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Trainspotting: Danny Boyle

by Fiona Russell Powell

Dazed and Confused - March 1996

It’s the morning after the night before and I feel as sick as a dog from drinking too much. In order to make it to my indecently early appointment with Danny Boyle at 10am, I swig back 60mls of methadone, double the usual dose. I arrive late, but in serene mood to meet the boyish-looking 39-year old Mancunian, formerly of the Royal Court, who cites his influences as Nic Roeg, Nick Park and the new American animated film, Toy Story.

The father of three is friendly and chatty, and most understanding and laid back when I have to rush out of the room half way through the interview to stem the tide of vomit with which the toilet is soon awash. I was only keeping in character to put the director at ease, honestly! In fact, the subject of E's, H and other drugs constantly comes up for discussion, because any film showing a group of lads having a wonderful time using heroin and ecstasy is bound to have the so-called moral majority in a flap, wringing their hands and accusing the makers of promoting drug use, even if the naughties were substituted by gravy browning, glucose and saline - the most harmful substance used in this production being chocolate sauce!

Danny Boyle: The problem is that people who make drug films make them so fucking 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 fucking wonderful. 'They' expect you to swallow the idea that only complete morons touch this drug, who haven't heeded the warnings. That's absolute nonsense! There's a side of drugs which is absolutely fantastic, which is why we all do them at certain times and people will always do them.

Dazed & Confused: You did a lot of work in Scotland with a rehab group called Carlton Athletic who gave the actors 'cookery lessons' - how to heat up and fix smack. What was it like working with them?

DB: Brilliant... they were so inspirational. We did a lot of research about heroin use on the estates and it was really depressing... because the drug in its most brutal form has eradicated their life... it was very difficult to get the sense of life that's in the book. But then we met Carlton Athletic and they are fundamentalists. Their method is: 'If you come in here to this group, you work out, you never touch anything and if you do we kick you out. It's all or nothing.' To meet that resurgence of life in a group of people who'd managed to do it was very inspirational... They were with us every day we filmed, to advise us.

D&C: Do you think that people may get bored with Trainspotting - what with the book, the stage play currently being revived and now the film?

DB: That's the big worry because there's so much coverage that people might just get bored with it all. You might get a backlash.

D&C: What was the biggest technical difficulty in making the film?

DB: The biggest problem was language because the vernacular acrobatics in the book can't be done on film, it would have to be dubbed. We tried to compensate visually 'cos we knew we'd never be able to get that breathtaking sense of language from reading the book, so we tried to make the film as visually exciting as possible. The other problem was the episodic nature of it. You can dip in and out of a book but a film has to be one coherent movement. Those were the biggest problems to solve.

D&C: After reading the book, did you know immediately who you would cast in the film?

DB: Yes. We knew we wanted Ewan McGregor but he had to lose weight. He did it very quickly; er, I'm not sure how he did it (toughs) but it dropped off him... he's quite interesting.

D&C: I thought your choosing Robert Carlyle to play Begbie was first class casting. I've seen him in other stuff and he's a brilliant actor.

DB: What's amazing about him, and McGregor's like this too, is that not only can they give you this intensity of performance, they can also adjust it technically like that (clicks his lingers) without it disturbing their balance at all... He's got a big problem Bobby, I think, because I don't know what he's going to do next 'cos he's done so much in the last three or four years, incredible performances. He should go to America, which sounds naff and terrible but he should find himself some big films to do and just occupy them, he's got that size. He'd be brilliant in something like Hopper's part in Blue Velvet. Our films are so small, they just go round and round and for (British actors) to exploit their full range, they need to step outside and do more. Did you see him do that Liverpudlian psycho in Cracker? Fuckin' hell...!

D&C: He's definitely the star of Trainspotting, if there is one, as the whole team are pretty good.

DB: Ah! I think it's McGregor because what he does is really interesting. When you're watching a film, everybody can do the most outrageous acting in the world but if everybody does it then it doesn't work. You have to have a centre that's very still and quiet, it's the conduit through which you work and you access all those weird people like Spud and Begbie doing all this insane stuff and McGregor allows you to access it all. D&C: So he has to keep his ego in check in order to do that?

DB: Yeah. We'd shoot stuff and he'd come up to me and say, 'Am I doing enough?' We'd shoot a scene with Bobby Carlyle and Ewan's watching Carlyle blaze away and he'd say to me, 'But I'm not doing anything'. But that's Renton's personality.

D&C: How did you film the fixing sequences?

DB: You have to build a huge syringe with suction power... it was for getting the camera inside. A couple of fixes are real. Ewan was very keen to be injected. One of the really interesting things he said was when we got to shooting him fixing up he said he desperately wanted to inject because he'd fucked around so much with needle practising, and done all these rehearsals that he’d become fixated and obsessed by it. We were all squeamish and asking if it hurt when he injected the saline!

D&C: You seem to have shot the film in a very short amount of time, something like five weeks?

DB: Yeah. We were offered a lot of money after the success of Shallow Grave but we decided not to take it because we thought we had to make the film for as low a budget as possible to retain a real integrity about it. Well, actually, so you can’t have a dead baby in it. If you make a film for five million quid, you can't have a dead baby in it. It's nothing to do with the censor but all the other people in between, the marketing people, end up manipulating you in to thinking 'we don't really need the dead baby after all!' Whereas we knew if we kept to just over a million pounds, we'd be able to make that money back safely, on our terms and keep the dead baby.

D&C: The dead baby was horribly realistic -was it a model?

