Boys to men
In Danny Boyle’s sequel to ‘Trainspotting,’ it’s maturity, not the needle, that vexes characters
The year was 1996. A littleknown filmmaker from Manchester, England, named Danny Boyle, whose only cinematic calling card was the darkly comic 1994 thriller “Shallow Grave,” sat down with a Washington Post reporter to promote his new film: a little $2.5 million comic drama about a quartet of Edinburgh heroin addicts that he now says he “stumbled” through the making of.
The film, based on a book by recovered addict Irvine Welsh and written entirely in slangheavy Scottish dialect, followed the alternately ghastly and manic exploits of narrator Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), his best friend, Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), perennial loser Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) and violent psychopath Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle). It was already a U.K. success, but it had yet to find its stateside audience. “I can’t see it myself,” Boyle said of the film’s chances at achieving U.S. box-office success.
“Trainspotting” (along with its soundtrack, featuring music by Iggy Pop, Underworld, Lou Reed and Primal Scream) went on to become an international hit, garnering writer John Hodge an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.
Now, 21 years later, the boys — er, men — are back, in an $18 million sequel that is as haunted by the past as one would expect. (The first film featured a dead baby, a character lost to AIDS and a climactic act of betrayal by Mark, who ran off with the proceeds of a drug sale that was to have been split four ways.) As “T2 Trainspotting” opens, Mark has just experienced the poetic justice of a heart attack on a treadmill in Amsterdam, where he has been hiding out. Simon has gone from heroin to cocaine, but is still spinning his wheels and earning his living as a blackmailer. Spud is attempting to kill himself. And Begbie is trying to escape from prison, where he has spent two decades dreaming of murdering Mark.
Boyle, on the other hand, has done pretty well for himself in the intervening years, with an Oscar for directing “Slumdog Millionaire” and nominations for “127 Hours.” In town again to sell the new film, the 60-year-old filmmaker reflected on the enduring appeal of “Trainspotting’s” lovable reprobates, and the new film’s theme of aging. Q: You and John Hodge took a stab at writing a “Trainspotting” sequel once before, after Irvine Welsh’s 2002 sequel, “Porno,” was published. You’ve called that earlier screenplay terrible. What was wrong with it? A: It wasn’t about anything. It was about the making of a porno movie. It just used the characters again. They have to kind of force themselves back in, reluctant though they may be, in some respects. It probably wasn’t terrible. Q: Wouldn’t you agree that the problem with most sequels is that they are forced? A: What I meant by forced is that the characters have to have something to say. Q: Spud, the most hopeless character, gets a really surprising story line here. Can you talk about that without revealing spoilers? A: My whole philosophy is that everybody has a voice, and sometimes those voices are miracles. Irvine Welsh’s voice is a miracle. He was a heroin addict, and he was in an AIDS epidemic in Edinburgh. At the time it had the highest rate of HIV infection in Western Europe. Out of that came this voice: unapologetic and defiant, and humor that you could tar ships with. It was just coruscating. Q: Are you saying that Spud is a stand-in for Welsh? A: Yeah, his story is Irvine’s story, absolutely. Irvine just started writing his stories down. A crazy magazine [Rebel Inc.] started publishing them. People said: “I like that. Write some more.” It’s as simple as that. The book is just a series of short stories, but, taken in the aggregate, I regard them as a modern “Ulysses.” Q: Screenwriter John Jodge is a former physician. Does his medical experience inform his writing in any way? A: Yes, physicians make great writers, without a doubt. They have that cold eye, but also the experience of seeing people at their extremes — at their absolutely most impossible and most vulnerable. It explains Chekhov, Michael Crichton. The best two books I’ve read this year are by doctors: Henry Marsh’s “Do No Harm” and “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi, about him dying. I’m sure they’ll be making that last one into a film. Q: What was your reaction when “Trainspotting” became a hit in the States? A: Well, John and I made our next film here [the widely panned “A Life Less Ordinary”]. It was a disaster. Everybody hated it. We obviously thought, “Yeah! America loves us. Let’s go there and make a film. We can get Ewan McGregor and put him with Cameron Diaz.” Q: You famously re-dubbed some of the dialogue from the first “Trainspotting” for its American release, so that the Scottish accents wouldn’t be so hard to follow. And the opening scenes in “T2” include prominent subtitles, which are treated as kind of a joke. Did you consider any other concessions to the American audience? There’s one fairly arcane scene in the new film, set in an anti-Catholic nightclub, where highly sectarian Protestant patrons are obsessed with the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. A: I think Americans will still get it — enough. This is why you don’t take a lot of money for a film like this. If you took $100 million, you’d have to
change that. The focus group would go, “We don’t understand that. Can we make it about baseball versus basketball?”
Q: If the first screenplay wasn’t about anything, what is this one about, other than, as you’ve described it, how badly men age?
