By Iain Blair
It’s been 21 years since Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting stuck a heroin- and adrenaline-fueled needle into the jaded veins of pop culture, electrifying audiences everywhere with its terrifying fever-dream tale of Edinburgh junkies. Let’s not forget the shocking and provocative imagery — visions of dead babies crawling across ceilings and the scene of Ewan McGregor slipping down the disgusting toilet in search of his drugs.
Now Boyle is back with a worthy sequel, T2 Trainspotting, along with the original cast of angry young men now facing mid-life crises — Renton (McGregor, who’s still running to the amped up track of the first film’s “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and “Sick Boy” Simon (Jonny Lee Miller).
Drugs, violence, vengeance, hatred and friendship all feature prominently in T2, along with aging and the toll time takes on people and relationships. But then Boyle, who won the ’08 Oscar for Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire, has always been attracted to kinetic, controversial stories that explore memory and time. He has pushed the cinematic envelope as far as he could, with such eclectic films as Shallow Grave, The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later, Trance, Steve Jobs, Sunshine and 127 Hours.
For his latest film, he reteamed with DP Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot 28 Days Later, 127 Hours and won the Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire; editor Jon Harris, whose work on 127 Hours earned him an Academy Award nom; and composer Rick Smith.
I spoke with Boyle about making the film, his production and post workflows, and why cinema is the only art form that can really examine time.
Successful sequels are notoriously tricky to pull off, and it’s been 21 years since T1. Why the long wait?
Weirdly, we never thought about doing a sequel when we did the first one. There was no pressure to do another, and I think we all felt it was a one-off. But as the years passed and it settled in people’s minds, it kind of stayed there. It didn’t fade like most movies do, and the characters all remained very vivid in people’s minds.
Then Irvine Welsh, who wrote the Trainspotting book, wrote a sequel, set 10 years later. We had a look, but we didn’t like it. We felt it would disappoint people, and there wasn’t really a reason for it to be. But when 20 years loomed on the horizon, we felt it was the last chance to do something, so we went to meet Irvine in Edinburgh, talked for a week and came up with a story that was far more personal — about getting older and how it alters your behavior. You see their faces and how they’ve aged, and there’s pathos there.
How do you top T1? Or do you even try?
You don’t try. We didn’t want to simply remake the first one, and this is really based on two books — the original and then Porno, Irvine’s sequel. So it blends the present and the past, and we felt very confident about that approach, and no longer had that crippling fear of disappointing people. We all believed in it.
Was it hard getting all of the original cast back for it?
Strangely, it wasn’t, even though coordinating all their schedules was not easy, as we shot in over 70 locations and a dozen sets in under two months, with only four weeks when they were all available at the same time. I think it really helped that we did it exactly like the first one. Everyone was paid the same — and not very much, and they would get back-end, again all equal. And the four roles would get equal screen time. Doing it that way made all the usual roadblocks fall away — it circumvented all the agents, managers and so on. Everyone was like, “OK, let’s do it.” If the script hadn’t been very good, it probably would have been different, but they all felt they had great material to play with, so it went very smoothly.
You added a new DP Anthony Dod Mantle, and new editor in Jon Harris to the mix. Did that help bring a fresh POV to the film?
I think so. Brian Trufano, who gave T1 that great vivid look, has retired and we invited him to the set, but you kind of have to go with your new partners you’re now working with, and I needed that shorthand I have with Anthony now — same with Jon.
How did you and Anthony stay true to T1, but also keep it current and its own thing?
We wanted to acknowledge Brian’s amazing work and the use of color and some of the really inventive shots, but you have to make it your own, especially as there’s moments that deliberately pay homage to the first one.
You know you’re going to borrow from the first one, but you can’t be slavish to it. It had to create its own right to be there. So we replaced that freshness you got from the first one with a different kind of experience, a slightly more reflective one, as it’s about the passage of time, really. So they try to recreate that effortless bravado of T1, but you can see the slight strain it takes now. They can’t quite do it.
