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A Morning with Danny Boyle: On Trainspotting, Nostalgia, and Reuniting with Ewan McGregor

on March 20, 2017, 12:00am

Photography by​ Heather Kaplan

It’s been a long and strange journey for Danny Boyle.

Although his 1994 feature-length debut, Shallow Grave, drew plenty of acclaim over here in the States, becoming a favorite rental of the VHS generation, it was Boyle’s follow-up, Trainspotting, that truly made him a cult filmmaker. His adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s heroin black comedy was hip, stylish, and captured a moment that was alien, albeit alluring, to everyone. Whether it was the stacked two-volume soundtrack or the iconic image of seeing a young Ewan McGregor pull himself out of a toilet, Trainspotting was The Film to Watch as a budding teenager and twentysomething, and it’s maintained that magical appeal since it first touched down in theaters back in February of 1996.

Since then, Boyle has carved out an intriguing career for himself, one that’s seen him go from being a cult filmmaker to an Oscar-winning visionary. Despite the acclaim, however, he hasn’t lost that cultish appeal, namely because he continues to tackle projects that exist on the fringe. 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, which won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, contains all the stylistic quirks and trademarks that made him the top filmmaker of the alternative nation, and the same could be said for his other award-gazing spectacles like 2010’s 127 Hours and 2015’s Steve Jobs. In other words, he’s never compromised his vision, and that’s why he’s still so compelling.

Yet, it’s also why he’s able to do an old-school film like T2 Trainspotting. Now, revisiting a franchise two decades later is always a tricky proposition, especially one that hallmarked a particular time and place, but Boyle was able to pull it off with finesse and grace. As Film Editor Dominick Suzanne-Mayer writes in his glowing, exhaustive review, “T2 Trainspotting is unusually candid about the hazards of looking backwards for too long, especially by sequel standards. Boyle’s second outing is less about reassembling a cast for a nostalgia piece than about the evils of that same kind of nostalgia, when left unchecked.” And as we know, nostalgia becomes a very ugly thing when left in the wrong hands.

Though, Boyle doesn’t seem too caught up in the nostalgia. At this past week’s South by Southwest Film Festival, where T2 Trainspotting secretly screened at the Alamo Drafthouse, Consequence of Sound’s Editor-in-Chief, Michael Roffman, caught up with the filmmaker the morning after to discuss the sequel, and it was quite apparent from the get-go that he doesn’t exactly see this as a tear-jerking Remember When. Rather, he understands the power and sanctity of those feelings and uses that to tell a new narrative, one that’s both in line with the characters and one that’s riveting enough to stand alone and apart from everything that came before it. Nonetheless, it was a great, quick chat.

What prompted you to finally revisit Trainspotting? Was it the 20th anniversary, or did all the stars just align?

We were flirting with it for quite a long time – not seriously and sort of teasing. Like you make a film, and it isn’t really successful, and you’re doing junkets, and they don’t really want to talk about the film because they didn’t like it. So, you end up talking about other things: “Any chance of a sequel to 28 Days Later…? Any chance of a sequel to Trainspotting?” The ones they did like. So, of course, you’re either rude and say, “Fuck off. Can we talk about this film please,” or you joke. You begin to jest, and these jests become real. So, the next time you meet, the journalist says, “The last time we spoke, you talked about Trainspotting…” It’s beginning to emerge as an entity.

So, then Irvine [Welsh] published this book 10 years ago, Porno, and that made us think, Well, maybe we should. I’m not a big fan of that book, to be honest, but we did an adaptation because it was the same characters again. It wasn’t a very good adaptation, and the actors didn’t look that different, so there was none of that kind of currency in it. Basically, it would’ve looked like a rehash of the first one, which some people would’ve been happy with. But we thought that if we go back, we need a real reason to believe in it. It has to have its own entity, almost like it isn’t a sequel. Rather than hitting as many buttons from the original – like with some sequels, that’s the philosophy – we thought it had to stand on its own. And then it can hit some buttons we want as well.

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When the 20-year anniversary loomed on the horizon, we met in Edinburgh. But, if I’m honest, I think that most of us, when we sat down, thought we won’t end up doing this. We’ll have this week here, so we’ll feel like we’ve done our due diligence. But what emerged was a script that was a bit more personal, and that was the reason to make the film. It was about aging and medical crisis and metaphysical crisis and those sorts of things. And there was a tenderness and poignancy about it that was much richer than we were expecting.

So, I sent it to the actors straight away, and I knew they’d do it. And we set it up like a co-op. Everybody’s paid the same. We didn’t want any agents or managers negotiating anything. It’s not a lot of money, but if it works, you’ll get a good back end. Everybody gets a share of the soundtrack. And it was great. We sidetracked all the business shit that often bring things crashing down by this idea that there was something valuable there and that we should share it together. And then the actors took the script and matrixed in their own fatherhood and 20 years into it, and you get something that’s really decent.

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So, it became just a really emotional experience then?

It wasn’t like group hugs or anything like that. There wasn’t crying on set. It was kinda business-like. But there was a poignancy in it, for sure, which everyone was aware of. You could feel it. Because we’re all aging. And at some point, not often, you stop and realize that and catch up. That’s one of the things the film is about. Obviously, the beginning of the film is brought to a shuddering halt by this medical crisis. That’s the trigger for everything happening and being revealed.

