Learn how a chance meeting with John Lennon turned into an Academy Award Nominated film
In May of 1969, fourteen-year-old Jerry Levitan heard a rumor that his hero John Lennon was hiding out in his hometown of Toronto, Canada. The young teenager didn't want to miss this one and only chance to speak personally with the legendary musician, so he set out on a quest to find his favorite Beatle. After knocking on numerous hotel room doors throughout the city, Levitan finally happened upon his idol. They hit it off, and John Lennon allowed the kid to come in for a chat.
What resulted from this chance meeting was a thirty-minute interview recorded on an old reel-to-reel tape machine. A recording that Jerry Levitan has been sitting on for close to forty years. After many offers and ideas, Jerry decided to take the audio and do something creative and personal with it. He sought out animator Josh Raskin, and together, the two turned the aged thirty-minute sound recording into a five-minute animated short. Helping them create this masterpiece were Raskin's friends James Braithwaite, who did all of the hand drawn animation, and Alex Kurina, who worked on the digital design.
The short takes Lennon's message of peace and turns it into an amazingly complex bit of animation. Though his words were spoken almost forty years ago, the dialogue certainly resonates with the state of the world today. The film has swept numerous film festivals, taking in top honors everywhere from Abu Dhabi to South America. It has also been nominated for an Academy Award at this year's 80th Oscar ceremony.
I recently met up with producer and star Jerry Levitan and director Josh Raskin to discuss the process of reviving this old John Lennon interview and turning it into one of the coolest stretches of animation seen in the last few years. Here is that conversation:
I'll kick this right off, Jerry. How did you become such a media expert on the Beatles?
Jerry Levitan: (Laughs) I have spent my life studying the Beatles. I was fourteen in 1969 when I met John, and before that I was a total Beatles freak. I was just a little kid when the Beatles broke. I had an older brother and sister, and they were into the earlier stuff. It was around the Revolver period that I got really into them. In '69, the double-white album was the last big thing. And I was obsessed with the Beatles. My whole life revolved around them. I would read anything about them, or listen to anything about them that I could. I am not one of these guys that know all the trivia off the top of my head. I can't do these quizzes, "When did the Beatles come to the United States? 1965." I can't recite those types of statistics. But in terms of the content of the Beatles, their music, their lives, the meaning behind certain songs, the history of their songs, and the social context of it, I am probably one of the biggest experts around.
Josh, were you also a huge Beatles fanatic?
Josh Raskin: I can't claim to have lived through the whole Beatles craze, but from the moment I popped out, the Beatles were my breast milk. They were my musical upbringing. I was constantly listening to Beatles records, and reading Lennon books, and looking at Lennon drawings. To me, there never was any question. They were the best band that had ever existed. And nobody could fuck with that. They were a massive influence on me, and I was as big a fan as I could be having been born ten years after they split up.
So, Jerry, you actually met with John Lennon when you were fourteen and interviewed him?
Jerry Levitan: In may of 1969, when I was fourteen, there was a rumor that John was in Toronto. I went on a hunt and found him by knocking on doors in a hotel. He let me hang with him for a day. I had this taped interview along with a whole bunch of other material. I have a home movie that is on Super 8, photographs, albums, and stuff. I have basically sat on it for all these years. I wouldn't sell it and refused to participate in movies or documentaries. I was never comfortable with what people were proposing to me. Then, three years ago, I thought, since I am hounded constantly about it...I get calls from the media every year on the anniversary of his death to talk about my story, or to talk about John and the Beatles...I thought, "You know what? I am going to do something artistic." I decided to do something on my own terms. I poked around the Toronto art scene and found a wonderful animator and filmmaker named Josh Raskin. I said, "Let's do this." I did it basically for myself. That was the genesis of this. Josh's idea was to take my thirty minute taped audio interview, edit it down to five and a half minutes, and animate it. I thought, "Great!" I have no other objective than to close this story for my own personal gratification, and my kids, and grandkids. Little did I know that this film would take the world by storm at film festivals.
What was going through your mind when you met John? And how did you have the guts to bring up certain things, like the fact that you weren't digging on George Harrison at the time? Cause that is pretty funny stuff.
