The years drifted by. The players drifted apart. But despite all the odds, renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie are finally back in T2 Trainspotting, a sequel with a surprising link to The Likely Lads
The Danny Boyle classic has spawned a sequel. Choose life. Choose a film magazine. Choose the ‘Contents’ page. Choose so-called funny witticisms instead of useful information. Choose choosing. Choose... oh, sod it.
JONNY LEE MILLER WAS BRICKING IT. It had been ten years since he’d seen Robert Carlyle, longer since he’d crossed paths with Ewan Mcgregor and Ewen Bremner, and two decades since the Trainspotting comrades had all been in a room together, at the film’s wrap party. So when, a week before shooting was scheduled to begin on long-awaited sequel T2 Trainspotting last May, Danny Boyle asked the cast to get together to rehearse some scenes, it was a big deal. Miller was anxious as it was, of making a film that could potentially tarnish the legacy of Trainspotting, of disappointing an entire generation. And, to add to his already fragile condition as he travelled to the set for the first time in Bathgate (midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow), he contracted food poisoning from the breakfast he’d picked up en route. By the time he got there, he was done for.
“I was so nervously excited,” he remembers, “and I ended up throwing up in the bathroom. It was like, ‘Nice to see you, I gotta go vomit.’ And it just felt weirdly, awfully appropriate for Trainspotting, throwing up in a bathroom, having not seen these guys for years, hoping that they didn’t think I’d developed some awful drug habit.”
Miller wasn’t the only one with jitters, and with good reason. Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel — not, ultimately, a film about heroin but about a gang of friends testing, goading, fighting and escaping each other — made icons of its characters, and stars of its director and cast. The cinematic epicentre of Cool Britannia, Trainspotting seemed to define a generation: student dorms all over the country were adorned with the orange-and-monochrome poster, on which Begbie (Carlyle), Diane (Kelly Macdonald), Sick Boy (Miller), Spud (Bremner) and Renton (Mcgregor) grinned and growled, indelibly ingrained in pop culture.
“People want to see them again,” producer Andrew Macdonald tells Empire. “They know their names. It’s the only film I’ve been involved in where that’s been the case. You hardly remember who the guys in Shallow Grave were,” he says of the same team’s previous film. “And then we made a film straight after Trainspotting,
A Life Less Ordinary, nobody remembers that. Nobody’s wanted to see whatever the fuck they’re called, Celine and Robert, you know... Nobody’s wanting to see that again, are they?” We wouldn’t like to say. “Exactly!”
It’s June 2016
and Empire is hanging around a toilet on the set of T2. Not, alas, the one Jonny Lee Miller threw up in a few weeks earlier, but a row of toilets constructed for a scene in an Edinburgh nightclub. It’s dark, it’s dank, and it’s riddled with graffiti. “Mike you fanny” is one such scrawl. “Saggy titties” another. Empire’s favourite is daubed above a toilet, simply reading “Narnia”. Business as usual, then.
“I, more than anyone, had flirted with the idea for a sequel the longest,” says an enthusiastic Boyle when we meet him later. “Because I’d answered so many questions in interviews asking if there was gonna be one.” 2002 saw the publication of Welsh’s sequel Porno, which, against a backdrop of the gonzo porn industry, focused on Sick Boy and Begbie’s attempts to
take revenge on Renton, who made off with their swag at the end of the original story. Boyle and Macdonald commissioned John Hodge to write a draft closely following Welsh’s book, but no-one was overjoyed with the result. His heart wasn’t in it, says Hodge, and Boyle, similarly unenthused, didn’t send it to any of the cast. For a few years, they just let it go, despite the constant questions.
“I was asked about it all the time,” says Mcgregor, “and I always said I would never do anything to damage the reputation of the film we made and that everybody loves. Trainspotting means everything to me. It’s a really amazing film and I just thought it was a bad idea to do a sequel ten years after. But mainly I just didn’t feel the same connection to Porno that I had done to the novel of Trainspotting, which really moved me. Also Danny and I went through years of not working together, and so there was all that going on as well.”
Ah, yes. After A Life Less Ordinary, Mcgregor was set to star in The Beach, which would be his fourth film with Boyle, but the director cast Leonardo Dicaprio instead, enabling him to raise more investment funds for the budget. More than losing that particular role, Mcgregor felt hurt by losing his place in the team: they were, he had thought, in this together. The wound was deep, and for years they had no contact. But time is a healer, and in 2009 Mcgregor saw Boyle in a restaurant and felt only affection. “I went over and we chatted for a little while and it was so nice to see him after all that time,” says Mcgregor, who later that year, at the 2009 BAFTA LA’S Britannia Awards, introduced Boyle to the crowd before the director came up to the stage to receive the John Schlesinger Award for Artistic Excellence In Directing. It was a touching speech in which Mcgregor paid tribute to Boyle, closing with, “I love you and miss you.”
“He was really sweet,” says Boyle, who regrets the way he handled The Beach’s casting switch. “We weren’t particularly respectful towards him, way back in the day. But he’s always been very, very generous. So we met and talked and I said how sorry I was, the way we had treated him. And it rebuilt from there.”
