An Oral History of 'Trainspotting' 20 Years Later
Ewan McGregor, Kelly MacDonald and Irvine Welsh talk about the book, the filming of the movie, the backlash and the sequel.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I was far too young to watch Trainspotting when it first came out. Mind you, that didn't stop it from penetrating the bubble of my pre-pubescent world. It was the film my friends and I would talk about in class, the film that had promotional posters we'd want to buy with our Christmas HMV vouchers, the film we lied about seeing right up until the point of actually seeing it.
In the late 90s, pre-internet, in a small English town in Yorkshire, Trainspotting provided us with a lot of firsts. It was a portal into an adult world we'd never seen before, in real life or on the screen. Tarantino had given us a glimpse at sex and drugs, but under a heavy gloss of style. Trainspotting added the weight of reality to that world, and watching it as a 12-year-old, the film made you feel more grown-up, somehow more experienced. Or at least it did for me.
Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the film, so to celebrate, I spoke to three of the main players: Ewan McGregor, who played Renton; Kelly MacDonald, who played Diane; and the author of the original novel, Irvine Welsh, whose new book The Blade Artist—out this April—continues the story of Trainspotting's Begbie.
Kelly MacDonald: It was on my radar, but I hadn't read it. I bought it after the first audition, so I didn't have much knowledge going in.
Ewan McGregor: Danny Boyle gave me the script to read, and I'd never read anything like it. I mean, it seemed to me to be the best role I may ever read. I was aware of the novel and the kudos it had already accrued, but I hadn't read it yet. So I was sort of blown away by it, and I made it my mission to persuade [Danny] that I was the right guy for the job. Then, when I read the novel, I loved it very much—I found it incredibly moving. Irvine Welsh is an incredible writer; he can take you from the depths of filth and despair and human baseness to being incredibly moved in the blink of an eye. Being a Scottish guy, and it being an intrinsically Scottish novel, I felt I was very connected to it.
FROM BOOK TO FILM
Irvine Welsh: There was loads of interest; everybody seemed to want to make a film of Trainspotting. Initially, I sold the rights to the wrong person—back then I was a bit of a naive gunslinger who had sort of stumbled into this mad vortex of different people having an interest in what I was doing. I finally got a screener from Danny [Boyle] of [his directorial debut] Shallow Grave, by which point I'd sold the rights to the other producer. I thought, Bastard, I've fucked this up big-time, because that kind of energy and filmmaking with my characters would have been a perfect match. I really had a sinking feeling thinking that I'd ruined it, but fortunately, we were able to resolve the situation.
To me, if you get a film made of your book, it's a complete win-win situation. If the film's shit, you just disassociate yourself from it and say, "They fucked up." It's brilliant. I talk to some writers who view it as their book being desecrated, and it's not that at all—your book's not being touched. Nobody is ripping out pages or changing words; all they're doing is transferring your storytelling into a different medium. I was asked if I wanted to be involved [as a writer], but I think the most important thing for me was not to fuck with the energy that these two guys [Danny Boyle and Andrew Macdonald, the producer] had. I looked at John Hodge's screenplay for Shallow Grave and thought, There's nothing I can teach this guy about screenwriting. I needed to keep a distance from it and let people get on with it.
KM: I heard about the film through these little yellow flyers; I was working in a restaurant in Glasgow, and they were being handed out. I was beginning to wonder what I was going to do with my life, and my interest was piqued as I was secretly thinking about drama school. I remember walking in and making eye contact with Danny, and that felt quite momentous. I don't know why, in retrospect. I definitely felt something.
I was so young when I got the role. I'd just turned 19 and was just totally unaware. I was flipping between the excitement of being around these boys I was hanging around with—because they were all so cool and charismatic and had lots of stories—and then being an absolute nervous wreck and hiding in the toilets.
