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Peter S. Beagle on "The Last Unicorn" 25th Anniversary

by on February 5, 2007

Peter S. Beagle is one of those creators who proves that the universe is not fair in distributing talent. His first novel, A Fine and Private Place, was written when he was at the ripe old age of 19, and he followed it up with a huge library of highly beloved novels that get categorized as fantasy because it seems to be the only genre capable of containing his wild imagination. Over time, Beagle has written novels, non-fiction, poetry, opera librettos, folk songs, television episodes, and movie screenplays.

One of those screenplays was the adaptation of his most famous novel, The Last Unicorn. The animated adaptation, produced by Rankin-Bass, was released in 1982, and both book and film have maintained a large and enthusiastic fanbase over time. 25 years after its debut, The Last Unicorn is getting a special-edition DVD release from Lions Gate, presenting it in its original widescreen format for North American audiences for the first time since its theatrical run. Toon Zone News caught up with Mr. Beagle via e-mail to talk about the original novel, the process of going from book to film, and more.

TOON ZONE NEWS: How soon after finishing the novel did you start thinking about making The Last Unicorn into a movie?

What is it that I'm searching for in this strange place, day after day?PETER S. BEAGLE: When The Last Unicorn was published in 1968 I was just concerned with liking it as a book. It took me about a year and a half before I could stand the thing, because I’d had such a hard time writing it. But there was some movie interest early on. I remember that the people who did the Charlie Brown TV specials — Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez — were very interested in it at one point. But I also remember the wife of one of their partners taking me aside at some gathering and saying to me, very earnestly, maybe fueled by wine and maybe not, “Don’t let us do it. We’re not good enough.” I remember that.

Other people thought of making it into a movie, but I never really expected it. I had a dear friend, Les Goldman, a retired animator from 20th Century Fox, who wanted to make it, but knew he couldn’t ever pull the financing together. And then 14 years later, in 1982, it was made. But right to the last I never expected it to be a movie. I just didn’t.

TZN: Did you always envision the movie as an animated film, or were you thinking of live-action before it became animated?

PSB: This was 1982, remember. Yes, Star Wars and the beginning of the Star Trek movies existed, but for something like The Last Unicorn, animated was the only way to go. It never occurred to me that there would come a time when a live-action movie might be possible. I never thought about that for a minute. I wish I had — I might not have given up the live-action rights as part of the animation deal!

TZN: Some stuff was cut from the novel, like the back-stories of Schmendrick and Prince Lír, and the town of Hagsgate. Was this something by choice, by running time, by the book-to-film process?

Last of the red-hot swamisPSB: Book-to-film process. I knew enough of film work at the time to know that animation, as I’ve said often, hates to stand still. Animation does not deal well with backstory. Live action can, animation doesn’t. It doesn’t sit still for people telling each other what’s been going on. It has to move. So I already knew that the scene in Hagsgate would essentially have to go. What I grieve about is that a lot of the scene with the outlaws had to go. I’m sad about that. But Schmendrick’s own backstory, while useful for the book — I’m glad I did it like that — wasn’t really necessary for the movie. You could get around it, at least for an animated film.

TZN: In a prior interview, you mentioned that Rankin-Bass was the last studio you approached before someone agreed to make the film. If you are willing/able to say, who were the other studios (besides Disney, of course), and why didn’t any of them agree to make the movie?

PSB: I don’t really know. That was in the hands of my producer, Michael Chase Walker. (Michael’s final credit on the film was Associate Producer, which means, as he used to say sadly, that “you get to associate with producers.”) But I’d left that entirely up to Michael. I was just grateful that he’d come up with the money to buy the rights to the book — which, although not that much, was at the time the largest check I’d ever seen. And if Michael told me anything about where the project had been pitched, it has been too long and I don’t really remember. It must have been just about everywhere, though. Because I do remember being horrified when he told me that Rankin & Bass had made the deal with him, and screaming “Why the hell didn’t you just go to Hanna-Barbera!” To which he replied “They were next on the list.” That was going to be it.

