Sequels are tricky, belated sequels – just wrong. See Basic Instinct 2 for research purposes and weep in despair. And yet they just keep on coming, come rain or shine; in this case mostly rain, after all it’s Scotland we’re talking about. “First you wait 20 years and then you’re off, just like that,” says Danny Boyle, snapping his fingers merrily to make a point. “We decided to set it in Edinburgh out of respect for the original stories, we told the actors they would all be treated equally, and look – here we are. It’s completely bonkers.”
Bonkers, indeed. Over the years, Boyle might have made the likes of 28 Days Later, Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, but it’s the mention of his iconic second feature that still makes him smile. Which might explain why he decided to relive the experience. “It just felt like there was this whole belief system already in place,” he says, “which allowed us to refer back and use the original if we wanted.” As Trainspotting 2 hits the small screen, choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. And maybe, just maybe, choose to watch a sequel.
I won’t ask you why you decided to make a sequel. I will ask something else: What made you think you could actually pull it off?
The first one was a big success when it came out and it’s normally the pressure point that triggers everybody to say: “Make another one straight away!” And that’s what tends to happen with sequels, you make another one quite quickly because there is this massive commercial reason to do it again. But Trainspotting was defiantly different. So to do a repeat of that would be a bit contradictory in a way. Everything changed when Irvine [Welsh] wrote another book, Porno, which had an idea of a sequel already built into it.
And yet you didn’t adapt Porno, far from it. Why?
I haven’t looked at it recently, but at the time it felt terrible: like a rehash. The original film was in awe of the book, but it wasn’t dependent on it. So with the 20th anniversary coming up, we went to Edinburgh, sat around a table – just like we’re doing now – and stayed there for a week. There was me, Irvine [Welsh] and [screenwriter] John Hodge. And this time, John wrote something personal. The film looks like fun and I hope it is fun, but there is a lot of the old hurt locker in it about growing older. Especially with Renton, because even his “choose life” speech, about the options you have in a consumerist society, eventually ends up not being funny. He says: “Choose disappointment, choose not being who you want to be.” When that more personal script arrived, I knew they would all do it. With the first one, two were good and the others secondary. Now, it’s about all four of them. And it didn’t have a voiceover, which I thought was great, because it would have imprisoned you in the other film too much.
When you think about the first one, do you feel nostalgic about it at all? I know many people do.
Nostalgia is weird, wild, strange and dangerous [laughter]. It’s a powerful tool. The past is alive in all of us. You feel affectionate towards it sometimes and terrified of it. We referred to it as ‘telescoping’. You know what it’s like: sometimes it just feels like it’s right there and other times it seems so distant you can’t see it anymore; it’s gone. Of course, this is what movies are: time. You can stop time, slow it down or speed it up. And in this case you can unlock the images we have of the first film by revealing them 20 years later. That was a great way of using nostalgia not in a sentimental way, because you see Renton in a close-up and he has crow’s feet, Spud has a bald patch, Sick Boy is still dying his thinning hair. The Jesuits say that by the time you are seven years old, that’s it. Show me a seven-year-old and I will show you the man. I was a bundle of energy. Probably a bit loud, not a bully, but too dominant at times I’d say. I mellowed with time, just like everyone does. So did they.
There is this line in the film when one accuses the other of being “a tourist in his own youth”. For all I know, you could be saying the same thing to the viewer.
And I am, partly. Having decided not to make a stand-alone film, which would ignore the first one entirely, we decided to make it about the first film, if you like. So it’s inevitable that they are tourists in their own youth. They are all guilty of it. With the audience it’s trickier, because you want to use that affection. You want people to feel engaged, although these guys have not done a lot. Begbie has been in prison, Spud in and out of rehab, Renton was exiled and has achieved nothing. He is inventing imaginary children! He is giving them names – what the fuck? And Sick Boy is in this ever-increasing circle of his own cunning and self-loathing, really. So I didn’t mind that feeling of acknowledging.
