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Toonzone Interviews Peter S. Beagle on the Blu-ray Release of "The Last Unicorn"

by on February 22, 2011

The inimitable Peter S. BeagleAn award-winning writer and fantasy novelist, Peter S. Beagle has created an impressive and growing body of work since his first novel was published in 1960. Among his creations are the novels A Fine and Private Place and Tamsin, the screenplay for Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and the episode “Sarek” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and a host of short stories and essays. Books collecting his works include The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances, The Line Between, We Never Talk About My Brother, and the upcoming Sleight of Hand (to be released on March 1, 2011).

In 1982 an animated film based his most well-known book, The Last Unicorn, was produced by Rankin-Bass based on a screenplay written by Mr. Beagle himself. Its popularity has endured over the years; the movie received a remastered DVD release in 2007 and the story was adapted to a graphic novel published by IDW Publishing. Now Lions Gate Entertainment is releasing the animated film on Blu-Ray, guaranteeing fans and new viewers an uncensored and top-quality presentation of this classic. Toonzone news caught up with Mr. Beagle to talk about this new product, the film, the new graphic novel, and more.

TOONZONE NEWS: Were you pushing for a Blu-Ray edition of The Last Unicorn?

PETER S. BEAGLE: I barely know to this day what a Blu-ray is. I don’t have a machine that plays them. When the new edition arrives it will be like the old days with me and television, where I’d have to go over to a neighbor’s house to watch a show I’d written. But my business manager and friend Connor Cochran pushed hard for it, and everything worked out wonderfully. I’m absolutely delighted with it.

TZN: When did you get involved in this rerelease?

PETER S. BEAGLE: Last November I went down to Deluxe Digital in Burbank, where Michael Sackett did a video interview of me for one of the special features, and then produced me and Connor doing an audio commentary track. After that I didn’t do anything except answer some questions related to tracking down and identifying photos for some of the included galleries. I am looking forward to promoting the rerelease every chance I get, though. There’s talk of setting up screenings around the country and flying me in for Q&A sessions with the audiences, which I certainly hope will happen.

TZN: Can you talk about the new special features that you participated in? What can fans expect to see in this new content?

PETER S. BEAGLE: My video interview is part of a mini-documentary called “Immortal Characters” that Michael put together. It’s touches on the general history of the making of The Last Unicorn, but — as its title implies — it’s really more about the story’s characters themselves, and why they’ve captured people’s imaginations over the years. That piece includes audio interviews with Christopher Lee and Jules Bass, both of which are great to hear. Then of course there’s the audio commentary track. Connor and I have done similar things at convention screenings of the film, but this was more intimate and conversational than those, and the chairs were a good deal more comfortable.

It was also exciting to see how good the new video master looked. Beyond those two things I know that Connor worked with Alex Webster at Radius60 to create several special galleries for people to browse through. There’s one about me and all my different creations; one which features all the winners of our 2010 Last Unicorn Art Contest; and finally there is a hugely-expanded version of Schmendrick’s Magical Gallery that has all kinds of neat photos and images bearing on The Last Unicorn, divided into six categories: American Covers, Foreign Editions, Inspirations, Movie Moments, Other Visions, and — here I blush — Peter S. Beagle.

The Red BullTZN: Looking back at The Last Unicorn with this high-definition transfer, what part of the movie is the most visually striking to you today?

PETER S. BEAGLE: There are several. The opening, which they filmed pretty much exactly as I wrote it. All the sequences with the Red Bull, which are now extraordinarily intense. And then there are the dissolves — the places where one image flows smoothly out of another. With the new, sharper resolution those become little gems of their own. These are all scenes I’ve seen before, of course, but the Blu-ray definition makes them new to me.

TZN: Are there any parts of the film that you feel perfectly matched or even strengthened what you had in mind?

PETER S. BEAGLE: Again, for me, the opening. This matters a great deal to me. Watching it, and seeing that visualization of the first few paragraphs of my novel, throws me back to being 23 years old and just starting the book, with no idea where it was going. Let alone the notion that it might actually have a future nearly 50 years later.

TZN: The Last Unicorn has enjoyed a dedicated following over the years. What do you think draws readers and viewers to this story?