In early 2014,
Boyle decided it was time to revive sequel talks. 2016 would mark the original’s 20th anniversary, so plans to see if they could produce a worthy successor for around that time got underway. Boyle organised a trip to Edinburgh for himself, Hodge, Welsh, and producers Christian Colson and Andrew Macdonald to kick around ideas, and the day before Boyle was set to travel up from London, he bumped into Mcgregor. “It was odd, and fateful, I suppose,” says Mcgregor. “By that time I was up for doing a sequel, and I told him I was looking forward to reading a script.”
In Edinburgh, the team pored through Porno, read Hodge’s old drafts, and started again. “The idea was to light a fire under John,” says Welsh. It worked. “Something happened to him,” says Boyle. “Those sessions unlocked
something in John that he was able to write about. It was like the first one: as soon as you started to read it you just knew, ‘This is gonna work.’ It’s him unleashed, really.”
What John Hodge wrote was a story that not only revisits Trainspotting’s various reprobates 20 years on, but explores that very passing of time — how it changes us or, in some cases, does not. How we reflect on our past and live with it, and whether or not we truly evolve. The film retains some of Porno’s key narrative strands, particularly Sick Boy and Begbie’s vengeful retribution, but is generally new material. It also draws heavily on the first film itself. “Some bits are from Trainspotting, in the same way that one’s present life also includes elements of the past,” says Hodge. “We all live with our past all the time, and these characters are the same. It’s not Ocean’s Thirteen, which really has got nothing to do with Ocean’s Twelve or Eleven. In real life we carry around a lot of emotional baggage, even if we don’t think we do. So if you’re seeing it visually, that’s because it’s there, in their heads.”
The script was sent to the actors, and slayed them. “I was crying,” says Robert Carlyle of first reading it. “I thought, ‘Why the fuck am I crying at this?’” He’s still emotional now, as he was throughout the production. Everybody was, he says. “Danny felt it, Ewan and Ewen felt it, Jonny, we all felt this real emotional connection to these characters and to this world. But that first read — I was speaking to Ewan Mcgregor, saying, ‘I cannae believe I’m feeling like this.’ I’ve never cried when I’ve read a screenplay before. Ever.”
In summer 2015, the key cast and crew (other than Miller, who was shooting Sherlock Holmes show Elementary in New York) met in a members’ club in Soho for a read-through. Although some of them had crossed paths or worked together over the years, this was the first proper reunion since 1996. “To hear their voices reading new material in that Spud voice, in that Begbie voice, in that Renton voice, was like, ‘Oh my God,’” says Boyle. “That felt really good. I remember thinking, ‘Let’s make sure there aren’t any hiccups now. Let’s make sure we do this.’”
There are lots
of DVDS in Sick Boy’s flat. There are lots of lots of things in Sick Boy’s flat, a swanky, brash and cluttered pad. Empire has been given free rein of the sets, so we’re being nosey. What’s here? A foosball table. A synth. Stacks of car mags, crates full of empty cans of lager and cider, a stupendous amount of dirty washing-up, and yes, mountains of DVDS, including, naturally, lots of Bond films — Sick Boy/simon is, lest we forget, a 007 aficionado. We then venture into his pub, the Port Sunshine, a dilapidated drinking hole which will play host to some key encounters. Including Renton’s first meet-up in two decades with Sick Boy, who, it turns out, has aged surprisingly well.
“I wanted to go all out,” bemoans Miller. “Like, ‘Why don’t I shave my head and show up bald?’ My hair’s getting pretty thin anyway, so
I thought I could look completely different, but Danny said the blond hair was such a huge part of the first movie and it had to be there. So we ended up doing it but with the roots coming through, and you can really see hair loss.”
Boyle had said in the past he didn’t want to make a sequel until the actors looked physically older. “Anybody other than Danny might have rushed the film, done it ten years ago,” says Carlyle. “They might have put the grey through the hair and the lines on the face. But the grey is already on the hair now, and the lines are on the face. You can’t get any better than that.” Carlyle arrived on set with long locks and a full beard, leaving options open. As T2 begins, Begbie is in prison, and Carlyle, after looking at reference photos of prisoners, decided the hair had to go — but the moustache would stay. “That’s his signature, right there,” he laughs.
“One of the inspirations behind doing the film was The Likely Lads,” says Boyle, referring to the 1960s British sitcom — a surprising influence on T2. “Because then they came back with Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, seven years after, but it felt longer. And it had that great song: ‘What happened to you, whatever happened to me? What became of the people we used to be?’” Boyle takes a deep, emotional breath. “Fuckin’ hell. Because film and television freezes people in time, so seeing them unfrozen and presented to you, cheek to cheek, it’s like, there you go, your heroes. It’s like music — you don’t wanna see them when they’re past it. It’s brutal.”
