T1 Trainspotting, Part 1
Trainspotting was a Euro phenomenon ready to invade America – it smelt like teen spirit but as we all know they who smelt it dealt it.
Trainspotting was a zeitgeist phenom when it premiered in 1996. Flash forward a generation later and the sequel T2 Trainspotting opens locally this weekend. Free Press Houston spoke to director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Shallow Grave) about his newest film. In an effort to merge the past with the present this interview is presented in two parts: the first part is an interview with Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge that was conducted at the now defunct Italian restaurant Mia Bella on Lexington right before the American release in 1996 by your humble scribe. The second part, which will be posted before the end of the week, was conducted by phone in 2017.
Trainspotters have their own clubs, compare notes, and even feel a chill up and down their spine if they should spy, say, a rare steam-driven train. Kind of like Americans on vacation on the interstate, counting cars, dividing them by make and model. The Boy Scouts give away merit badges for that shit.
Trainspotting has become something of a European sensation. The book by Irvine Welsh started the branch of a literary movement. The book spawned a hit play. And now, the movie, directed by Danny Boyle, who impressed audiences with his audacious debut Shallow Grave, makes it to domestic screens after becoming the second-highest grossing native film in England (after the decidedly less daring Four Weddings and A Funeral). Dealing with a gut level portrayal of heroin addiction the film actually has been embraced by real conservatives as their kind of anti-drug film.
The American release, well mapped out by Miramax, as well as a totally involving CD soundtrack that covers the gamut of classic punk to alt rock to techno, house and rave, will not make or break the phenomenon that is Trainspotting. What audiences will discover is an energetic film with a momentum that becomes a nervous energy, staying with you throughout the film.
Hodge and Boyle sat down with me to compare notes, and as the interview progressed it became obvious we’d seen the same great film. “We work very closely together,” said Hodge who adapted the first draft by hand. “We work as equals,” Boyle added. “It’s easier if you’re not tightly bound, so we stay loose,” Boyle said, referring to his editor, camera crew, art designer, costume designer and lead actor, Ewan McGregor. Where Shallow Grave had a plot driven narrative, Trainspotting relies on character arc and vignette-like episodes. “Unlike the book, the film isn’t a kaleidoscope of characters,” Boyle said.
At one point the film had an Altman-esque Short Cuts script that contained interactions by several characters leading to development of and comment on the story. Subsequent cuts before principal photography, and after in the editing room, led to the story of squalid heroin addiction and redemption as seen mainly through the eyes of Mark Renton (McGregor) with his droogs Spud, Sick Boy, Diane and Begbie providing solid counterpoint. Boyle promises that the eventual video release will include cut-sequences, including one in which Sick Boy recites the entire filmography of post-Bond Sean Connery.
Producer Andrew Macdonald is the grandson of writer-producer Emeric Pressburger, associate with Michael Powell on some of Britain’s finest films. Macdonald pushed Boyle to have a stills photographer on set every day. “‘It doesn’t matter if Danny likes him or not, he’s going to be there and take pictures of each scene,’” Boyle said, quoting Macdonald. “Of course, now I’m so grateful. You turn up in Germany and you’ve got these amazing photographs on the brochure. It looks like the way Seven was marketed in Britain: atmospheric, fascinating, textured, something that draws people into the experience of the film.”
With Macdonald’s producer acumen, Hodge’s medical background, and Boyle’s directorial finesse, it’s easy to see why the trio was sitting pretty on the recent sale of domestic rights to their next film A Life Less Ordinary. The story of a man who kidnaps his employer’s daughter (Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz have been signed), A Life Less Ordinary was hotly sought by Polygram, Fox Searchlight, and Miramax. Certainly the trio remembered who brought them to the disco yet managed to please all concerned. Polygram gets certain Euro rights, Fox gets domestic rights, and Miramax has the guys gladly waltzing across the U.S. promoting Trainspotting. A Life Less Ordinary ending up at Fox is also a way of saying thanks to the studio for letting Macdonald and Boyle out of the deal to produce and direct Alien Resurrection. (At one point after the domestic release of Trainspotting, Boyle was attached to the fourth Alien sequel.) “I think that’s entirely reasonable if you take $30 million off some guy you can’t just expect him to fuck himself. You expect the guy to say ‘I don’t want that in my film,’” Boyle said about working for a big studio.
The budget for the Alien 4 franchiser is actually in the $65 to $90 million range, but studio topper Tom Rothman saw Boyle as the person to give the film a new spin. “Despite the fact that the script is a very, very good script – which is one of the things that attracted us to it – we sort of naïvely thought we’d get John involved at some stage and keep our working method intact,” Boyle said. “Directing a film that big is the opposite of the way we work. You have to storyboard a film like that completely before you begin. And the process of working with the actors becomes of minimal importance compared to the other ingredients.
“Partly, we didn’t feel qualified to do it. I can never imagine how someone like Spielberg can entirely storyboard a film beforehand, and completely work off the storyboard, and yet the film is spontaneous and energetic. Certainly for me, the inspiration comes as late as possible.”
Big question: how will American audiences react to Trainspotting’s blatant bathroom humor? Hodge and Boyle laugh if only because many of the sounds from Renton’s encounter with the dirtiest toilet in Scotland came from their encounter with Dumb and Dumber. The English haven’t cornered the market on scatological humor. Boyle explains that junkies “are obsessed with bodily functions; how your body functions, how it doesn’t, how drugs affect your fluids, where you find veins.” While the people in Trainspotting are objectively repulsive, repugnant human beings, Boyle notes, “Your relation with them in cinematic terms is quite seductive.” Boyle had Ewan watch Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, and Michael Caine in Alfie, also the guys in Goodfellas.
Trainspotting was lensed in Glasgow even though the action’s set in Edinburgh. The first reel of dialogue was re-looped in part to please the distributor’s fear of people not understanding the thick accents, but mostly to re-mix the music closer to the front of the mix. Yeah, well, even British movie-goers have a hard time understanding the accents, Boyle assures. Perhaps, not oddly enough, the more you listen to Trainspotting the more your brain unscrambles the words.