Many people, when asked what they would do differently if they could go back in time, insist, “I wouldn’t change anything.”
Not Brandon Lee.
In 1993, a 16-year-old boy by that name enrolled in a Scottish secondary school called Bearsden Academy, located in a suburb of Glasgow. He claimed to have grown up in Canada, the son of an itinerant opera singer who was killed in a car accident. His academic gifts dazzled, even if his social skills were not that impressive. With his precocious intellect, Lee seemed well on his way to achieving his stated goal of attending medical school.
It took over a year for the truth to come out: “Brandon Lee” was a fiction. Lee was actually Brian MacKinnon, a 32-year-old former Bearsden student who had returned to the school in the guise of 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 playing in select cities.
“One of the most incredible stories of the past 30 years,” says McLeod. And he should know. He was a student in Bearsden when Lee showed up out of nowhere.
“He looked older than us, that’s for sure,” McLeod recalls, but he says he and his fellow students weren’t inclined to wonder what their parents had set in stone. “We were told by our homeroom teacher that this new kid had arrived from Canada, here he is at age 16, so we bought him. And she’s been told [that] by her superiors… So yeah, we just kind of went along with it. And there were always kids at school who looked a little older than the other kids.”
Brandon Lee wore curly hair, owl-like glasses and a shy manner. He didn’t really fit in at first.
“This was a classic nerd who had come with us. He wasn’t one of the cool kids,” McLeod recalls. “But over the course of the next year, he somehow managed to work his way through those social strata of high school life and really turn things around.”
Brandon invited classmates to his flat, where they were served tea and snacks from a woman Lee said was his grandmother. It was later revealed that she was in fact his mother, who was not killed in an accident after all. The revelation of Lee’s identity attracted a lot of attention in the UK and among those following the news was Cumming, the Tony-winning and Emmy-nominated actor who was born in Aberfeldy, Scotland.
“When it all happened in the early 90s, it was such a big story. I knew about it and was kind of fascinated by it… just the sheer brutality of it,” says Cumming. “It’s an interesting thing about identity and things that we are dealing with in our culture now, if you want to be seen somehow and if you believe enough in your own identity then you go out into the world and ask for that and it will be up to you be returned, and that is what happened to him.”
Decades ago, Cumming was linked to play Lee in a movie he was going to direct, but the project fell apart.
“I was really devastated,” Cumming recalls. “Normally you don’t get a chance to revisit something like that now that Jono brings me this character again. I hadn’t quite realized how much it meant to me, how many unfinished business there were.”
There’s a curious parallel between actor and subject – getting ready to go back in time, so to speak, to take care of those unfinished business, just like Lee had done. In My old school Sitting at a desk in a classroom, Cumming looks straight into the camera, synchronizing the lines of 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 had to say echoed lip-synched through a speaker.
“It would be like doing ADR and it goes, beep, beep, beep, and then the [recording] begins. And then we’d just keep going and going until we both felt like we had it,” says Cumming. “It was kind of cult indoctrination because people… [on set] just kept hearing the same messages again and again and again and again and again. And it was freezing cold too because we were in December . Because of Covid, all windows and doors of this Glasgow school had to be open.”
Cumming laughs: “We had temperature abstinence and these repeated messages. It really was a cult.”
McLeod uses animation to tell an important part of the story, including how Brandon’s deception was eventually unraveled (his true identity was revealed after going on an ill-advised vacation abroad with former classmates). The colorful animation style refers to an MTV character who was popular in the era when Brandon pulled his trick.
“Brandon arrives with thick curly hair, glasses, a North American accent and a fairly monotonous voice. He is Daria–truly an icon of ’90s animation,” says McLeod. There were additional animation reference points, including: The Archies and Scooby Doo. Like the plots in Scooby Doo“Brandon would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those pesky kids.”
Wild Child Animation, based in Sterling, Scotland, provided the work for My old school.
“Because it’s a really great complex plot and there’s a lot of talking back and forth, I wanted to help people understand exactly what was going on,” explains McLeod. “And the easiest way to do that was through a really nice, clean, simple animation. Wild Child has done a fantastic job.”
My old school fits in some way with recent movies and series that revolve around cheaters, posers, cheaters and scammers. the outage and invent Anna put a fictional twist on true stories, while documentaries The Tinder Swindler and Bad vegan unmask a few other world-class phonies. The protagonists in those stories sought profit or fame, but Brandon Lee was motivated by something less bribe. As an adult, his dream of becoming a doctor was derailed; he saw going back to high school as the revamp he needed to get back to medical school.
McLeod and several of Brandon’s other classmates appear in the film, sharing somewhat conflicting memories of those events from three decades ago. Several speak movingly about the ways Lee helped them when they were little kids – helping them with homework, introducing them to music that cleared their minds, etc. Lee may have been misled, but he wasn’t necessarily a villain. .
“I always saw this as a high school movie and Brandon definitely had a positive influence on some of the kids,” says McLeod. “That was something I just wanted to reflect and show that it wasn’t all nefarious. It was good and bad. I didn’t want to tie things up at the end of this movie. I wanted people to leave and talk about it and talk about it and try to figure out whose side they’re on.”
My old school premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, then played at other festivals around the world, including those in Poland, Croatia, Greece, Belgium and Finland.
“L For real love the movie,” says Cumming. “I love being a part of it because I think it’s about topics that I find really fascinating, like memories. I think, having written a few memoirs, I am fascinated with how an incident can be perceived in so many different ways and also how it can change in your memory as you get older, the further you are from it… This The story has now been told by all those people who were there then, but of course you realize that they have very different memories of it.”