As the sequel to the cult phenomenon hits cinemas, we sit down with director Danny Boyle and the original foursome to talk making amends for the past, swapping vices and updating a classic
“One thousand years from now there’ll be no guys and no girls, just wankers!” It’s two decades since Mark Renton parted the swathes of sweaty bodies on the dancefloor to wryly make this prediction of the future. Off by just under a millennia, it’s got a more sinister ring to it today. The pleather-sofas-in-skag-dens generation that witnessed Trainspotting first time around emerged from a disillusioned, post-Thatcherite youth and dived straight into another sewer system, awash with super-dosage pills and spice habits, skyline-swallowing tower blocks and Brexit powered by a Tory government.
The original Leith gang, brought to life in the pages of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 debut and Danny Boyle’s later screen adaptation, had a clear, if nihilistic outlook: who needed the cubicle-coffin jobs, leased Nissans and forced chat with monosyllabic offspring over chicken dippers, when you had heroin? When the first film dropped in 1996, it was the storm in a rusted spoon that hit the film industry, the world’s teens and even America’s congress with the same unholy force.
Though heroin was the boys’ vice, their narrative was one that looked unflinchingly at the vast human condition. Whether now is the right time to revisit the human relics and teenage bedroom poster boys Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie and Spud remains the major question – and the biggest fear – but the sequel T2 is here. Drugs still play a part – Boyle’s second-unit director is a former addict from Miurhouse, and Spud’s battles are still present. But heroin is secondary to the demons of 2016/17: broken friendships, puffed-up masculinity and a desire to matter, all while the older Trainspotters navigate an inexplicable reverence for their past.
“There are two horses that run in it really,” says director Danny Boyle. “You have knowledge of the original film and that experience, and then there’s now, culturally. You are aware of the other film.” T2 uses Boyle’s famous stylistic motions and visual homages to recall the original film, whether it’s clips from the first or a creative nod to everyone’s favourite scene – the worst toilet in Scotland. The ‘Choose Life’ speech has been rebooted to swap starter homes and compact disc players for Facebook, zero hour contracts and modern addiction.
“But the thing that brings it all together? It’s their inexorable desire to be together again,” says Boyle. “Whatever crisis it is that they’re in – and Renton has a very particular one that drives him back to Edinburgh after exile in Amsterdam for 20 years – they want to. Sick Boy and Begbie want to expiate the past, they want to take vengeance on it really, so the past is always with us.
“It’s not dead, and it’s certainly with them,” he adds. “There’s a tension pulling it back, then running forward.” T2 loops back to some elements of the book that were omitted from the original film, but the skeleton of its narrative is taken from Welsh’s literary sequel Porno. “We tried to adapt Porno about ten years ago – John Hodge, the screenwriter, did a very faithful job and it didn’t really work,” says Boyle.
Though the book traced the quartet’s entry into the murky world of internet porn – a concept that would have been difficult to adapt and make as timeless for the screen given how technology has raced forward since Welsh put pen to paper – T2 sees Sick Boy and Renton partner up to start a sauna slash brothel. ‘The man’ is now a bigger being, powered by online banking, amped-up CCTV and revenge porn.
“We met in Edinburgh about 18 months ago, John went away and wrote something much more personal, really, about himself, through the prism of these four characters and something he was going through. It gives it a real value – it’s not an adaptation of a book,” explains Boyle. He says Hodge built on certain elements of the first book – a flashback to Begbie’s father was major – as well as Porno, with one of the film’s darkly funny scenes in a Loyalist pub. “Our obligation to the first book was actually trying to make something that felt there was a good enough reason to go back to these guys. It has to be honest and personal,” Boyle says.
