‘It’s a Homecoming Film’: Danny Boyle on T2 Trainspotting

As the much-anticipated sequel to his 1996 cult classic gets set for release, the English director discusses the impact of the original, that memorable opening monologue, and Brexit.

Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP

This Friday will mark the release of one of the more unusual sequels of recent years, T2 Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s follow-up to the 1996 film that largely put him on the map as a director. That film, based loosely on the novel by Irvine Welsh, was a giddily stylish picaresque about a group of twentysomething friends scoring heroin at every opportunity in Edinburgh. A full 20 years later, the fellows have now slowed down (and sobered up) some with age. T2 reunites the principal cast of Ewan McGregor (Renton), Ewen Bremner (Spud), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy), and Robert Carlyle (Begbie) and is written, like its predecessor, by John Hodge. (Kelly Macdonald, who made her debut in the earlier movie, has a sharp cameo.)

Trainspotting fans will recall that it ended with Renton absconding with £16,000 that he and the others had made in a drug deal (though he left £4,000 behind for Spud). Now, after all these years, he’s returned to Edinburgh to face the friends he betrayed. I’ll have a review on Friday (short version: it’s good!), but in the meantime I had a chance to sit down with Boyle to discuss the old film, the new film, his own personal betrayals, and the future of Scotland. This interview has been edited for length and clarity—and to avoid spoilers.

Christopher Orr: So the original film had a somewhat open-ended conclusion. Renton was leaving town with his stolen lucre and promising to “choose life.” But it was not at all clear what that would mean in practice. T2 has a more conventional structure, with a beginning, middle, and an end. I’m wondering, did you always plan to end the original Trainspotting that way? And how did it inform the structure of the second film?

Danny Boyle: It was interesting. The “choose life” speech in the first film was originally in the middle of the film when we wrote it. And we moved it to the beginning and the end.

Orr: I can’t even imagine the film without that speech at the opening and close.

Boyle: I can’t remember now how it worked in the middle. Anyway, it’s interesting that you say T2 has a more conventional structure, because it does. One of the most fearful things about the first film was that there wasn’t really a plot in a conventional sense. They basically just drifted in and out of drugs in a series of episodes. The book was like that, too—a series of short stories, really.

I remember people being very worried that we didn’t have a structure in the first one. But we had a voiceover. And because of the linguistic brilliance of the original book, John Hodge, the screenwriter, took flight and was released as a writer into this delicious voiceover, which basically compensated you for the fact there wasn’t really a plot.

The big decision with T2 was that we were not going to have a voiceover, because in a way that would have been too easy. It would feel like, “Oh, here we go again.” But in fact Renton comes back a hollow man. He has no voice, really. So with no voiceover, there is more of a conventional plot.

Orr: I was struck by how much the film, especially in the final act, reminded me of your first movie, Shallow Grave. There’s a quick, funny reference to that movie with a shot of some shovels. But more than that, you have these people who know each other quite well, you have a pot of money again, and you have the strong possibility of homicide lingering in the air. Finally, you have that line that’s repeated a few times in the film: “First, there’s an opportunity. Then, there’s a betrayal.” It’s a reference to the end of Trainspotting, of course. But it could almost have been the tag line for Shallow Grave.

Boyle: Obviously, it was fun to have the shovels and hint that there was going to be a shallow grave dug in the woods and they were going to be buried in it. But no, we weren’t really thinking of the movie more generally. But I have to say that on a meta level—and there are meta levels that emerge and you can’t really deny them—I fell out with Ewan McGregor, and I felt that we’d betrayed him, because we offered him a part and never delivered on it.

Orr: This was The Beach, right? [Boyle had implied he’d give the lead role to McGregor, who’d starred in his first three movies, then cast Leonardo DiCaprio instead.]

Boyle: Right. And Andrew [Macdonald, who produced Boyle’s early films] and I sort of betrayed each other as well, just over business stuff. So when “opportunity” and “betrayal” come up, there’s a kind of meta level to it. The characters can’t really be representative of anything else because they’re so particular. But actually they are—they’re sort of us living out our personal history of betrayal through them. And it liberated us from worrying about the film being a sequel. We were writing about our own personal loss and our own personal betrayals. Even talking about it feels stupid, but it’s there.

Orr: You’ve described the new film as being about “how badly men age.” That reminded me of Anthony Burgess and A Clockwork Orange

Boyle: Yes!

Orr: …but for Burgess they age out of it and come out on the other side. But you don’t think men come out on the other side. You think that they just dig deeper and deeper into their male problems.

