‘Trainspotting’: an oral history of the cult film and its sequel

As 'T2: Trainspotting' hits cinemas, Barry Nicolson speaks to key players behind the book, film and soundtrack that defined a generation, and the sequel that seeks to do the same 

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family…”

When Trainspotting was released in February 1996, those words – voiced by Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton as he legged it down Princes Street to the strains of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’ – sounded like a clarion call for a nation preparing to throw off the yoke of Thatcherism and usher in a new era, a new culture, and a new politics. With Britpop in full swing and New Labour around the corner, Danny Boyle’s kinetic adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s supposedly-unfilmable debut novel gave British cinema a much-needed shot in the arm, becoming a worldwide smash and a symbol of Cool Britannia’s bullish self-confidence. Two decades later, as the long-awaited sequel T2 Trainspotting finally arrives in cinemas, we spoke to the key players to find out how a scabrous novel about a clique of Edinburgh junkies became a bona fide cultural juggernaut…

1993: Meet the heroin addicts you want to hang out with

Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel was a searingly honest – and darkly hilarious – portrait of heroin addiction, from the troughs of depravity to the peaks of euphoria. It proved as successful as it was controversial: the book was removed from the Man Booker prize shortlist when two judges threatened to quit over its inclusion. 

Irvine Welsh, Author, Trainspotting: The novel was the biggest thing that ever happened to me. I’d always wanted to be an artist of some kind, a musician or a painter, but I wasn’t very good. Finally I had something I could get on and do with my life.”

Danny Boyle, Director, speaking in 1996: “It was an extraordinary read and I think it came out of the fact that British fiction, throughout the ’80s, had disappeared into this pool of self-absorption and post-modern irony. This book blazes with honesty: it’s compelling, it’s disturbing, it’s revolting, and yet you want to continue with it. It takes this group of people who’ve been sidelined – and we all do it, we sideline junkies as something lower than human – smashes them straight back into your field of vision, and says, ‘Consider them again as human beings.’”

John Niven, Author, Kill Your Friends“It was a game-changer. The visceral quality of the writing, combined with the subject matter, really captured the time [Welsh] was living in brilliantly. I thought it was amazing, but I didn’t know how big it could be outside of Scotland; later, I found out Stephen Fry would do ‘The Worst Toilet in Scotland’ scene from the book as a party-piece, and that’s when I realised it had taken off way beyond what I thought it would.”

Irvine Welsh with his wife Beth Quinn

Read More: T2 Trainspotting – The NME Verdict

1996: The film that became a phenomenon

Hot off the success of 1995’s Shallow Grave, director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew MacDonald settled on Trainspotting as their next project. Shot over seven weeks in Glasgow on a budget of £1.5m, the film would eventually make £48m worldwide and land an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.  

Danny Boyle, Speaking in 1996: “The problem is that people who make drug films make them so f***ing depressing. We wanted to make a film that actually gives you the rush of drug culture – you go out there and have a fantastic time and we wanted to reflect that. That’s what was so shocking about the book, because it dares to say that it’s f***ing wonderful.”

Irvine Welsh: “A lot of really good filmmakers were interested in doing it, but they all wanted to take this social-documentary approach to the material, and there’s nothing more dreary than making that kind of film about heroin addicts… To me, Trainspotting isn’t actually a drugs film: it’s about the vibrancy of youth, about how people adapt to changing circumstances in a world where drugs have replaced employment as the social lubricant of our time.”

Ewen Bremner, Actor, Spud: “What I remember best is the downtime from filming. We’d all got rollerblades, so we’d be bombing around the derelict cigarette factory in Glasgow the production was based out of. We were also doing a lot of night shoots, so I’d often come home at 5am and lie on the grassy bank in Kelvingrove park as the sun was coming up, totally blissed out. 

Kelly MacDonald, Actor, Diane, speaking in 2016: “I think [the club scene] 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… I think I was actually hungover by the time I did the scene.”

Ewen Bremner: “It’s hard to imagine now, but outside of Scotland, Trainspotting was like an exotic bomb that went off in the culture. It was a strange, foreign world that hadn’t been discovered yet, a world that was invisible in mainstream media. The idea of a film actually allowing you to enjoy the company of drug addicts – that was revolutionary.”

(L-R) Danny Boyle, Ewan McGregor and Ewan Bremner

Read More: Which Trainspotting character are you?

1996: The soundtrack that defined our times

The film’s soundtrack became a huge hit in its own right, connecting the dots between the UK club culture (Leftfield, Bedrock), the emergent Britpop scene (Blur, Elastica) and the counter-cultural ‘70s rock the film’s characters were obsessed with (Lou Reed, Iggy Pop). It sold over 700,000 copies, and spawned a huge number-two hit single, Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’, giving T2’s soundtrack a lot to live up to.”

Rick Smith, Underworld, composer & producer of all original music for T2: “Danny was using our album ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ as a kind of ‘heartbeat’ to cut the first edits of Trainspotting together. ‘Born Slippy’ wasn’t on that album, but he was in HMV on Oxford street one day when he saw the 12”, bought it, and immediately knew that was how the film should finish. We weren’t keen on the idea at first, until Danny very sensibly said, ‘Come and watch the film’ and after the first 15 minutes, we decided he could use anything he wanted.”

Irvine Welsh: “I’ve got a lot of musician friends, and because we didn’t have a lot of money to license stuff, we were calling in a lot of favours when it came to the soundtrack. Danny already knew Leftfield, and I’d gotten to know a lot of musicians from the Britpop era, like Primal Scream, Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn, as well as Iggy Pop and Underworld. For T2, I’d gotten to know Young Fathers through mutual friends in Edinburgh and really liked their stuff, so I hooked them up with Danny and he thought it was exactly the right sound for the film. 