THE MOST MEMORABLE SCENES TO SHOOT
KM: The club scene, coming out of it. I think it was my first day filming. That was a whole day and night shoot. All the boys were quite naughty and were drinking, so I was drinking. It was Shirley Henderson [who played Gail] who pointed out to me not to do that. I'd been in the pub for hours with various people who weren't filming scenes, and she was the one who said, "You might want to stop drinking." She was totally right. I think I was actually hungover by the time I did the scene. I didn't know how to stand on a marker, I was all over the place, and I didn't know how it all worked. The sex scene was obviously quite nerve-racking. I was very sexually inexperienced at that stage and limited in that area, so it was all a bit embarrassing. I was so unthinking and so naive and young that that was the day I invited my mom and my brother to the set.
EM: There were so many, because the scenes were so well-written and the other actors were so great. I remember the underwater sequences. I loved that. It's so un-busy and quiet, and you work with the camera in a very different way. I love that sequence—I love the idea of it and the sereneness of it. I loved all the scenes with Kelly. I loved the nightclub scene and outside the nightclub scene where [Renton's] trying to get off with her and gets in cab and all of that stuff. Kissing Kelly MacDonald in the back of a taxi, that was fun—I liked working with her very much. Kelly wasn't really an actress at that point; this was her first thing, and she turned up and blew everyone away. The withdrawal scene was an incredible thing to shoot, with the extending room and Jimmy Cosmo playing my dad. The park scene with Jonny Lee Miller, shooting the dog—that was good fun. We didn't really shoot a dog, though.
IW: The scene when "Perfect Day" [by Lou Reed] is playing, and he sinks into the ground—I think that was a great way to have that overdose, the way that you're lulling towards death. The second half of that scene, there's a relentless energy of it, and it's set piece after set piece. It struck me, as I've seen the way people can die not remotely dramatically on drugs, but just by slowly fading away and going to sleep, essentially. They can actually enjoy that sense of being taken, in a way, and sometimes they pull out of it and sometimes they don't. That scene summed up both the horror and the appeal of heroin to me. The deathly caress of it. I think that was a fantastic scene. There are very few visual directors around better than Danny Boyle; he knows how to tell a story in pictures, and he knows how to say something visually in a set piece.
THE FINISHED FILM
IW: They booked a screening room in Soho, so I brought along people who really loved the book and would be very, very critical of the film if it wasn't any good. I brought along Bobby Gillespie and Andrew Innes from Primal Scream, Jeff Barrett from Heavenly Records, people who were friends who were really into the book, basically. People who would say it was shit if it didn't capture the spirit of the book. I was watching them more than I was the screen, to be honest, and there were a few comments like, "Is that meant to be Begbie? Is that meant to be Sick Boy?" And then it just stopped. Once the characters were embedded in their heads, it took over, and they were transfixed. They were all stunned speechless at the end of the movie. When they did find their voice in the bar afterward, it was fucking amazing—they were blown away, and they thought it was fucking brilliant. I knew then that it was going to be absolutely massive.
EM: I was completely speechless. I was bowled over by it, really. I remember coming out into the street afterwards and not quite being able to gather my thoughts about it. It was everything I'd imagined it would be and a hundred other things as well.
KM: What I recall most about seeing the film for the first time is more Bobby Carlyle's reaction to the film, because I was sitting next to him. He was almost crawling on the floor with embarrassment. Every time he came on screen he would dip lower in his seat, which I thought was interesting. That's how I feel too, though. I think it's fairly common. I didn't like watching myself. I still don't.
IW: Where I think I came into my own a bit with helping on the film was the soundtrack. Because I knew a lot of the musicians personally, I was able to put them in touch directly so [the filmmakers] could circumvent the process of having to pay massive bucks that they couldn't afford to get the music cleared. The artists were so enamored with the movie and wanted to be involved so much that they were coming in and saying to their record companies, "Can we let this [song] go?" That helped us secure the rights for a low cost, and sometimes no cost. There is no way we'd have been able to get such a soundtrack normally. Danny had worked with Leftfield on Shallow Grave, and I think he knew New Order from Manchester as well. There was such a great vibe about it that it spread to these musicians too, who gave us a bunch of stuff that would have normally cost us a fortune.