A: That’s what I thought the film was about. What shocked me was, when I watched it in editing after about four weeks, what the film is really about is fatherhood. I looked at the footage and there were all these children running around. I mean, we cast all these children. I directed them all. It should be no surprise to me. But I watched it and I thought, “What are all these kids doing in this movie?” They’re like fatherless children, and they’re disappointed in their fathers. That’s a theme that runs through it as well. I was shocked. I don’t think I’ve ever made anything where I was like, “Hang on a minute. This isn’t what I thought it was about.”
Q: As a father yourself, does that make it especially personal?
A: Yes, of course it is. I’ve got three kids. If you’ve got a career like I’ve had, you spend a lot of time away from home. I look at my [27-year-old] son and I think, “Am I a good example?” I’m not sure. There’s also a theme of loss there. I missed my mother’s death and my father’s death because I was working both times. So in “T2” we put the shadow of Renton’s mother on the wall. That was really crucial. I don’t think that people understand that Renton has missed her funeral. And that’s really unacceptable. But it’s unacceptable for me to have missed my parents’ deaths, not to have been at their bedside when they died. I was in Los Angeles for “127 Hours” and the Academy Awards, sitting by the f------ pool at the Four Seasons when my father passed away. You do think about that. You think, “Why, you little youknow-what.” Q: How hard was it to round up all the actors from the first film? A: The biggest challenge was Jonny and Bobby, because they’re under contract to American television. Bobby was in Vancouver doing a longrunning TV series called “Once Upon a Time,” the fairy-tale thing, and Jonny was in New York doing Sherlock Holmes in “Elementary.” I wanted Jonny’s hair bleached blond again, but I couldn’t get that in the contract because CBS wouldn’t allow him. It’s him that said, “Do it, and I’ll straighten it out with them.” He has that power, which I don’t. And Bobby the same. He cut all his hair off, and he said, “Don’t worry about it. I arranged with the wig woman to make a big wig before I left, so I am going to cut it off.” Q: The first film is known for several set pieces with arresting visual effects: Ewan diving into a filthy toilet; a hallucination of a baby crawling on the ceiling; a close-up of a needle going into a prosthetic arm. Were there any particularly difficult shots to get in this film? A: The tricky one for this was Spud’s suicide [attempt], where that plastic bag is over his head. There’s no way you can fake a plastic bag. It has it be sealed in order to do that kind of — the sucking air thing. The first assistant director, who’s responsible for health and safety on the set, he was so nervous about that, because of course Ewen could have blacked out. Q: How long did Ewen have the bag over his head? A: Like, half a morning. And there’s a [vomit] tube in there, too, because the bag’s got to fill with [vomit], which is pretty disgusting. I thought the opening fight between Renton and Sick Boy at their reunion would be tough. We had a couple of stunt men on hand, because of their ages. You guys look good, but — 46 years old? — you just can’t throw each other around a room anymore. But they did the whole fight themselves. There’s not one stunt man in it. A lot of that is typical male. “Oh, no, I can still do it.” It’s what I’m going on about in this film: Men age badly. Q: You’ve said that Francis Ford Coppola is your favorite director and that he “disappears” in his work. Why is disappearing such a good thing? A: It’s what George Orwell said about good prose: It’s like a window pane onto a world. You shouldn’t sense the writer. You’ve no sense of who built the window. Q: And yet, there is this video making the rounds of social media, courtesy of Indiewire: “The Nine Trademarks of Danny Boyle’s Kinetic Directing Style.” Does it bother you that you’ve now become a brand, identifiable by certain tricks of the trade: point-of-view shots, time-lapse sequences, voice-over narration, etc.? A: No, that’s what I am. I wish I could be anything different, but I’m not. It doesn’t last very long for any of us anyway. It’s like Sick Boy says in the first film: “You’ve got it, and then you lose it.” To be fair, I think that even Coppola would admit that his unique moment has come and gone. Q: These characters certainly get under your skin. Can we shut the book on them at last? A: Irvine has written an incredible book about Begbie called “The Blade Artist,” which is surprisingly good, meaning that it completely inverts your idea of Begbie. He’s in California, as an artist who has found art therapy in prison and is sculpting portrait busts of famous celebrities — Brad Pitt included — with knives. It’s written like a thriller. It’s not like his other books, which bleed all over the page. It’s almost like he’s written it for film. I know Bobby wants to do it. But I don’t know if I could do a spinoff in that way. Part of the philosophy of doing the sequel — which I told them, and John and I agreed — was that we’re going to do all four. Even if it makes sense to get rid of one of them, we’re not going to do it. So you may hear from them again, just not from me. T2 Trainspotting (R, 118 minutes). At area theaters.
Ewan McGregor, left, and Ewen Bremner reunite as Mark Renton and Spud in “T2 Trainspotting,” the sequel to the 1996 film by director Danny Boyle, top. In the film, Spud has a very surprising story line. “My whole philosophy is that everybody has a voice, and sometimes those voices are miracles,” Boyle says.