TZN: Given that Rankin-Bass weren’t your first choice, were you happy with the way the movie turned out in the end? If you could change one thing about the final film, what would it be?

PSB: For many years my stock reply was that it was better than I expected. Which, in fact. It was. But with time I have come to feel that the film is actually a good deal more than I had originally credited. There is some lovely design work — the Japanese artists who did the concepts and coloring were very good. And the voice actors do a superb job in bringing my characters to life, although I’m still a little disappointed with Alan Arkin’s approach. His Schmendrick still seems too flat for me.

As for changes, there isn’t any one thing. I think I find myself agreeing with Arthur Rankin, who told me in New York last year that he wished he had had a bigger budget. When I asked him why, all he said was “To make it all look better.”

My secrets guard themselves. Will yours do the same?TZN: How involved were you in the actual making of the movie? Did you get input into things like visual design or voice-casting?

PSB: Not at all. I had no input beyond the screenplay. Simply none. The closest I got to input was when I met Christopher Lee, who had just recorded Haggard’s speech about the first time he ever saw the unicorns. When I said to him “I think you just recorded my favorite speech in the whole book,” Christopher said immediately “Was it all right? I can go back and re-record it, we’re right here in the studio.” And that was it as far as having any chance for input.

TZN: Interestingly, the novel (and, as a result, the movie) manages to give a fairly complete back-story to everybody except Molly. Was there a reason for that?

PSB: None. Absolutely none. That would have involved the whole story of how Molly became an outlaw and came to live with Captain Culley. Now, I suspect that Molly may have had a fairly genteel background, at one point, and an outlaw looked like a great change from the boys she was constantly being introduced to. I don’t know. I may have written that in an earlier version of the script, one that was never filmed, but I don’t remember. But Tammy Grimes brought such vocal life to the character that she covered things I didn’t do. I’ve always been grateful.

TZN: How closely did the film stick to your final draft of the screenplay?

PSB: Remarkably close. There are changes, as are inevitable, and there are missing bits — my screenplay did have the princess showing up at the end, and Schmendrick directing her to Prince Lír, which they animated but eventually cut — but at least I didn’t have the experience I had while watching the animated version of The Lord of the Rings, for which I did the screenplay. In that movie Frodo is told by Gandalf that the Black Riders have at least temporarily been put out of action, and Frodo answers “That’s sort of a relief.” I never wrote THAT one!

TZN: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a songwriter and a musician yourself. Did you have any input into the music? They definitely don’t use the songs that you put into the novel.

PSB: I can read music, I know something about harmony, and even theory. Not much, but some. If I ever went back to college I’d probably go back as a music student. But in the beginning I never imagined I could write music. Eventually, through playing and imitating the songs of a great French songwriter-musician named Georges Brassens, I found that I could write music for my own lyrics, and I started doing that. But at the time the book of The Last Unicorn was written, however, I wasn’t yet doing that. I was just writing lyrics. Now, I did know them as lyrics, and I did have some kind of music in my head for all of them. But it was other people’s music. Molly’s song in the book, where she sings “If I danced with my feet as I dance in my dreaming”…in my head that has the melody of a very old English folk song. And “I am a king’s daughter” scans beautifully to the music of “Lili Marlene.”

Then there is Prince Lír’s song, which I have heard any number of people play to the tune of “The Ash Grove” — I never thought that at all. It never occurred to me, though I know “The Ash Grove” well. As I recall I had seen a Sean O’Casey play, a minor one called Red Roses for Me, and the old Gilbert & Sullivan actor, Martin Green, played a perfectly charming Irish vagabond. In the part he played the concertina, a genuine squeezebox, and he sang a couple of songs with O’Casey lyrics that I thought were lovely. And I wanted to write something on the order of those Irish songs, which is how you get, to my mind, Prince Lír’s song.

