“I was hanging my whole film around this one actor’s performance. It couldn’t just be any actor. It had to be an actor that I knew was going to deliver.”
In 1993, Brandon Lee, a 16-year old Glasgow schoolboy with a mysterious past, made headlines worldwide. In My Old School, his remarkable story is finally brought to screen — with Brandon's former schoolmate Jono McLeod behind the camera.
We spoke to Jono, who has been nominated for Best Debut Director: Feature Documentary at the 2022 BIFA Awards, about the bold creative choices he made in telling this personal story. From nostalgic soundtracks and stylish 90s animation, to directing an outstanding Alan Cumming performance, read our full interview with Jono below.
You’re a filmmaker and you’ve also got a personal connection to the amazing story at the core of My Old School – so you must have been dying to make this film for a long time. How did the film get started, and what fell into place for it to come out now?
Jono McLeod: Basically, I made the film because nobody else did. Other people were supposed to have tried to over the years. We, as classmates of Brandon Lee, were always aware that this story was going to be told on film someday. Back in the nineties, it was going to be a movie starring Alan Cumming. The script was done, it was good to go, and then it just fell through. Over the years, you’d hear murmurs of another potential film, and then eventually it was like, ‘Jesus, it’s going to be a quarter of a century since this all happened. It’s going to fall to one of us to do it — and I’m the only classmate who grew up to be a director.’ So, I realised if anybody was going to do it, it would probably have to be me, but working really closely with my classmates.
What did you do next?
Jono: The first thing I did was reach out to Brandon. I didn’t really know him at school, but I knew he was key: I needed him to tell the story in some way. Having hung out with him, he had this stipulation that he would grant an interview — but he didn’t wish to appear on camera. That was certainly off-putting to a lot of the producers that I was approaching. They were like, ‘No, you have to convince him to be on camera.’ But I’m not someone who cajoles or tries to make people change their mind about what they want to do on stuff like that. I had an idea about how it could work, because I knew that Clio Barnard had made The Arbor, and the lip sync was so amazing in it.
So, once I’d done his interview, it was about figuring out, ‘Okay, what the hell do I do with this?’ One of the first things I did was reach out to Mark Thomas at Creative Scotland, actually. My background is TV documentary and TV feature programmes, so it wasn’t like I was a feature documentary maker sitting ready to go. Mark was really helpful in talking to me about which companies I should be approaching — he felt that that was Hopscotch Films. They’re a great company for getting feature documentaries away with, because they’ve worked out a system where they can keep projects going for a long time. Which as it turned out, this one needed to.
Along with John Archer at Hopscotch Films, I already had a producer onboard — Olivia Lichtenstein — who I’ve done a lot of my TV work with. Then it was a case of just reaching out. It was all quite scary, because it was about stepping back in time to my sixteen-year-old self and reaching out to all these classmates, and you’re instantly thrown back into your teenage self. It was all very strange, but lovely at times. For the most part, people were really encouraging.
How did the conversation with Brandon go? What was your pitch to him, if there was one?
Jono: It was an interesting one, because so much of my perception of Brandon’s story is now different to how it was on the day that I met him. I didn’t know most of the stuff that I was going to find out along the way. I realised that the reason we were all confused about what had happened, is because the only person who has been telling this story over the years was Brandon. He’d done the chat show circuit when it first happened, he’d written the books, he’d done the newspaper interviews, all that stuff. That had really informed what we all thought the story was and so, I had a certain view of what he did.
But also I think we all felt — myself and the classmates in the film — that if we weren’t telling this story ourselves it would probably be made as a much darker film. I was really keen to find a little bit more of the light, while at the same time acknowledging that there are certain things that are strange and inappropriate about Brandon’s choices. I knew that there was a line to be walked.
One thing that really stands out throughout the film is how comfortable and happy everyone is on camera. I’d love to know more about how you achieved that. Do you have a preferred way of shooting interviews that puts people at ease?
Jono: A big part was the set actually. Jamie MacWilliam was our production designer, and I really wanted to recreate what our classrooms looked like. They probably look like classrooms from the 1940s or 1950s or something, but that is what our classrooms looked like in the 1990s! It wasn’t filmed at our school, which was knocked down, but there was something about walking into this old school building and then into this perfect recreation of our Latin class, that instantly threw us all back.
A big part of it, also, is that they’re talking to me as a former classmate — but at the same time my name is not on the opening credits. You don’t find out that I made the film until the end. I knew that because I’m in the film myself, I would have to place myself in amongst all these classmates who are totally natural and having a laugh on camera. Meanwhile, I’m sitting there desperately trying to stitch little bits of the story together and hoping that the audience don’t notice that I’m essentially acting my lines. There was no accounting for that.
I think everybody was blown away when this footage came through. When the sizzle tape started to appear from these interviews, everyone was really excited about the camaraderie and the humour that was in there. Even if I’d wanted to make a dark film about the dark story of Brandon Lee, I would never have been able to do it without losing so much of that heart and connection.
Can you tell us more about the lip-syncing, and how you brought in Alan Cumming?
Jono: Yes, I did a tester. I filmed a go at the lip sync thing with a younger actor and it was cool — but we had him in a little school uniform and it was just too weird. Also, when I knew that I wanted to do the interviews with classmates in a classroom environment, I thought, ‘Of course it makes sense to have Brandon be in that same set up.’ Then, in a film about going back in time and reconnecting with the past, there couldn’t be anybody better to play that role than the man who was supposed to star in and direct this movie back in the 90s. I felt that Alan would be perfect, but I also knew that it was a really challenging thing to do and I was hanging my whole film around this one actor’s performance. It couldn’t just be any actor. It had to be an actor that I knew was going to deliver.
