In the 20 years since the release of Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle hasn’t exactly been sitting on his hands. He won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2009 for Slumdog Millionaire, as well as helming movies such as 28 Days Later, 127 Hours, and Steve Jobs. But his return to Edinburgh with T2 Trainspotting still makes for a noteworthy milestone in his career: It’s not only his first sequel, it’s also a chance to revisit his breakthrough film. Vulture caught up with Boyle to talk getting the sequel right, how directors get worse as they get older, and the way T2 reflects the Trump/Brexit era.
What were your personal goals in deciding to revisit Trainspotting? What made you think this was the right time to make a sequel?
It’s interesting. We tried, ten years ago, I think for the wrong reasons, and it wasn’t very good. And by the wrong reasons, it was just — not habit, but business reasons, I suppose. Irvine [Welsh] had published a book about the characters ten years later, and you go, There’s an opportunity. So we adapted it, and it was fine. I’m sure as a script it would stand up against other scripts, but it just felt like a really not-good-enough reason to go back into it.
What was it about?
It was a bit like his book: They were making a porn movie.
Because the book is Porno, right?
Yeah, and they make a porn movie as a scam. It’s got some of the similar ingredients: Renton returns. I can’t remember whether Begbie’s in jail, I think he probably is. So what surrounds it is the making of a porn movie. And we did all that, and they ended up at Cannes at the end, at the Adult Film Festival in Cannes. So it was hijinks, it was a kind of caper, but it felt really not-good-enough, so we abandoned it.
That could’ve been the form you would’ve taken if you had made one of these every few years. There is a version of this where it’s a TV show, or it’s a series where you revisit the characters and they get into something.
Exactly. And that just felt not-good-enough, given the affection people have for the characters, which is constantly surprising. Most films, whether they’re successful or not, they all fade away; they have a kind of half-life, and they fade away. But this one didn’t. It was weird. People talked about it like it was still … anyway. If we were going to go back, we had to have a good reason. So we got together in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, because the 20-year anniversary was looming on the horizon, as the last opportunity, presumably. And it became much more personal. If the first film is about boyhood or youth-hood or that age in your early 20s, this is about manhood, and about how difficult it is for men. That’s something that we all felt very personal about.
The great thing about having a personal agenda is that, even if people hate the movie, it doesn’t matter, because you’ve got a reason that you made the movie. If you make a movie just because the opportunity’s there, and everybody hates it, you just feel wretched. But if you’ve got a reason to make it, then there’s a belief in it that’s more important than people’s expectations, their potential disappointment, whether it will make as much as the first one — all that kind of stuff. None of that matters as much as the core belief in it, which is that it’s about how poorly men age.
Women get all the flack about aging, but actually they deal with time much more responsibly and sensibly than we do. We hang on, and we disguise it as being like, love of sports. There’s many, many different ways of disguising it, but actually they’re all the same: They’re all about hanging on to the past and trying to be that boy again. This film is riddled with it. I remember seeing it after about four weeks editing and thinking, Fucking hell — every fucking scene is about the same thing. It’s about them kind of desperately trying to be that thing again. And there are children running around who are saying, “You’re my father, and you’re not behaving like my father,” and they’re just ignoring it! [Laughs.]
The children in the movie seem more mature than they do, in many cases. Especially Begbie’s son.
Right! Because he’s been brought up by a woman who’s decided, “You’re not going to turn out like that twat, you’re going to turn out like a decent human being.” [Laughs.] And Spud’s son, as well, clearly is like that. And Renton is inventing children in some bizarre psychological malfunction. He’s imagining that he’s got two children. The four actors, since we made the first film, they’ve all become fathers. They weren’t fathers when we made the [first] film, they became fathers after we made the film. So that’s interesting as well; they had a lot of personal stuff to bring to it.
Trainspotting was an early movie in your career, and since then you’ve made quite a few films. For you as a director, what skills do you feel like you had now that you didn’t then?
So the big thing about this, and you have to be honest about it — this is genuinely what I believe — is that you get better as a director in theory, right? You don’t, actually, not as a film director. You actually get worse, I think. [Laughs.] There’s something about when you really are in awe of it, and you don’t know what to do, and it’s terrifying and amazing. You never get that feeling again, because you learn, technically, how it works. If you’re a conscious human being, you’re picking up, like, “Oh, this is how it works, is it, and if I do that, that happens, does it?” There’s a series of skills you pick up, but I don’t think they necessarily make you a better film director.
[With T2, the question was] do you direct it with all of your supposed present skills, or do you try and recreate that innocence, that naïveté, that feeling of awe in the face of making a movie? You know, I’ve watched them for so many years, and now I get to make one! What am I going to do? I don’t know! I remember on Shallow Grave, the one before Trainspotting, making it up, like, “Why don’t we do that? Okay, let’s do that!” Whereas now, you’d go, “Well, I’m not sure that’s a good idea, because of all the consequences that’ll happen.” So, it’s very, very interesting.
I think it helped having the actors, and the memories of the actors from the first time, but I tried to recreate that feeling of, “Here we go, what should we do?” on the day, as much as possible, rather than plan. A film has a tendency to plan, plan, and execute, rather than discover. When you’re doing character drama, the discovery is the character work, but when you’re doing entertainment films — and these are entertainment, really, they’re not serious art movies about characters; they’re fun and enjoyable and you want to include as many people as possible — the tendency is to plan, and I tried not to do that. Jane Campion said that to be a film director, you have to be a kid, and as soon as you’ve made one, you’re not a kid anymore. And it’s a shame.
Of course, the nostalgia of the film, that also helps — that sense of trying to recapture something in the past. They are trying to recapture the past, constantly. They’re trying to behave as though they were that effortless thing of being 25 — like, it’s effortless, there’s no consequences, apparently. You know: We’ll risk everything — just try it all, do it all. And they’re trying to get back to that as well. So in a funny kind of way, directing it is a bit like trying to have your cake and eat it, like that, as well.
You have your own metaphorical relationship to the material, like the actors did.
That’s right, and the original film happens to have a meta-existence. It’s almost like the characters know they’ve been in a film, and that was that film. It’s weird.
All of this is reflected interestingly in the way that men seem to be driving this backward movement in terms of Brexit and Trump — men trying to tap into something from their pasts.
Yes, yes. It’s absolutely true, and it’s weird. We were in Scotland shooting while the vote was happening. I mean, Scotland voted against Brexit — 62 percent to stay in — so that will have ramifications down the line. Scotland will almost certainly go independent and stay in Europe; I can’t see any other consequence to that. But I think it’s true — it’s an example of men insisting on the past, and women having to deal with that. The women in the film do deal with it. They quietly bring up their sons to be a different kind of man with a better kind of future, or they trick [the men] at their own game and actually outwit them. As usual, the women have to make the best of what men deal them, the deal they get from men, and that’s certainly true at the moment, isn’t it? For fuck’s sake.