By Tom Ue.
In 1976, Gordon Korman’s seventh grade track-and-field coach-turned English teacher had given the class time to write: he completed what became This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall (1978, updated in 2003), the first installment in his Macdonald Hall (Bruno and Boots) series (1978-1995). The novel appeared two years later when he was only 14. Korman has now written 87 books for children and young adults and is a #1 New York Times bestselling author.
The second book in the series, Go Jump in the Pool (1979), is the inspiration of a 2016 television movie written by Adam Barker, directed by Vivieno Caldinelli, and produced by Anthony Leo and Andrew Rosen at Aircraft Pictures. Set in a fictitious boarding school for boys, the story centres on Bruno Walton (Jonny Gray) and Melvin “Boots” O’Neal (Callan Potter), roommates and best friends who have earned a reputation for troublemaking. In what follows, I discuss the television movie with Potter.
Congratulations on Bruno & Boots: Go Jump in the Pool, your film debut! How familiar were you with Gordon’s books prior to the casting?
Actually, I read them all when I was at elementary school. When I was in grade 7 or 8, I picked them up form my school’s library, and I read the first one. I loved it, so I went through the whole series in less time than it took me to finish elementary school. I kind of identified with Boots a little bit. That’s why it was such a fantastic thing when I was informed that I was going to get to bring his character out on screen. It was wonderful.
What is your experience of boarding schools?
I am a public school kid, so I don’t have a lot of on-hand experience with boarding schools and that sort of thing. I have always been in the public school system: I went to a very rural elementary school and then I went on to a high school in Stratford, which is still a public school. I don’t really have a lot of experience with boarding schools. It was a really cool experience to try and see what it was like on film.
This is your first leading role, but you have acted onstage previously: tell us about some of the differences between performing onstage and in a TV-movie.
This is my first leading role – it’s amazing – and there is a lot of contrast between theatre and film. For me, it’s more about how you view the end result. When you are doing a play, you get to see it as a whole every time you perform it, and you get to see it transforms and what choices the actors make each night, and it’s really cool to see everyone come together and make something like that. But with film, you see it as a tiny little individual scene that you film over a course of time and you don’t actually get to see what it looks like. That, for me, is one of the hardest things about making a film: it’s not getting to see what the scene looks like. I am the kind of person that likes to – if you take a picture of me – see it so that it’s not looking like deadeye or awful or something, right?
Not being able to see the scene was an interesting experience that, I think, helped me grow as a person, to get over the fact that I am here to work and that I am doing the scene and they are going to look the way they look however I see them or not. It was a journey of patience to finally get to see the finished result. For me, that was the biggest difference between film and theatre.
Gordon began writing the books when he was 12. Do you think that technology would have shaped how the teenagers interact if they had been written nowadays?
I think that technology for kids gives them a lot of outlets. That is a really good thing. It’s different from kids ten years ago: some kids are on their iPads instead of reading books. I am not saying that’s a bad thing. The Internet has brought so many advantages to our society. I had gotten back into reading. There was a while where I was really on technology a lot. I didn’t read as much. I read when I was a kid an incredible amount. I was a voracious reader. Recently, I am trying to get back to it. When I do read books, it’s a more personal experience than watching something onscreen. It’s that mental image. Stephen King said: “Reading is just like telepathy on a page.” It’s so cool because one person puts something down, and you see this image in your head. I think that’s something that we lost a little bit with technology, that everything is presented to us. It’s really cool how, even though we have all these advantages with technology, people like Gordon Korman still appreciate the way that things used to be like, like books, going outside a lot. It’s not like it doesn’t happen but it’s certainly limited.
I think technology, used in moderation, is a great thing, and that we shouldn’t forget the things that are lost to technology.
Do you think that Bruno and Boots could have had the relationship that they had today?
I honestly think that the friendship between Bruno and Boots is one of the strongest things in their entire world, not just the film. It’s something that is so pure and it’s kind of hard to explain. It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship: Bruno is always incredibly excited to go out and pull pranks and get up to mischief and shenanigans and Boots loves that – it brings an element of excitement into his life. At the same time, sometimes when they are kids, Bruno needs someone with a level head in the group, and say, “Bruno, this might not end exactly as you think it might. Maybe we should rethink before we do this.” I think that their friendship is just so co-dependent and so free that they really just appreciate each other’s company. They can be real to each other and I think that’s a really beautiful thing for a thing for a film to have.
Do you identify more with Bruno or Boots?
Jonny and I have had this question before, and I think that we said is that there are aspects of both in us and you have to find a nice medium between Bruno and Boots. I like to think that I have a bit of the excitement and the risk-taking of Bruno or, at the same time, I try and be as logical as Boots – but at the same time, not to be afraid to have fun and let loose occasionally.
Do you think that Boots would have been more like Bruno without Bruno?
I think that Bruno influences Boots in a way that he might not have the courage to become Boots or Bruno if it wasn’t for Bruno. I think that Bruno helps him along in his journey into becoming who he is. I think that without the influence of Bruno he would just have been Melvin.
What went on behind the scenes of the shoot?
It was an incredible time: we had a lot of fun. We would always hang out when we had free time. There’s actually a pool table in the dorms where our dressing rooms were. There’s a piano down there as well. It was just a really great environment. Everyone had a lot of fun. Everyone got along. There wasn’t any drama. It was such a pure film that everyone was there to do the work and create something beautiful. I think we achieved that and I am really happy that we got to hang out with all these people.
Were there as many pranks off-screen as there were on-screen?
Honestly, there were a couple, but not really in terms of anything pre-meditated. More when we saw an opportunity to play a prank and scare someone onset. Especially between me and Jonny: we would always find ways to riff on each other on a funny way. It was not malicious at all. He would be reading his lines off at a corner and I would go behind him and try to scare him to death. It was great. It added to the whole feeling of the film.
What is next for you?
I just finished filming a Nickelodeon show called The Other Kingdom in Toronto. We spent four months in Toronto. I got to play a character named Tristan who’s a gymnast. It was a really great experience as well, so I am very excited for that too.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue was a Visiting Scholar at Yale University and at the University of Toronto at Scarborough and the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer, and he has held an Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.