PETER S. BEAGLE: I still wonder about that. I’m just as surprised as anybody else. The thing that amazes me is the number of people who have written to me personally, or called me, or come up to me at conventions to tell me how much the book or movie meant to them, particularly at very vulnerable periods during their lives. It always astonishes me. It always touches me. And the only conclusion I’ve ever been able to come to is that it is one of those stories that seems to have things in it that the author didn’t consciously put there. The way The Last Unicorn slides back and forth between being real and being pure fantasy, between being a fairy tale and a parody of fairy tales, between being straightforward storytelling and also aware of itself as a tale being told…I think that opens a gateway to places where some readers need to go.

TZN: As many fans know, the 25th anniversary release of The Last Unicorn had to censor the few curses in its dialogue, but this time around it’s available completely uncensored. What were the reasons for this and how did the situation change?

PETER S. BEAGLE: Let’s be clear on one thing up front. The new release is a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and there hasn’t been any change in the DVD component. It’s still censored. Only the Blu-ray is different, and what it does is offer customers a choice between the original audio dialog tracks and a censored version. I think they are calling the chopped one “family-friendly,” a term I find darkly amusing. Kind of depends on your family, right? I mean, The Last Unicorn got a G rating in 1982, so it’s not like there is anything really controversial in there…you know, I’ve always envied friends of mine who had their books snatched off school library shelves by committees of outraged parents, because invariably it has always jumped or even doubled their sales. I’ve complained: “Something like that never happens to me.” So I was caught completely by surprise by the people who were upset about the mild language in The Last Unicorn. Of course, it was kind of understandable. They’d seen the first DVD cover, the one from 2004 that Connor says looks like “My Little Pony on steroids,” and assumed that the film would be suitable for two and three-year-olds. But the idea of their little ones hearing “damn you” was so offensive that they went to the stores they’d bought it from and complained.

I’ve never known how many complaints actually came in, and to whom. What I do know is that in response to the complaints that they got, Wal-Mart told Lionsgate they wouldn’t carry the title unless the “bad language” was corrected. So Lionsgate did the logical thing and gave in. Given that Wal-Mart has now sold just under a million copies of the DVD, that was a pretty smart economic decision. Prior to the Blu-ray, what I told people who complained was that they should just shout the missing “damns” out for themselves, as if they were attending a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening. But that suggestion didn’t seem to catch on. As for how the situation changed, it’s pretty simple. Lionsgate knew the fans weren’t happy, and the greater space on the Blu-ray gave them a chance to put on two versions and please everyone. So they did. While I obviously prefer the dialog the way I wrote it, I like that both versions are available. Fair is fair.

The Unicorn and SchmendrickTZN: The Last Unicorn was finally published as a graphic novel by IDW publishing. Can you comment on the work done on the adaptation by Peter Gillis, Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon?

PETER S. BEAGLE: For me it’s not just the fact that Renae and Ray did such brilliant artwork — anyone can see that by opening the book and turning a page — but what really impresses me is that Peter Gillis did something that I could not have done. I’m very clear on that. I wouldn’t have known where to begin, trying to simultaneously stay true to my story, and weave in and around the illustrations, without losing the language. Peter and I had a very long talk in Chicago before he started. I don’t know if he got anything useful out of it, but I know I came away feeling very comfortable with what he was planning to do. Then as he worked he would regularly email me to keep me up on what he was doing with the plots and dialog, giving me plenty of chance to provide feedback. So for me, Renae and Ray certainly deserve all possible praise for their art, but I have a particular place of honor in my heart for Peter Gillis.

TZN: How do you feel the movie and the graphic novel compare against each other? Are there unique strengths that you think either possess?

PETER S. BEAGLE: There were things that were put back in the graphic novel that I knew, when I was writing the film’s screenplay, just wouldn’t fit in the movie, such as Hagsgate and Schmendrick’s backstory. As an author, that restoration pleases me. Also, while you can certainly see echoes of the movie in the graphic novel, it’s very much an individual thing. It is not simply a storybook or picture book of the movie. I love what they did with Captain Cully, for instance, making him into a failed Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks, obviously carrying an exaggerated sense of himself in his own head. You can imagine him with a mirror tacked up on a tree in the Greenwood, patiently trimming that moustache…it’s marvelously done. Over the course of the story there is more evolution, if you will, in the graphic novel’s version of the characters, as opposed to the versions in the movie. Partly this is a matter of changing times, and partly it is a matter of the strengths and weaknesses of different mediums: the film, for all its simplicity, is a more visceral, more immediate experience because cinema is more immersive than the comic page. Whereas the comic gives you more room for character development and subtler implications.

TZN: What’s the state of your ongoing royalties dispute with ITC/Granada?

