How 'T2 Trainspotting' Director Danny Boyle Tried to Make Filmmaking Less 'Colonial'
We spoke to the director and the group Young Fathers, whose music is described as the "heartbeat" of the 'Trainspotting' sequel.
Top image: Young Fathers and Danny Boyle. Photo by Imogen Freeland
There's a mountain in Edinburgh, Scotland, adored by locals. It's said that its name, Arthur's Seat, is taken from the legends of King Arthur. Couples walk up it and leave love locks on the metal bars at the top. The view from up there is utterly beautiful.
In T2 Trainspotting, a rejuvenated Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, now clean from heroin, runs up it easily, followed by a sweaty Spud, played by Ewen Bremner. Quitting smack is just about finding a new obsession, explains Renton. Running could be it. At the top, the pair collapse and look out over Edinburgh—the streets they were sprinting through, screaming, 20 years ago; the city with a drug culture made them disappear into carpets and be vomited out of toilets.
"Holy God! It's like Rio or Cape Town," says Danny Boyle, enthusiastically, bouncing on his toes. "There's this incredible natural thing—a mountain, really—and the whole historic city is built in a loop around it. It's a good steep walk up with extraordinary views. You can get killed up there in bad weather—people fall off. You feel it's got this huge natural force. We had a beautiful day when we were filming there."
Most of Trainspotting was spent inside—rowdy pubs, perspiring clubs, drug-den apartments. It was primarily filmed in Glasgow. Now, the characters are older and, for the most part, although still in love with drugs, off heroin. T2 also explores Edinburgh, the city, which seems to have evolved since the first film.
"The city doesn't change that much, because it's a historic city; it's protected by that. It's the energy of the city that's different," says Boyle. "The student population now is huge compared to 1996, when we were there. At that time, it was only really posh medical students, and still is, but there's a bigger mix of them now. It feels more vibrant and more European. It's more fun to be in, and I really liked living there for six months. Edinburgh seemed a bit twee before."
I'm in a hotel in central London with Boyle and Young Fathers, the Mercury Prize–winning group that soundtracked T2. "Do you remember the backlash of people thinking Trainspotting portrayed this really bad image of Edinburgh?" G Hastings of Young Fathers asks Boyle. "I think the local paper wrote something about it being just about heroin. It was really nasty." Boyle remembers it well. Despite the criticism, the film made people want to visit the city—the type of people who couldn't care less about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
It's difficult to see how similar condemnation could be aimed at T2. As well as showing the beauty of the place, Boyle worked to get his Edinburgh right.
"Filmmaking is terribly colonial. We'll grab you, take what we want from you, and then fuck off and you'll never hear from us again."—Danny Boyle
"When you start a film, you try and embed yourself where the film is set and meet people and try to stop yourself being a stranger in the place," says Boyle. Edinburgh-born Irvine Welsh, who wrote the Trainspotting novel and Porno, the novel on which T2 is based, introduced Boyle to a number of people who'd been involved in HIV work in the city. "It was all about updating us on the drug issues in the city since the first film," says the director. "I met a guy who'd made this film about his own life, which is pretty brutal—brilliantly made. I made him the second unit director."
Boyle has strong views on the ethics of filmmaking. "You arrive with all this money, and you spend it in the city—and so does the crew, who have per diems—so there's an economic benefit, and it's why cities often encourage you to come to them. But there should be a cultural benefit to it, too. There was another guy who lived at the top of one of the tower blocks in Greendykes, and he's still a heroin addict, so we talked to him a lot and used his place as a location because then you can give him money. You're trying to pay it forward rather than nipping in and nipping out. That's always the danger... filmmaking is terribly colonial." Boyle grabs me tightly by the shoulders and shakes me to illustrate his point. "We'll grab you, take what we want from you, and then fuck off and you'll never hear from us again. So we try not to do that. Well, you are doing that, actually, but you're trying not to do it."