When he’s rumbled for the real reasons he finds himself back in Scotland – a broken marriage, a low-level accounting job and a need to confront those he ripped off in that late eighties heroin deal – Renton proclaims: “I’m 46 and fucked”, illustrating one of the reboot’s major themes. “We all felt that it’s about masculinity really,” affirms Boyle. “Which is why there’s not many women in it, and those that are, are disappointed, or they’re secretly taking advantage of the men because they’re foolish – they are, we are.” A flaw in T2 is the little screentime afforded to Spud’s ex-girlfriend and mother to his teen son Shirley Henderson (Gail) and Kelly MacDonald (Diane), who’s now a lawyer. And it’s Anjela Nedyalkova, playing would-be brothel madam Veronika, who slyly criticises the circle-jerking bromance of Renton and Sick Boy in her native Bulgarian while they obliviously use her as a crutch. But like Boyle says, the men of Trainspotting still orbit their old world.
Renton is forever conflicted with his internal monologues, both he and Sick Boy are at odds as blood brothers, having stewed for years over Renton’s rip-off and ultimate betrayal. Though Sick Boy seeks revenge, the honeytrap he’s set for him ensnares him too – it’s like time’s rewound, only this time they’re using Snapchat filters instead of shoplifting.
“Sick Boy and Begbie want to expiate the past, they want to take vengeance on it really, so the past is always with us” – Danny Boyle
“I don’t think they define us, but they certainly stay with us because they’re so well loved,” Ewan McGregor says. “It’s probably the most popular film that people will come up and talk to me about. (Renton’s) very alive. I also remember it very clearly in a way that I maybe don’t remember lots of other characters I’ve played.”
Jonny Lee Miller says: “I’m so not like Sickboy really, he’s much cooler than me. I sort of let it go, but it’s always around. I’m amazed when I look back and see the movie.” When asked whether they think they could swap parts and do each other justice, they both laugh heartily and say no. “But, secretly I’m thinking, yes!” smirks Miller.
“It’s funny cos Ewen Bremner played Renton first in the play and I think when I first met him I was a bit aware and nervous about that,” says McGregor. “But he’s such a generous soul, Ewen, and I can’t imagine anyone else as Spud now.” Of course, no one could do loveable, smacked-out Spud like Bremner, and there’s only one terrifying, straight-up psychopath Franco Begbie, played by Robert Carlyle. Carlyle even went so far as to have a tooth pulled and gained weight for the role – Begbie’s had a lot of time to get in block fights and eat stodgy food.
What would prison runaway Begbie, whose senseless violence defined a generation of louts we’ve all had the displeasure of meeting, make of the real life, Canada-based Carlyle? “Useless waster,” Carlyle says. “Begbie would have no time for actors, he wouldnae understand that kind of business.”
Irvine Welsh previously told Dazed that Begbie was the “poster boy for the white, male rage we’re seeing globally today”, an aggression that’s permeating our political spheres, a whole world of Francos addicted not to narcotics, but their own rage. “There’s more rage contained within Begbie this time because he's been cooped up for 20 years,” agrees Carlyle, who sees Begbie on a rampage to finally exact painful vengence on Renton. “He’s been thinking about this nasty kinda revenge thing, you see the scene with Sickboy at the bottom of the pub and the chest beating.”
Incidentally, Boyle’s favourite character never actually made it to screen from the original books, the alcoholic Rab ‘Second Prize’ McLaughlin: “He was always coming second, never came first in anything,” says Boyle. It’s Spud that’s one of T2’s most fascinating character arcs though – at the end of the original, armed with £4,000 Renton left him from the deal, you hope that when he closes that locker door he’s opening a new chapter of his life. Sadly, as he screams to Renton in T2 after a botched suicide attempt, “I was a junkie! What did you expect me to do with £4,000?” Now, it’s chronicling the gang’s exploits in the beginning of an autobiographical novel that gives him a fighting chance at life.
“Irvine recognised these people that were living in this very real world. He recognised these characters and drew them in a way that opened up a world that hadn’t been opened up before” – Ewen Bremner
“He’s somebody who has taken his pain, suffering and struggles and makes it into gold a story that doesn't attempt to share or communicate outside his own head,” says Bremner.
In a way, I suggest, maybe the most of Irvine Welsh is in Spud as the author of the group. “I think that’s a delicious conceit of John Hodge’s,” agrees Bremner.