Jerry Levitan: (Laughs) This is the thing. I was on a mission to find him. I didn't spend a lot of time thinking, "Will I really do this? What will I say if I actually find him?" I really had no expectations other than a strong need to meet my hero and talk to him. It wasn't a question of guts. I know it sounds like a gutsy thing. Sure, there were times when I was a little nervous. But for me, loving John Lennon and the Beatles as much as I did, the thought of him being in Toronto, and me missing the opportunity to not just meet him, but really talk to him, was something my brain could not digest. I was compelled to do it. When I saw him, he obviously liked me. He felt comfortable with me. And he felt that it was important for him and for me to really talk. And talk about all these things. In my interview, I start talking about peace. Because that is what he was about at the time. Yoko and he were about to do the Montreal Bed-In for Peace. This took place a day or two later, so that was a big focus. I talked to him about that. I quickly segued from that into the music of the Beatles. And his own music. And my love for it. My wanting to understand the meaning behind some of those iconic songs. I would tell him, "I was listening to the double-white album. I think the first side is about love. And the second side is peace. And he would say, "Look. I am just a guy. I wake up in the morning. I have a smoke and a coffee. And I write a song about the day, and what is going on in my mind. That's all there is." I kept pressing him, because to me he was a God. And he would say, "We're just four guys. That's it. Whether it is profound, or not profound, that's all it is." He was always trying to bring me down. And the part about George? I wanted the guys to take it out because I was embarrassed by it. I said, , "Hey, I don't want to diss George." But they loved it. So many people love that moment. What it demonstrates is, first of all, what was going on in my head. And it demonstrates that moment in time. In those days, people had their favorite Beatle. My favorite was John. And Paul, sort of. But I loved George and Ringo, too. For example, in those days, I used to go hang out with my friends, and I would tell them John was my favorite. And someone else would say that George was their's. We would argue this type of stuff. So I brought that up to John. When I ask him about George, John says, "George is a nifty guitarist." I say, "I'm not crazy about him, but I like him." And John nods, "Yeah." It was that kind of thing. It was a competitive thing. What it demonstrates is my innocence at fourteen, wondering what John thought about all of these things in my head. Also, it was about me telling him how loyal I was to him.
Looking back on this interview, are there any questions that you regret not getting to ask John?
Jerry Levitan: No. That's a good question. Not that many people ever ask me that. But absolutely not. I was with him in the morning. Then they let me come back later on with a tape recorder. When I came back, and the tape recorder was turned on, it was at that moment that I realized I hadn't prepared a single question. It was the only time I was actually frightened. But when John sat down and said, "Ask away!" Things just flowed. Would I have liked to ask who picked the cover for Abbey Road? Sure. But regrets? Are you kidding? I spent such quality time with him.
How did you two meet? And how did it come up that Jerry had this interview?
Josh Raskin: Jerry found me. He had seen a bunch of my student film work. A mutual friend that I had gone to school with showed it to him. He was interested in doing a film. He got in touch with me. Originally, he wanted to do a longer documentary type of thing. I was immediately drawn to the story. It is Lennon. It is this incredible story of this kid barging into his room. It is an incredible artifact. The recording itself is what drew me to it. So I wrestled it out of his hands. He was nice enough to let me have it for a few days. I came back with this idea to cut it down to five minutes and animate to it. For whatever reason, he didn't think it was a horrible idea. He let me run with it from that point on. We saw eye to eye almost immediately. He was endlessly trusting and just let us do our thing. He would poke his head in every few months and get really giddy. He'd then tell us to carry on and run away. It was the dream producer/director relationship, which we were really thankful for. That trust was pretty mind blowing.
Now, you had a forty-minute interview. How did you pick through that to get the five minutes?
Jerry Levitan: It really wasn't that difficult. We agreed that we would focus on his peace message rather than him just talking to me. It was about how kids should relate to that lofty subject. It didn't require a tremendous amount of editing. A great portion of what you hear is right form the beginning. I talked to him about a lot of things. I talked to him about the Beatles music, hidden meanings, and some quite personal kinds of things. I had a lot to tell him about myself. We did use some of that. We really wanted to focus on his peace message. And how he writes music. And how he responded to my angst as a kid. It was those three aspects. It really wasn't that tough to put it all together.
Josh, you were the one that went through the interview and picked out the five minutes that you wanted to include in the film, right?
Josh Raskin: Yeah, that was easily the hardest part. I had to cut down the forty-minute interview down to just five minutes. The entire interview is just pure gold. The struggle was to cut it down so that it flowed in a mini-narrative way. And I had to get in the most profound, simple things that John was going on about. I also needed to get across the simple, naïve question asking bits. The parts were Jerry rambles on about not liking George Harrison. Those are the things that really turn this into an amazing historical artifact. Those honest moments set it apart from other interviews. It is not a CNN reporter. It is this very honest, naïve kid that has balls of steel. He walked right in there and did it. John treats him with as much, if not more, respect than he would have a Fox reporter. I think.
