What was it like on the set of Trainspotting?
February, 1996: A first-hand scoop into the bleak world of the ’90s cult classic, taken from our archive.
This month Trainspotting screens at the BFI in London as part of their Nineties: Young Cinema Rebels summer season. To mark the occasion, here’s The Face’s exclusive report from the film set, as originally featured in the February 1996 edition of the magazine.
The celluloid “remix” that Irvine Welsh hoped his debut novel would inspire has surpassed all expectations – Trainspotting the movie is set to match the success of its celebrated literary blueprint. This is your guide to the best film since Pulp Fiction: welcome to the house of fun.
Reality Bites – on the set of Trainspotting, shooting up junk proved to be much more than the cast bargained for…
“Choose life. Chose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life…
“But why would I want to do a thing like that?”
The groin, they say, is a piece of piss. You have to bang the needle hard and fast, but round there the skin is soft. Of course, if you miss the vein you could lose your leg. Now your neck, jees, that’s sore. Or between your toes – oh ya bastard!
Eamon an Al wince and grin. They are displaying their “war wounds” – areas on their inner arms riven with hard, narrow, dead veins and surrounded by areas of smooth scar tissue. If you miss a vein and inject heroin straight into the flesh, where there is no drain of blood to flush away the poison, it puddles, bubbles and abscesses. The abscesses have to be carved out of the arm with a surgeon’s scalpel. “An’ then they cannae stitch it,” says Al. “It’s like a wee open mooth eftir a while.” Hence the scar tissue. Hence the shift of the junkie’s attention to other, unpunctured, unsuspecting parts of the body.
Eamon Doherty is a member of Calton Athletic Drug Rehabilitation Centre in Glasgow. Clean for four years after seven years’ heroin use – he started when he was 14 – Eamon is “special technical advisor” on the set of Trainspotting, the film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s masterpiece book. His brother died of an overdose eight weeks ago. His pal Al is a recovering drug addict.
Deep in the bowels of a former cigarette factory in Glasgow, close attention is being paid to the finer points of cooking up, shooting up and getting high. The set is squalid and rancid, littered with tea-spoons, matches, candles, skins. A dealer’s flat. Outside it’s sweltering June but in here it’s chilling. Crowding round are cast and crew and – skulking in the back in an Iggy Pop T‑shirt that says “Raw Fucking Power” – Irvine Welsh himself. The author has a bit part in the film. “I play Mikey Forrester, the dealer,” he says cheerily. “Maybe the most unsympathetic character in the book.”
Ewan McGregor, in the role of Mark Renton, is concentrating on making his “sincere and truthful junk habit” appear just that. Hunched over a gently prosthetic pulsing arm, he inserts the needle. “You pull it back a wee bit,” encourages Al. “If there’s a wee drop o’ blood ye know ye’ve hut a vein.” “Aw, the blood’s a wee bit orange,” Eamon sighs. “But it’s no’ bad for what we’ve goat.” “The blood looks shit,” says Al.
The plunger sticks. The blood doesn’t flow. The arm doesn’t pulse. McGregor injects for a third time. “No blood. Shall I carry on?” “Yeah,” groans director Danny Boyle, “slam it in anyway.” Fourth time. “Yes!” someone cries as the plunger is drawn back and blood clouds the chamber. “Flush away,” whispers Boyle.
“Fuck sake, look at aw this.” Al turns to Eamon. “How do they no’ just pey someone tae come in and dae it fur real?”
“Ye cannae dae that! There’d be an outcry!”
“Aye, but it’d be real.”
It had to be this way. If the – believe it – literary phenomenon of the decade was to be transferred from page to screen, there was no soft option. It had to be warts and scars and scum and misery and all.
And tedium. Already today, towards the end of the seven-week shoot, long hours have been spent perfecting a scene where Renton test-drives-home a sample of a four-grand, four-kilo consignment of heroin that Mikey Forrester scored fae some Russian sailors doon the docks. Already today McGregor has said “Phwooooar ya cunt, it’s really fuckin’ good!” – or a permutation thereof – some seven or eight times as the smack smacks into his gaunt, grey body.
Danny Boyle knows better than most the risks they run. The British Board of Film Classification is known to frown upon shots of needles piercing skin. “But we had to shoot those shots,” he shrugs. “The guys from Calton Athletic told us stuff about the actual daily drug use that’s much more than anything we shot. So ours is a compromise anyway. So to compromise further by cutting it would be terrible. In the early days when needles weren’t generally available, the plunger would stick. So they’d rub margarine on it. So they’re getting in their veins, along with everything else, bits of margarine. You have a responsibility to at least go part of the way toward showing some of the things that addicts will do.”
The brutal truth hurts, but that is exactly the power of Welsh’s book – not just that heroin screws you up , but also, that for a lot of people, like all drugs, it provides a lot of pleasure, too. Welsh’s skill lies in blowing open this (supposed) contradiction, in throwing the spotlight on this (society says) worthless, cultureless subcultural cesspit of dole, drink, drugs and death. In making some sort of hero out of a pathetic junkie fuck-up who thinks nothing of shagging his dead brother’s pregnant girlfriend in the toilet after the funeral.
