with Danny Boyle
by Keith Hopper
FW: Trainspotting is being marketed as 'From the team that brought
you Shallow Grave.' Is this strong collaborative process set to continue?
DB: We've got a new project which we're starting to mobilise, based
on an original script by John (Hodge). It's slightly more mainstream,
a peculiar kind of love story with a twist, and it's set in America.
The setting is the main difference here and so we'll need a bigger
budget - not a ridiculous budget - but we'll try to keep it fairly
sensible and use as many of the same people as we can. We'll shoot
it in America but bring it back home then so that it'll remain a British
film. That's the big thing though, all this fuss about a film like
The Madness of King George being British, when of course the vast
majority of the money for it came from America. We hope to principally
finance our films from Britain.
FW: So you're not making Alien 4 as has been rumoured?
DB: Well, we were talking about it and then it suddenly got very very
serious, and we pulled out. It's a wonderful project and the people
involved with it are terrific, but the sheer size of it means planning
so far in advance. I just thought we couldn't do a good enough job
of it, really.
People are going to make some very hard comparisons between Trainspotting
and Shallow Grave. The obvious continuity for me seemed to lie in
your vivid sense of a highly stylised space. Is this sensibility generated
out of financial or aesthetic considerations?
DB: With any low-budget film aesthetic considerations are inseparable
from budgetary ones. With Shallow Grave we twigged - both by luck
and by choice - how to get the best use out of a million pounds: if
you keep it in the studio, then you keep it under control. You can
waste so much time and money in Britain filming on location because
the weather is so changeable or because the authorities and people
in the street are not really film-friendly. And so your budget gets
soaked up. On both films we shot the exterior stuff really quickly
and tried not to do too much with it, preferring to keep our powder
dry for the studio.
FW: This is very much in evidence in Trainspotting where I
felt the exterior shots - especially the scenes in London - lacked
the intensity of the film as a whole...
a fair comment really. Again, filming in London is an absolute nightmare,
so we decided just to do it simply and get through it. If you've got
a budget of £10 million it's a different story, but on £1.5
million you have to be sensible with your ambitions.
At the same time though this can be a healthy dynamic - surely indie
films like Sex, Lies and Videotapes or Reservoir Dogs became more
stylised as a result of such restrictions, and isn't that what makes
it's a wonderful discipline to have in the beginning. But as you develop
more it's like being stuck on a escalator that's moving the wrong
way. If you stand still on it you end up going backwards. You have
to hand that territory over to someone else and move forward. And
keep moving until you fall off.
in other words your trademark interiors will change as you get access
to more money?
The next film will have more exteriors because it's set in America,
so it will change a bit. But there's a sensibility and a tone established
now which I don't think will change.
Does this sensibility come from your background in the theatre?
at my end it's been a big influence, and one of the things about doing
a feature film was discovering that all the stuff I did in theatre
felt very employable again, whereas my television stuff wasn't. What
you learn in television is not really relevant to the cinema - you'd
think it would be - but the sense of scale is completely different.
The theatrical influence is also a huge advantage when dealing with
actors because they can often get completely isolated from a director,
and that can be a serious problem.
One of the striking features of Trainspotting is its inventive camera-work,
particularly those strange low-angle shots which I hadn't seen used
to such a degree before...
was a big thing which we decided early on, that the camera was going
to be on the deck a lot. No matter where these characters were that's
essentially where they were going to end up - on the floor - so we
should just be there and wait for them. That was the basic aesthetic
and we just followed it through. You have to plan this in advance
and announce it clearly, so that the cameraman has to figure out how
to get the camera mobile down there. It was very difficult to do but
it was worth it.
Do you think that this stylisation always fits the subject-matter?
The critics are already carping on about the merits of social realism
over surreal expressionism...
fine I think. Of course there could be different films made from that
novel: there could be a Ken Loach version or a Robert Altman version.
This is not definitive - just our particular aesthetic. It's quite
interesting really because I think it reflects something that Irvine
Welsh teases at in the book, and which he's ambitiously moving towards
as a writer. In his later books he uses that kind of heightened reality
much more, and what he likes about our script is the fact that we've
gone for the surreal stuff. That's encouraging.
It's interesting that you mention Altman. The episodic nature of the
book would seem to lend itself to a kind of Short Cuts narrative style.
So why did you make Renton the focus of the film?
blunt reason is that his story had an ending whereas nobody else's
had really. He doesn't actually dominate the novel that much, although
he does give it a definite ending. And I also felt that Renton was
actually Irvine Welsh himself, in disguise.
Critics are commenting on the apparent neutrality of your position
on drugs. Is it really that neutral?
don't think that you can preach to people about drugs in the modern
world, it's pointless. People just switch off, particularly now in
what is a post-ecstasy culture. The experience that people have had
in the late 80s / early 90s has shaped a new consciousness about drugs.
