In Blackwell’s, a large book store on London’s Charing Cross Road, there’s a prominently placed section devoted to “cult writing.” The majority of the authors included there are Americans, followed by the French. Brits, however, are represented by only a handful of authors, and among them only one is a star: Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting.
Welsh’s novel, a pungent, dialect-heavy tale of Edinburgh heroin addicts, just recently appeared in the U.S., its publication date expedited to take advantage of the hoopla over the filmed version. Both have attracted lots of attention here, but it’s unlikely that Americans will ever quite understand Britain’s enthusiasm. Trainspotting is a powerful novel that yielded a successful play and a clever, stylish, funny film, but in the U.K. it’s more than that. The book and its offshoots are declarations of hip Britain’s independence from American models, celebrations of cynicism and despair that have been embraced in a spirit of hearty, earnest boosterism.
The blurb that dominates the cover of the U.K. edition of Welsh’s novel, for example, proclaims it “the best book ever written by man or woman,” while the filmmaking team of director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, and producer Andrew MacDonald (which introduced itself with Shallow Grave) has been hailed as the salvation of British cinema. MacDonald even possesses a salient pedigree: He’s the grandson of director Emeric Pressburger, who co-directed such quintessential British films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
“In Britain we’ve had a couple of clumsy and poor attempts to make really contemporary films, something that is sort of up-to-date,” explains Boyle, who’s in Washington with Hodge for promotional interviews. “I think this is probably the best attempt that’s been made, and I think people were almost waiting for it. Certainly they responded to it.
“It seems to have been grabbed with both hands. There’s not much to grab in Britain,” he laughs. “There’s not many choices of anything half-decent. Most of it’s rubbish.”
The book, then little-known, was discovered by producer MacDonald, who has abandoned the promo tour after becoming ill. (“He’s just been negotiating with 20th Century Fox,” jokes Boyle. “He’s picked up a common virus you get when you do that.”)
“It’s a bit romantic to say it’s life-changing,” says the director of the novel, whose title comes from a hobby that’s the British railroad fan’s equivalent of birdwatching. “But it is one of those books that makes you feel, ‘What have I been doing? Where have I been?’ Because you feel like you’ve been asleep.”
Though Hodge acidly dismisses the novel’s breathless cover blurb as “a quotation from one of Irvine Welsh’s friends,” he considers the book “amazing. It’s got so much humor, for a start. It addresses all sort of issues. It’s not just heroin, of course. It deals with relationships with their parents, relationships between men and women, it deals with alcohol and drugs, with jobs, with politics, in a really comprehensible way, but without pretending to offer solutions. I think people really feel they can relate to what’s being examined in it.”
Boyle and Hodge share a healthy, high-spirited contempt for recent British cinema, but insist that they didn’t plan for their film to become a chic icon. “That wasn’t the reason we made the film, and it wasn’t the reason the guy wrote the book either,” says the director. “The book emerged as trendy and hip, but that’s a slightly different process. It happens later. That’s also what happened with the film. I think it’s a catastrophe if you set out to make a trendy, hip film. You have to concentrate on your story, your characters, and then see what happens.”
The movie Americans will see is virtually identical to the one that’s already become the third highest-grossing British film ever. Only two brief cuts were made to attain an “R” rating, notes Boyle. “We got a message from Miramax that the ratings people were a bit worried about the sex scene with the young girl, that when she’s on top of him having sex, that she reaches behind her, and they didn’t know what she was doing. So we sent back a message—we’d been a big success in Britain and we were feeling a bit flippant—that not to worry, she was just going to tickle his balls,” he laughs.
“Anyway, so then we got a message back saying they wanted to cut a bit of that, whatever it was, and they also wanted to cut one of the moments when the needle goes into the arm during the overdose scene,” a sequence Boyle admits he originally assumed the British censors would cut. The filmmakers also re-recorded and remixed some of the dialogue, making it more distinct for ears unfamiliar with Scottish brogues heavier than Sean Connery’s.
In Britain, Trainspotting’s cachet has much to do with its use of music, including contributions from such currently fashionable bands as Blur, Pulp, Elastica, Underworld, and Leftfield. “Not very much of it was planned,” says Boyle. “We got some of it from the book. Iggy Pop, Lou Reed is stuff they’re listening to in the book, so we had in mind that we’d use it if we could get permission. And we could afford it.”
“The first person who had to be contacted was David Bowie,” remembers Hodge. “At one point we thought we were going to use ‘Golden Years.’ ’Cause when the girl Diane is sitting on his bed, singing the song, that was supposed to be ‘Golden Years,’ which is in the book. But Kelly [MacDonald, who plays Diane] had never heard ‘Golden Years.’ Which was a lesson in aging for us. Because we were saying, ‘How can you possibly not have heard “Golden Years”?’ And she was like, ‘David who?’ But she knew the New Order song [“Temptation”], so that was easy.”