I reference most of the artists in the book: Iggy, Lou Reed, Bowie, and a lot of the house stuff I was into at the time. But what I didn't get was the Britpop thing. Primal Scream and Damon Albarn were friends, and I knew Jarvis Cocker, but I didn't really see the Britpop involvement. I didn't see how it would work, but I think it was Danny who decided we needed that contemporary feel, which was a masterstroke, because Britpop was kind of the last strand of British youth culture, and it helped to position the film as being the last movie of British youth culture.
REACTIONS TO THE FILM AND ACCUSATIONS OF DRUG GLAMORIZATION
IW: You had Bob Dole—the presidential candidate in the US—criticizing it, but he'd never seen the film. Cinema does inherently glamorize everything: It has actors, and there is a stylization there. One of the things I loved about the vision that Danny had for the film is that it wasn't going to be a pompous 1970s social realism film that would shame the bourgeoisie and policy-makers into spending money on the inner cities and all this kind of crap, because that ship has sailed, and it's never going to happen. If you can't shame policy-makers into spending money on resources, all you're doing is making rich people feel better that they're not poor people. For me, I wanted it to capture the excitement and verve of being young in quite a potentially hazardous environment, but still with that idea that there are all sorts of possibilities ahead, even if your current circumstances aren't particularly brilliant. It was the first film that said about drugs, "This can be really good fun, even though it can be really dangerous." I think you have to do that. "Just say no" doesn't work; you have to show both, the highs and the lows. You have to show why people get involved in that in the first place. To me, it's self-evident why people take drugs.
KM: I'd moved back home with my mom after the film for a bit. I'd been into town and when I got back, there were two Daily Mail or Daily Record journalists in the living room talking with my mom, which was a bit weird. I did a quick interview and got them out. Then, in the next few days, there was this front page story about a Trainspotting star's drugs nightmare. I thought: Oh man, who is it? It was me, because they'd asked if I'd ever taken drugs, and I was a bit of a naive plonker and said, "Yes, I took a hash yogurt once, and I was very ill."
IW: John [Hodge] has delivered this knockout script, which is absolutely fantastic. It's based on Porno [Welsh's sequel to Trainspotting], but it's also evolved. We've had to evolve past that, because the actors would have been ten years older when Porno came out, and now they're 20 years older. It has to take into account that reality. It's very much telling a story about Edinburgh as it currently is. The main element to the story is basically Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy, and Spud getting back together again, and it tells the story of them getting involved in the vice industry in a very innovative way.
I think it has some fantastic set pieces and great opportunities for the actors to knock it out of the park, so I'm very excited. I just know that Danny will come up with this amazing visualization. I think it's going to be excellent. The thing that's going to be interesting is seeing how the young kids in the multiplex cinemas get on with it now, because they're older guys—it's not going to be a youth movie like Trainspotting was. It could be like watching your uncle dance at a wedding. Hopefully it will be fun and crazy enough. It's got the potential for some great, incendiary performances from the actors.
EM: It's going to be incredible. It's a very beautiful, brilliant script—and it needed to be. I don't think any of us would have wanted to be involved in something that wasn't going to live up to the first film. That's the danger with any sequel, but especially this one and after such a long period of time.
KM: I'm in talks. I've read the script. I don't know how much I can talk about it, to be honest. It would be so interesting to work with the same people, and everyone will have changed, but I definitely know how to stand on a marker now. Trainspotting was my weird beginning, and I'm so grateful for it because that could have been it, but it's not, and now I'm actually getting to do this job that I really love, and I'm not hiding in the toilets so much any more.
Special thanks to VICE Canada for the assistance with this article.
Follow Daniel on Twitter.