Boyle: It’s very hard to deny that. For men, there’s something about your twenties that is so powerful. It’s the time when you feel that you have power, and that you are someone. You can point to so many examples of it, of men still behaving like they’re in their twenties. Women around the world roll their eyes. You can feel them collectively roll their eyes.

Orr: At the same time, the movie has at least a hint of optimism in the scenes of Begbie with his father and with his son—the idea that Begbie may be a deranged psycho but he’s still better than his wino father, and his college-bound son will be a better man still. So even if men within their own lives can’t acquire the knowledge they need, do you think there can be improvement generation to generation?

Boyle: Yes, I do. I am an optimist. And Begbie does achieve some enlightenment. It’s not enough to save him personally, but it is enough to give you hope that the kid will escape the pattern of his father and his father’s father. That’s a particular concern in working-class communities, especially in post-industrial ones. The pattern of following your father was acceptable when the jobs were there, and of course now it’s not. There’s nothing there.

Orr: That’s a good segue to one of the most enjoyable scenes in the new film, in which Renton and Sick Boy find themselves in a bar full of angry, anti-Catholic nationalists obsessed with the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. And there’s a line, “These are the folks that have been abandoned by the political class.” Now that line obviously has a certain resonance post-Brexit and Donald Trump. I know it was written before those events, but as you were making the film, did you feel this kind of sentiment was coming to a head?

Boyle: Yes. That working-class, Protestant culture is very much compromised by the political class now. The sectarianism in Scotland—and it’s really only in Glasgow, and that scene was set in Glasgow—is a byproduct of the Northern Ireland malaise. In Northern Ireland it’s expressed in the structure of society. In Glasgow, it’s called “90-minute sectarianism,” because it’s mostly expressed through the football clubs.

It’s one of the things that emerges from, again, post-industrial malaise. Begbie has a speech later in which he says, “What do I get? What do I fucking get? I’m not smart, like you cunts.” Smart people get everything: What’s left for the working man? So, it’s not meant to be a political film, obviously. But it’s there. And the deepest irony is that we were filming when the Brexit vote happened. And we woke up expecting to narrowly remain in the EU….

Orr: I’m familiar with an experience like that one.

Boyle: But Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in. And the consequence of that is that Scotland will leave the United Kingdom. It will take two years or longer but they will leave. I can absolutely guarantee it. With this provocation of “we’re going to retreat back into a little England with Scotland attached”—the Scots will always pick Europe over England. Ironically, the Englanders who dreamed of the old days and of Britain as an isolated kingdom away from Europe, they will have broken up the United Kingdom and reduced England even further.

Orr: Speaking of Scotland, I felt like Edinburgh—and not just Edinburgh, but the surrounding country, too—was much more of a character in this film than in the original. Was that a conscious decision?

Boyle: For sure. Because it’s a homecoming film. it’s inevitable that place will play a bigger part in it. What is he coming home to? In the first film, there is a famous scene on Princes Street where they’re running away from the store detectives. But otherwise they’re just locked away in their world, their interior world of drug addiction and scamming and scheming. You barely see any of the outside world. But now Edinburgh has changed; it’s a much younger city than it ever was. Up to a quarter of the population are students, so the place is full of young people.

Orr: Without giving details away, while Renton was the narrator of the first film, the narrator of the second film, in a certain sense, is ultimately Spud. Do you think this makes the film more or less optimistic?

Boyle: The first one is more exuberant, and it feels more optimistic because it has that energy that has to do with their ages. And it’s also self-destructive and reckless and chaotic and carefree. But that energy is attractive. This film is a bit more considered, and the hope in it is a bit more considered, too.

Orr: So, optimistic but within a much more constrained set of expectations? When the first movie ends anything seems possible. Renton’s got £12,000 in a bag, and he’s young….

Boyle: So we worked it out, this money that Renton stole and that they all go on about. We worked it out and it would pay for a packet of cigarettes a day over those 20 years. That’s all it amounts to. It’s nothing.

Orr: Last question. Among the nice little cameos in the film is Sick Boy’s pellet gun, which Renton had used to shoot the pit bull in the first movie. Where had it been all these years?

Boyle: They just store props of films, and stuff got kept, mostly by the costume designers. We found lots of costumes as well, and so some of the kids that run around are actually wearing costumes that Renton and Sick Boy wore in the first film.

You look at the shirts they wore, and you think “How did they fit in them? They’re like baby shirts.” It’d be hard to find a better way to capture the passage of time.