A double life examined: the strange case of Brandon Lee comes to the big screen
Everyone has a story they like to tell, one they can dine out on. Perhaps they once found themselves in the spotlight, or had a ringside seat when the spotlight fell on someone else. Perhaps they had a brush with a celebrity, an encounter which was strange or funny or, in hindsight, resonant and telling. Perhaps they met someone or did something which changed their life, shaped their career, affected the choices they made as they aged.
Jono McLeod has just such a story, and can claim to have experienced a little bit of all of that as a result. It concerns a former classmate at Bearsden Academy in the early 1990s called Brandon Lee. Popular, clever and apparently destined to fulfil his dream of studying medicine at university, Lee had transferred to the school to enter S5 and study Highers having previously lived in Canada.
Or so he said. The thing is, Brandon Lee wasn’t real. He was not a 16-year-old Canadian. His mother had not been an opera singer. She had not died in a car crash in which he had been badly burned and which had seen him return to Scotland to live with his grandmother in Bearsden. He said all this, but it wasn’t true. He was in fact 30-year-old Brian MacKinnon. Moreover, he had actually been a pupil at Bearsden Academy in the 1970s and had left to study medicine at Glasgow University before being thrown out. You couldn’t make it up.
Only he did.
Most of these facts are well enough known today and have been since MacKinnon’s ruse was uncovered in 1995, after he had left the school for the second time and been admitted to study medicine at Dundee University. The case resulted in a tabloid frenzy (is there any other kind?) and made headlines around the world. The further away from Scotland you looked, the more jocular those headlines became and the greater the levity with which the story was treated. It was like something out of a high school movie, people said, only in real life. So yes, you could say Jono McLeod – who was there in the spotlight, and who was gulled by MacKinnon along with everybody else – does have a killer dinner table anecdote.
But what he also has is a camera. Having left school to become a journalist, he joined BBC Scotland and now makes factual documentaries. So for his debut feature, how could he not turn the lens on the strange story of the man once dubbed ‘Scotland’s most notorious imposter’?
“To be honest we were all waiting for somebody else to do it,” McLeod tells me. “There had always been these rumours that a movie was coming and then 25 years passed and we realised that bus wasn’t coming. So it was a case of me then reaching out to everyone and seeing if there was an appetite among classmates and teachers to tell the story. Some had the appetite, some didn’t, so the people you see on screen are the ones who wanted to have their say.”
The film, five years in the making, is called My Old School, and alongside interviews with former classmates and teachers is one McLeod conducted with MacKinnon himself. Securing that was critical to the project.
“We hung out for a bit beforehand, so we would go and have coffees and lunches in the run up to the day we recorded the interview. He still lives not far from Bearsden so people still see him around and everything. He doesn’t really interact with anyone from school, or anyone from my year of school, but he is still around.”
On the day, the pair talked for five hours. MacKinnon, now 59, had a stipulation, however: he did not want to appear on camera. Apart from that, nothing was out of bounds, and the conversation was convivial though with one or two odd twists and turns. “There are just some people in the world who are wired differently from the rest of us and the way he’s wired is what made him able to pull off that stunt,” says McLeod, who admits MacKinnon has “some strange ideas.”
But why did MacKinnon agree to the interview in the first place?
“He was getting multiple approaches from different film makers at this point because he had just brought out his second memoir. I was the only one who approached who was actually there at the time, so maybe that appealed to him. I also wasn’t fazed by his refusal to be on camera.”
Margin Walker, MacKinnon’s first autobiography, was published on the internet in the late 1990s, its title borrowed from a song by American hardcore band Fugazi. A second, published under the name BL MacKinnon and titled Rhesus Negative, was published in 2016 by Austin Macauley Publishers (“Talent and ambition are fine things, but when unforeseeable impediments repeatedly stall their progress and threaten to stymie their fulfilment, desperate measures may be taken,” runs the blurb, promising also an “unmasking” of “the dark forces that can be brought to bear when the individual dares to challenge the received will of certain establishment figures”).
“He wants the story out there,” says McLeod. “He’s published all these books, done all these interviews, and he’s currently working with a production company to make a TV sitcom about his experiences. He’s got this thing where he says he just wants the story out there because somewhere there is someone with the power to afford him the opportunity to change his circumstances, with his academic desires. Even now.”
McLeod’s inspired solution to MacKinnon’s desire to be heard but not seen was to instead film actor Alan Cumming lip-synching his words. As well as those segments and the filmed interviews with those former classmates who agreed to be filmed (some didn’t) there are animated sequences voiced by a range of actors. Notable among these are Clare Grogan and (wait for it) Lulu who, film buffs will know, starred in those seminal class-room dramas Gregory’s Girl and To Sir, With Love.
Wait, there’s more. Cumming also appeared in Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion, in which Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow play women returning to their high school. And remember that mooted film version of the Brandon Lee story which was supposed to have happened 25 years earlier? Provisionally titled Younger Than Springtime, it was to be directed by Cumming who would also have starred.
And so we hear MacKinnon, through Cumming, talk about feeling sick on his first day. About the disguise he used and the effort it took (hair curlers!). About his interactions with his classmates (he did a great Clint Eastwood impersonation) and being picked to play the lead in the school play (South Pacific). About his overwhelming desire to become a doctor and the pain he felt at having to leave medical school. And about his skills as a mesmerist.
“What else can you do but take it at face value because it worked, didn’t it?” says McLeod, when I ask what he made of that last claim. “Whatever else you want to say about his claims on that front, it worked. He made us all believe he was a 16-year-old boy … He has this sheer confidence, utter confidence, that’s unshakable. There’s all these moments that he talks about feeling he’s about to be discovered, but he just gets away with it. All that kind of stuff where any one of us would give up and run away, he doesn’t. He keeps going. If that’s what you want to call mind control or mesmerism – a sheer focus like that – then I can’t say that guy can’t do that, because he did it to all of us.”
