I’ve been fortunate enough over the last 10 years to have interviewed director Danny Boyle several times. He’s one of the most honest and refreshing filmmakers I’ve ever met, digging deep into his process and revealing things about his films (including 28 DAYS LATER…, SUNSHINE, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, 127 HOURS, STEVE JOBS, and his breakthrough work, TRAINSPOTTING, about a group of drug-taking 20-somethings living in Edinburgh, Scotland, and generally getting up to no good. A little over 20 years later, Boyle and his original cast (including Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle are somehow all back, again working from a screenplay by John Hodge (from characters created by novelist Irvine Welsh).
With T2 TRAINSPOTTING, Boyle wasn’t necessarily interested in simple nostalgia; he wanted to get personal, giving us version of his original characters who both love and loathe the men they were 20 years earlier, most of whom can’t believe they living to see the mid-40s. Boyle probably feels closest and identifies the most with the characters in TRAINSPOTTING and T2 because so much of what they get away with resembles his own youth (as he explains). T2 opens wide this weekend; I had a chance to sit down with Boyle the morning after the film was revealed as SXSW’s secret screening (not a well-kept secrete, I should add, primarily since Boyle was spotted attending a couple of films in the days before his screening, including Edgar Wright’s BABY DRIVER. With that, please enjoy my lively chat with Danny Boyle…
Capone: I am convinced you made this movie to stop people like me asking you if you were going to make this movie.
Danny Boyle: [laughs] It’s like, be careful what you wish for. Because that’s how it began. It is how these things begin. A lot of it is these conversations with these journalists where you make some kind of flippant comment, and then the next time it comes around, the flippant comment is used as the basis for the next round of questions. “So, that flippant comment, was there any truth in it?” And then you have to kind of give a misdirecting answer. Anyway, I’m very grateful, actually, that people did keep asking. But also, we had a go earlier. We had a go 10 years ago, and it wasn’t very good, and we rejected it. That was a reassurance. I knew that we weren’t just going to do just because it made sense commercially. There was a bullshit detector in all of us that was like “We’re not going to get away with this unless we’ve got something decent to say.”
And there’s no guarantee people will like it; it will always be a competition. People will prefer one or the other. But that didn’t matter, provided we had something to believe and treasure about this one, rather than it just being a second one. There’s nothing to love if you’re doing it for money, really. But this was different. We believed in it, and we said we don’t want a huge amount of money, so we didn’t take a lot of money, they didn’t get a lot of money, the actors, but they get a big back end. If it works, they’ll get plenty of back end. But up front, everybody was pretty similar to the way they were in the first film. They were all equal. They weren’t going to buy any yachts with any of the money or anything like that.
Capone: Is that salary nostalgia?
DB: [laughs] That’s a good way of putting it. And they behaved accordingly. Everybody behaved, because we cut out the agents. We basically said it’s a flat rate. We’re not negotiating anybody. It was just like, boom. We cut out all the agents and managers, and all the like “He’s doing more days,” and any of that stuff. It was lots of fun, right? That was really good for the spirit of the film, I think. And it shows, because all four characters are equal. Weirdly, very unusually for film I think.
Capone: Because this is the 20th anniversary of the first film, did that play into like “Let’s get this done now”?
DB: Yeah, it’s an obvious one just in terms of presentation. It makes it a talking point, but we missed it by about two months. We didn’t stress about that, because we thought that was typical of the characters. Like Spud misses appointments because of daylight savings, we miss the anniversary by three months because we’re useless, really. [laughs]
Capone: So it’s my understanding that John [Hodge] did deliver a screenplay that was more or less an adaptation of PORNO, and you decided “That’s not going to work.” What did you want to incorporate that’s in the film now that wasn’t there in the book.
DB: The personal stuff. The crisis, the real sense of the tenderness, the poignancy. The other was a romp, really, just like the first film, and you engineer into it moments of tenderness and surprising affection, but actually there was nothing inherently in it like that. It was a romp and good fun. It wasn’t a bad script. John’s a very fine screenwriter, but we knew it wasn’t enough, and then this one started with a medical emergency, and that was like bang. Straight away you knew, because Mark looks great, but inside… Someone says, in fact, “You’re looking well, Mark.” And he says, “I know, everyone says that.” But inside, he’s been pieced back together again by the medical profession.
