Many people, when asked what they would do differently if they could go back in time, insist, “I wouldn’t change a thing.
Not Brandon Lee.
In 1993, a 16-year-old boy with that name enrolled in a Scottish secondary school called Bearsden Academy, located in a tony suburb of Glasgow. He claimed to have grown up in Canada, the son of a traveling opera singer who was killed in a car accident. His academic gifts were dazzling, though his social skills weren’t that impressive. With his precocious intelligence, Lee seemed well on his way to achieving his stated goal of getting into medical school.
It took more than a year for the truth to come out: “Brandon Lee” was fiction. Lee was actually Brian MacKinnon, a 32-year-old former Bearsden student who had returned to school as a teenager. The strange story is told in My old school, a new documentary directed by Jono McLeod and starring Scottish actor Alan Cumming as Lee. The Magnolia Pictures release is now streaming in select cities.
“One of the most incredible stories of the last 30 years,” says McLeod. And he should know. He was a student at Bearsden when Lee arrived unannounced.
“He looked older than us, that’s for sure,” McLeod recalls, but he says he and his comrades weren’t inclined to question what their elders had set in stone. “Our head teacher told us this new kid had arrived from Canada, here he is at 16, so we bought this. And we told him [that] by his superiors… So, yeah, we sort of made do with it. And there were always kids at school who looked a little older than the other kids.
Brandon Lee sported curly hair, owl glasses and a shy manner. At first, he didn’t fit in exactly.
“He was a classic geek who had arrived with us. He wasn’t one of the cool kids,” McLeod recalled. “But over the next year, he was able to work his way through those social strata of high school life and really make a difference.”
Brandon invited classmates to his apartment, where they were served tea and snacks by a woman Lee said was his grandmother. Later, it was revealed that she was actually his mother, who hadn’t died in an accident after all. The revelation of Lee’s identity attracted huge attention in the UK and among those following the news was Cumming, the Tony-winning and Emmy-nominated actor, born in Aberfeldy, Scotland.
“When it all happened in the early 90s, it was such a big story. I knew that and was kind of fascinated by it…just by its sheer audacity,” Cumming says. “It’s a interesting thing about identity and the things that we’re dealing with in our culture now that if you want to be perceived somehow and if you believe in your own identity enough, then you step out into the world by asking this and it will be returned to you, and this is what happened to him.
Decades ago, Cumming was attached to play Lee in a movie he was going to direct, but the project fell apart.
“I was really devastated,” Cumming recalled. “You don’t normally get to see something like this again, with Jono bringing me that character again. I didn’t quite realize how much that meant to me, how much there was some sort of unfinished business.
There’s a curious parallel between actor and subject – Cumming going back in time, so to speak, to take care of this unfinished business, just as Lee had. In My old school Cumming sits at a desk in a classroom, staring directly into the camera and lip-syncing to an audio interview Lee gave McLeod.
“It was a really fascinating exercise,” Cumming says of lip-syncing. But it wasn’t easy. On set, McLeod’s cameras rolled as the words Cumming needed to lip-sync sounded through a loudspeaker.
“It would be just like that when you do ADR and it goes, beep, beep, beep, then the [recording] departures. And then we would go on and on until we both felt we had it figured out,” Cumming explains. “It was a bit like sectarian indoctrination because people [on set] just kept hearing those same messages over and over and over and over and over again. And, in addition, it was freezing cold because it was December . Due to Covid, all windows and doors at this Glasgow school had to be opened. »
Cumming laughs: “We had temperature deprivations and these repeated messages. It really was like a cult.
McLeod uses animation to tell a significant part of the story, including how Brandon’s prank ultimately came to light (his true identity emerged after he embarked on an ill-advised vacation abroad with former classmates). The colorful animation style is reminiscent of an MTV character popular at the very time Brandon was pulling off his sham.
“Brandon arrives with big curly hair, glasses, a North American accent and a fairly monotonous voice. It is Darya– truly a total icon of 90s animation,” says McLeod. There were additional animation reference points, including The Archies and scooby-doo. Like the plots of scooby-doo“Brandon could have got away with it, if it weren’t for those pesky kids.”
Wild Child Animation, based in Sterling, Scotland, handled the work for My old school.
“Because it’s a very complex plot and there’s a lot of back and forth, I wanted to help people understand exactly what was going on,” says McLeod. “And the easiest way to do that was to create a really nice, clean, simple animation. Wild Child did a fantastic job.
My old school corresponds, in a sense, to recent films and series that revolve around tricksters, posers, impostors and scammers. The stall and Invent Anna put a fictional spin on true stories, while documentaries The Tinder scammer and bad vegan expose some other world-class phonies. The protagonists of these stories were looking for gain or fame, but Brandon Lee was motivated by something less venal. As an adult, his dream of becoming a doctor had been derailed; he viewed returning to high school as the challenge he needed to return to medical school.
McLeod and a number of Brandon’s other classmates appear in the film, sharing somewhat conflicting memories of those events three decades ago. Several speak movingly of how Lee helped them when they were inexperienced youngsters – helping them with homework, introducing them to music that broadened their minds, and more. Lee may have been misguided, but he wasn’t necessarily a villain.
“I always saw it as a high school movie, and Brandon definitely had a positive impact on a number of kids,” McLeod says. “It was something that I just wanted to reflect and show that it wasn’t all bad. It was good and bad. I didn’t want to tie things up in an arc at the end of this movie. I wanted people go and talk about it and discuss it and try to understand which side they are on.
My old school premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and later played at other festivals around the world, including Poland, Croatia, Greece, Belgium and Finland.
“I really I love the movie,” Cumming says. “I’m so excited to be a part of it because I think it deals with topics that I find really fascinating, like memory. I guess after writing a few memoirs I’m fascinated by how an incident can be perceived in so many different ways and also how it can change in your memory the older you get the further you get from it… This story is now told by all these people who were there at the time, but of course you realize that they have very different memories of it.