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Filmmaker is a Montreal wannabe

Brendan KellyCanwest News Service

Friday, January 25, 2008


MONTREAL -- When the Oscar nominations were announced Tuesday, the Montreal film community was all abuzz about the best animated-short nod for hipsters Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski and their inspired stop-motion horror flick Madame Tutli-Putli.


A little later in the day, talk surfaced that there was another Montrealer in the race in the same category. A few phone calls later, it was ascertained that Josh Raskin -- whose film, I Met the Walrus, is also nominated for animated short at the Oscars -- is in fact a Torontonian.


But it's easy to see why some folks think Raskin is from Montreal. On the phone from the Sundance Film Festival, where I Met the Walrus was screening this week, Raskin pretty well pleaded to be considered as a honorary Montrealer.


"I think it's easily the best city in North America, except for the 15-month winter," said Raskin. "I worked on a strangely misguided film project (in Montreal) for three months three or four years ago. I've been there at least a few times a year and sometimes for weeks or months at a time. It's really my second home."


Raskin has many good pals here, including his longtime friend James Braithwaite, whose striking hand-drawn pen illustrations are showcased in Raskin's five-minute film. The digital animation is courtesy of Alex Kurina. Braithwaite's animation style is reminiscent of the distinctive doodlings of John Lennon made famous in books like In His Own Write and on some of his album jackets.


The Lennon homage is no accident -- I Met the Walrus is inspired by an interview with the late Beatle done in Toronto in 1969 by a 14-year-old kid named Jerry Levitan. Levitan, now a Toronto lawyer and the producer of the film, somehow convinced Lennon to do an interview on May 26, 1969, just hours before John and Yoko headed to Montreal for their famous bed-in for peace.


For more than 30 years, Levitan didn't do anything with the half-hour

interview -- in which the pop-music icon chatted about everything from world peace to George Harrison's place in The Beatles -- though he had plenty of offers from producers hoping to make a film based on the incident. He finally turned to up-and-coming Toronto filmmaker Raskin after seeing some of his animated work.


Raskin decided to chop the interview down to just over five minutes and used that as the audio soundtrack for an experimental animation short that mixes the whack-job animation style of Terry Gilliam from Monty Python with Lennon-esque sketches.


"Cutting it down to five minutes was easily the hardest part of making the film because everything John said was simple, profound and poetic, and I felt was important for the world to hear now," said Raskin. "It's mostly about peace and what John was up to at the time. But (Jerry) is a 14-year-old kid, so he talks about how he's not too keen on George and he always thought John was the better guitar player. He was probably barely even listening to the answers because he's so overwhelmed.


"What I was trying to do with the film was put you inside the head of a 14-year-old starstruck kid interviewing his idol and it's this stream-of-consciousness, free-associative visual interpretation of the words," Raskin said.


"The things they're speaking of in the interview are more relevant than they were then," said Braithwaite, who moved to Montreal from Toronto seven years ago to study English lit at Concordia University and now lives and works in Montreal as a freelance illustrator.


"We need another John Lennon," added Braithwaite, who is at Sundance this week with his pal Raskin.


Lennon was in Canada at the time because the authorities wouldn't let him into the U.S., a state of affairs he weighs in on in the film with some typically barbed social commentary.


"War is big business and they like war because it keeps them fat and happy," Lennon tells Levitan. "I'm anti-war. So they're trying to keep me out. But I'll get in because they'll have to own up in public that they're against peace."


© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008

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