This is Trainspotting’s raw, gnawing brilliance – a facet that is made more potent in the theatre productions of the best seller that have sold out up and down the country. Particularly when, in the week last month that the third dramatisation opened in London, annual drug-related deaths in Strathclyde reached three figures for the first time. Officially, anyway.
Robert Carlyle, dressed to kill as the psycho Begbie (“white socks,” he laughs between takes, “essential wear for nutters!”), is a near-peer of Irvine Welsh. He saw much the same growing up in the early Eighties in the west coast of Scotland as the author saw in Edinburgh in the east. “The whole philosophy of ‘I choose not to choose life’ is a very powerful and persuasive argument,” he says, referring to the Renton rant that opens the film. “It’s not to say that the film is advocating for everyone taking smack and forgetting about life, but you can see the point – if people have been told they’re shit their whole life, then why shouldn’t they chose that form of life?”
But hey! Why the long faces? Trainspotting, for all its darkness and despair, is tremendous, destined to have even more of a cultural impact in this country than Pulp Fiction. As hilarious as it is harrowing, as hip to style as it is to substance, with a killer soundtrack and loving attention to early-Eighties detail, Trainspotting is a revelation and a revolution. It is, in short, no Shopping.
Blooded by the out-of-the-box success of their previous film Shallow Grave, the core team of director Boyle, writer John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald have refined their talents for visceral, locomotive film-making. Necessarily, the book’s episodic scope and character sprawl have been stripped back, as has the Edinburgh setting and thick dialect. Purists and obsessives – and this one book that has many such followers – may also be concerned by the upping of the story’s humour quotient. In particular a Dale Winton gameshow scene and a bastardisation of the infamous suppository/toilet vignette drag us into the realms of Carry On Trainspotting. But when these flights-of-fancy are racked against the frankness and horror of the violence and drug-use, the composite power is undeniable. “It’s the difference between social realism and heightened realism,” says Robert Carlyle. “If you play it slightly larger than life it becomes more acceptable to the audience.”
Irvine Welsh agrees, having since moved into more fantastical realms himself with The Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares. “The Ken Loach, social-documentary approach just wouldn’t work for this kind of film. It has to have that action and energy. When you’ve got something that furiously entertains and makes no apologies for that, it pulls people in that normally wouldn’t be attracted to it.” Welsh was insistent from the start that he wanted no part in the screenplay adaptation, keen to hear “a cover version or remix” of his work. “It’s a wee bit pompous to say that it will herald a cinematic revolution or even influence cinema, but I think it will be a really, really strong, powerful, gripping film. There’s that sense of otherness – I’ve not seen people do these things, act that way, behave that way on the screen before. But more importantly, it’ll be a film that will probably be referred to as one of the great British films when shite like Three [sic] Weddings And A Funeral is playing on the telly in the afternoon for housewives.”
Back at the fag factory, a young man sits on a stained mattress in a bare flat in a blissful dope blur. “It’s good. It’s reeeaaally fuckin’ good. Woooah ya cunt!” It is, finally, a wrap.
Good morning Britain; here comes your wake-up call.
EWAN McGREGOR The leading man – shooting up in more ways than one
Ewan McGregor flops down in the sunshine round the back of Wills’ cigarette factory, waiting to be called. He wears shirt and tie, bad slacks and crap trainers. A black belt tourniquets his upper arm. His eyes are yellow-grey hollows. To sample Irvine Welsh, his “thin, white face is like a skull wrapped in clingfilm”.
He looks like shit, and not just because of his get-up. He’s been working 13-hour days, with one day off in the whole Trainspotting shoot, his character’s wasted persona popping up in most of the scenes. To accurately portray junkie and Pot Noodle boy Mark Renton, McGregor has lost nearly two stone and shaved his head. He looks shit and looks great.
This morning onset it was drug heaven as they filmed the scene where Renton tests the purity of a batch of heroin. This afternoon, drug hell: Renton, cross-legged on the floor, goes too far, takes too much, gasps and shivers, rolls back his eyes and collapses on his back. He sinks into the carpet, deeply shagged. McGregor’s lines in these two key scenes amount to approximately seven words, but his face and body say it all. The agony and ecstasy of drug (ab)use have rarely been so eloquently conveyed.
And yet, and yet. “Playing Renton,” he says, “doesn’t seem to be very much sometimes. I’m watching all the other guys playing their hearts out – and Ewen Bremner’ s character, Spud, is really physical and he’s playing it for all his worth – and thinking: ‘Fuck, I’m not doing anything compared to that.’ That’ll come after, when we do the voiceover. And I really want to work at that, not just have some dreary, monotone radio play voice, but think of films like A Clockwork Orange or Taxi Driver or GoodFellas – where the voiceover is actually played.”
