Trainspotting flew out of the gates in 1996 and took the world by storm, first causing a sensation in the United Kingdom, and then moving on to the United States bolstered by a soundtrack that mixed classic rockers (Lou Reed, Iggy Pop) with contemporary ones (Blur, Primal Scream). Audiences couldn’t get enough of this gritty, often funny, sometimes harrowing tale of Scottish heroin addicts. Based on Irvine Welsh’s edgy cult novel of the same name, Trainspotting was adapted by a trio of filmmakers – director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald – who had previously collaborated on the nasty suspense thriller Shallow Grave (1994).
They chose just the right passages from the novel and proceeded to capture the spirit of what Welsh was trying to say without judging the characters. This resulted in the film getting into trouble as some critics felt it glorified drug addiction. The film takes an unflinching look at the lives of a group of drug addicts and shows why they do drugs — the highs are so unbelievably amazing. However, Trainspotting also shows the flip side: death, poverty and desperation, which lead to stealing, lying and cheating just to get more drugs. Regardless, the film was a commercial and critical success, spawning all sorts of imitators and influencing countless other U.K. filmmakers to go through the door that it kicked open.
The six-minute prologue does a brilliant job of introducing a group of Scottish drug addicts as seen through the eyes of one of them — Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor). His friends include a speed freak motormouth named Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner), a suave ladies’ man, Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), straight-edged Tommy MacKenzie (Kevin McKidd) and sociopath Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle). Each one of them has their own distinct personality that each actor vividly brings to life. This prologue also sets the tone for the rest of the film as it starts literally on the run with Renton and Spud being chased by the cops to the pounding strains of “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop (before it became overused thanks to countless commercials using it bizarrely out of context) as Renton’s voiceover narration talks about his “sincere and truthful junk habit.”
The energetic camerawork — fasting moving tracking shots (that recall Mean Streets) as Spud and Renton run from the police and the freeze frames (reminiscent of GoodFellas) with title cards identifying each character is an obvious stylistic homage to Martin Scorsese. Like many of his films, Trainspotting is bursting at the seams with energy and vitality that is very engaging. The prologue does its job by immediately grabbing our attention and drawing us into this world populated by colorful characters. After 30 minutes of showing the incredible highs of shooting heroin where we’re caught up in the euphoria of it with Renton and his friends, director Danny Boyle starts to show the ugly side, starting with the death of fellow junkie Allison’s baby due to neglect.
From there, Renton and Spud get arrested for stealing with the former going into a rehab program while the latter goes to jail but not before Renton takes one more hit and promptly overdoses in a surreal bit where he sinks into the floor and is taken to the hospital by taxi seen mostly from his zonked out point-of-view to the strains of “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed. However, Trainspotting’s heart of darkness is the sequence where Renton goes through the horrors of withdrawal and his reality becomes warped by hallucinations of Allison’s dead baby and his friends. Ewan McGregor really does a fantastic job of conveying Renton in the depths of a painful and terrifying withdrawal.
John Hodge’s screenplay masterfully distills Welsh’s novel to its essence and includes some of its most memorable dialogue. From Renton’s famous “Choose life” monologue (“Choose life … But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”) to Sick Boy’s “Unifying Theory of Life” speech (“Well, at one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever.”), Trainspotting has insanely quotable lines. This helped it develop a loyal cult following over the years that continues to champion the film even to this day. And yet what resonates most is its honesty. The film doesn’t sugarcoat its message and it isn’t preachy about it either. There is an ironic detachment that transforms it into a playful black comedy mixed with gritty drama and surreal sequences.
It doesn’t hurt that this excellent material is brought to life by a fantastic cast of then relative unknowns (especially to North American audiences). Ewan McGregor has the toughest role in the film playing an unrepentant junkie while also acting as the anchor that the audience identifies with and the character that the rest of the cast revolves around. It is a tricky balancing act because Renton does things that make him unlikable and yet we still root for him because of McGregor’s charisma. Fresh from his role as an American computer user in Hackers (1995), Jonny Lee Miller plays Sick Boy, Renton’s best mate but someone who lacks “moral fiber” despite his vast knowledge of Sean Connery. He ends up taking advantage of his friend in a dodgy scheme and Miller does a nice of showing how Sick Boy went from best mate to scheming con man.
Robert Carlyle is also great as the completely unhinged Begbie. The scene where he recounts a colorful story about playing pool (“I’m playing like Paul-Fuckin’-Newman by the way.”) and dealing with his cocky opponent (“You ken me, I’m not the type of cunt that goes looking for fuckin’ bother, like, but at the end of the day I’m the cunt with a pool cue and he can get the fat end in his puss any time he fucking wanted like.”) perfectly captures the essence of his character. Begbie gets his kicks from starting up trouble. As Renton puts it, “Begbie didn’t do drugs either. He just did people. That’s what he got off on; his own sensory addiction.” Carlyle has a frightening intensity and an unpredictability that is unsettling and exciting to watch. Ewen Bremner completes the core group of characters as the not-too bright Spud. He has a good scene early on when, hopped up on speed, he goes to a job interview with the notion of sabotaging it without appearing to. It’s a tricky tightrope that Bremner handles expertly.