It took a long time to get T2 to the screen. Ten years ago John Hodge, the screenwriter of both films, tried to faithfully adapt Porno, but the unanimous feeling was that the film shouldn't be made. Plus, Boyle and McGregor famously fell out when Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as the lead in The Beach, instead of McGregor, who until that point had a special working relationship with the director. "Then John wrote something much more personal. When Renton says, 'I'm 46 and I'm fucked,' and he's got '30 more years left and what the fuck am I gonna do with that?,' that's John," says Boyle. "He started writing that through the prism of these characters, and it didn't feel like going through the numbers of Irvine's story. It feels more raw. That's why we decided to do it. We thought it was something that we could send to the guys and they'd like."
Still, the expectation from both film critics and fans that it would bastardize the legacy of the original has loomed over T2's release. Trainspotting is legendary. For teenagers, knowing the film inside out is a piece of cultural capital akin to telling people you love Catcher in the Rye, or that Melvin Burgess's Smack speaks to you on a personal level. Think of the money the government must have made from people buying the "Choose Life" posters. For kids growing up in Edinburgh, like the guys in Young Fathers, it was, as Kayus Bankole says, "a bible."
"The film is a rite of passage and was something to be proud of growing up," says Alloysious Massaquoi. "I used to hang around with older guys, and I thought, I know people like this in the film—these nutters. It felt real. On top of that, it was a hit film from where I was growing up with Scottish people in it." G Hastings adds: "It was the first time I'd ever heard someone that talked like me in a film. Irvine Welsh had a cameo, and he's from the same area that I'm from, so he spoke in a north Edinburgh accent. I can't imagine watching the film as people outside Edinburgh would watch it."
One contributing factor to the original film's cult appeal was its soundtrack. By his own admission, Boyle used to be "fucking good" at picking soundtracks. Now, it's more difficult: "As you get older, someone mentions a band, and you go, 'Who are they?'"
Young Fathers' music is what he settled on for the new "heartbeat" of Edinburgh. "It was only afterwards, when we were doing the publicity, that I realized this music is born out of the same place where Irvine wrote the stories and the characters," says Boyle. "There's that connection. We used three or four of the tracks, but we could've used another half dozen. You could've done the whole film with it."
It wasn't just the music that had to be perfect—the actors had the performances of most of their careers to compete with. "They were anxious. You could tell they were. They didn't want it to be shite," admits Boyle. "It'd be so humiliating if it was terrible." As an apparent attempt to address the enormity of the original film, T2 is extremely self-referential. There are flashbacks, much is made of Spud's storytelling of the Trainspotting years, and Renton even attempts an updated Choose Life speech for 2017.
"The first film was almost an artifact, and the characters know the first film exists," Boyle says. "There's actually only one minute of Trainspotting in this film. It seems like a lot more, but it isn't. We used that as a resource to draw on, and the actors knew it would make them look bad. Who looks better in their mid 40s than they did in their mid 20s? They knew it would be tough like that. But it connects them back with us because movie actors often feel like they're different from us, yet they're aging like we all do. It's the common fate of all of us."
What T2 does do well is depict a group of men making a very weak attempt to leave the past behind. Renton's come back to Edinburgh, despite fucking off forever to Amsterdam, and it's all of 15 minutes before the characters are up to their old tricks. The pull of place is enduring; if only they could get out of Edinburgh, maybe they'd be able to cut ties with all those toxic people and toxic substances, and change their own poisonous behavior.
"I come from Manchester, and it's the same thing—you think, I'll leave and I'll make progress, but you'll end up there," says Boyle. "They say that 93 percent of British people die within seven miles of where they were born. You end up going back where you started."
In Trainspotting, we saw Renton swigging vodka, telling us: "It's shite being Scottish. We're the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking earth!" But Renton will never have the strength to leave Edinburgh—and neither will any of the others.
T2 Trainspotting is out in theaters March 17.
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- young fathers
- irvine welsh
- Danny Boyle
- British culture
- T2: Trainspotting