Jono McCloud on the Lessons Learned From My Old School
For most of us, high school was a time when a lot of friendships and memories were made, and we have stories from that time that we’ll never forget. My Old School, an outrageous and captivating documentary feature from director Jono McCloud, chronicles the extraordinary tale of his school days at Bearsden Academy in Glasgow, Scotland, and one of the greatest “remember when?” high school stories of all time.
My Old School tells the story of Brandon Lee, a 16-year-old student who enrolled in the school in 1993, where he left an indelible mark on everyone at Bearsden. While he was initially a socially awkward outsider, Lee’s reputation as a model student and his tendency to take bullied classmates under his wing made him quickly rise in popularity among the students and faculty of Bearsden, and he even starred in the school musical, South Pacific. All the while, Lee was harboring a shocking secret. When the whole story finally came out, it created such an uproar and became so infamous that Alan Cumming (Titus, X-Men 2) was slated to star as Brandon Lee in a Hollywood feature film.
“In a film about going back in time and reconnecting with your past self, there was no better actor to do it than the actor, [Alan Cumming], who was meant to do it back in the ‘90s.”
“We were all waiting to see it,” McCloud says, comparing the experience to waiting at a bus stop for a long period of time. “And then we realized that the bus wasn’t coming, and we had to drive the bus ourselves.” As a filmmaker who was there when it all happened, McCloud was in a unique position to bring the story to the screen. “It fell to me to start the engine, but then I had to get everyone to get on the bus,” McCloud says. “Some people didn’t want to get on, and some people did. But here we are, we’ve arrived at our destination, and it’s this film.”
One of the unique challenges that McCloud faced was that while Lee agreed to be interviewed for My Old School, he refused to appear on camera. McCloud found an unconventional solution to the problem: Alan Cumming would finally play Brandon Lee on screen, lip syncing to the sound of the interviews. “The great thing about Alan is that he loves a challenge,” McCloud says. While My Old School isn’t the first documentary to employ the lip-syncing technique—Clio Bernard’s 2010 film The Arbor, which features multiple actors lip-synching, was a major influence on McCloud—the idea of using an established star lip-synching the main character throughout the entire film was new territory. “In a film about going back in time and reconnecting with your past self, there was no better actor to do it than the actor who was meant to do it back in the ‘90s,” McCloud says.
“It fell to me to start the engine, but then I had to get everyone to get on the bus.”
While My Old School does feature some photographs and video from the era when McCloud and Lee were both at Bearsden, it was necessary to find a way to recreate moments in order to give the film a compelling and entertaining visual component. McCloud envisioned period reconstruction drama with live actors, though he found that the budgetary implications of such a technique made it unfeasible. The idea of using animation proved to be an appealing alternative. McCloud experimented with a hybrid approach, shooting live actors in front of a green screen and doing rotoscope animation over the image, but it came out feeling oddly unsettling. It was while watching the Marvel Studios series WandaVision, which painstakingly recreates the look of multiple period television shows, that McCloud remembered Daria, a popular adult animated sitcom from the ‘90s, and decided to model the look of the animation in My Old School after the pop culture classic from the same era. For McCloud, My Old School is about capturing a specific time in the lives of himself and his friends, and he would love to see people watching it with their own friends from high school. “Reconnect with them and see it,” McCloud says, “and then discuss with them afterwards and figure out if there was a Brandon Lee at your own school.”
Brandon Lee’s secrets and lies—which you’ll have to see the film to fully comprehend— are so incredible that one would hope there aren’t too many similar cases. My Old School, which is playing in theaters now in limited release before a video on demand release this fall, is a nostalgic visit to a pivotal time in all of our lives that is relatable and surprisingly relevant to anyone who experienced the drama of being a teenager, and proves that there’s no school like My Old School.