Ego, regret, masculinity, atonement—“T2 Trainspotting” is saturated with themes of middle-aged reflection that not only fuel the film’s narrative, but also resonate deeply with the men behind the production.
“The film is f***ing weird,” Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle told me during a recent interview. “It has these meta levels. And we were all aware of them when we were doing this.”
The long-awaited sequel to Boyle’s 1996 heroin-fueled black comedy finds one of its returning players waxing poetic about the idea of “opportunity and betrayal,” a seemingly not-so-subtle nod to the filmmaker’s decade-long estrangement from star Ewan McGregor. After a trio of film collaborations in the mid ’90s, Boyle was set to direct his biggest project to date, an adaptation of Alex Garland’s novel “The Beach,” with McGregor in the starring role before he unceremoniously dumped the actor for red-hot “Titanic” leading man Leonardo DiCaprio.
“I certainly think we kind of behaved as though we betrayed Ewan after the success of those three films,” Boyle explained. “We had the opportunity to make a bigger film, which meant having a bigger star—so-called—and if you look at it, you say that’s opportunity and betrayal right there. Even more accurately, my relationship with one of the producers is like that as well. I feel that he’s betrayed me in a number of circumstances.”
So when it came to revisiting the “Trainspotting” story 20 years later, it should come as no surprise that Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge would, intentionally or unintentionally, draw inspiration from the real-life growing pains of a filmmaker and his muse.
“We’re writing about these characters who we all made our name with, and actually, what we’re really writing about is ourselves and the way that we’ve behaved over time,” Boyle said. “If you can heal, you learn, of course, the power of healing is very special. And Ewan knew that before us, really, before me.”
He added, “I think it’s another reason why we didn’t make the film 10 years ago. Not only was it not a good enough script, we weren’t in a place where we could properly look each other in the eye, honestly. Now, everybody felt ready to be a bit more mature about things.”
The film catches up with the original “Trainspotting” crew in real time as Mark Renton (McGregor) returns home to Edinburgh, Scotland for the first time in 20 years to make amends with the ex-friends he jilted, Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller). But when one member of the former gang—the violent and unpredictable Begbie (Robert Carlyle)—gets wind of Mark’s return, he becomes hell bent on exacting vicious revenge. “T2” co-stars Kelly Macdonald and Anjela Nedyalkova.
For more on the legacy of “Trainspotting” and the new movie, check out my full interview with Danny Boyle below:
David Onda: Fans of the original “Trainspotting” all seem to remember the first time they saw the movie. Are you aware of what the film means to people who saw it as teens and young adults?
Danny Boyle: It was “Clockwork Orange” for me, which was then banned in Britain. I saw it when I was 16, because I looked 18. I got my mate in because I bought the two tickets because I looked older. It was banned immediately after that, almost weeks after that, and it never appeared in England again up until his death. It vanished, but I had seen it in a cinema. You had to go to Paris to see it. That had that same resonance for me, so I do understand people having trepidation about going back to it, but it is a very intelligent return to it. It’s not a kind of cheap, “here we go again, let’s make some money”—quite the reverse of that, really.
Onda: To that point, when you’re making a sequel like “T2,” there must be a temptation to make the easy callbacks to the original. How do you prevent yourself from being too self-referential but also tie the films together in a way that’s meaningful to fans?
Boyle: We were desperate to let the thing grow a bit on its own two feet knowing that the shadow of the other film would always be there and that sometimes we would be in it by choice—sometimes not by choice—but that eventually we’d be sturdy enough to stand on our own two feet. There was only one scene in the script that deliberately evoked the other movie. [Renton’s] running on a treadmill, and obviously that’s a recall of the start of the first one, but it was Spud coming out of the boxing gym and running into the other “movie” when they’re running away from the store detective. That was written in, and that was our only deliberate and explicit reference to the other film. But what we did for the organic nature of it further than that was to let the actors develop a relationship with it as part of the process of doing scenes. We’d be doing scenes and memories would be triggered of other material and we’d say, “Should we invoke them or not?” The most obvious ones are Renton falling off the car. There are less obvious ones—Renton going up into the rafters when Begbie’s chasing him, which feels like him coming out of the toilet again. But also, in editing, the music helps you deliberately trigger a memory from the other film. That’s absolutely deliberate and a soundscape that makes you remember the other film, but it’s a slightly different reworking of the song so it’s not a photocopy of the original.