“We tried to get a bit of a historical span with the music,” explains Boyle. “Although the book is actually set in the ’80s, we wanted the film to feel like it was now. There was no sense of it being a historical film in any way. So the characters didn’t have to grow beards for the passage of time, or change to flares or those kinds of things. We didn’t want to do any of that. But we thought with the music we’ll start with Iggy and Lou Reed, which is sort of early-’80s, what the punks were listening to when punk was dying, they went back and listened to the great godfathers of punk. And then it moves into electropop in the mid-’80s, and then it gets into house music, rave music, and it finishes up with what’s current at the moment, which is Underworld and also what are called the Britpop groups like Blur and Pulp, Elastica and Sleeper.”
“You have to be very careful with” music, he cautions, “because it easily becomes just a marketing thing.”
“In our film, I think it’s justified, or in any modern film,” argues Hodge. “People are listening to music all the time now. It is a soundtrack to life in a sense, anyway. So it seems appropriate that it should be a soundtrack to the film.”
Where Shallow Grave opens to Leftfield’s pulse, Trainspotting features Iggy Pop’s thump as protagonist Mark Renton (played by Ewan McGregor, who’s also featured in Grave and the trio’s upcoming film, A Life Less Ordinary) flees the cops. Both films, however, begin at full velocity. “We tried to really announce the film,” notes Boyle. “This partly comes out of a repulsion for most British films—”
“Most British films start in a sitting room somewhere, with a pan across a street scene, and then a close-up of a cup of tea,” Hodge interrupts.
“They pan across the city and you think, ‘Oh no,’” adds Boyle. “The pan continues into this room and you think, ‘Oh God.’”
“It’s common sense that a film should begin with something exciting,” says Hodge. “People have paid money, they’ve come out, they’re really looking forward to it. All you’ve got to do is just fulfill their wishes.”
Starting at a gallop, adds Boyle, was not just a crowd-pleasing tactic. “The book—and what we wanted the film to be—is quite clearly not an objective look at these people. That’s usually the perspective that’s taken, and inevitably pushes these people into the position of victims. Films and books tend to look at the criteria that make them victims—the housing estates, the bad parents, heartbreak. What was amazing about the book, and what we tried to get with the film, is that it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that.
“All that stuff’s important, but it’s not what this particular thing is about,” he continues. “This is about Renton, and his soul, and the reasons that he makes his choices. What it’s getting at is that it’s a mystery; you’ll never quite understand what goes on inside people. They don’t just qualify for assessment on those usual social grounds. So it’s not a documentary, it’s a look at it from inside their perspective. So that’s why it begins in such an exciting way, ’cause he’s running like that. You want the audience to be in there with him, and hopefully then they’ll take that trip for the whole film with him.”
Establishing that subjective viewpoint is also why Renton’s desperate search for drugs in a filthy toilet, a realistic scene in the novel, turns into a fantasy sequence in the film. Such scenes, explains Hodge, “say this is cinema. Especially the first one, where he goes down the toilet. To say, what you’re watching here is a movie, not a docudrama. This is what British films tend to shy away from these days.”
“One of the things that we tried to do in both films is create our own visual spaces,” notes Boyle. “For various reasons, some practical, some of them kind of ambitious, we build our own sets. We take over factories—there are plenty of disused factories in Britain, just waiting for film crews to come and do films about urban decay,” he laughs. “You can make them whatever colors you want. It becomes an imaginative world rather than an absolutely realistic one. And fantasy sequences obviously sit more comfortably in a film that floats like that.”
One fantasy that the two Boyle/Hodge/MacDonald films share is the big score: They both turn on the possibility that McGregor’s character will betray his friends and make off with a lot of ill-gotten cash. This theme, Boyle explains, is particularly apt in contemporary Britain.
“We met, and started making these two films, at exactly the time that the National Lottery started in Britain,” he says. “We never had a lottery before. They opened it up about three years ago. That’s one of the connections between these two films and their obsession with that kind of prize. The country has gone completely insane about lotteries. More people per capita join the lottery than anyplace else in the world.”
Where U.S. state lotteries frequently pledge their proceeds to education, in Britain the booty goes to arts institutions. “It’s going to save the London-based middle-class ballet companies,” jeers Hodge. “It’s a transfer of money from the working class to—”
“Opera,” interjects Boyle with
The filmmakers are equally cynical about the vaunted British landscape, which explains the scene where Renton and his mates take a rural excursion that quickly goes sour. “Rob Roy and Braveheart had just come out, and we thought they were rather cheesy celebrations of location management,” says Hodge. “We wanted to do something that provided a view of that countryside that more people are familiar with. Which is that you get there and you want to go home again.”
The writer chuckles at the suggestion that Trainspotting might serve as a sequel to Braveheart. “It is a sequel, 700 years later,” he agrees.
“The violence is still there,” says Boyle.
“And dissatisfaction and tuberculosis,” adds Hodge, “are still quite common.”