Where were you when I was new?I pay attention to lyrics of songs. And I like Jimmy Webb as a composer, although I don’t like all of his songs used in The Last Unicorn, only most of them. But I’m touched by something he said in his book Tunesmith about writing the songs for The Last Unicorn being the nicest experience he ever had with films — he says it opened him up to an entirely new audience of seven year-old girls that may not know he wrote “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” but do know that he wrote “Man’s Road.”

TZN: How is the battle over royalties going between you and ITC/Granada? Anything new to report on that front?

PSB: Only that thanks to fan pressure and letter writing we may be making some progress. Maybe. That one is really in the hands of my business manager, Connor Cochran, and while I hope it will be resolved soon there’s simply no telling how long it might actually take. Or whether we can reach a satisfactory resolution short of going to court. We’ll see.

TZN: There was to be a graphic novel adaptation of The Last Unicorn that was to be drawn by Michael Wm. Kaluta and published by Scholastic, which has since been canceled. Can you talk about why?

PSB: I love Michael’s work. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was that Scholastic, with all due respect, wanted to give much less space to the story than it needs. They were compressing it past the point where it worked, and we just couldn’t allow that. It wasn’t possible. I’d still love to work with Michael on it, and I hope this will come to fruition eventually with some other publisher.

TZN: Why did you decide to adapt The Last Unicorn as a graphic novel?

PSB: Because I never had. And because I’m a sucker for anything literary I haven’t done before. Which is how I wound up writing the libretto for an opera, and it’s how I wound up working, however briefly, in the world of computer gamers. I’m sure that I will be working in the world of graphic novels, once I’m more familiar with it.

Peter S. BeagleTZN: So what’s next from Peter Beagle? What are you working on now?

PSB: Altogether too many things, and it keeping me very busy. I have a novel coming out next year from Tachyon Publications, who published two books of mine before (story collections called The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and The Line Between). This novel is to be called Sweet Lightning, and it is baseball fantasy set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, which is where and when I went to college. I’m looking forward to it and have done a good bit of writing already, because I’m a passionate baseball fan and because those are my very formative years: a time when most players didn’t make enough money from the game to get through the off-season, and had to take on jobs, sometimes even menial ones, to survive. It was another world and another time altogether. And there I was, 16-17 years old, running around Pittsburgh, away from home for the very first time, living three blocks from the ballpark. I remember it all very fondly.

Along with that one there is I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons, which will be out this year. It’s a young-adult/teen novel from Firebird, and its hero is a young dragon exterminator — he inherited the gig from his father — in a world where yeah, there are big and dangerous dragons, but more often than not dragons are just little things that get in the walls and then you have to call the exterminator. It’s funny, and adventurous, and pretty scary too, in spots. I’ve had a lovely time writing the book and I’m very fond of the characters and of the dragons.

I should also mention Summerlong, something which I wrote several years ago…an adult novel, whatever the difference is…that takes place in the modern day, mostly in the Seattle area, and especially on an island off Seattle. It has to do with an older couple who have been an item for 20 years without ever actually living together or bothering to get married. He lives on the island, she lives in Seattle, and they spend a lot of time with each other. He’s a retired history professor; she’s a flight attendant, waiting out the years to retirement and glad to get there. And they become involved with two people, first one and then another, who may be very old gods out of Greek mythology. That will be published this September by Night Shade Books.

There’s also a stack of new short stories and novelettes to write. Connor got me into that; I blame him entirely. But now I find myself committed to writing stories for various magazines and original anthologies, and while it is a strain, I’m enjoying it. The effort has produced a lot of work I didn’t think I had in me, not at that length, certainly. But I’m very proud of these stories.

Toon Zone News would like to thank Mr. Beagle and Connor Freff Cochran for their time. The Last Unicorn 25th Anniversary DVD Edition will be released by Lions Gate Entertainment on February 6, 2007. Fans may want to consider ordering the DVD directly from Conlan Press, since a special arrangement with Lions Gate means half the proceeds from those DVD sales will go directly to Mr. Beagle. Read more details in Toon Zone News’ earlier coverage.

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