Onda: I noticed the few notes from “Perfect Day” in the beginning of “T2” and it was perfect!
Boyle: Yeah. Music played a part in that as well, in that relationship. And the third thing was in editing, where we decided to literally pull out the golden thread from the other film and drop it into this film and literally string them together so that they were connected across each other literally. Originally, we did a cut where there was like five minutes of material from the original movie in this movie, and it just felt wrong. It felt like it had tipped the balance towards too referential, too knowing, too deliberate, so we took it back to about a minute. Although it feels like more, there is only about a minute of the original film in the cut. It’s because less is more, especially with an alert audience who are hypersensitive to the relationship with the other film. They’re sort of pregnant, expecting it, so that when you do it, you’re gonna affect them and you don’t wanna overuse that.
Onda: In returning to this movie and characters after 20 years, is there anything you now appreciate about the original film that you hadn’t noticed before?
Boyle: It’s so bold. You can only get that boldness when you don’t know what you’re doing. You can fake it, but it looks fake if you do it now. I think that’s true for the actors as well. You have to be honest about where you are and make the film in that time. And I hope this one is genuine, too. It’s just from a different position in time and experience. But you hope it has the same level of genuineness and honesty, really. They’re both quite stylish films in a way. They’re quite entertaining, but they are genuinely honest. They’re not an attempt to fake emotions or situations just for gratification. They’re thought through in terms of “what would he do?” Sometimes you turn your back on obvious things, too, because they don’t feel honest. They do take drugs again, like heroin, but they don’t sink into the carpet. It’s not a journey to the hospital as it was then. It’s actually a temporary erasing of pain, and they know it is. They know that it’ll come back, whereas when you’re younger, maybe you don’t. The pain’ll come back, and they just erase it for a little while. You try and do each thing honestly—otherwise they’d be running around taking drugs the whole time and you’d be having a lot of hallucinogenic scenes and weird stuff going on. It doesn’t quite happen anymore.
Onda: The stakes in “T2” are different. It isn’t life and death. And the tone of the movie—which I think is much funnier than the original—reflects that. Was this film more fun for you to make?
Boyle: They were living such on the edge of death on the [first film], that the humor is very black. It’s pitch black. And it has to be if you’re going right on the hard edge of stuff that’s absolutely unacceptable in one sense and then, the other sense, you can laugh about it. Obviously, this is, apart from Spud at the beginning with his despair, more about what they’re gonna choose for the rest of their life. As Renton says, “Two or three years, yeah, I can cope with that.” That’s your attitude when you’re 25 and you don’t see more than three years in front of you. But when you’re 46, you’re thinking, “I might make it to 76. What am I gonna do with that 30 years?” Is Begbie gonna go back to prison? He clearly intends to. He says to his family, “You’re not gonna see me for a long time after tonight.” And Renton’s really come home with nothing. He drops his bag at his father’s. Is he gonna live with his father or is he gonna live with Sick Boy? And you see Sick Boy at the end of his story outside the pub, letting the old man into the pub. That pub has no future at all. Only Spud has kind of got something that’s precious and wonderful that will change his life.
Onda: Which is ironic considering where he came from in the first film…
Boyle: Considering he is the definition of hopeless.
Onda: The way women are portrayed in film is a hot issue right now, and I understand you cut a scene featuring Kelly Macdonald, who plays Diane, because you didn’t like the way it depicted her character.
