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Few films from the '90s truly captured the kinetic energy and bold experimentation of that era like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. A project fraught with pitfalls, from the dour storyline to Irvine Welsh’s poetic expletives, it was an intensely local tale of junkies in Edinburgh that transcended its environs and created a universal, classic work.
Two decades later director Boyle has reassembled the ensemble, taking pieces from Welsh’s works and crafting a new film that both reflects upon the original film and very much makes its own mark. A kind of Boyhood or Before Midnight for the heroin crowd, the film is as rich as the original, a sequel that does that rare trick of making the original even better while solidifying its own position as a modern classic.
Birth.Movies.Death. spoke to the principal actors and director by phone.
What made this the right time to look back?
Danny Boyle [Director]: Ten years ago there was an obvious prompt because Irvine Welsh published Porno the sequel to his original novel. We had a go at it. And it was . . . not very good. John Hodge, the same screenwriter, and I we were working on it, but I didn't even bother sending it to the actors. It didn't feel there was a real reason to do it.
There's an onus on you when you return to something with the impact that the first film had - You're going to update it, you've gotta have a reason. And it didn't feel like there was a reason. It was just a caper again. Also, the actors didn't really feel any different, they didn't look any different. I'm sure they would have felt different, but they didn't look any different 10 years ago, not really. They're all smirking at me now, but actually we did joke at the time that they looked after themselves so well that they still looked in their early 20s.
Ewan McGregor [Renton]: There's some slight about facial cream I seem to have picked up!
So now they look suitably decrepit - Time to get the band back together!
DB: We met in Edinburgh, two years ago - John Hodge, Irvine Welsh, the two producers and me. We sat down, we thought this won't work but we have to do due diligence because there is a big anniversary coming up, there'll be a lot of interest in whether it will happen or not. What emerged was much more personal, and gave us the reason to make the film. It is obviously a sequel, you can't deny that, but it has its own right to exist. Its raison d'etre is obviously the passage of time and especially masculine behavior over time. The other film is obviously a great celebration of a certain period of your life, through the most extreme prism you could imagine, these junkies in Edinburgh. Obviously the update is when they're 46 and they're fucked, as Renton says.
There’s enormous pressure to make sure it’s all on point, but especially the music in the new one is spot on.
DB: We were very, lucky on the first film. We found what we called a heartbeat of the film, this Underworld album. I said to John and Andrew, the screenwriter and the producer, that this would be the heartbeat and I remember them being a bit alarmed about that because they thought it was going to be plastered with Underworld music which was very heavy. I said no, but it is the rhythm that we'll make the film to.
You're always looking for that on a film if you can. We found [the track] “Born Slippy”, which wasn't on that album, but it ended the film. To do the new one, we wanted to find that equivalent heartbeat and we found this band, Young Fathers, who are from the same estates around Edinburgh that Irvine Welsh came from and where the story is based from 25 years ago. These guys, Young Fathers, weren't even born, and yet their stuff just fit in the film.
There's some reflections on the first film, remixed and reimagined, like the Prodigy remix of [Iggy Pop’s] “Lust for Life” and Underworld reimagining “Born Slippy”. But it's the heartbeat of the new film that sustains you most, you know? That was this relationship with Young Fathers, and their songs are packed through the film including the final song called “Only God Knows”.
It's a film that both embraces and takes the piss out of nostalgia. As performers could you talk about the surrealism of revisiting a character after all of these years? You weren't just making a sequel, you were also making a reflection upon sequels in general.
DB: That’s an easy one for them!
Jonny Lee Miller [Simon/SickBoy]: I'll just go and get a coffee.[Laughs]
Ewen Bremner [Spud]: We're just good looking actors! I don't know how we're expected to come up with a response to that! Jesus, hang on
EM: You sound as though you've already written your answer. It sounds like you might want us to just go, “yeah, that's right!” [Laughs]
EB: Age is cruel, and you don't realize that until you get to this point in your life. In the first film, we were full of exuberance and potency and we thought we were invincible and it took us 20 years to realize that we're just running on the spot and time is flying by. So, when Danny asked us to come back together and find out who these guys were after 20 years, that's an opportunity that's kind of unparalleled. That never comes along for actors. To pick up a character 20 years later and to run with it. Danny really lets you run with every idea, and he feeds you full of fantastic ideas to play with, so we just had a bag full of opportunities with the prospect of jumping on this film again.
And the reunion felt good right away?
EM: I haven't seen Johnny for maybe 15 years, and I hadn't seen Bobby [Robert Carlyle] since the premiere of Trainspotting in Scotland! With Danny this is our 5th movie together, so we've worked together over the years.
Our relationships were founded working on Trainspotting. There’s this idea that we were all fucked up and it was a party all the time, but it wasn't. We had a short space of time to make that movie - I think we shot it in 7 weeks, 6 weeks - and we worked really hard on it. We were also all aware that we were doing something really special and important. So to come back together and find each other again under the same conditions if you like, with the same responsibility for the film, was just fantastic. It just felt like coming home.
That feeling is in turn echoed by the narrative.
EB: Irvine Welsh said something very interesting about this dynamic and the first film in relation to the second. He said that the first film is about the power of friendship and how it's intoxicating and overwhelming. It's a real hit in the vein. But ultimately, being part of this friendship group crushes your individuality. So the individual, which is Renton in the first story, has to break free of the crushing conformity of the group. The second film has the individual coming back into the fold, because to survive out in the wilderness is just as crushing as it is to survive in the group. The individual comes back into the fold to try and find succour in this difficult part of his life.
If the first film was about the brashness of youth looking to the future, the sequel’s about the aches and pains of adulthood.
JLM: There's that confidence and that fearlessness which permeates the first movie and it's really summed up in the end voiceover. This is what I'm gonna do, this is who I am, this who I'm gonna be. It's an assault at the audience, a confident boast. That falls away later in life, and what are you left with? You reflect more on it.
I think the second film really reflects that well. You don't feel invincible any more. Your mortality is more evident to you perhaps, subconsciously or consciously.
DB: You've got all the answers when you're in your early 20s and you mock and sneer about the whole thing. That's expected and welcomed, that's the years you step out of childhood. You're not allowed that when in you get in your mid-40s.
I hope people take away that it's an honest picture, really, however extreme the elements.