So it was stuff like that, and obviously all the acute personal stuff, and the children running around. It was littered with children who were of a similar age. Some of them were a similar age to the way the guys were in the first film, so that feels generational. And again if we had done the original PORNO script, the actors wouldn’t have looked that different. I remember them at the time. I used to joke about it in these conversations that they moisturized and went to spas and looked after themselves, and they weren’t hard drinkers or anything like that. I don’t want to give that impression. They were actually far too aware of what it means to be an actor; you’re up there all the time. So there were to be none of that.
Really, the whole protein of the film is that you can actually cut back to the original film and you see a skinny young man. And then you cut forward, and Begbie’s put on weight in jail, and he looks like he needs to get out more. So there was all that. There was a lot of stuff like that really.
Capone: There are a lot of mixed emotions happening here. One is, they’re looking back at that time in their lives with a certain amount of fondness for a time when they didn’t care about anything. They didn’t have any responsibilities. And then there’s that weird realization that they are so much older, and maybe didn’t think they’d make it to 30. That’s a real consideration for people in that lifestyle.
DB: You may not, and again, you don’t care. Just that carelessness about that stuff, which we all remember. The stuff you do… I did stuff at that age and I look back now and I think “Fucking hell.” I remember waking up in this hotel, and my heart was like beating fucking out of my chest like this, and I thought “I’m going to die like this,” but you don’t. You get away with it, somehow. You get away with it.
Capone: For a while, it makes you bolder when you live through something like that. But you can see it in Ewan McGregor’s face: “I had never expected to live to be in my 40s,” and he’s lost. He hadn’t planned for it mentally, and they’re all in that weird state of “I can’t believe I’m even here.”
DB: It’s a terrible status. “Now what are they going to do?” Sick Boy is in an ever decreasing circle of scams, Begbie’s obviously suspended in prison and will clearly return there or die. It’s not like it’s an advancement, breaking out of jail. And Spud of course is just hopelessly in this back and forth of addiction, help groups, addiction, help groups—there are people like that. He’s the luckiest to have survived, of course, because he’s constantly been using right the way through until we meet him again. aAnd weirdly, one of the things I did love—there was none of this in the first script—was this movement we made. It was John and I—and a lot of other people thought “Don’t do that”—were determined that somehow that Spud would succeed with this writing thing.
Capone: It’s amazing that he becomes the chronicler of that group and of that era.
DB: You end the film with two actors reading stories to each other, and everybody’s pulling their hair out saying, “It’s a fucking movie! Nobody’s going to sit there and watch actors tell stories to each other!” But no, you thought, it’s right, and Spud will transform himself and ourselves, because hope arrives with him, because if you look at the other three characters, and there’s not a lot of hope there. Not really. There’s a bit of atonement. Renton returns to his father. There’s that. It’s an atonement moment, but these are scraps. It’s Spud who provides hope.
Capone: He has the deepest arc, and it’s the most shocking. Who knew the guy who never gave up that life is the one that would be telling those stories?
DB: Well that’s Irvine [Welsh, author].
Capone: That’s what I was going to ask you. Was that always the intention, tobring it full circle like that and say, “By the way, you might not have known this, but this is his story.”
DB: “This is Irvine, and he’s writing the book.” So we were hoping you could watch the first film after the second film, rather than the other way around.
Capone: Well, you provide us with enough clips from the first film that we don’t have to.
DB: [claps and laughs] Thank you.
Capone: Let me ask you about that. Were you at all hesitant to pull in actual clips from TRAINSPOTTING? There’s certainly been, over the last couple years, a lot of conversations about big-budget films leaning to hard on nostalgia and that made those older films so good. Were you at all hesitant to get in that game and use all those clips and remind people? I guess there was a balancing act there for you, because it’s been 20 years. There might actually be people who don’t remember or never saw the first film.
DB: Indeed. It was very complicated. Eventually, I couldn’t cope with thinking about those people who hadn’t seen the first film. I literally couldn’t. As a director, you can’t. You just cannot put yourself in the position of someone who’s not seen the first film because I was so saturated with this and obviously we were repeating the actors and the characters. I just couldn’t imagine what it was like, so I said forget about it. Don’t even worry about it. But the bigger issue is, we initially called it something different. We refused to call it a sequel. In the early days, when we were just getting the script going and beginning to work on it, and the studio, Sony, who paid for everything, was furious, frankly, and they were like, “What? You’re not going to have TRAINSPOTTING in the title at all?” And we were going “That’s correct. In fact, we’re going to call it THE LEAST UNFAMILIAR.” I mean, we just thought we were done; “Who are these people?”