Boyle: She makes an amazing cameo in the middle of the film, and it’s a perfect scene because she puts Renton exactly in his place—and quite rightly, too. Diane also displays, exhibits, personifies what happens to you if you apply yourself and do something with your talents. She’s a clearly talented girl, and she’s done something with herself and become a very high-paid lawyer and is very skillful in getting Sick Boy off a possible criminal conviction and imprisonment. She gets him off. So then later … you know, people’s expectations are “we’d like to see a bit more of Diane.” So we wrote this stuff with her and Renton going back to her flat. He gets assaulted by Begbie, but not killed, and he goes to the hospital for treatment on his arm, stitches. He flees and contacts her and asks to stay at her apartment because nowhere else is safe for him. She gives him a place to sleep, which is the sofa, which is a memory of the first film. And then there’s a second scene where he returned to collect his stuff, because he was gonna leave, as he thought, with Veronica [Nedyalkova]. The scenes were written to show, again, that he was foolish. But, in fact, when you shot them and put them in the cut, they didn’t look like that. Because you were following him into the end of the film and the climax of the film, it felt like she’d been left behind. And I didn’t want that at all. I thought that was quite wrong. Movies are kind of a continuum that you’re all on, including the audience, and when you leave the screen, you’re kind of left behind. We’re tumbling forward into happiness, chaos, tragedy, whatever it is. And you do tend to forget those that have exited. It’s just one of those things that happens in cinema; it’s a very strange experience. So we took [those scenes] out because we thought her impact should be perfect—because why should she be imperfect when she’s surrounded by these imperfect men?
Onda: It’s encouraging to see a director think that way when so many filmmakers don’t.
Boyle: It was sort of obvious, really. The women’s roles in the film are very important because although their agency is very quiet, it’s incredible effective at every turn. Gail, Spud’s partner, has one line in the film, and she has brought up her child clearly not to be as hapless and hopeless as Spud. Begbie’s wife, June, has brought their son up for a future in hotel management, not a future in Her Majesty’s Prison. Again, she doesn’t get to say very much, but that is the truth of that scene. Veronica is thought to be a pussycat that they’re playing with, but her eventual story is clear—she will make fools of them, they won’t use her. She will have fools of them, which she does, of course.
Onda: How did you find the train wallpaper to recreate Mark’s bedroom 20 years later?
Boyle: We couldn’t. We couldn’t find it and there were no samples of it. So what they did is they zoomed in on the original film, took a kind of copy of the trains, made an approximate image of it and then printed their own wallpaper. So complex to actually do it.
Onda: It must have been the most expensive thing in the movie!
Boyle: Really! I remember the first time I saw it. The original designer told me, “I think I’ll put trains on the … do you think that’s too much given it’s called ‘Trainspotting’?” I said, “Listen, nobody’s gonna know what ‘trainspotting’ means, so any kind of clue will help.” I remember seeing it the first time and working out this camera that was gonna track back as it did in the first movie when he’s on the bed. It was beautiful to see the trains. It made such a wonderful design feature. It’s a great tribute to her to do it again and to use it so extensively at the end of the movie.
Onda: What is the scene in “T2 Trainspotting” that you’re most excited for people to see?
Boyle: I think the scene at Corrour when they go and talk about Tommy and the baby, because of the memory of the first film at the same place and what happens to them after it. I think it’s probably that whole sequence. There’s something wonderful about that. It’s very rich if you have a connection with the original film. The “1690” scene is great fun. There’s a lot of people involved in that who helped us on the first film, like the Calton Athletic guys. The Calton Athletic Recovery Group were a group of people in Glasgow who helped us make the first film. They were ex-addicts who had replaced their addiction with sports—marathon running, football, competitions, constant sport addiction. And they were the young men who formed, in the first film, the five-a-side team that Renton and his mates are playing at the beginning of the film. Those same guys are in that 1690 Club. They’re the guys that take their shirts off. They’re all now in their 40s and 50s. We had them with us for a couple of days to do that scene, so that’s a very special memory for them. As we were editing the film, they sent me a picture of them all at Everest base camp, because that’s what they’ve done as their latest addiction—to go to Everest. They’re not going to the top, but they went to base camp. They sent me this amazing picture of them, of Calton Athletic at Everest base camp. That was pretty special.
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