Even though both films are set in Edinburgh, isn’t it true you actually shot the first one in Glasgow?
Yes, because of the tiny budget — just $3 million, and Glasgow was a lot cheaper. We did just one day in Edinburgh. We had a bigger budget on this and felt obliged to shoot it in Edinburgh, and the pride of all the locals was amazing. It gave us that sense of place which is far more important in a reunion — returning to a place, what’s the same, what’s different. The first one basically takes place in their heads, and the actual locations were fairly irrelevant.
Yeah, we moved back to London to edit it and do all the post. Jon was in Edinburgh, but he never came to the set. He’s one of those smart editors who doesn’t want to know where the door is on the set. He just wants to see what you actually shot. We cut for about 10 weeks and the main challenge of editing this was balancing how much to use of the first one, and how to use time as a texture. There are some freeze frames. The ones in T1 were used in a pop culture way. In this, they’re more about using time.
Time’s always a big theme for you, isn’t it?
You’re right, and film is the only art form that really looks at time in detail, because film is time. When you edit, you’re basically compressing time, speeding it up, freezing it — you can stop time in movies, which is amazing. No other art form can do that. The other amazing aspect of film is that a cinema visit is also an expression of time. Unlike with any other art form, an audience says, “I’m yours for the next two hours.” They give you that time, and in return you give them time that’s telescoped, stretched, even stopped. It’s extraordinary, really.
The music and sound on T1 had such an impact. How did you approach it on this film?
The big issue was: “Do we touch it or not? Do we refer to it or not?” We decided that, if we were going to use music from the first film, it had to be remixed and re-imagined, so that it would still have the same power — it’d be the same, but different. So Prodigy remixed “Lust for Life,” and we used this great Edinburgh band, The Young Fathers, who did several tracks. We did all the sound mixing at Pinewood with Glenn Freemantle and his team at Sound 24.
You must have a very well-oiled post machine by now. Was it the usual team doing the VFX?
Yes, we did all the visual effects with my usual guy, VFX supervisor Adam Gascoyne at Union Visual Effects in London. He’s done all my films for a long time now, and it’s a great relationship; he’s very much a key partner in building it all. A lot of the VFX were invisible — corrections, clean-up, but we didn’t do anything with the actors’ faces to age them or make them look younger. There’s a whole hallucination scene on the moors with a deer, when they get back on the heroin, and Adam did some great work around the pub to create this industrial wasteland.
Where was the DI done?
At Technicolor in London with colorist Jean-Clement Soret, working on the FilmLight Baselight, who does all my grading. Anthony and I trust him entirely. The big challenge was how to get a bold, colorful look that didn’t just copy the first one, and Jean-Clement did an amazing job. He’s not just a colorist. He’s really a post DP.
[From Jean-Clement Soret: “Working on a sequel to such a seminal project offers unique challenges and the opportunity to revisit earlier creative inspirations. While the themes of the story are at times dark and depressing, it is a comedy: the photography and grade created a collage of very strong looks with nostalgic flashbacks, rich-cinema feel using high contrast, as well as re-grade of shots of the original footage from Trainspotting 1. There are many visual references to the first film and interesting use of color assembly.
[“To ensure that Trainspotting 2 developed its own visual style like TS1 did 20 years ago, director Danny Boyle and DP Anthony Dod Mantel looked to how developments in technology have changed the filmmaking process in the intervening period. Twenty years have passed between the two projects and camera acquisition, workflows and people’s understanding of visual narrative have developed to give access to a much deeper range of color tones. Similarly, Dod Mantel experimented with radical choices around lighting throughout proceedings.”]
Will you do T3 in another 20 years, like “7 Up”?
(Laughs) That’s a great idea. Michael Apted’s series was actually an influence on this. But you need a real reason to do it. We’ll see.
I’m shooting the first installment of this new drama series, Trust, for FX. It’s all about the Getty oil heir.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.