But it was a stage, and it was to nurture the thing on its own, regardless of the other movie, and that was a really important principle for bringing out some of the more personal stuff, so it had a reason to be itself, regardless of the other film. After a while, we thought we got it. We arrived there. It had its integrity, so we said “Okay, we’ll start the conversation about what it should be called.” And then, you then have the original film as an artifact that you can decide to use or not, and that’s what we did in editing. There was only one thing built into the film, which was Spud under the archway. That literally was built in that he’s triggered back into the other film. But other than that, all the other things, the little threads that were pulled out, were left until the editing. And it was nice to do it, because they feel like a lot, but it actually was about a minute in total—less is more, of course. If you use them well, they feel resonant, and you get that muscle memory thing going in the audience, hopefully.
Capone: You’re a different person too, much like your actors. You’re a different filmmaker, you’ve grown visually as a stylist. Did you want to revisit the way that the first film looked, or did you say, “I’m going to start from scratch as the older, wiser gentlemen that I am as well, much like these guys”? It’s certainly not as amped up. I’m not sure my head could have taken that.
DB: I know. Also, I think it would have felt fake. Quite early on, you have a discussion with yourself. You think, if you literally do it like the first film, which is an option, it would feel fake, because the guys running around are 46. They’re not 25 anymore, so you have to be respectful to that, but you also want to inherit the fact that the style—what we did, the style of the film originally, although it’s regarded as very stylish, came out of the actors and their performances, really. We did most of it on the days, rather than planning months ahead with huge effects or anything like that. You know, that kind of planning of the military campaign that films can become. You assemble the troops, and they just ignite on the day. So again, that’s the only thing I did copy. We left, alarmingly late, as many decisions as possible so they could feel like they come out of the actors.
If you can pull it off, you made the actors feel like they are literally the storytellers. That emboldens them. They don't feel like they’re being dropped into a pre-plan, and that’s when they do the bubble thing, the actors. They protect themselves by going, “Okay, I don’t know why I’m in here, I don’t know what they’re up to, but I’ll just be here like this.” And they surround themselves in a bubble. Your job as a director is often, especially with these guys who are moving around so busy, is to pop that bubble on your film, and you don’t always do it, I’ve got to be honest, but it was not a problem with these guys, because these guys were raring to go with it. So that was the main thing, leaving everything until the day. The look of the film, to a degree you look like the first film. Some of the color choices and set choices and stuff like that. You do want to create muscle memories, triggers. Obviously, the music as well. We wanted to use a couple of pieces of the original soundtrack, but refashioned, reimagined, but they’d still have that chord recognition where you go, “I know what that is.”
Capone: Or if you put the song in different context, it adds different meanings to it too.
Capone: That scene where Sick Boy and Renton fight in the bar. That feels really necessary to move on in their lives. There have been like a lot of conversations about maybe this not happening because you weren’t having good relationships with some of your cast, and I’m wondering, was that necessary for you as well?
DB: That’s what Ewan and I should have done. We should have had a cathartic fight like that. It is great, and that’s the first scene they did together. That was Ewan’s first scene, when he joined and his first scene with Sick Boy after 20 years, and they did it all themselves on one day. We had a stunt guy there advising for safety, but they did it all themselves. It’s a great fight. I love that fight. And that hit at the end when he hits his head on the bar, that’s Ewan. Everybody thinks it’s a stunt guy because they did it in a wide. That’s Ewan. I love the wide so much, because you should really do a close-up to show it is fucking Ewan. But I thought, “No, I love the wide so much,” but it is him throughout. We had two stunt guys there who just sat there all day on their hands doing nothing.
Capone: Last time I saw you, you were getting ready for “Frankenstein” [at the National Theatre in London]. I saw both versions. Not live, but I saw the broadcast, but watching that has got me hooked on National Theatre Live now. I go and see everything they do. But they’re still replaying “Frankenstein.”
DB: Originally everybody only gave permission for it to be for a year or two, and every year they write saying “Can we do it again?” It was done as a profit share. Everybody gets the same. Everybody gets a small amount of money, and there’s a lot of money plowed into the National Theatre because of it. So it’s win-win, you know? And people love it. A lot of people go because of Benedict [Cumberbatch], of course. They are fascinated by that. But then you see Jonny’s performance, and it’s like magic.
Capone: Well, best of luck with it. It was great to see you again.