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Toronto lawyer up for animated short film Oscar

|Written By Robert Todd

A Toronto lawyer’s journey that began when he was a 14-year-old skipping school for a chance to meet his idol, John Lennon, could culminate in Hollywood on Sunday with a victory speech to some of the world’s biggest stars at the Academy Awards.

“The whole thing is a wild ride,” says Toronto lawyer Jerry Levitan, producer of the Oscar-nominated short animated film I Met the Walrus. “It’s not like I’m salivating to get the award. It’d be a great thing, but it’s a bit of a fool’s game,” says the civil litigation specialist.

The film is based on Levitan’s interview in 1969 with music legend John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono at a Toronto hotel.

The Beatles superstar and Ono were at the time in the midst of their bed-in protest for world peace, and the bold Levitan got a piece of their time after posing as a reporter. A huge Beatles fan, Levitan had skipped school after hearing on the radio about the couple’s possible whereabouts and tracked them down with the help of a hotel maid.

The encounter changed his life, Levitan says.

“Imagine having the kind of quality meeting I had with John Lennon; imagine what that would do to a 14-year-old,” he tells Law Times. “It’s an overwhelming transformative event, and I know it’s played out in my life to this very day in ways that have led me to great places and led me to unhappy places. Like many people, I’ve had a life that’s had its ups and downs.”

Levitan, who is also an actor and musician, said he’s had many offers since then to convert the tapes into a film. But all those offers were unsavoury, he says.

“I didn’t want it to be a cheesy, exploitive thing,” he says.

Three years ago, Levitan decided to search for a young filmmaker who could give a fresh take on his meeting with Lennon. He chose the film’s eventual director, fellow Torontonian Josh Raskin, who he describes as a “brilliant, wonderful, talented guy.”

“I like the stuff he did, I like his aesthetic, I loved his ideas, and he loved John Lennon.”

Levitan embraced Raskin’s idea to take the 30-minute audiotape, edit it down to five minutes, and animate it.

“Before he finished the sentence I said, ‘Great, let’s do it,’ “ says Levitan.

Raskin then recruited two friends: visual artist James Braithwaite, who took care of frame-by-frame animations, and Alex Kurina, who was in charge of computer illustrations.

“The three of them sat in an office in front of computers and canvas, at the corner of College and Spadina, on the top of a paint store, and worked away at it for about a year,” says Levitan. “I would pop in once a week or so to see what they were doing, and loved it.”

Levitan used a $20,000 grant from the Bravo!FACT foundation and his own money to pay for the production costs. Money well spent, he says.

“I loved it,” he says of the final product. “There’s a cartoon of me, taken from a picture of me when I was 14. That’s pretty awesome.”

A self-professed “idiosyncratic lawyer”, specializing in liquor licence disputes, Levitan says his clients are aware of the success of his film, and insists media interviews and other correlating demands haven’t diminished his time for clients. “It’s pretty cool having a lawyer that’s nominated for an Oscar,” he notes.

On the day Law Times spoke with him, Levitan had already been in court twice and was preparing for afternoon client meetings.

He was also excited about the news that CNN was sending a crew to film a segment with him - in which he would relive the Lennon interview for the U.S. audience - to show on Anderson Cooper 360 and an Oscar preview show. He adds that he’d heard rumblings that Larry King might also be interested in running something about I Met the Walrus.

“The story is breaking dramatically in the United States,” he says. “A good reason for that is the nature of my story, and also because I’ve brought back John Lennon’s timely message of peace. So it’s really resonating in the United States.”

Levitan notes that lawyers have a special ability to carry out the kind of change for which Lennon campaigned.

“Lawyers, like all human beings, have a responsibility to make the world a better place,” he says. “Lawyers have a stronger ability than a lot of people, because of their education, the nature of their education, and their skills. They can effect social change. They can effect it for the good and they can effect it for the bad.”

Lawyers sometimes hurt individuals and causes due to the nature of their retainers, says Levitan, but, he adds, “Many lawyers do the opposite.”

For now, though, Levitan is focused on enjoying his time in the Hollywood spotlight, which includes a recent nominee schmooze session, where he met George Clooney and other A-listers.

Levitan says he likes his chances at the Academy Awards, but hasn’t reserved a spot on his favourite shelf for an Oscar.

“My brain hasn’t gone that far,” he says.

“This whole thing happened out of the blue for me, and if we win, that’s great. I know there’s a really strong buzz about our film. Our film is getting massive publicity in the U.S. and Canada, and there’s no short animated film that ever gets that kind of publicity.

“So there’s that aspect to it. But if it wins, wonderful, if it doesn’t, I’ll carry on being a very happy guy that, what I started as a very personal project, has had such a great impact.”

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