Were there inconsistencies in MacKinnon’s story?
“The social life, basically. That’s the biggest thing. For him, his take on it is that he came into the school, kept his head down, didn’t really interact with anyone, got his exam results and left. And what I found is that that’s not really the case. There were parties, he was driving kids into town and going to the cinema and going ten pin bowling … It’s quite clear, I think, that there was something more going on than just trying to get into medical school.”
MacKinnon even went on holiday to Tenerife with some of his classmates. One version of the cause of his unmasking involves them seeing the name and date of birth on his real passport (though in an interview with The Herald in 1995, MacKinnon said it was on account of a parcel addressed to him as Brandon Lee and left with a neighbour). There’s even a story, demonstrably false, of Spanish police discovering the truth after MacKinnon was arrested during a fracas in a bar.
But as much as My Old School replays and unpicks this curious episode from the 1990s while offering playful nods to a much-loved cinematic sub-genre, it’s also a film about other things. Class, for instance.
“In Modern Studies, the first thing you learn is about that hill between Bearsden and Drumchapel and the life expectancy on one side of the hill versus the other,” says McLeod. And he would know. As a Clydebank kid who was bussed in from out of catchment because his older sister had been badly assaulted at their local school, he wasn’t so dissimilar to MacKinnon. His family had moved to Bearsden from a much poorer area of the city specifically so their son could go to a better school.
The film is also about friendship, identity – who you are, who you were, who you want to be, and the avatars and personas you cultivate along the way – and about second chances. Finally, it’s a film about memory, collective and individual, and how you sift fact from fiction when presented with disparate accounts at a distance of nearly 30 years.
Even today – even after the making of My Old School – many of the facts surrounding the Brandon Lee/Brian MacKinnon case are either contested, or vague, or built on shifting sand. In one scene, for instance, McLeod shows grainy video footage of that South Pacific production to MacKinnon’s co-star, who is adamant they did not kiss in the final scene. Wrong.
“I would just bring my classmates in and we would do the interviews and it was like a big jigsaw puzzle trying to piece together what their memories were versus this version of events Brandon was telling me, and seeing what made the most sense,” says McLeod. “For everybody in this film it has been a journey back in time.” Even for Alan Cumming, who has returned to a part he intended to play decades ago.
But what about Brian MacKinnon? “I think the film we’ve all made – the story the classmates and teachers have told – is a sensitive depiction,” says McLeod. “We’ve tried to show a real understanding of what drove him to do this stuff. I’m aware he has different idea of the world, but the film doesn’t go into that. We just look at this particular moment in time, 1993 to 1995.”
That said, MacKinnon seems to have taken a dim view of the finished film.
“I think when he realised I was going to be speaking to a lot more people the project became less appealing to him,” says McLeod. “He doesn’t understand why we’re so interested in the high school element. For him, the big focus should be on the forces which have stopped him achieving what he wanted in life.”
Speaking to the Daily Mail in January ahead of a screening at the Glasgow Film Festival, MacKinnon said he had “zero interest” in watching My Old School and even denied having been interviewed for it.
“The problem when you’re dealing with this story that’s about so many lies is it’s really hard to get to a version of the truth,” says McLeod finally. “This film is as close to the truth as 30 pupils and teachers can do 25 years later.”
But is it the last we’ll hear of the story of Brandon Lee, the man who became a boy again to return to school and earn himself a second chance? Does Brian MacKinnon, who lived that double life, have more to say on the matter? Don’t bet against it.
My Old School is in cinemas now
GREGOR KYLE WAS A CLASSMATE OF BRANDON LEE’S AT BEARSDEN ACADEMY AND APPEARS IN MY OLD SCHOOL. HERE HE REFLECTS ON HIS MEMORIES OF THE TIME AND ON THE MAKING OF THE FILM
Every single pupil in Bearsden Academy’s class of 1995 has heard variations of the same question over the past 25 years. “How did you not realise that your classmate was actually a grown man in his thirties?”
Each of us has a well-rehearsed response, a self-deprecating line to mask our embarrassment and put a thin gloss over what remains, a quarter of a century on, one of Scotland’s most incredible stories.
The tale of Brandon Lee/Brian MacKinnon - the ‘schoolboy impostor’ - is engrained in the memories of anyone who was around in Scotland in the 1990s. It dominated headlines for weeks as people asked why and how a 32-year-old man succeeded in returning to the school he first attended as a child, pretending to be a teenager from Canada. How was he able to pass his exams and take a place at Dundee University? And how had no-one noticed?
The making of My Old School has been an exercise in memory. Over a period of several years over 30 of us former pupils, teachers and Brian/Brandon himself, filed up to an old academy in Glasgow and squeezed, some with more difficulty than others, behind school desks to tell our stories to director Jono McLeod.
Time and the tales told in the press shaped the versions we told. Our recollections were at times fuzzy and narrowed by personal experience, by how this story affected us and our friends at the time. Some, however, had vivid and often poignant memories of the boy we knew as Brandon.
As a former classmate and member of Brandon’s registration class 5C, only Jono could have got so many of us to sit down and share our memories, particularly when some of us had been badly burned when the story first blew up in 1995. Jono understood this and, essentially, appreciated how this story and Brian were viewed by those of us who were around at the time.
This was not a dark tale of a sinister impostor trying to gain access to a school. It is one which had light and shade and, for all its humour, is deeply moving. Maybe now people will understand why we failed to see the man who stood before us.