DB: Yes, it was made by a brilliant young guy in Glasgow - he's a real trainspotter! He did the
thing in Shallow Grave for us at the end when the spike comes through the neck, a fantastic bit of prosthetics which would cost millions in Hollywood... For the real baby scenes, we used twins. That shows just how false filming is. We're wondering how to make this baby look like a heroin baby and all the ones that come in are chubby and well-fed and screaming! It's like the whole idea about skinniness, this whole image of the heroin addict - so Ewan McGregor lost lots of weight and then you actually meet the guys at Calton Athletic and some of them are quite fat, heroin had the reverse effect upon them, some were almost obese.

D&C: Well, you know, Anita Pallenberg got very bloated at one stage, as did several other famous junkies. And there are some benefits too, as heroin slows down the ageing process by keeping the cells in a constant state of renewal, so it's not all gloom and doom!

DB: Mmm, I know. That was the weird thing, the bloke who adapted the book and wrote the screenplay, John Hodge, is a doctor. The first thing he said to us when we sat down to talk about the book was, 'I have to tell you, as a doctor, heroin is one of THE most compatible drugs that you can ever take, and if you can get good, pure heroin, then you can live for many, many years very very happily'. He gave us a lecture on it really, on what doctors know, because they hear a different side to what the public hears.

D&C: That's very interesting. Excuse me, I have to throw up... (ten minutes later) How will you deal with accusations that your film might encourage people to try heroin?

DB: I expect some people will go mad and say, 'D'you realise one of the consequences of you telling the truth is that some kid somewhere will take heroin?' Of course that's ridiculous, because people take drugs not because of movies that they see, but because of how they're getting on with their girlfriend or with their peer group... It's like a Chinese box. All you can ever do is tell the truth and you should say the reason why people do heroin is because, actually, it makes you feel fucking wonderful. You check the truth as much as you can, which is what we did. But also, it's not just a film about heroin, it's really about a group of lads. It's yet another 'Lads' film, I'm afraid, and that's what's going on in the film more than the drugs. The book's also about more than drugs. It's about Renton basically doing what we all do, I certainly did... you basically dump your friends, the ones you grew up with. If you want to do anything with your life, then one day you leave your home town and your friends... it's what Irvine Welsh did and what Renton in the book did. You always want to find out from a writer about their lives and we couldn't with Irvine Welsh because, as you know now, he's very difficult to get hold of, we could never get near him. But reading the book, you realise, this is him, this is basically what he did! He dumped his friends and wrote a book about it and became famous and became a millionaire' which he nearly is, I believe, he's certainly on his way there. And how has he done it? All those guys are dead or working in Asda or Safeway.

D&C: Have you taken a lot of drugs?

DB: Oh God. (laughs) Well, of course, yeah, absolutely. I have to be very careful what I say because I've had a very lucky relationship with drugs, I've had a wonderful time with them. In fact, when I did my time with E, I do genuinely feel it made me a better person and I still think it has had a permanent effect upon me in terms of attitude. It definitely renewed a kind of optimism and positivism that I used to have... Everyone says drugs are just an illusion, which they are, but they also allow you to strip away things and let certain basic things emerge as well. I suppose you can't say 'I approve of E', but actually I do!! If I was dead honest, I could not say people should not (take drugs) because alcohol's much worse -that's the idea behind the Begbie scenes.

D&C: How does it feel to be a cult filmmaker already at this stage in your career?

DB: I dunno really. I'm pretty circumspect about it. Hopefully, I'm quite wise about all the people who flatter me now, it's quite ridiculous. I take it all with a huge pinch of salt. So far, the reaction to Trainspotting appears to be amazing but you don't trust it, part of you doesn't believe it, I suppose it's defensiveness.

D&C: Is Hollywood beckoning, and are you tempted?

DB: Oh yeah. That's the thing about Americans, when it comes to business they're so fast off the mark. Their movie industry is so big and so fast-moving, they keep a check of everybody who makes a technically decent film... they're onto you if they think you're a decent filmmaker because they can get an ingredient from you that will slightly refresh basically the same story. When you make 600 films a year like they do, there ain't that much variation in them, so the variant factor is a new actor, a new star like Hugh Grant, or a new writer or director who can put a slightly different spin on things.

D&C: Do you think you could have made a better film with a bigger budget?

DB: No. One of the things you learn from working in the theatre and TV is that where you set your budget is the most important decision you can make for how things turn out in a film. You have to be very careful that you make it appropriate. I think that's one of the reasons why we often cock things up in this country because we often spend too much money. For instance, Shopping, which is a terrible film - their budget was huge, about 3-4 million for a film which should have been made on a Trainspotting/Shallow Grave-type budget. They wanted to make it like Blade Runner so they raised what, for England, is a lot of money, but nothing compared to America and they ended up with a film which was nothing like Blade Runner, that looked shabby and pathetic which is what our attempts to copy American films always look like.

D&C: But why would we even want to copy most American films?

DB: Because everyone goes to watch them! And the big temptation, to go back to your previous question, is that it's global, not a private thing like the writing process. It's a communal experience, that's what film is, that's the culture. It's where everyone packs into a room together and shouts at the screen. That's why America is appealing, because they do that better than anybody and their great films are really, really great films because they're not only good for the soul, there's something fascinating about them, they're also celebrations in public of something about humanity. I remember seeing Apocalypse Now and it's never left me. That's what everybody is aiming at and that's why we all go off to Hollywood; of course, none of us are Francis Ford Coppola and we all fail miserably. Have you seen that documentary on the making of it? I love that scene where you can hear him in the background saying, 'This film is fucking shit, it's not going to work', and his wife is going, 'Yes dear' -I love that, 'cos it's how everybody feels all the time when you're making a film. When you're worried it's shit, when looking at it you feel humiliated and embarrassed, that's when it works. And when you think you're really onto something and have no doubts, that's when it's absolute crap. You've got to doubt it all the time.