Jono McLeod on Telling Tales Out of “My Old School”

Since he graduated from Bearsden Academy in Glasgow in the mid-1990s, Jono McLeod has had a story to share at dinner parties that was always bound to bring the house down. As it is for many, high school was not necessarily a place of fond recollections for McLeod, but there was no denying that he had a more extraordinary time than most when journalists from all across Europe descended on school to learn more about Brandon Lee, a classmate who raised eyebrows when he first arrived at the school, claiming to be unaware he shared a name with the late actor who died a short time earlier on the set of “The Crow” as he introduced himself as the son of a Canadian diplomat. It would turn out he wasn’t who he said he was, but no one could possibly imagine the extent of his deceit or how he was able to keep the details of his identity a secret for so long, becoming instant tabloid fodder that came and went once discovered, leaving a lasting mark on Brandon’s life, but lacking further investigation of what it all meant.

Nearly three decades later, it feels as though McLeod has pulled off the ultimate version of gathering everyone around the table for the spirited retelling of the tale in “My Old School,” reuniting classmates and even getting Brandon to speak at length about the memorable junior year they shared together, though in order to get Brandon’s participation, the filmmaker agreed to an audio-only interview. This may have stymied others, but McLeod saw it as an opportunity opportunity, recruiting Alan Cumming, who once had planned to dramatize Brandon’s story for the screen, to convey his present-day thoughts sitting amongst other members of the Bearsden Academy who all fill in each other’s memories of what happened when Brandon was something of an enigma to all. Animated even when the delightful recreations drawn by Wild Child Animation aren’t on screen, the film unravels the wild contortions Brandon employed to keep his true identity a mystery, but is equally compelling in digging into the details that led him to think there was no alternative, exploring the cultural climate and the personal circumstances that could make lies feel more justifiable than the truth.

Having both a wicked sense of humor and a great deal of sensitivity, McLeod is able to allow others to know Brandon in a way that he may not even know himself and “My Old School” charms with the notion that even those who were the closest of friends in adolescence may not have known the full story away from the schoolyard. Following its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, one of the best kept secrets on the festival circuit is finally being let out into theaters across the country and McLeod was gracious enough to spill a few about the making of the film, from deciding when was the right time to pursue this to how he embraced the tradition of high school movies that had come before to put his own original spin on it.

With a story like this, why was this the right time to pursue it as a film?

Because we were all approaching memory loss as we reached our old age. [laughs] I realized it was the perfect high school movie happened to us and no one has gotten around to making it, so I was the only classmate who got to be a filmmaker and it fell to me to herd the cats — to bring the gang back together and tell our version of events.

I look back now and think why didn’t I just make a bloody podcast. I would’ve been finished four years ago. [laughs] But the reason I could make a film was because there had “The Arbor” by Clio Barnard that successfully used lip sync throughout, so I was really interested in the idea of using that [and having] a big name Scottish actor to take on a similar task and what that would mean in a film about someone whose identity couldn’t be trusted, sitting amongst real interviews. I knew if I was going to do that, it had to be a bloody good actor doing it, so Alan Cumming — there’s no one else that could play it really, and the concept of this role coming back to him 25 years on was quite appealing. How perfect for a film going back in time and reconnecting with yourself than to have [him] play this role of present-day Brandon [when he] was supposed to play him in this entirely different project back in the day.

Was your own experience at Bearsden informative or you could feel like you were telling your own story through this one?

It permeates the film, [in that] this massive tabloid story was happening three desks away from me, but my excuse is that I didn’t notice because I was desperately trying to keep my secret of being a 16-year old gay kid, so I didn’t notice other people had even crazier stuff going on. And being a sensitive kid at school [also] infused how I just didn’t want to go hard on it. I’ve loved watching “The Tinder Swindler” and “The Imposter” and all those kinds of true crime movies, but I knew in my heart of hearts that what happened to us was [instead] the ultimate high school movie, so I wanted to reflect that. That’s why there’s these nods in the film to that genre, so we were always going to have Alan and the “Romy and Michelle” connection, but we’ve got Claire Grogan from “Gregory’s Girl,” the iconic Scottish high school movie, as one of the teachers and our deputy headmistress is Lulu from “To Sir with Love” fame and she sings our title song, “My Old School.” That’s to hammer home to everyone, if you love true crime movies, it’s absolutely there for you, but in my heart of hearts, it’s a high school film.

When it’s a mystery that’s been demystified for you, was reengineering it for the purposes of a story difficult?