Trainspotting also features one of the best contemporary soundtracks with an eclectic mix of British music from the likes of Primal Scream, New Order, Blur and Underworld, and from America, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The music veers back and forth from the adrenaline-rush of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” to the faux spy music by Primal Scream to the drugged-out mellow mood music of “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed. Taking a page out of Scorsese’s book, the filmmakers use the music as signposts by conveying the transition of guitar-driven rock in the 1980s to the acid house music scene in the 1990s.
Producer Andrew Macdonald first read Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting on a plane in December 1993 and felt that it could be made into a film. He turned it on to his filmmaking partners, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge in February 1994. Boyle was excited by its potential to be the “most energetic film you’ve ever seen – about something that ultimately ends up in purgatory or worse.” He convinced Welsh to let them option the rights to his book by writing a letter stating that Hodge and Macdonald were “the two most important Scotsmen since Kenny Dalglish and Alex Ferguson.” (legendary European football player and manager, respectively, from Scotland) Welsh remembered that most people interested in optioning his book, “wanted to make a po-faced piece of social realism like Christiane F or The Basketball Diaries.” He was impressed that Boyle and his partners wanted everyone to see the film and “not just the arthouse audience.” Welsh agreed to sell the rights to them.
In October 1994, Boyle, Hodge and Macdonald spent a lot of time discussing which chapters of the book would and would not translate onto film. Hodge adapted the novel, finishing a first draft by December, while Macdonald secured financing from Channel 4, a British television station known for funding independent films. According to the screenwriter, his goal was to “produce a screenplay which would seem to have a beginning, a middle and an end, would last 90 minutes and would convey at least some of the spirit and the content of the book.”
Pre-production on Trainspotting began in April 1995. When it came to casting the pivotal role of Mark Renton, Boyle wanted somebody who had the quality “Michael Caine’s got in Alfie and Malcolm McDowell’s got in A Clockwork Orange”: a repulsive character with charm “that makes you feel deeply ambiguous about what he’s doing.” Boyle and Macdonald were impressed with the performance Ewan McGregor had given in their previous film, Shallow Grave, and cast him in advance. Ewen Bremner had actually played Renton in the stage adaptation but agreed to play the role of Spud because he felt “that these characters were part of my heritage.” Boyle had heard about Jonny Lee Miller playing an American in Hackers and was impressed with him when he auditioned by doing a Sean Connery accent. For the role of Begbie, Boyle thought about casting Christopher Eccleston who had been in Shallow Grave but asked Robert Carlyle instead. The actor said, “I’ve met loads of Begbies in my time. Wander round Glasgow on Saturday night and you’ve a good chance of running into Begbie.”
Once cast, Ewan McGregor shaved his head and lost 26 pounds. To research the role, the actor actually considered taking heroin but the more he read and learned about it, the less he wanted to do it. Then, he went to Glasgow and met people from the Carlton Athletic Recovery Group, an organization of recovering heroin addicts. He (and several other cast members) took classes on how to cook up a shot of drugs using glucose powder.
With a budget of $2.5 million, Trainspotting was shot during the summer of 1995 over seven weeks. The cast and crew moved into an abandoned cigarette factory in Glasgow. Due to the rather small budget and limited shooting schedule, most scenes were shot in one take with the effects done practically. For example, when Renton sank into the floor after overdosing on heroin, the crew built a platform above a trap door and lowered actor McGregor down.
When Trainspotting was shown out-of-competition at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, it received a standing ovation. Once Miramax Films picked it up for North America, Macdonald worked with them to sell the film as a British answer to Pulp Fiction (1994), flooding the market with postcards, posters, books, soundtrack albums, and a revamped music video for Iggy Pop’s’ “Lust for Life” directed by Boyle.
Trainspotting has aged surprisingly well considering it was one of those zeitgeist-defining movies of the ‘90s. It also set the tone and style of later British exports, opening the floodgates for films like the nasty crime drama Twin Town (1997), the hyperactive rave culture comedy Human Traffic (1999) and the films of Guy Ritchie. In an interview for The Guardian, Boyle said, “Has it dated? I can’t tell you that. I am alarmed sometimes by how young the people are who say they’ve seen and loved Trainspotting, so it might have lost an edge it once had. Shallow Grave looks dated, fashion-wise, but Trainspotting has an abiding style.”