I wanted to just be upfront about the artifice from the start, because it’s a movie about an imposter. Having a big-name actor is a great way of doing that. It didn’t hurt either that Alan is in one of my favourite high school movies, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. I’d have the meetings about this film, and everybody would talk about these documentaries — but to me, this was a high school movie.
Then, by the time we got to the animation and casting the actress for that, we got Clare Grogan on board because Gregory’s Girl is the ultimate Scottish high school movie. Getting Lulu to be in it and sing the title song was my To Sir With Love reference, because we deal with issues of race in the film, as in that movie. I wanted to have these little high school Easter eggs in it. I wanted it to be a film that it wasn’t a chore to watch, that people knew they could put on and just have a good time.
You’re directing performance, which is unusual for a documentary director to do. How did you approach that? How did you enjoy it?
Jono: I’ve done a little bit of stage stuff, a couple of Edinburgh Fringe show, so I had some idea of that. But at the same time, it’s pretty terrifying when the first actor you ever direct on film is Alan, and he’s doing a lip sync, and he’s playing your classmate. It was challenging at that point, because we shot with Alan before we knew we were doing the animation.
Back then, I think I was still hoping that we would find a way to film the flashback scenes. We tried various ways of how we would make that work, including rotoscoping actors, which looked visually really arresting but just didn’t sit right. It was watching Wandavision — with each episode perfectly styled to a different era of American sitcom history — that got me thinking, ‘Gosh, actually, is there an animated form?’ One of my producers, Olivia, had fallen in love with the cut that I had with the storyboards in. She was saying, ‘I think this is great. Can you just really stick with the storyboards?’ I realised that basically Brandon had arrived in our class with the big curly hair, the glasses, the monotone North American accent: he was Daria, basically. So, I worked with the amazing Wild Child animation, who are this amazing Scottish animation company, and asked ‘What do you think about this plan? Is this doable? Is this in our budget?’I knew I wanted to use that animation to transport people back in time to the 90s. Even if you didn’t know Daria, it would hopefully have this intangible 90s feel.
Another thing that roots the film very much in period is the music. How did you source your soundtrack?
Jono: It was challenging to begin with, because you have to get your head around what works and what doesn’t. Gemma Dempsey was my music supervisor and Shelly Poole was my composer, and she produced all but one of the original tracks in the film, and did the score. We realised that the key is not to use American songs if you can help it, because it’s a nightmare. Our songs are all UK or European in terms of our commercial tracks, so that kept the cost down — relatively.
There’s something about music. It’s amazing that I watch movies set in the nineties, I realised that we’ve all done the same thing: we’ve all put The Macarena in it. It’s one of those things that can instantly pull you back to that time. One I really wanted to use was Rip it Up by Orange Juice. That’s a deep cut Easter egg for people watching the film, I think. I’ve only seen one review that got this, but that Orange Juice were formed at Bearsden Academy. They went to the school in-between Brandon being there for the first time and then the second. The Pulp song, Do You Remember the First Time: another wink for people who knew what was coming. Also, once Lulu had agreed to be in the film and to play the character she played, I thought, ‘I can’t have her be in this film and not have her sing.’ I’m a big Lulu fan and knew if she was going to sing a song, I would have to take that song as my title — because I just love the idea that Lulu would have done three title songs in her career and they’d be To Sir With Love, The Man with the Golden Gun and my film. When I found the Steely Dan song, I just was like, ‘God, that’s a great song. The chorus is just perfect for us.’
Obviously, you’re close to the story, did you find it necessary to have a voice that wasn’t involved to help keep some perspective to it?
Jono: For sure. Berny McGurk was my editor and Berny is amazing. He’s won so many awards, he’s the editor in Scotland that everyone tries to get time with. What I had in my favour was that I was telling the Brandon Lee story, and everybody in Glasgow pretty much knows the Brandon Lee story. Berny clocked that this was going to be an interesting and fun one to be on. For me, I just needed that outside-brain to be in the room with me and as we honed it down.
But there were stretches when it was just me. I actually find something quite meditative about sitting on my own with my film and going over tiny little bits again and again. But I’m not a fast editor, I’m really slow. So, it was only when Berny would come on board that we’d really pick up speed - there was no way I could have done it all on my own. Berny was a huge part of making the film what it is.
How did it feel to be nominated for a BIFA, and what does it mean for you as a director to receive that nomination?
Jono: It’s really special. The thing is, my name is up there, but I’m very aware that the reason that my film is successful is because of my classmates, and Brandon as well. It’s so strange that this film, the big success that I would have in my career, is something that’s been in my back pocket since I was a kid. Also, at the moment I’m trying to get film number two off the ground, so it helps to have an award nomination in your pocket as you’re looking to the future!
I’m also really hyper-aware that my film to some extent tells a story of someone’s failure, and here’s me having this success off the back of it. My hope for the film, actually, was that Brandon himself would realise that actually he does have a great success in his life. He might not have achieved the job that he wanted to go for, but he is Scotland’s greatest hoaxer. He’s made this amazing tale happen, and he’s given us all the fascinating opportunity to come together and have this celebration of that time in our lives. The BIFA recognition feels like a recognition not just for me, but for my school and my classmates, all of us.