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Interview 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.

FW: 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...

DB: That's 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.

FW: 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 them attractive?

DB: Yes, 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.

FW: So in other words your trademark interiors will change as you get access to more money?

DB: Yes. 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.

FW: Does this sensibility come from your background in the theatre?

DB: Certainly 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.

FW: 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...

DB: That 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.

FW: 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...

DB: It's 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.

FW: 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?

DB: The 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.

FW: Critics are commenting on the apparent neutrality of your position on drugs. Is it really that neutral?

DB: I 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.

FW: 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...

DB: Well, 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.

FW: 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 point?

DB: Because 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.

FW: 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 heroin?

DB: There 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 choices.

FW: 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...

DB: (Laughs) 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.

FW: 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...

DB: Well, 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.

FW: 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...

DB: To 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.

FW: 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 training?

DB:(Laughs) 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, anal details.

FW: 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?

DB: I 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.

FW: Some people in Ireland thought Braveheart's politics seriously dodgy: racist, homophobic, anti-British, and so on...

DB: Really? 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 film.





© 2000 - 2002 / Sylvain P.