Sunday 21 July 2019

Director Danny Boyle on T2 Trainspotting: 'It's about how disappointing men are'

With 'T2 Trainspotting' arriving in cinemas on Friday, Katie Byrne chats to director Danny Boyle about revisiting the cult classic 20 years on, his love of the Rubberbandits and how not joining the priesthood broke his Irish mum's heart

Director Boyle on the set of T2 Trainspotting with Ewen Bremner (Spud), Ewan McGregor (Renton) and Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy)
Director Boyle on the set of T2 Trainspotting with Ewen Bremner (Spud), Ewan McGregor (Renton) and Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy)
Next step: Ewan McGregor has just directed his first film 'American Pastoral', and will star as Renton again in a sequel to 'Trainspotting' next year
'New wave': Danny Boyle's 'Trainspotting'
Boyle's law: Director Danny Boyle

My meeting with Danny Boyle takes place in the post-production area of Pinewood Studios in London. They're midway through the mix of T2 Trainspotting and a few weeks away from the film's première in Edinburgh.

As a working environment, Pinewood provides plenty to keep the watercooler conversation replenished. It's the home of the Bond movies, Star Wars: Episode VII, Star Wars: Episode VIII, and hundreds of other blockbusters.

So when you overhear a conversation in the café area, you might expect to hear names like Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford being dropped... and not The Rubberbandits.

It transpires that a song by the Limerick comedic artists, 'Dad's Best Friend', appears in T2 and director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge and many of the crew are huge fans of their work.

'New wave': Danny Boyle's 'Trainspotting'
'New wave': Danny Boyle's 'Trainspotting'

Boyle is especially effusive in his praise when we sit down to chat. "I absolutely adore their work," he says. "Their videos are exhilarating."

The Manchester-born director is known for keeping his ear to the ground. He often chooses unknown actors and under-the-radar musicians to appear in his films. It's hard to know if he has a canny knack for spotting talent just before it ascends, or if his championing of talent is in itself the critical mass that propels artists from the fringes to the mainstream.

Either way, his work often captures the cultural zeitgeist or, as with Trainspotting, takes the pulse of an era. The 1996 black comedy about drug addiction is indelibly linked to the pop culture movement that became known as Cool Britannia. (And, arguably, the last cult film to compel fans to Blu Tack posters to their bedroom walls.)

Trainspotting was credited with ushering in the revival of British cinema, and it launched the careers of many of the actors and musical artists associated with it.

The talent behind the camera was also relatively unknown at the time. Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge had previously worked together on Shallow Grave (which starred Ewan McGregor in his breakthrough role). It was a first-time feature film for all of them, and it proved to be fortuitous.

Trainspotting was adapted from an Irvine Welsh novel of the same name. The author followed it up with a sequel, Porno, which, in Boyle's words, was "not a great book in the way that Trainspotting, the original novel, is genuinely a masterpiece".

Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle at the world premiere of Trainspotting 2 at Cineworld in Edinburgh.
Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle at the world premiere of Trainspotting 2 at Cineworld in Edinburgh.

A cinematic sequel was suggested in 2009, but Boyle later revealed that he was waiting for the original actors to become ravaged by time, and that the follow-up would be a loose adaptation of Porno - loose being the operative word.

Many of the cast members weren't as moved by Porno and, guarding the legacy of the original like they would a national treasure (which in many ways it is), they all agreed that the script for the sequel had to be nothing less than superb.

Having seen an ungraded, unmixed version of the film, I can confirm that Hodge has delivered the goods.

The Scottish screenwriter has found a very clever way back in. It doesn't mythologise the original to the point of obeisance, nor does it flog the 20-year-later-reunion to the point of gimmickry. It has been contemporised with all the mod-cons of social media, cocaine addiction and Viagra, but there's plenty of space for a surprisingly touching narrative to unfold.

"When we made the film, we thought it was going to be about time," says Boyle. "They were 25 then and now they're in their mid-forties. But when we first watched the film - me and the editor - we realised that it's about manhood and how disappointing men are, and how people can't rely on them.

"And you think, you're the director, you made all the decisions about this film and you didn't realise what you were doing?

Irvine Welsh returns with his hard man from Trainspotting (played by Robert Carlisle) and things go downhill fast.
Irvine Welsh returns with his hard man from Trainspotting (played by Robert Carlisle) and things go downhill fast.

"The other film is so boyish - it's a great celebration of young men and everyone loved it for that - now it's assessment time or judgment time."

Perhaps it's just nostalgia, I offer, but there is a poignancy to the film that feels greater than the sum of its parts. Can something like that be engineered?