Are you planning on doing something with the left over thirty-five minutes? Maybe a sequel?
Jerry Levitan: I don't have any plans. I thought the story was crazy before this. For decades I have been approached by people to do something with the material I have. Now I have people approaching me to talk about a feature film based on my story. The nature of what I did and what it was is a compelling story. I always knew that. In the context of what the world is going through, in terms of war and peace, and in respect to celebrity. Some people think this is a unique story. Eventually, the same comment I always get is that this is Almost Famous but with John Lennon.
Josh Raskin: I don't want to cheapen what we have done by making sequel after sequel. And then the 3-D version. I am happy with what we made. It was a really personal process to do it. It took over a year, and it is only a five-minute short. I would love to see this come out with an illustrated book. And then the DVD is in the back of the book. You get to the last page of the book, and Jerry realizes that he hasn't thought of any questions to ask John. You pop in the DVD, and watch the film. I think I want to close the book on this thing that way. I don't think I want to do another animated segment. I think doing an illustrated book would be great. Through that medium, we could tell Jerry's story. That is all stuff that is deliberately left out of the film. The short doesn't give you any context as to what actually happened. And it is a truly great story. As far as the film goes, I think we have said everything we've wanted to say about it. Whether we do a book or don't do a book, or if we do a straight DVD release, or don't...We will still throw it up on the internet at some point. It is not something we need to keep behind closed doors forever. More importantly, that is going to happen anyway. The second we release it, someone is going to put it up on youtube. We'd rather control how and when that happens as opposed to feeling like victims. We would be happy to put it on line. We never expected to make a penny from this. The most important thing is that people see the film. And the message gets out.
Do you think the entire forty minutes of audio will be available to fans that want to listen to it?
Jerry Levitan: I have held onto my material for a long time. It's not like I want to exploit it. I didn't start this to exploit it. Part of it is very personal to me. I don't plan on sending out DVDs with my material on them. That is not what this all about for me. I am not interested in a commercial investment or a cash grab. But something meaningful? If it is a feature film that talks about the story and is written well, I would be open to that.
What about the John Lennon fans that simply want to hear the interview?
Jerry Levitan: Right this second I have no intentions to dump it into the airwaves. A good part of it is very personal to me.
Can you talk about the process of turning the interview into the actual cartoon?
Jerry Levitan: Sure. For about three years now, I have been addressing my mind as far as doing something with this. My initial thought was to put it to bed. I thought rather than doing a straight documentary or simply releasing the interview like you said, I could tell my story in an artistic way. I figured I could get some young artists to give their interpretation of what happened to me and their meaning of it. That is what I started to explore. I travel in music circles, and I was introduced to some artists, and that led me to Josh . He was probably around twenty-five at the time. He had done some film work for his own purposes. He had a great aesthetic, and he was smart. And cool. And he loved John Lennon. We threw some ideas around, and talked. Then one day he had this idea. To take my full interview, edit it down to about five and a half minutes, and animate it. Before he could finish the sentence, I said, "Great, let's do it." From there, we got a grant from Bravo! Fact in Canada. Then I funded the rest of it myself. Josh hired a couple of friends that were also artists. The three of them went to work for over a year. We made it at a small little studio in downtown Toronto that sits on top of a paint store. I would come in from time to time, look at what they were doing, and we would talk about it. Everything they were doing was just great. And I loved it. When it was finished, I saw that they had captured what it felt like for me as a fourteen year old. They also captured John's wit and charm. When it was finished, I said, "Guys, if this is all it is, I am happy." Then people started saying, "Let's start taking it to film festivals." I said, "Okay." We took it and started getting raves from around the world. We won top honors at the Middle East film festival in Abu Dhabi. That stunned me. I am a Jewish kid from Toronto. To be associated with a film that features the huge rock star John Lennon from the infamous Beatles, and we are talking about peace, and to see it win an Arab film festival award is beyond great. We have been getting awards from places all over the world. South Korea. Europe. England. Africa. South America. I was stunned that this film had these legs. It is a brilliant film. And it is so wonderful. And it is the narrative that is drawing so much interest in this short. Ultimately, this wound up at the American Film Institute, and won an award in a top category. Then we were told that we'd been short listed for the Academy Awards. That's what led us to that.