That's not to compare heroin to ecstasy, but people do feel that they
know more about drugs now. You have to speak to them directly because
they're the ones who actually go to the cinema, and you can't patronise
them by claiming that you know better. All you're doing by that is
alienating them, and satisfying a much older generation who need the
comfort of knowing that drugs are being condemned. There's a balance
of pleasure and danger that drug-taking entails; when you're younger
you're more concerned about the pleasure than the danger.
In this sense I felt there was an internal imbalance about the film,
that the camera served to privilege the dangers rather than the pleasures...
to be honest, I think this film is highly traditional in many ways,
and highly old-fashioned in its view of drug-taking. The only difference
is that early on it tries to present the view that people do drugs
to feel good, not to kill themselves. You've got to acknowledge that,
otherwise you're just saying that people are stupid, full-stop.
Trainspotting is obviously set in the mid-80s, at the height of the
heroin epidemic, and its historical cut-off point seems to be the
start of rave culture. Was it a deliberate decision to stop at that
some of the music used is contemporary Brit-pop you could see it as
being up-to-date, but we deliberately left it ambiguous so that people
wouldn't read it as a period film... One of the really cruel and ironic
things about drug culture is that just when you think you're really
hip you're actually out of date - it changes as fast as pop music.
Heroin is currently undergoing a revival of sorts as a result of the
rave scene. Given that your films have already gained cult status
among the E-generation, do you ever worry that hip flicks like Trainspotting
and Pulp Fiction might end up, paradoxically, endorsing and legitimising
was a big survey in one of the papers recently - and this is something
the government should be doing - they bought 200-300 tabs of ecstasy
from around the country and got them chemically analysed, and virtually
none of them had any MDMA in them. So it's all shit basically, and
that's what's dangerous about ecstasy. Similarly, I hope that by the
time people go through the process of watching the film - as opposed
to talking or reading about it - they'll realise that this film clearly
says if you want to dabble with heroin it's very dangerous. But at
the same time it tries to say that people are not stupid and make
their own choices. Much as we'd like to we can't make choices for
other people. It's like building fucking towerblocks; you know the
mentality: 'we know what these people want, put them in towerblocks,
they'll love it'. And they fucking well don't! These people don't
think of themselves as victims, although their choices may well be
limited and shaped by terrible things. It's the one thing that Irvine
Welsh does in the book, he insists, continually, that we don't read
this as being the fault of the mother and the father, or the fault
of the housing estate, or the fault of this or that - it's these people's
In this respect what I liked most was Renton's refusal to buy into
this cult of victimhood, including his brilliant monologue about colonialism
and what it means to be Scottish. It's quite defiant of conventional
politics, nationalist or otherwise...
Yeah, it's great that isn't it? I mean this film is about a lot of
things, but people always tend to focus on the drug thing.
So, getting away from the drugs issue, tell us about your use of soundtrack
in the film. Cynics would say it's just a cute way of selling albums
in MTV land...
it is part of the marketing process to be honest. It is a fair criticism
to make but it's also a question of personal taste. It was quite fashionable
here for a while to be anti-MTV, that any filmmaker who mentioned
MTV was making shite films. I don't subscribe to that view at all.
You're not making a film for your mates - it's a commercial operation
- but for the people who go to the cinema, and they're mainly in the
16 to 30 age bracket. You have to keep your audience in mind. A young
audience are quite prepared to take in different kinds of information
at the same time.
Soundtracks are often used without the great sense of incongruity
that Scorsese and Tarantino employ, that startling juxtaposition of
sound and image. Some critics would argue that this device has become
too lazy and formulaic...
be honest, yeah you sometimes use it to get through bits, but I bet
you Scorsese does that too, he just disguises it better. So yes, it
is a kind of shorthand, it is a kind of cheat, but the instinct behind
it was genuine - not to make a really hip album but to try and move
the film along a narrative line from Iggy Pop through to the present
day. Some songs work better than others, and it's very difficult to
know why. I just do it as best I can, and it's up to you lot to judge
whether it's shit or not.
Speaking of which, I loved the whole shit motif in the film. Why is
this metaphor foregrounded so much - is it just a result of bad potty
Again it comes from the book, it's obsessed with constipation and
so on. It's a major part of these characters' lives; they're obsessed
with the body as a recycling agent for chemicals, and their effects
on the body: you can't get a hard-on, you can get a hard-on, you can't
get rid of a hard-on... They're totally fixated on these physical,
As a metaphor they apply this to everything - even Scotland is described
as being 'pure shite' for all the naff symbols it traditionally uses
to represent itself. What do you think of the representations of Scottishness
put forward by films like Braveheart and Rob Roy?
have to keep a slight distance on these questions because although
I'm of Irish extraction, I'm actually from Manchester. So I have to
bow to my Scottish collaborators on certain things, and work through
them... But actually I quite like Braveheart, I thought it was quite
political - I just loved the way the main character inspired everybody.
Some people in Ireland thought Braveheart's politics seriously dodgy:
racist, homophobic, anti-British, and so on...
Well, it's very difficult. I admire a film like that because it was
made with such obvious commitment and energy to its storyline. Whereas
the wistfulness of Rob Roy I can frankly live without. But it's all
a question of taste in the end: I just hope that people'll like our