Which kind of defines the whole movie business right now. All these films from the ‘70s and ‘80s are coming back. How do you explain this phenomenon?
Weird, isn’t it? The studios would say that the fans are driving the nostalgia. They have the power and if you misuse it, they kill you. If you betray the cartoon or the comic book they get so pissed, because they want to go back into that universe. Cinema never used to be like that and there has never been that conversation. The internet started all that. Remember Harry Knowles? His website, Ain’t It Cool News, was the first one like that. Suddenly a geek had all the power. My son listens to all these guys, and looks at all these crazy blogs where they shout at the camera. It’s a mad world out there, but that drives the studios.
You said it never crossed your mind to make a sequel immediately after. But it seems that the ones that come later are even trickier to pull off – I am thinking of Wall Street, or Basic Instinct. What was your biggest concern?
That we wouldn’t have anything to say. People are weird: we want the same things, but we want them different. But not too different [laughter]. How do you negotiate that? But once we got that script, I knew we were okay. In five years, when you put these films together, they will be able to talk to each other. You have to remember that nobody wanted us to do the first one, but we made it because we had a hit and we loved that book. They were indulging us; they gave us $2 million and said we can do whatever we want. What they meant by that was: “We know it won’t work, so later you can come back and make something we want you to make.” Fortunately it did.
You believed in it from the beginning?
Oh God yes. We were in love with the book and the originality of the characters, their defiance and the fact that they weren’t evil and they weren’t victims. They were themselves. People responded to it because it was truthful, I think. You could read it politically, but we didn’t set out to make a political film. It’s not like with a Ken Loach movie, where Ken has an agenda and uses his characters to address it. This is more about voices that matter, and they might throw out stuff that is not particularly attractive. In the new film Begbie says: “And what about me? It’s alright for smart cunts, but what about me?” That’s very Trumpish, isn’t it? You know, this disillusioned voter that has been abandoned by the smart cunts who have taken all the money and there is nothing left for him. In fact, I think that Begbie would have voted not to remain in Europe. That is, if you can imagine Begbie in a voting booth. Which is a very weird concept anyway.
“We are shite, but we were colonised by wankers,” as Renton puts it. Speaking of which – last time you were in Berlin you were showing a film that actually alienated you from Ewan McGregor. Now you are showing a film that brought you back together.
It’s a weird circle. It’s one of the things that led to the sense of time being a circle, not a straight line. Which is a weird, Proustian thing that you start feeling when you get older. That’s why it was lovely to have Spud write stories about the first one. It felt like a wonderful way of actually making this film able to live in the other film – he is beginning to write Renton’s voiceover! But it’s true, time does feel like that. That’s why grandparents and grandchildren have that incredible connection and parents go: “What the fuck?”
You have become known for the visual flair of your films, Trainspotting 1 & 2 being no exception. Where do you get that from?
You learn when you watch films. We all pick up stuff from each other. You try to do what’s best for the story and for the characters, because you are trying to tell it out of them. The problem with film is that it’s a technical exercise and it tends to be manipulative – music being the most obvious example. Things like that make you an adept filmmaker, but not necessarily a good filmmaker. Sometimes you are trying to get back to the time when you didn’t know all that much. You are standing on a flat field, thinking of what you can build rather than knowing it all. You can’t be too self-conscious about these things. I have done it in the past and it just doesn’t work.
You are not going to name any titles now, are you?
I was a bit arrogant on Sunshine. We had just done 28 Days Later and we made the threat very convincing: I employed ex-athletes to bring a certain physicality to these normal, ridiculous stomping zombies. That was palpably effective and I got cocky, instead of starting from ground zero again. Watching a movie is not like watching a TV show where you can allude to the previous season. You should always start from ground zero instead of going: “I know how to do that, and I’m going to be fine.”
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English director, screenwriter and producer famous for Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony and Slumdog Millionaire, which brought him an Oscar. Often mistaken for Ewan McGregor.