Was the animation in the film influenced by your admiration of the Beatles music and their imagery?
Josh Raskin: It was probably heavily influenced by it, but not remotely intentionally. Growing up with all of that stuff around me, it wove itself deep into my sensibilities. Both visually and in terms of my sense of humor. My sense of what things should look like and move like. I didn't go out and research a bunch of Beatles film. Or Monty Python/Terry Gilliam style animation. Having grown up with it, the seeds were already planted. I didn't have to go out of my way for this. It wasn't a stretch to try and emulate that. I didn't have to try. It was just there. That is the way I do things anyway. Because I lived through it.
Is it euphoric to go to these massive film festivals and win an award for a movie where you are sharing a screen credit with John Lennon?
Josh Raskin: I am so intimately involved with every frame of the film. Even something like the screen credit, I positioned it pixel by pixel. So, I have no objectivity on anything like that. Being next to Lennon's name at this point? It is hard for me to grasp the enormity of it. It's just there. I remember fiddling with that credit itself, and listening to his voice over for months and months on end. I don't even think I have perspective on that anymore. I should be blown away. I should fall to the ground, mumbling, every time I think about it. But I can't even be that knocked over any more, because I am just too closely involved in it.
Were you at all surprised when you got the Oscar nomination?
Josh Raskin: I was shocked. Frankly. Especially the way we worked in making this thing. It was such a long, drawn out, personal process. We had three guys locked inside a dark studio for three years with nothing but ping-pong to keep them sane. At the other end of it, knowing that I am happy with it and that it is exactly what I envisioned, I didn't even consider how anyone else would respond. I am constantly blown away when someone gives us an award. This Academy Award nomination is beyond anything we ever saw coming. It is a little bit nuts, and extremely flattering, to know that other people like it just as much as you do.
One last question for you. How do you think John Lennon's message about peace from forty years ago then reflects and resonates on the world around us today?
Jerry Levitan: First of all, he was talking to a fourteen year old kid. So he is talking in very honest and simple terms. He wasn't talking lofty. He was just giving me some wise words and guidance for my life. He was also talking at a time of great turbulence. We were at the height of the Vietnam war. And starvation in Africa. Then there were all of these things going on in the Middle East. It was so similar to all of these things that are still going on today. When he talked, he wouldn't talk about Vietnam. He just talked about the duty and the respect, and the responsibility of every individual to change the world. If we are unhappy with war, and what our governments are doing about it, we can change things in a very peaceful way. That was his basic message to me. When you hear him talk in our film and in my interview, it is as if he is talking about the world today. It was just so striking. One of the first calls I got after I got the nomination was from a member of the Academy. We'd never met before, or spoken before. This guy was in his late fifties or early sixties. And he called to tell me that when he saw the film, it was as if our old friend was talking to us today. The guy had tears in his voice. He was basically crying on the phone. For people around the world that are so unhappy with what is going on, to hear our old friend John Lennon talk so hopefully and positively about how the world could be is breathtaking. It certainly resonates today.
Josh Raskin: I think what John is talking about is more relevant today than it was thirty years ago when this was recorded. And that is an unfortunate situation to find ourselves in. It just goes to show you how little we have learned. I think that is too bad. And it is important for people to hear this message now. I didn't want to interpret the message for people. I think people should take away from it whatever they take away from it. It should incite discussion and thought about these types of things. It is a huge relief to me that people think it speaks to today's situation. But I am sure there are tons of people that look at it and think it is this crappy sounding audio from forty years ago. That it has nothing to do with anything. But I like that about it. That you can walk away from it with two entirely different interpretations. This is either the ramblings of a lunatic. Or this is some profound, important stuff that we need to pay attention to again.
Just real quick, whose idea was it to throw the Wings album cover in there? That was really funny?
Josh Raskin: That was my idea. It is meant to be a light jostle, and not a shot at Paul. I thought it was important to have that in there.
What sort of venues is this short playing at that people who are interested might be able to see it?
Jerry Levitan: None. As of yet. We are just waiting for this process to be finished. We are receiving all kinds of offers. I have turned down every one of them. I want this to go through the process. So we will wait until this goes through the Academy Awards. Our thought process is that at some point, we will let everybody see it. I didn't start off this thing to make money. That wasn't my intention. So, ultimately, I will be very happy if everyone gets a chance to see it.
Well, good luck next week at the awards.
Josh Raskin: Thanks a lot.
The 80th Annual Academy Awards Airs Sunday, February 24th on ABC.