I don’t think I ever reached a point where it’s been fully demystified. There’s still outstanding questions and thank God for the invention of post-it notes because my editor Bernie McGurk and I used a hell of a lot of them in the edit suite, trying to piece this story together and make this unusual structure that the film has because what we were trying to do was play with memory and show that memory can’t be trusted. Brandon can’t be trusted and neither can our memories.

What was it like getting everyone from the old gang back together and then deciding how to pair people to get the interplay that you do in the interviews?

I paired people if there was somebody they were friends with at school, and there’s one brother and sister Sam and Aoiffe, but basically it was friend groups. And it was just really intense because there’s only a few people on screen that you see that I stayed in touch. I left school and never really looked back, so I was instantly cast back to my 16-year-old self, reaching out to the cool kids, wondering if they were going to want to hang out with me or not. There was a wonderful moment with my friend Adnan [where] we found this old high school that we rebuilt our high school classroom inside of and we finished Adnan’s interview and one of the runners came up and said, “Jono, Adnan, Mr. Gunn, the physics teacher is downstairs, and wants to see you right now!” So these two 40-year something men are giggling down the corridor to see the head of physics department, and it was like being cast back in time. It was so strange.

It must’ve been a trip to design your old haunts from scratch.

Yeah, I worked really closely with Jamie MacWilliam, the production designer/set designer for that because that’s the weird thing about my high school is it looks like a really old classroom because it was old in our day. We had the flip up desks and the inkwell and everything, so I wanted to reflect it was an old school falling apart and actually in placing my classmates, that moment when they walked into that room, I wanted everyone to be cast back in time, so there’s things off-camera that you’ll never see that were there, just because we wanted to create the effect for the classmates as much as for the audience.

Was there anything that came up in the interviews that you may not have been aware of from before?

The big revelation was my interview with Steven, one of the classmates who was good friends with Brandon and coming to an understanding of what his experience of high school was like [with] the fact that our high school was inherently racist and the impact that had on him to this day and the impact that Brandon had on him. Really, Steven is the heart of the film and the interview I did with him was a really moving experience — and challenging, because I had to confront the fact that in the back of my mind, I knew that was his experience of high school and I had done nothing about it back then because I was so terrified for myself. In the scenes in the film where we depict Steven experiencing bullying, he speaks about how everyone stood around and didn’t do anything, and one of the background characters you’ll see is me, my cartoon self because I wanted to admit I was therefore complicit.

You handle the tone of this so beautifully throughout the film, moving from playful to serious and a big part of that is the animation. How did that evolve?

The animation, as it is now, was the very last thing to happen and I compare making this film to trying find my way out of a maze. There was no great master plan to begin with, just constantly being presented with obstacles and trying to find my way around them. the big revelation for the animation was a rotoscope test that we did looked visually arresting but existed in the uncanny valley. It was disturbing to look at and that was not the feel I wanted for the film, so I read a lot of graphic novels and got my head into that space and understood how much easier it is to connect with a simple cartoon image than it is with an actor trying to convince you that they are a 1990s high school teenager. I suddenly realized the [scene in this story where the] classroom door opened and in walked, a curly-haired, bespectacled North American monotoned accent teenager in the 1990s — [Brandon] was Daria. That was the big wow moment, so who better to nod to than that kind of icon of ‘90s high school life [in the film’s style].

How about the film’s score? You’re able to turn the “Macarena” into something relatively somber, which is no easy feat.

Shelly Poole’s score is just so beautiful. We’re trying to get it out in the world on its own at the moment. She’s so talented, and there’s just moments where she perfectly captured the feeling that I wanted. The “Macarena” is so fantastic, this orchestral version that she creates for a rerun [after you learn Brandon’s secret], because we have the real “Macarena” and then when we reach back into those events, she’s made this amazing orchestral version. She’s also produced the title song that Lulu sings as a cover of “My Old School,” and her work is just phenomenal and it was so special to work with her so closely on it, so I’d love it if people got to know her work more and she was able to bring it to more people.

After sharing this story amongst friends for some time, what’s it like to have out in the world on this kind of scale?

Gosh, it’s so weird. It feels like one of those stories you hear where someone’s on a plane and the pilot collapses and they somehow have to land it. I feel like I’ve achieved some weird perfect landing [where] everybody’s like cheering, and I’m like, “I have no idea how I did that, but here I am. Landed on the ground. I don’t know where I’m going now, but thank God, that’s done.”

“My Old School” opens in theaters around the country on July 22nd. A full list of cities and dates is here.