A suite in the Adlon Hotel in Belin, filled with orchids and roses, might seem like an odd place to sit down with director Danny Boyle and actor Ewen Bremner to discuss T2 Trainspotting, a sequel to the 1996 classic about heroin addicts in Scotland. The movie, which was recently shown out of competition at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival, reunites the four anti-heroes in a story about how their lives – and the world – have changed during the past two decades.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the new film is that the four main characters, Bremner’s Spud, Mark “Rentboy” Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) are still alive, and not looking much worse for wear. They take a different mix of drugs these days – for some of them, Viagra is now on the menu – and the scam du jour is an EU development grant instead of a drug deal. But even though they are now running on treadmills instead of fleeing store detectives, their outlook is much the same. The new film features an updated “Choose Life” monologue, that opens with the lines: “Choose life. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares....”
Director Boyle’s career took off after the original Trainspotting, and he went on to direct many other hit films, eventually winning an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire in 2009. But Boyle is the first to acknowledge that Trainspotting, and now its sequel, hold a special place in his life and career.
Radiating energy and enthusiasm, he spoke about the long road to T2.
“Initially, there was like [a feeling of], ‘Wow, if we get this wrong, it will be really bad and we will be killed like never before, and we will probably never recover,’ so you’ve got that, but then that’s exciting because you go ‘Wow, OK, whoah,’ but then you forget it, you have to forget it, because you can’t make it every day with that fear on your back... we don’t use or ask for a great deal of money so we can remain under the radar, so then you free yourself up from that pressure.”
Boyle said he understood the fans’ desire that he stick close to the original.
“To a degree it has to be the same, but it has to be different as well... it’s a weird mixture. You want something similar, but people want them to move on as well... The script had this personal nature in it which was really quite acute, which allowed us to have fun and games, a la the first film... But you have this personal testimony in it about what it is to grow older and not really to know what to do with it and to stand still and to suddenly realize that you’ve stood still, and that’s mostly expressed through Renton, but it applies to all of them. Even his ‘Choose Life’ speech, which begins as something similar, you know, for the fans, everybody wants an update: It’s got, oh! Facebook, oh! Instagram, oooh Apple factories in China, so it begins like that and you think, great, but actually halfway through the speech, he says, ‘Choose disappointment, choose not being what you wanted to be, choose losing the ones that you loved.’” Bremner, dressed in a neat suit and flowered shirt, didn’t look much like the scruffy but likable Spud. The actor, who has gone on to dozens of movie roles and who will be seen this summer in the Wonder Woman movie, said that returning to this character was not difficult.
“It didn’t feel like work at all. Irvine Welsh drew those characters so beautifully in the original novel that it’s almost impossible to deviate from these beautiful drawings that he made, and he was drawing on the people around him, his friends his family, the people he grew up with, and so John Hodge, the screenwriter, translates that into the screenplay for that first film and this new film. Although there’s 20 years in between those films, I did not feel that there was any struggle with knowing who this guy was.”
In T2, Spud is an alter ego for Welsh, writing stories about himself and his friends, and finding himself through that, which Bremner said was, “a sweet surprise.”
Because of scheduling conflicts – Miller and Carlyle star in the television shows Elementary and Once Upon a Time, respectively, and McGregor was finishing up American Pastoral – all four actors worked together only for a couple of weeks.
But once they got started, “They were raring to go... The scenes where they first meet [after 20 years] are very powerful... That was what we were hoping for – when you bang them together, you have real electricity,” said Boyle.
While there are some flashbacks, it is mostly set in present-day Edinburgh.
“The past is alive in all of us and you have to have a conversation with it... They’re not really trying to recreate the past, they’re trying to behave as if they still have the energy and delight and the recklessness of their youth... They’re fathers now, all of them – Renton’s [children] are imaginary, which should tell you something about him psychologically but the others are fathers, and the film is littered with disappointed children and disappointed women, so they’ve clearly been hopeless at that task.”
Their attempt to make amends with those around them “is only partial but it is moving,” Boyle said.
Revisiting Trainspotting inspired some self-reflection on Boyle’s part as well.
“Those guys are extreme examples, but nonetheless it is realistic, I think I’m guilty like they are, you know, I have three kids, I haven’t seen that much of them because I’ve been talking to journalists in Berlin instead of taking them to school and... so yes, you have your own acknowledgments or you have to come to terms with what you’ve done with that 20 years in a personal sense.”
While the new film has a great soundtrack, mixing classics with hiphop and other recent music, Boyle acknowledged that it was a bit different this time around.
“The first [soundtrack] came out of a great period of British music and it felt effortless. That’s also age, I was a big music fan and... I just knew everything about music at the time, now it’s not so because you’re older and it’s just like, ‘Who, what, who are they?... And they’re really good and they’ve done three albums and I’ve never heard of them,’ so it’s harder.”
The plot turn involving the EU grant was written just before the Brexit vote, but Boyle decided to leave it in, partly because Scotland was so set against leaving the EU and may try to remain part of it.
The director, who is from Manchester, said, “I was lucky to be an honorary Scot for a while we’re working on the films. The Scots don’t take any nonsense, that’s what’s wonderful about them.”
Asked whether there would be a third film, Boyle laughed and said that while he might consider filming another Welsh novel about the Begbie character, “I don’t know whether you could ever call that T3.”