Lias Saoudi, Fat White Family singer, appears on T2 Soundtrack: “I saw Trainspotting for the first time when I was about 10 years old, I found it utterly depressing at that time – it wasn’t like Blue Peter or my other usual televisual entertainment. It doesn’t get any more zeitgeist-stranglingly definitive than Trainspotting and its soundtrack.”

Joel Amey, Wolf Alice: “It’s a classic movie but the music that accompanies it has its own life. I remember watching Trainspotting and being quite harrowed, but also realising that I loved Iggy Pop at the same time, so it was a weird juxtaposition, of finding music that I’ve grown to love for the rest of my life and also a brilliant piece of cinema.”

Lias Saoudi, Fat White Family singer

2002: The sequel that almost wasn’t

Published in 2002, Porno found Welsh revisiting the Trainspotting gang for a caustic revenge tale set in the murky world of the porn industry. 

Irvine Welsh : “I didn’t feel any pressure when I was writing Porno, because it was never intended as a sequel. I’d written the first draft of this book about the sex industry when I realised the character I’d written was actually Sick Boy – I hadn’t given him that name, but it was the same character, ten years on. So the book evolved into a sequel. We started talking about doing another film almost as soon as Porno came out, but the problem was that we wanted to do it in real time, and the stuff about the gonzo porn industry was very much of the late ‘90s, early 2000s, so it dated quite quickly.”

2016: Getting the gang back together

Boyle had long been interested in filming the novel, but a personal feud (now resolved) between him and Ewan McGregor over casting decisions in Boyle’s The Beach – as well as scheduling headaches and frustrations with the script – meant it took almost 15 years to happen.   

Irvine Welsh: “The real breakthrough came a couple of years ago when John, Danny, Andrew and myself met up in Edinburgh and started going through the novel and the previous scripts John had written. There was a sense by then that it was now or never. But it all came down to John, really – he went away and he came back with this great script that really modernised the story. After that, we kind of ran out of excuses not to do it…”

Robert Carlyle (Begbie) : “What was lovely was meeting up with each other the week before filming began, looking at each other and thinking, ‘How the fuck did that happen? How did all these years go by and we haven’t seen each other?’ We’d sort of kept in touch through email and social media, but face-to-face, it hadn’t happened for so long – Ewan McGregor and I hadn’t seen each other for near enough the whole 20 years. And of course, that’s what the film is about: these friendships you make when you’re young, and whether they’re worth keeping alive, worth thinking about, all these years later.”

Ewen Bremner: ”The first read-through of the script felt very emotional and very powerful, but the idea that we could actually pull it off still felt like a big reach. But Danny is an incredible visionary – it’s like he can see into the future, or see into the culture… He actually shot a huge volume of material that’s not in the finished film – my estimate would be that 40% of the scenes we shot never made it in.”

Robert Carlyle: “People line up to work with Danny Boyle for a reason – not just because of his undoubted genius as a director, but as a human being as well. His technique has obviously become more honed over the years, and he’s probably a bit more technically attuned – for example, a lot of the film was shot on a camera which is smaller than an iPhone.”

Irvine Welsh: “I think it’s better than the first film – it’s more emotional, more layered, there’s more subtext there. It’s like watching a deconstruction of 35 years of neoliberalism, from beginning to end, what that’s done to Britain and where we stand now. In the UK, we don’t really make ‘big’ films – our schtick is interesting, quirky wee films. But this film is massive, and when you put the two together, it’s almost like the Godfather trilogy – a huge emotional landscape that gives you a sense of what’s happened during our times.”

The future…

Between Welsh’s 2012 prequel Skagboys and last year’s Begbie-centric The Blade Artist, there’s no shortage of material left to film. Might these characters return sooner rather than later?

Irvine Welsh: T2 is interesting, because it’s not just an adaptation of Porno – there’s bits of Trainspotting in there, bits of Skagboys, even bits of The Blade Artist. It’s an amazing piece of work, and it’s got me fired up about the possibilities of writing more about these characters again.  

Robert Carlyle: There’s already been some discussion about filming The Blade Artist, and certainly, I would play Begbie again in a heartbeat. I think, if we were to do it, it would probably be the last time you saw him, but it would be a fantastic way to end things. The Begbie in that book is a very different guy, obviously a lot older, but I think it would be a fitting thing to do for the character – to put him to bed once and for all.” 

What happened to the cast next? 

Ewan McGregor (Renton) Became a household name when he won the role of Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and has gone on to work with everyone from Baz Luhrman (Moulin Rouge) to Tim Burton (Big Fish) to Ron Howard (Angels & Demons). Moved into directing last year with an adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral

Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy) Miller’s post-Trainspotting cinematic career has been underwhelming – who remembers Dracula 2000, Mindhunters or Aeon Flux? – but he struck gold on the small screen with Elementary, a contemporary, New York-set reimagining of Sherlock Holmes. 

Robert Carlyle (Begbie) Currently filming his sixth season of the hugely-successful Once Upon A Time, Carlyle won a Bafta for The Full Monty, faced down James Bond in The World Is Not Enough, and recently directed his first feature, The Legend Of Barney Thomson

Kelly Macdonald (Diane) Won rave reviews for her performance in the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men, voiced a Scottish princess in Pixar’s Brave and was one of the standout characters in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Most recently seen in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror

 Ewen Bremner (Spud) Has gone on to become a successful character actor, appearing in big-budget Hollywood movies such as Pearl Harbour, Black Hawk Down and this year’s Wonder Woman, as well as quirkier indie fare like Snowpiercer, Hallam Foe and The Acid House – another Irvine Welsh adaptation.

The T2 Trainspotting premiere took place in Edinburgh last night

(L-R) Ewan Bremner, Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle

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