How He Met The Walrus

When Jerry Levitan was 14, he tracked down John Lennon at a hotel in Toronto, barged in his room and spent a day talking with the famous Beatle and recording Lennon’s message of peace.

For 38 years he didn’t do anything with the 30-minute recording, waiting for the right format to share his experience. Then he met a young Toronto filmmaker named Josh Raskin, who suggested creating an animated short with the audio recording. Levitan loved the idea.

So along with illustrator James Braithwaite and digital artist Alex Kurina, Raskin spent just over a year creating a six-minute film called I Met the Walrus, which has been winning awards at film festivals all over the world, including the AFI Fest, the Middle East International Film Festival, Manhattan Short Film Festival and Hawaii International Film Festival. Recently it was screened at Sundance and now it’s nominated for an Academy Award. RD.ca talked to Levitan and Raskin about their journey in making the film.

RD.ca: How did you know what hotel John Lennon was staying at?

Levitan: I took a guess that he was at the King Edward because that’s where the Beatles had stayed before when they came on tour. I went to the top floor because I thought I would meticulously go through every room until I found him. So I knocked on every door, woke up people, until the cleaning lady said, “Are you looking for the Beatle?” I said “yes” and she told me what room he was in… I barged in, stared at my feet, then sat down next to a tripod and looked up and it was John and Yoko doing an interview.

RD.ca: What did you talk about with John Lennon?

Levitan: I talked to him about the Beatles double White Album and how he wrote music. He said was just an ordinary guy and he would write music about whatever he was thinking about at the time.

RD.ca: What was the message that Lennon wanted to share with world?

Levitan: He talked about peace and he was worried that the 60s peace movement was turning violent. He said you should protest for peace, peacefully.

RD.ca: What was it like to meet John Lennon in person?

Levitan: It was incredible. He was kind to me. He gave me quality time. He didn’t shut me off; he didn’t turn me away. He was a very generous person with his time and with his mind.

RD.ca: Why did you hold on to the recording for 39 years?

Levitan: I never wanted to do anything cheesy with it. So it just got to the point where three years ago I thought, well, why don’t I do something interesting with it, and that’s why I started poking around the Toronto arts scene to see if I could find some young filmmaker who would want to put an interesting take on it.

RD.ca: How did you and Josh meet?

Raskin: Through a mutual friend that I went to high school with who showed him a bunch of my film work that I’d done in university. And he got in touch with me and pitched the idea of doing a documentary…I was more interested in doing something a little more focused and within my realm of ability. After wrestling the recording out of his hands and listening to it for a couple of days, I came back with the idea of cutting it down to a manageable length and animating directly to it.

RD.ca: Did you make the film in Toronto?

Raskin: Yes. We locked ourselves inside [the animation studio] and the only thing that kept us sane was a rigorous ping-pong regimen.

RD.ca: Tell me about the title of the film, I Met the Walrus.

Levitan: John Lennon wrote a song called I Am the Walrus.

RD.ca: There seems to be some discussion about whether the Walrus was John or Paul.

Levitan: First of all the song is I Am the Walrus. Secondly, in a song called God, which was the John’s first solo album after the Beatles broke up, he actually sings, “I was the Walrus.” There’s no question he was the Walrus. The reason there was confusion is there is a song called “Glass Onion,” where he says, “Here’s another clue for you all, the Walrus was Paul,” but that was just to joke around with people. That’s why a lot of people say, “Paul was the Walrus,” but they’re wrong.

RD.ca: Does the film weave the interview with a visual narrative?

Raskin: It does. When Jerry speaks, he’s portrayed in a squiggly line kind of hand-drawn way that’s fairly representational. It’s this kid with this strange reel-to-reel recording apparatus on his chest and kind of haphazard microphone…and when John starts to speak, his words unfold in a sort of stream-of-consciousness, free associative way…I really didn’t want to interpret the meaning of what he was talking about, but literally show the words materializing in a visual way, as though you might be inside the head of this overwhelmed kid.

RD.ca: Was the style that you chose influenced at all by Yellow Submarine?

Raskin: Visually the style is reminiscent of that and the way things transform in this strange montage-y, collage-y, psychedelic way, but it wasn’t intentional.

RD.ca: Do you feel Lennon’s message of peace is still relevant today?

Levitan: Absolutely. It’s as if the world hasn’t changed since 1969. The war in Vietnam was raging. When you hear him talk, it’s as he’s talking to the same world.

RD.ca: So a parallel today might be conflict in the Middle East or in Iraq?

Levitan: Right.

RD.ca: This film has won numerous awards, including Best Animation at the Middle East International Film Festival. Do they know you’re Jewish?

Levitan: I don’t know, but the film is about this Jewish kid in Toronto talking to a big pop star about peace…It obviously resonated with them.

RD.ca: The film is now nominated for an Academy Award. Are you surprised?

Levitan: You know this wasn’t made for glory, so for it to run this course is just quite phenomenal.

RD.ca: Are you planning to go to the Academy Awards?

Raskin: Absolutely. I think they send people to kill you if you don’t. [Chuckles.] Yeah, definitely, we’ll be there.

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