In 1993, author Irvine Welsh released his first novel Trainspotting into the world. The novel centered around the lives of heroin users Renton, Spud, Sickboy and their friends Begbie and Tommy. It was met with universal success and eventually adapted into a film. Trainspotting was directed by the mastermind Danny Boyle and has been captivating audiences for over two decades!
Released in the United Kingdom in 1995, and later released to America in 1996, the movie would also depict heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Scotland as they deal with life, drugs and their consequences as well as their various exploits. This wasn’t just some run of the mill movie adaptation…this is Trainspotting we’re talking about! Join us on Revisited as we look back on one of the best movies the 90’s had to offer.
In December of 1993, Andrew Macdonald, who would eventually become the producer of the film, was midflight reading Irvine’s novel and thought to himself “This could be a great film”. He brought the film to nonother than director Danny Boyle and his writing partner John Hodge. Danny and John first stepped on the scene, back in 1995, with their thriller Shallow Grave. The film follows three flat mates in Edinburgh who are looking for a new tenant. After selecting one, their new tenant unexpectedly dies and leaves behind a huge sum of money in a suitcase. The three eventually decide to bury him and try to figure out what they should do with the money. This sets off a chain of unfortunate events involving corruption and violence. It was the most commercially successful film in Britain that year but would go almost unnoticed in America.
Danny was very excited by Trainspotting’s potential and wanted to make it “The most energetic movie you’ve ever seen”. John Hodge read Trainspotting and realized it’s a novel with just a bunch of short stories. He would make it his goal to create a screenplay that would have a beginning, middle and end, but would still convey some of the spirit and content of the novel. Danny Boyle went to Irvine Welsh to option for the rights. He appreciated that Danny, John, and Andrew wanted everyone to see this film and not play strictly to an arthouse audience.
Production began on Trainspotting in April 1995, after Andrew secured financing from Channel 4, which is still a British television station known for funding independent films. They cast Ewan McGregor, who had previously been the standout actor from Shallow Grave,as the main character Mark Renton. Ewan Bremner was cast to play Spud, even though he had previously played Renton in the stage adaptation of Trainspotting. Jonny Lee Miller was hired as Sickboy, mostly because of his Sean Connery accent, which he not only used in his audition but is also put on for display in the film. He also was in a little-known movie called Hackers, with Angelina Jolie, that Danny Boyle was very impressed by. Robert Carlyle was brought on to play the crazy psychopath Begbie. After having seen this film countless times, there’s no one who fully embodies a character better than Robert Carlyle does here. Kelly Macdonald, who was an unknown actress at the time, was hired to play Diane who becomes Mark’s semi love interest. In the film she plays a 15-year-old when at the time she was 19. This is something that if made today wouldn’t fly in Hollywood and would have probably been cut out.
To prepare for the role, Ewan McGregor read books about heroin, since the internet didn’t exist yet, and even went to a recovery group that centered on recovering heroin addicts. In the beginning of the movie Renton and his friends are playing football against the actual people from that recovery group! He even learned how to cook heroin with a spoon…using glucose powder obviously. To really get into character, Danny made the actors watch rebellious youth films such as The Hustler and A Clockwork Orange.
The film’s production went quickly, and filming was completed in under two months. Most of the film was shot in an abandoned cigarette factory in Glasgow, even though the film takes place in Edinburgh. The only parts of the film that were shot elsewhere were the opening scene, which was shot in Edinburgh, and the ending scene, which was shot in London. Because of time constraints, a lot of the scenes were done in one take and gives the film a real grungy look.
The movie would release to the UK in 1996 to critical success. Because the movie did so well in the UK, it was bound to be released in America. Andrew Macdonald worked with Miramax who would eventually distribute the film in the US and pitched it as a British Pulp Fiction. Prior to its release, Miramax requested that some of the dialogue be dubbed so Americans could understand what was being said. This is prominently on display in the club scene when Spud and Tommy are having a conversation. For today’s audience, all you need to do is turn on the subtitles for whatever streaming service, Blu-ray, DVD, VHS or Criterion Laserdisc you have and you’re good to go!
