” grossing $229 million and $235 million worldwide, respectively.
Feig stepped away from the editing room of “Ghostbusters” to talk to TheWrap about the genesis of “The Peanuts Movie,” his collaboration with Charles Schulz’s family and how he’s like Charlie Brown, as well as why he plans to watch “Saturday Night Live” this weekend with Donald Trump hosting.
How did you first became involved with “The Peanuts Movie”?
I was contacted two and a half years ago by Fox Animation, who asked if I’d come on board. They were fans of “Freaks and Geeks” and liked the voice of that. I was a “Peanuts” fanatic as a kid, so I jumped at it.
What was your primary concern in bringing Charles M. Schulz’s comic-strip characters to the big screen?
I didn’t want them to modernize it and make it something it’s not, and nobody else wanted to do that either. We were in lockstep from the first moment. When I flew up to Blue Sky and they showed me concept art and early animation tests, I got choked up. They were dedicated to keeping this what it is. [Director] Steve Martino cared so much and the Schulz family were beyond involved — they had a legacy they were trying to protect. Everyone was pure of heart throughout the process.
Three generations of the Schulz family are represented with “The Peanuts Movie,” which was written by Charles’ son, Craig, and grandson, Bryan. Can you elaborate on your collaboration with the family?
They had an early version of the script and were cool enough to have us come in and try some new things. We tore it apart quite a bit and worked out of Charles Schulz’s office, which was really inspiring because we were breaking story right next to his desk where he wrote all the comic strips. His family was nervous about a studio coming in and trying to change Peanuts and hurt its legacy, so were always guarding that and policing it to make sure we didn’t do anything that didn’t feel like Peanuts. It was a great collaboration because they knew the property better than anybody, even though I consider myself an expert. It was just nice knowing you have blessing of the family and they’re feeling good about it.
Who was your favorite Peanuts character as a boy?
I related so much to Charlie Brown because he was me, basically. I was an awkward kid and very optimistic. You’d get knocked down every day, either by bullies or friends taking potshots at you who don’t think you’re as wonderful as you are, but Charlie Brown would absorb those blows and take the hits and wake up the next day thinking everything’s going to be great. I had never seen a kid portrayed in any medium whose feelings could be hurt and who grappled with bigger questions in life. Snoopy was the opposite of that and doesn’t pay attention to the pressures of life. He thinks, “I want to be an astronaut,” and then he goes and does it. He’s the free spirit who lives in all of us that we don’t get to live out.
Were you ever concerned that kids wouldn’t get some of the jokes, like the ones about going into escrow and having a diverse portfolio?
We always wanted to be like the comic strips and cartoons, with jokes that adults could enjoy and kids don’t get. We wanted to make sure we kept it on a certain level for kids, but we had to be true to Charles’ voice. I remember not knowing what the word “sarcasm” meant, but they used it all the time, so I looked it up. As a kid, the Peanuts expanded my vocabulary and we didn’t want to short-change that at all.
What do you think is the message of “The Peanuts Movie”?
“Don’t give up.” Life is not idealistic. There’s going to be down times and things won’t always work out, but if you remain true to who you are, stay positive and keep your spirits up, you’ll fight to live another day. “Freaks and Geeks” was very influenced by “Peanuts” in that way. There are no giant victories, but you get to the end of the day and you still have your friends.
Speaking of “Freaks and Geeks,” which group would Charlie Brown have grown up to be in if he existed in that world?
I always imagined he’d be one of the geeks who would be hanging out with Linus, talking about “Caddyshack” and cartoons. I’m sure Lucy would join the freaks at some point too.
Charlie Brown gets points in this movie for doing the right thing. Do you feel nice guys finish last in Hollywood?
I like to think they finish OK. It might take longer because they don’t scream the loudest or make Machiavellian moves to get there, but they’re dedicated to what they do and stick to the plan. People crave positivity, either in what they watch or behind the scenes during the process, and at my company we have a no drama M.O. We don’t want drama behind the scenes. If we need a firm hand, we have a firm hand, but never in a way that would crush someone’s spirit or make them feel shitty. You’re more effective that way. People do scream to get what they want but there’s not a lot of longevity in that. There’s never a downside to being too nice.
Perseverance is a major theme in “The Peanuts Movie.” Has there ever been a time in your career when you refused to give up on something and it paid off?
Every day of my career has been that way. There’s been so many phases. I was a stand-up comic for a long time and that was about not giving up and trying to find your voice and hone your act in clubs, where you could easily give up because of hecklers, or if audiences don’t respond to you. Being an actor is the definition of perseverance. You can’t always hide behind, “The writing’s not good.”
I segued into writing and tried to get noticed doing that, and then I moved into directing. “Freaks and Geeks” wouldn’t let me direct until the last episode, and by then they knew it was getting canceled. I was in movie jail because my first two movies bombed horrendously. Then I directed TV and got to work on the best shows out there and Judd [Apatow] gave me another shot to direct “Bridesmaids.” So my entire career is about perseverance. I could’ve given up so many times, but I love what I do. If you know what you want, you have to persevere because if it was easy, you wouldn’t appreciate it.
Judging by the cast of “Ghostbusters,” you’re a big supporter of “Saturday Night Live.” Will you watch Donald Trump host on Saturday night?
I never miss the show and I watch it no matter who’s hosting. I try to stay out of politics. When the Huffington Post first started, I was writing a lot of stuff for them and I’d get angry comments from people. I realized that I’m a comedy guy and it’s not my job to be political. But I don’t miss “Saturday Night Live,” because I love everybody on the show.
Do you have any favorite comic strips these days?
Not really, but that’s because newspapers don’t have comics pages anymore. It’s really sad. I will say that Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series is very Schulzian.
I’m a huge fan of your book “Superstud” and I know you also wrote “Ignatius MacFarland” for children. Do you have any plans to write another book?
I’ve always wanted to finish what I call the Trilogy of Shame. I’ve got two books and I’m working on another one off-and-on about funny work stories, but I just haven’t had time to focus on it. It’d be nice to break off for two or three months and hole up somewhere. Writing books is a fun antidote to writing scripts, which are about tearing everything down.