It is this kind of hunger, and these kind of performances, that have brought Ewan McGregor hard and fast into the limelight. From clean-cut Hopper in Dennis Potter’s Lipstick On Your Collar to galloping lothario Julian Sorel in the BBC’s Scarlet and Black, from grasping journo in Shallow Grave to fucked-up London clubber in Blue Juice, across small screen to big, McGregor has proved himself the hottest young actor in Britain. He’s only been out of drama college – the Guildhall in London – four years. He didn’t even finish the course. Didn’t have to. After the college’s agents’ evening, attended by 150 casting directors and agents, he received 11 offers. Last year he got married to the French set-designer he met on a job. He is 24. He is not, as Renton might say, a doss cunt. He is a barry gadgey.
“It was a complete surprise!” He shakes his head as he remembers the agents’ feeding frenzy. “I really didn’t know that what I was doing was interesting. Then my confidence started growing again. There’s nothing like leaving college in the middle of your third year and three weeks later you’re on a huge film set in Twickenham working with actors you’ve watched on television and in films all your life. And Dennis Potter! You have to pull it out of the bag. You can’t let yourself down. It’s the best way, being thrown in at the deep end.”
He first found his vocation when he was nine, inspired by his uncle, the actor Denis Lawson. Even with an RAF-bound elder brother as head boy and his father as PE and careers master at the local public school, his “parents were kind enough and had the vision enough to let me leave school when I was 16”. Toting a few O‑Grades and buckets of enthusiasm, he worked backstage at Perth Rep and took a one-year theatre foundation course in Fife until he was old enough to apply to the Guildhall.
And the rest, as they say, is remarkable. McGregor’s performance as Renton is tremendous. For his devastating portrayal of a wasted waster he spent long weeks reading up on narcotics and addiction, and talked at length with recovered and recovering addicts. “We had ‘cookery classes’ with Eamon from the Calton Athletic Drug Rehabilitation Centre. Sitting up, cooking up shots, it was like The Generation Game! To Eamon it was second nature, he was doing it with one hand, just chatting away. We’d been talking about the ritual of it before – smack, spoon, matches, needle. How if you roll a spliff you like to roll one properly, take a bit of pride. But Eamon said it was just a pain in the arse – a hassle to get through before you get the hit. The hit’s what’s important, not the cooking up. So once we’d practised it a while, it was just like having a cigarette.”
More problematic was the anti-acting required to play a character for whom nothing much matters beyond scoring and shooting. “Renton is so nihilistic. I don’t mind the fact that he’s got no nice qualities. The hard bit is, if anything gets out of hand or he hasn’t got an argument about something or he’s confused, he just says: ‘Aw it’s all shite anyway.’ He lets himself off feeling anything. It’s weird playing someone to whom nothing really matters.”
He stubs out his fag, gets up to go and overdose for the umpteenth time this afternoon. For all of the team from Shallow Grave involved with Trainspotting – the director, writer and producer as well as McGregor – the success of that film means big bucks and America beckon. But for now McGregor would prefer to stay where he is, continuing to make, as he puts it, “British urban grunge movies”, being an actor rather than a celebrity. Ironically, today is the day the news breaks of the fall from grace of Hugh Grant, the star of another recent, but lesser, landmark British film.
“I can imagine Barry Norman reviewing Trainspotting, sitting there saying: ‘There’s a lot about drugs, there’s a lot about swearing, and there’s not a lot about anything else!’” Ewan McGregor laughs, secure in the knowledge that Trainspotting, and his leading role in it, promise a whole lot more than that.
THE SOUNDTRACK – smacksonic! The 90s Saturday Night Fever
There would always be Iggy. There as a hero, an icon, a mate. The bedrock when all around you was flaking out and breaking up. To Trainspotting’s Renton and Tommy, Iggy Pop was, is and shall remain, The Man.
As in art, so in life. When it came to assembling a soundtrack for their film, director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald knew it had to be right, and true to the source material’s roots. Their attention to detail explains why the film opens with the punk classicism of Iggy’s ‘Lust For Life’, and also why the tracks which follow make up what could be one of the best albums of 1996. An eclectic collection of old and new, it echoes the poetic low-life of Trainspotting so well that it installs itself as one of the outstanding soundtracks of recent times.
It pulses to the assorted delights of Pulp’s tale of domestic piss, ‘Mile End’, the Nuxx remix of Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’, Primal Scream’s stoned shuffle of a title track, Damon Alborn’s paean to James Bond, ‘Closet Romantic’, and the bittersweet elegance of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’, and it is nearly perfect.
“I hate it when the music in films is really inappropriate,” sniffs Jarvis Cocker, “and they just do it ’cause they can have a soundtrack album and try to sell loads of copies. Usually when people make films about (a) young people and (b) drugs, it makes you cringe. But they’ve got it right with Trainspotting.”
Paul Daley of Leftfield and Donna Matthews of Elastica concur; Daley speaks of trying to capture the film’s “suspenseful, narcotic feel” with the track ‘A Final Hit’, while Matthews, whose ‘2: l’ is used, had wanted to write a song inspired by the book for Elastica anyway.
There are, however, critics who foretell of potential Scots dissent against the film’s geographical empathy. Poet Jock Scott and fellow Edinburgher Davey Henderson plan an alternative soundtrack called Scab Transport, which they say remains truer to the book, partly because they’re “actually from the areas written about”. This one could run and run.