"You can't create or control that," he says. "It either happens or it doesn't happen. You can try to influence it - and I think we did try to influence it by the way we set it up - because it could have been a nightmare.

"I said to the actors: you are all equal, everyone is going to get paid the same, whatever your status. You're all cut into the film so you'll all share in it if it's a success." He also promised them equal amounts of screen-time. "What I wasn't going to do, which can happen in a regular film, is drop one of them in the editing."

"I think the way you approach it gives it a heartbeat of principle," he adds.

As a former theatre director, Boyle prefers big performances to "minimalist, nuanced kind of invisibleness".

Danny Boyle attends the UK premiere of 'Trance' at The Odeon West End
Danny Boyle attends the UK premiere of 'Trance' at The Odeon West End

"Normally people say you can't do that in film, but you look at Ewen Bremner's (Spud) performance in this film and he's f**king massive."

He mentions another powerful scene with Ewan McGregor. "I think if I get knocked over by a bus and that's the last thing I ever filmed, I'll be fine because that's quite a good way of ending it."

It is well known by now that Boyle and McGregor didn't talk for 10 years after the actor was led to believe that he was taking the title role in The Beach, only to be replaced by Leonardo DiCaprio. He felt like he was dropped by the dream team of Boyle, Macdonald and Hodge in what was clearly an arts-vs-commerce decision.

Boyle went on to make 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire. McGregor went on to become Obi-Wan Kenobi. They reacquainted in 2009 when McGregor presented Boyle - his first director - with the John Schlesinger Award for Artistic Excellence in Directing at a ceremony in LA. Boyle later admitted that they "weren't particularly respectful towards him (McGregor)".

Despite their differences, there is still a lot of love between the pair and their rift, and subsequent reunion, adds a little texture to the legacy of T2, if not the piece itself.

The soundtrack provides another layer. Boyle says the music of Underworld, in particular the track 'Born Slippy', was the "heartbeat" of the first film (the soundtrack has sold 981,815 copies to date). This time around, it's the Scottish Mercury Prize-winning group Young Fathers who Boyle got to know before he chose their music for the film.

Film composer Clint Mansell once compared a film to a living organism during the scoring process - it either accepts or rejects the music that is put to it. Boyle agrees with the metaphor.

"You sit at home and you think you have the greatest f**king song in the universe and you bring it in and put it on, and the moment it transfers, it's terrible. It just doesn't work.

"Then you get this song that's not even half as good, you transfer it, and it's just electric. Sometimes they barely have to recut sequences because it feels like it has the heartbeat of the song built into it."

Suffice to say, Boyle is a music-lover. At the age of 60, he has been around to experience two "huge wonderful cultural movements": punk music and house music.

"I was a kid when the Beatles came out - but I heard it and I've got all the 7 inches because we had them as a family. Then I was a punk when I was 18 and then I was in my thirties when rave took off in Britain, so I had enough left to experience that.

"I look at my son now and I think, 'What's he participating in? Streaming and Instagram?' It doesn't have that same cultishness where you think, 'Nobody understands this music'."

The director talks a lot about his children - Grace, Gabriel and Caitlin. Theirs is a tight family unit, by all accounts. Colleagues say he often brought his young daughters along to the film sets of his earlier productions and his Bafta acceptance speech for Best Director in 2009 was interrupted by Gabriel standing up to shout "I love you, Dad!" In the same speech, he thanked the children's mother, his former partner, casting director Gail Stevens, describing her as his "last port of call in all professional matters".

Boyle has lived in London for the last 40 years, but still thinks of himself as a Mancunian with Irish roots. His late mother hailed from Ballinasloe and his father's parents were Irish, too. "My mum came over (to Manchester) with her friend Eileen and they worked as hairdressers. They used to go to dances where you'd meet men, and that's how she met my dad."

"My more noble qualities come from my mother," he continues. "My animal energy and forcefulness and bullheadedness - which you need to have in this business - comes from my dad."

Boyle was an altar boy for eight years and he was all set to join the seminary until a priest advised him against it. "It broke my mother's heart that I wouldn't," he says.

Directors Martin Scorcese and John Woo almost became priests, too, he adds. "The priests that I knew just told people what to do. And that's what directors do, although I try not to behave like that. I like to encourage people to do the work themselves rather than being told exactly what to do. I don't think you get very far with that approach with a lot of really great actors."

It's clear that Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle, all relative newcomers when the first film hit cinemas, were given the space to do the work themselves this time around. They have 20 more years of experience, after all. And 20 years of history.

T2Trainspotting is in cinemas on Friday

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