When I was growing up the only Danny Boyle film I had seen was 28 Days Later. Whenever I saw the trailer for that movie, it would say from the director of Trainspotting. The title alone had me interested because…well it said trains, which made me think of guys standing around watching trains. At the time of Trainspotting’s release I was too young to have seen this. Granted, I was shown Goodfellas, Casino and Die Hard 3 at the age of six. This makes me wonder if my parents would have let that slide as well.I also remember going to Blockbuster and renting the DVD and being hooked! I loved the imagery, the colors, cinematography and the 90’s feel of it all. I even remember saying to myself “That’s Obi-Wan Kenobi”
We need to talk about the soundtrack because it’s one of the best released from a movie. It has since gone on to become a pop culture phenomenon. The soundtrack is divided into three different eras and style. The first being pop music from the 1970s like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Iggy Pop’s song “Lust For Life” is THE song of the movie. It captures both the spirit and feel of the film. The movie opens with this song to the best monologue ever put on film as well! Let’s not forget Lou Reed’s incredible song “Perfect Day”, especially its use in the film during the scene when Renton overdoses. The second era is from the Britpop music of the 1990’s highlighting bands like Blur, Primal Scream and Pulp. The third, and biggest portion of the soundtrack is the techno-dance era of the 1990s. It includes Underworld, Bedrock, Leftfield and Ice MC. Underworld became a household name from this movie with their hit song “Born Slippy”. This plays at the end of the film and always gets my blood pumping when it begins. Their second song “Dark & Long”, which is strangely on the second album, appears in the most controversial scene. During said scene, Renton is going through drug withdrawal and experiences some harrowing things, including a baby crawling on the ceiling!
Throughout the years, this soundtrack has picked up tons of awards and recognition including ranking 7th in Vanity Fair’s 2007 list of best motion picture soundtracks. In 2013, Rolling Stone listed it as the 13th best soundtrack in their list of the top 25 soundtracks of all time. It’s also available on Vinyl, CD, Cassette Tape and anywhere you can stream music. I will say…having this soundtrack on vinyl, with its beautiful orange pressing, is the best way to go.
One of the biggest successes from this movie was Ewan McGregor rise to stardom. He would go on to have great success in The Star Wars Prequels, Moulin Rouge, Down With Love, Robots and Disney’s Live Action remake of Beauty and The Beast. Danny Boyle would also go on to great success directing his Oscar winning film Slumdog Millionaire as well as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Steve Jobs and the 2012 Opening ceremony for the Olympics.
We wouldn’t get a sequel to this film until 2017 with the aptly named T2: Trainspotting. Danny Boyle stated that he was waiting until the cast has aged visibly enough to portray their characters again. The original cast would come back and reprise their roles in, what is to me, one of the best sequels ever made and continues it’s legacy perfectly…but that’s a story for another time.
Trainspotting is a film that is filled with layers and depth. Yes, it’s a gritty and dark portrayal of drug addiction and its effects, but it also explores the themes of friendship, loyalty, and betrayal. It delves into the lives of its characters and examines the choices they make, often leading to devasting consequences. Upon many rewatches over the years, I’ve picked up lots of little details having never noticed before. For example Swanney the drug dealer, whose played by Peter Mullan, plays a similar role in Shallow Grave…one could say it’s the same character even!
Most importantly is its innovative and visually stunning style. The cinematography and sound design are top notch here. From its quick cuts, surreal imagery and the needle drops all combine to create a sensory overload that is incredibly exhilarating. It’s a film that many future artists would try and replicate and sometimes parody well.
To sum it all up, Trainspotting is a film that only gets better with each rewatch and is a thought-provoking experience. It’s depth, style, cultural impact, and relevance make it a timeless classic and one that I will continue to enjoy for many years to come. Just remember to choose your future…choose life.