The original is told through Renton’s point of you. This one felt more like an ensemble. How early was that decision made when you and John Hodge were developing the idea for this?

That wasn’t in the original. So, what happens is John writes a script and we develop it over multiple drafts, as you begin to prepare. It’s an act of faith because you’ve committed to the film, and it’s being financed and set up, but you’re continuing to work on the script. And we had this idea that somehow we would loop back to the original novel. It was love of the original novel, not of Porno — because some of this film has ingredients of Porno in it, but it’s not really an adaptation of Porno. It’s more like it’s an adaptation of the first book again, and it was how we manifest that.

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And it became this idea that, surprisingly, the most hopeless of all the characters would suddenly find that he had a voice – and it was a good voice. It made him feel better about himself and made other people feel better about him, and it begins to grow. That’s the origin of the first novel: Irvine realizing that these voices should be heard – that they’re normally marginalized. That they’re victims so you pity them, or they’re evil because they’re stupid, and they’re ruining everybody’s lives including their own. But, actually, their voice is really important. Despite that, you should hear from them. Because they have a point of view that’s interesting and different. And they have a sense of humor, which is excellent. Then you begin to think that Spud was really entertaining in the first film. He’s a clown, but he’s entertaining. So, that’s part of the storytelling vibe: if you can entertain. That’s the key.

And we had this weird moment where Ewen Bremner … So, in his suicide attempt in the beginning, he had this letter that he had to write to Gail. And we were filming it the next day. And I said, “I’m going to see that letter, so you should write it overnight.” So, I sent him away to write it, and he wrote this beautiful letter. And I think he was auditioning for the end of the film in a way. It’s a very tender letter, very touching and moving. I said, “We gotta record that.” So, I got him to say it because I said we’ll hear it all as well. And then Underworld did a track to it, with Spud’s letter to Gail. It’s called “Eventually But”.

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For the original, the soundtrack is just as paramount as the film with the nostalgia that’s linked to it. Going into this film, was there a pressure to create a soundtrack like the previous one?

As you sort of gather at the foothills of what you’re going to do, people start saying: “Soundtrack’s really gonna be good, yeah? I really liked the first one.” And you go, “Fucking hell.” But you have to forget about all that eventually and aim for what you want regardless of what will be successful, or otherwise it’s the cart before the horse. What we wanted was to have the ability to touch the original soundtrack without feeling slavish, like we were repeating ourselves.

So, we had this principle that if we did use anything from the original soundtrack, it had to be remixed or reimagined. Underworld did a real wonderful rethink of “Born Slippy”. So, you hear the chords, and you know them. You have that kind of memory, but it’s different. Iggy’s [Pop] amazing, and “Lust for Life” was remixed by Prodigy. So, it’s the same, you know it, but it’s not. I love that. Rick [Smith], from Underworld, played “Perfect Day” on his piano – this very personal little bit because Lou Reed had died. So that was going to be in the film.

It grew like that, and then you have the other half – well, more than half, which is the new stuff you’re going to put in. Especially, the Young Fathers, who are this wonderful band from Edinburgh. They come from the same tough estates that Irvine came out of and wrote those original stories about. They weren’t born when the first film was made, and now they’re one of the best bands in Britain. They’re not very well known because they’re quite challenging, but they’re all wonderful, and they became the modern heartbeat of the film for me.

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Nostalgia can be a tricky thing. What’s great about this film is that it toes the line between retrospection and introspection.

Well, nostalgia is a much maligned word. We imagine it as weakness or sentimentality. In fact, he gets accused of it. It’s a great line. Everybody quotes it: “You’re just a tourist in your own youth.” Of course, what it is, as well, if you rename it – it’s the past that’s alive in all of us. Our past is alive in us. You cannot erase it, and people who do are very, very dangerous people, who refute the past and rewrite history. Be careful. There’s a terrible road that leads from that.

So, even though it seems inappropriate to when they were 25. You’re going to make a film about nostalgia? Actually, when you’re in your forties, it’s a big factor. And it’s pretty compelling. It’s a car crash as well, which is great to see. Like school reunions are a car crash of emotions. It’s like, “Fuck, look at him. He looks terrible.” But, actually, you’re looking at yourself as a mirror. That’s what people use school reunions for. The real psychological reason they’re there is to look at themselves and see where they are.

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It had been a while since you and Ewan McGregor had worked together. How significant was that reunion?

It was good, actually, because we had fallen out over The Beach. He was very gracious. This wasn’t on the horizon then, like an opportunity thing. So, we made up and started seeing each other again, which is lovely, and I’d missed him a lot. And it was amazing to start working with him again. Credit to him, and all of them, actually. When we got back together again, it was like the door had just closed on the other one, and we walked into the new one. There was a harmony and chemistry that you can’t buy. You can buy very good actors because you can pay and get them. But you cannot buy chemistry; you just cannot, no matter how much money you got. And they had that in the first film and kept it for this as well. And a couple of them hadn’t seen each other since literally walking off the set of the old movie. There was no stumbling around. You know that awkwardness you can get? There was none of that. It was just “off we go.”

T2 Trainspotting hits theaters on March 24th.

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