The cast arrived in fits and starts, thanks to busy, globetrotting schedules. Bremner was first, then Carlyle, who was overcome with emotion when they were then joined by Miller after he’d finished filming Elementary. “Out of everyone, Jonny and I were probably the closest,” says Carlyle. “Jesus Christ. Big, big, big hugs. Just holding onto each other, actually.” Immediately after the hugging, Miller ran to that toilet to throw up. And a week later, when he had finished work on his directorial debut, American Pastoral,
Mcgregor arrived, just as worried, concerned he might not be able to “find” Renton again. On the first day, in the lunch queue, he met Bremner.
“I said, ‘I’m really fuckin’ nervous, Ewen. I’m scared about it,’” admits Mcgregor. “And he said, ‘Don’t worry, as soon as you get in there you’ll be fine.’ And he was right. As soon as I got the Adidas on and got on set I was alright. Because I’m Renton, and Renton’s me. There was nothing to find — he was already there.” In what sense are they interchangeable? “There’s something about his story and my story,” he continues, then pauses, collecting his thoughts. “I hadn’t seen Danny for all those years, and Renton hasn’t seen his mates for all those years. He fucked off, and I fucked off. I haven’t lived in Scotland since I was 17. He’s coming back, I was coming back. There were an awful lot of parallels, you might say.”
On set, Empire watches as Boyle directs Mcgregor, who’s found himself in a tense altercation with another character. Renton’s teeming with adrenaline, and Mcgregor’s wide-eyed, lapping up instructions from Boyle, asking how he wants him to play it. It’s a simple scene, but it’s swirling with electricity. When Boyle calls cut, the crew cheers. “Well done, gentlemen,” says Boyle, practically bouncing. Mcgregor’s beaming. The likely lads are back.
Empire meets Boyle in his Soho production offices, where he and editor Jon Harris are finishing the film, the walls plastered with sequenced screenshots. In October, they watched a rough cut back-toback with the original film, to contrast and compare — if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know there are overt nods to Trainspotting in T2, from frantic street chases to Renton’s adventures with car bonnets. “Because it lives in the shadow of the first one,” explains Boyle. “And how much you step out of that shadow, or stay in it, defines it. You’re not just making it in a vacuum. And also we just wanted to make sure we hadn’t made some howling fuckin’ cock-up. ‘He’s circumcised in that film, and now he isn’t!’”
Only here, in post-production, says Boyle, is he truly discovering what the film’s about. “You know Richard Linklater’s Boyhood? Well, this is ‘Manhood’,” he says. “For all those years I kept jokingly making the excuse that the actors weren’t ready to make the film yet because they didn’t look old enough, because they were in spas every weekend pampering themselves, blah blah blah. But actually, when I look at what we’ve done... I think I wasn’t ready to do it. Because of my own age. You’ve got to have a personal reason to make a film. And I think I was waiting.”
On the phone, Empire speaks to Bremner, who says he’s been profoundly touched by the entire experience. “The characters in the original film, they’re so virile,” he says. “Their spirit is very strong. But growing up, and we’re still all growing up, that can pass. You don’t grow up without losing things that are dear to you, and having your identity challenged and being rocked by events that are out of or in your control. I think the film perfectly captures the cruelty of ageing. It’s a really powerful film, I think.”
“Trying not to face up to decline is a part of life,” adds Hodge. “When you get to 50 you suddenly realise all the big events coming your way are not good ones. Being young can be hard, you can feel insecure, and might be economically disadvantaged or whatever, and you can get to a certain age and look at the achievements in your life, but really the great time is when you’re young. All the rest is a waste of time.”
Does he really think that? “Yeah! After you’ve been 15, 20, 25, there’s never anything like that again. At 45, whatever, you’re struggling to keep hold of a strand of that, and that’s part of the theme of the film. I don’t mean to sound unnecessarily dismissive of existence after the age of 25, but if you think back and then look forward, there’s no contest! All these people who say, ‘Life begins at 60, look at me, I’m playing golf every day,’ I mean, so fucking what?”
But for all the talk of midlife crises, T2 promises at least as much energy as the first film, with at least as much attitude. The mere title is a clue — a boisterous two fingers up. James Cameron’s Terminator sequel is commonly known by the same name, but was never officially called that, so Boyle nicked it. “We called it that because that’s what the characters would call it,” he says. “They wouldn’t show any respect for it.”
Everyone is buoyed by the rough cut, though there is still, of course, trepidation. “We want the film to satisfy everybody,” says Bremner. “We have to live with the consequences of it, on a daily basis. I have to walk down the street with people maybe saying, ‘Hey, Spud! You shouldna made the second one, should ya? Was a bit crap!’ We’re all up for it. We gave it our best shot.”
In a sea of sequels, it’s heartening to have one made for all the right reasons. Certainly, nobody can accuse them of rushing it.
It’s less fists out and more feet up for Begbie.
Sick Boy, Renton and Nikki (Anjela Nedyalkova) toast the gang’s eagerly awaited return.
Renton and Sick Boy rediscover their lust for life.
Danny Boyle and Irvine Welsh chat to Robert Carlyle (Begbie) on set. Below: Welsh — the man with the golden pen.
Old habits die hard for Jonny Lee Miller’s Sick Boy and Ewan Mcgregor’s Renton.
Spud brings the bouquet. But who are the flowers for?