PETER S. BEAGLE: After seven years of struggle we may — and I emphasize that word as strongly as possible — we may be nearing a resolution. I’m afraid I can’t say more right now, because we’re right in the middle of high-level negotiations, but I do want to thank all the Last Unicorn fans out there for being so supportive. Without them I hate to think where I’d be.

In Latin, 'unicornus'TZN: Is there anything fans can do to help at this juncture?

PETER S. BEAGLE: Getting this far has cost a lot of money, and seeing it through to the end — whether that end comes through negotiation or a court judgment — will cost yet more. If someone wants to help, the best thing to do is buy something of mine through Conlan Press. Half or more of any sale there goes straight to helping pay for things like this.

TZN: What’s the status of the comic adaptation for A Fine And Private Place? Have any staff been decided on for that project?

PETER S. BEAGLE: I know they are discussing how to do it, but right now that’s all I know. I hope Mariah Huehner will edit it, and I’ve nominated Peter Gillis to do the adaptation, but nothing has been decided. It’s going to be a totally different matter than The Last Unicorn, because it’s an interior sort of book. It moves slowly by comparison, and much more of it happens inside the characters, instead of through visible action. I’m very interested in seeing how they do it. I don’t know how I’d do it.

TZN: Could you discuss the new Schmendrick story that will be in your upcoming collection Sleight of Hand?

PETER S. BEAGLE: It’s called “The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon,” and I had the title long before I had anything else. Years, actually. It started as a possible line in a song, because of its natural waltz rhythm, but that never led anywhere. Then I tried to find a way to make it into a story, and none of those attempts ever worked, either. They were all too literal. This one, I think, finally comes out right. It’s Schmendrick sometime well before The Last Unicorn. I will always have a soft spot for this phase of the character, when he knows he’s supposed to be doing something, and hasn’t the faintest idea what it is, or how to do it. He’s a disconnected person, a magician-errant, if you will, who hasn’t yet connected with what he is or what he’s here for. This story finds him at a very low ebb in his magically-extended life, and I hope readers will find it satisfying. I certainly enjoyed writing it.

TZN: Are any other stories related to The Last Unicorn coming in the foreseeable future?

PETER S. BEAGLE: Yes. I never expected to be writing any, of course, and then in 2004 “Two Hearts” came along and showed me I wasn’t yet done with this place and these characters. The new Schmendrick story is actually one of three different pieces about him, all set before The Last Unicorn, that will be published sometime later this year by Conlan Press. And eventually there will be a full novel about Sooz, the point-of-view character in “Two Hearts.” I’m going to pick up her story when she is 17 years old. Every now and then it happens like that — a character just explodes into your head, and it becomes your responsibility to do right by them. But that’s a few years from now, at least. I have some other books I have to write first.

Last Unicorn Blu-ray Combo Pack Box ArtTZN: Are there any other writing projects you’re working on that you’d like to talk about?

PETER S. BEAGLE: Along with the Schmendrick book, Conlan Press is going to be doing two other mini-collections of mine, one with six original unicorn stories and one with three Shakespeare-themed pieces. I’m also polishing two long-delayed novels for first publication, and making some changes in The Folk of the Air and The Innkeeper’s Song in preparation for their reprinting. Then I think I’m going to focus on longer projects for a while. For example, I’ve always wanted to write a baseball book — I love baseball — and I’m finally doing it, with a fantasy novel which takes place in the Pittsburgh of my college years. I was 16 and away from home for the first time and I was turned loose in the Pittsburgh of the late 1950s, which hadn’t been cleaned up worth a damn. It was smoky, funky, and coal dust collected on everything. The steel mills were going day and night. And I was living, most of the time, a few blocks away from Forbes Field, where the Pittsburgh Pirates played. I could see the Pirates walking to work like anybody else. I loved it. I have a deep old fondness for that particular Pittsburgh, a place which doesn’t exist anymore, and I’ll certainly have fun recreating it. I plan on spending a lot of time in Pittsburgh just walking around, remembering the way it was then and the way that I was then.

Toonzone News would like to extend its gratitude to Mr. Beagle and Connor Freff Cochran for their time. The Blu-Ray/DVD combo for The Last Unicorn will be released by Lionsgate Entertainment on February 22, 2011. Interested fans can support Mr. Beagle directly by ordering a normal or signed copy of the movie or one of his many works at conlanpress.com. Don’t forget to check out our earlier interview with Peter S. Beagle in commemoration of the 25th anniversary DVD.

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