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.” 

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?”

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 stubs out his fag, gets up to go and over­dose for the umpteenth time this afternoon.”

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 Trainspot­tings 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.

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