Interview with Trainspotting Director Danny Boyle
Often compared to the success of Pulp Fiction here in the States, the Trainspotting phenomenon in Britain has become such that there is a Trainspotting nightclub and people speak of a Trainspotting look. Political cartoons in The Guardian and The Times use Trainspotting characters to lampoon politicians. Based on Scottish writer Irvine Welsh's cult book of the same name about a group of Edinburgh junkies and petty criminals, the movie Trainspotting is about to hit our shores. The famously collaborative three-person production team that brought us Shallow Grave -- and who are currently at work on a romance to be shot in America, A Life Less Ordinary -- were the engines behind Trainspotting. On a high-speed press tour of the States, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (producer Andrew MacDonald was ill) stopped to talk about their movie and its prospects in America.Q: I read in The New Yorker that Irvine Welsh said that they'll probably be a perfume, Trainspotting. Did the success of the film surprise you and do you think Americans will get it in the same way?Danny Boyle: Not to the extent that it took off in Britain. When we first picked up the book, it was a genuine cult book because very few people knew it, but those who did were real aficionados. And we quickly joined them, because the experience of reading it was just phenomenal. Of course, we thought we could make a film of it because part of you wants to, you know, aggrandize greatness, just join in.And then during the whole process of making the film and its being seen, suddenly the momentum of the book took off, and it all just became an incredible landslide. It's almost as though -- it clearly was -- the country was waiting for something like that to happen, for a cult book to take off, to have our version of Pulp Fiction. Something in which the consciousness of the characters actually take over the country and slip into the mainstream. It was just everywhere, so [Welsh is] right to say that. It is on the verge of a perfume or a cosmetics range or something. It's ludicrous. It's never going to happen here to the same extent. It won't have the same connection, really. It clearly speaks to Britain about something in Britain at the moment.Q: Do you think Americans might not get it because they might not understand the social and economic circumstances?John Hodge: I don't think that's so much of a barrier, because heroin is pretty universal, isn't it? And so is poverty and alcohol. The simpler thing is the fact that it's a foreign accent and a foreign film. That's probably more of a barrier than the actual milieu.Q: Do even some British people have problems with the accent?JH: English people do.DB: People in London did find some of the accents impenetrable but I think -- and hopefully this will happen here as well -- it's clear enough what these characters intend. It's not a plot-driven film where you have to get certain elements of plot or story or you're lost. It's a character-driven, incident-driven film, and you can understand the thrust of the characters and the situations pretty easily even if you can't quite catch some of what Begbie and Spud are on about. But they're both very physical actors as well, so there's other evidence that helps you.Q: John, you had written that you didn't think the book could become a film. What changed your mind?JH: Just the passage of time and the relentless pressure from Andrew MacDonald. The more we all talked about it, the more attractive it all seemed. Once we decided that rather than try to cram every detail into the film, we'd take Mark Renton, who's the most interesting character in the book and the most articulate, we'd just make him the center of the film and look at a journey of a couple years or so of his life. Focusing on that journey rather than trying to encompass everything made that decision a bit easier.Q: Was there any controversy about the possible glamorization of heroin use?DB: There was a bit before the film was properly seen because the publicity campaign around it definitely did glamorize the film. In Britain, people love films to be issue-related, they like them to be "This is a film about heroin." In fact, the film is not about heroin. It's about this group of people and their use of heroin sometimes.We were expecting a big controversy, which we thought might help the film, but that disappeared after a while -- after quite a short while -- because the impact of the whole film made things pretty clear to most people that if you were fairly sensible you'd realize the film was not recommending the heroin lifestyle, by any means, although it is portraying the lifestyle as being a complex one. It is showing obviously why people take drugs. There is a huge pleasure involved part of the time and that also people fortunately walk away from heroin without damage. Some people manage to get away with it. Other people who really don't deserve to die do. So we tried to speak with that kind of honesty about it, really, and we didn't try to use it as a soapbox to give the usual message about heroin. :People were shocked about that because people expect everybody to take up the same position about heroin: It's such a powerful drug, we must have a common front. But the problem is, that kind of gives more comfort to the message giver than it is useful to people who are vulnerable to the drug.Q: Were any of the actors squeamish about anything they had to do, like jumping into backed-up toilets?DB: The only thing they were squeamish about -- and we all were -- was the needle phobia. It was quite interesting because Ewan MacGregor, the guy who plays Renton, he particularly was squeamish in the beginning about needles, but he said that by the time when he finished filming, he'd done it so often, or pretended to do it so often, it had completely turned 180 degrees and he was now transfixed by it. He wanted to be injected. You always imagine, I can never be a junky because even if I liked heroin I could never inject it. Well, of course, the truth is it's very easy to get so that it becomes something that you're dependent on, a ritual. And the junkies that we worked with said that. In the bad days when they couldn't actually get a supply of heroin, they would still go through the ritual of cooking up and injecting water.Q: You use techno music prominently in the film and there are a number of club scenes. What are the clubs like in Edinburgh?DB: Throughout Britain, all the cities now have pretty massive club scene. It's actually gone so mainstream that I think the trend leaders are backing away from it because it's now really mainstream. Every town has got house clubs and rave clubs. I think this is one of the reasons the film worked to such a degree in Britain is that the number of people who are using Ecstasy, for instance, in quite a casual way is enormous. Absolutely phenomenal scale. And it's a very interesting phenomenon and there's been nothing particularly in films that has reflected that at all and yet it is the youth movement. Our film, although it's about a different much more extreme case, it reflects that in some way. It speaks with a respect for drugs and not just a paternalistic warning that I think [the audiences] respect and is one of the reasons the film's been so supported.Q: Filmmaking is such a collaborative process, yet it has to have some sort of unifying vision. How do you maintain that?DB: We set out to make the same film. We're very clear that if we disagree about sections of it, you can't retain that disagreement as a grievance or as a private agenda that you're going to rectify at some later stage. You have to agree. We agree on the script, and we don't change the script when we come to film. We set out the film we want to make. We don't open the script up for improvisation. We say this is the script, you've agreed to do this, we do this. You have to adjust your own vision to the vision that we all put into the script. The script is the vision and we make that script.You hear so many times about people going into films who clearly don't agree on what they're going to make. That's when the problems arise. An actor says, "Well, I don't like this scene." And you say, "I don't either, actually. What should we do?" "Well, let's improvise." You're off and you're lost. You think you're on top of it when you're filming but actually you're in a tunnel and you've got no perception at all. You're blind, really. And it's only when you come out of it with the editor that you realize what you've done.I mean, Coppola pulled it off with Apocalypse Now -- although some people argue that he didn't. But that's an example of how lost you can get. You become snowblind with the process of making it. That's why there's so many bad films that are made so expensively.