“I would have initially thought that Irvine Welsh was Renton, but, yeah. I guess writers do that. Other than Begbie… but then again, I can maybe see that in Irvine too!” says Carlyle.
“Irvine recognised these people that were living in this very real world,” Bremner adds. “He recognised these characters and drew them in a way that opened up a world that hadn't been opened up before.” Welsh reprised his role as the weird peripheral dealer Mikey Forrester, and was always on hand to help aid Boyle and Hodge’s creative vision.
“He’s a wonderful writer and has great instincts, but he’s a hugely supportive force for you to make a film with,” says Boyle. The success of the first film and the hope for T2 rests on its genuine interest in portraying the real lives connected to Leith and Muirhouse, where much of it is set, and Welsh is its lifeblood. “He hasn’t lived in Edinburgh for a long time now permanently, but he still remains very connected to the community and using his celebrity or his fame or whatever for good causes there as well,” says Boyle.
“There's something about all of these guys – and Kelly and Kevin McKidd (Tommy) in the first film – they're so clear, all of the characters we remember them,” says McGregor. The ghost of Tommy, the clean-cut blond boy who Renton gave his first hit that sent him on a spiral towards a tragic death, haunts T2 as a sobering reminder of personal destruction.
Irvine Welsh previously told Dazed that the war on drugs as “a war on you. It’s a war on alternate lifestyles. It’s a civil war – the state against citizens”. Edinburgh’s heroin-infested landscape has changed drastically, with a younger generation favouring spice and other, newer highs. Glasgow is set to open one of the UK’s first ‘fix rooms’ for safe consumption. Nevertheless, British drug laws still work to push addicts into a dangerous, time-frozen underworld.
McGregor says: “It's difficult. I’ve got four girls, so my relationship with drugs is different to the one I had myself when I was younger, and now, as their father, it's different. I find myself sometimes straddling both sides of that fence.
“In America now, where I live, when states make marijuana legal, I still don't want my kids to be smoking pot. The state is saying, ‘Well, it’s okay’, and I’m saying, ‘Well, it's not’, and it’s quite confusing. I don’t know that I have a real clear vision of it like Irvine has.”
Despite its global appeal, Scottish identity is still integral to Trainspotting. The slack-jawed drawl of Begbie – ‘just dae it” he screams when he’s plotting his breakout from jail – Spud’s tales of pish and the zealous use of the word cunt could alienate audiences, but they only draw us into the gang further. “I think it's intrinsic in the writing and novels. It's as Scottish as it could be, isn't it?” says McGregor. “John Hodge is a Scotsman and writer, a very different background than Irvine, but somehow when the two come together, they create something with Danny Boyle to make the most iconically Scottish films of all time I think.”
What catapulted Trainspotting into the cult classic stratosphere besides a dialogue like no other was its soundtrack. The first film was revered for its aural snapshot of mid-90s youth culture, setting Blur and Britpop topboys side-by-side with the acid, trancey reverberations of Leftfield and Underworld. The boys evaded the polis with Iggy Pop in their ears, and who could forget the moment Renton first laid eyes on Diane with “Temptation” rattling the Volcano bar. T2’s soundtrack reboots the originals musical giants with a Prodigy remix of Iggy and a new take on “Born Slippy”, but Scotland’s own hip-hop set Young Fathers take centre stage with three tracks on the record.
“All of their stuff worked,” Boyle says of the group. “You go, ’why does it suit?’, cos these are young guys and we’re older now, and it shouldn’t really match up. I think it’s because they come from the same estates of Edinburgh that Irvine Welsh was writing the original stories and characters about. They come out of the same cultural birthplace. They were a huge discovery for me, and they’re the heartbeat of the film really, the modern heartbeat of the film.” Young Fathers offering is the sound of a new Scottish generation.
“It’s shite being Scottish,” Renton railed in the first, but this rings a bit hollow now. Colonised by wankers or not, the foursome are linked by blood, body and mind to their home, one that lets them revel in and remember their toxic glory days. In the end, they all chose a different life but can’t let go of their old one and never will.