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My Old School’s Alan Cumming and Jono McLeod on the power of memory and ’90s nostalgia

There’s an old saying that truth is stranger than fiction, and you can’t get any stranger than the true crime story of Brandon Lee. No, not the deceased star of The Crow and son of legendary martial arts star Bruce Lee, but the Scottish teenager Brandon Lee, who enrolled at the private high school Bearsden Academy in 1993. The only problem? He was 30 years old at the time, and had already attended the school in the ’70s.

In My Old School, director Jono McLeod, who attended the same school alongside Lee (real name Brian MacKinnon), documents this unusual story by interviewing his former classmates and using animation inspired by the cult classic MTV animated series Daria to reenact real events. While Lee agreed to be interviewed, he refused to appear on camera, which prompted MacLeod to employ stage and screen star Alan Cumming to portray Brandon in front of the camera while lip-syncing his prerecorded confessions.

In an interview with Digital Trends, both McLeod and Cumming discuss the unusual nature of the documentary, the challenges involved with creating a performance while using someone else’s voice, and how truth means different things to different people.

Digital Trends: Jono, what compelled you to tell the story as a mixture of traditional documentary filmmaking with nontraditional methods like animation and lip-synching.

Jono McLeod: It all kind of came at different times. The lip-sync performance that Alan does came from a line in the sand that Brandon had kind of drawn for me when I approached him about doing a documentary about his life. He was willing to be interviewed as long as he didn’t have to be on camera. I was aware of other films in the past that successfully told stories with multiple actors via lip-syncing.

Kids stand in school in My Old School.

My Old School is different in that it is centered around a single lip-sync performance: Alan’s. I was aware that he was supposed to play this role in a movie back in the ’90s that was never made. And so that was the idea for approaching him and seeing if he wanted to do that. His performance was the second-to-last element in the film that we completed.

The very last production element in the film was the animation sequences. Initially, we tried other ways to tell Brandon’s story because I knew it was quite complex. I then realized we just needed a simple way to tell it that would also evoke the time period. And I just came up with this idea of referencing animation of the past to tell his story.

And, you know, when Brandon showed up in our 1990s high school class with a North American monotone voice, curly hair, and glasses, he looked like the MTV character Daria. So, yeah, we wanted to nod to that kind of icon of ’90s animation.

Alan, what were some of the challenges involved with your performance as Brandon?

Cumming: Well, number one, lip-synching is not my forte. Number two, I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve never played a character without using my voice. I’m used to seeing other people’s words on the page and then interpreting them, but I’m not used to using other people’s voices for my performance.

Alan Cumming sits at a school desk in My Old School.

There’s no way to sort of prep for this other than just listen, listen, listen. And then it came to the day where I just had to let his voice imbue my spirit. I know that sounds airy-fairy and weird, but that’s the best way I can describe the process. The whole thing was bonkers, but the whole story is bonkers to begin with.

You could say Jono’s filmmaking and your performance lent themselves to the subject matter, which required such unorthodox methods to tell Brandon’s story?

Cumming: Yeah. Weirdos, unite.

What do you want audiences to take away from My Old School after they’ve watched it?

McLeod: I like people to see that just because someone does something that people perceive as wrong doesn’t mean that they’ve not done some good along the way. And I think that’s what I tried to capture for Brandon in the film.

My Old School - Official Trailer

Cumming: Memory is something that is so subjective that even if you have a really strong memory of something that happened to a group of you, another person will have a completely different memory of that same thing. And both are valid. And I think what’s so lovely about this film is that a group of people is getting together to experience the same thing, and they realize that all their memories are different. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

My Old School is currently playing in select theaters nationwide. The film will expand theatrically on July 29, 2022.

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