Winston Churchill, who usually had something smart to say on any given topic, once opined, “The farther back you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” Director Danny Boyle, who helped British movies matter again in the 1990s with the cool, manic and altogether epic Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, has been looking pretty far back lately. He’s earned the right: He nailed the haunting, nervy zombie art flick (28 Days Later), dominated the 2009 Oscars (his Slumdog Millionaire won eight), directed a now-legendary National Theater stage production of Frankenstein that starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller switching off as doctor and creature at different performances, and even served as the ringmaster of the visionary 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony.
Boyle, a product of working-class Greater Manchester and a twin (“a highly competitive one,” he says, referring to his sister Maria), is back at multiplexes with T2 Trainspotting, the sequel to the 1996 movie that nailed the zeitgeist and vaulted the filmmaker and his cast members Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle and Ewen Bremner to the epicenter of cool. So who would want to trash the legacy of the game-changing original that ranked tenth on the British Film Institute’s 100 homegrown films of all time, launched two best-selling soundtrack albums and has been called everything from “the Star Wars of Scotland” to “the Brit Pulp Fiction”? Rest assured, Boyle and company have not crapped the bed.
But the long-in-the-works movie, already a hit in the U.K., hasn’t been without its share of controversy and second-guessing. Sure, it’s brilliantly energetic, violent, inventive and beautifully made. It’s also mournful. It brings you up short. As actor Robert Carlyle put it, “You are going to be thinking, ‘Fuck, what have I done with my life?‘” As we chatted in a tucked-away lounge at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, Boyle—as warm, funny and jolty as any of the characters he’s brought to screen—makes it clear that he not only knows exactly what he’s done with his life but also that he’s done what he set out to do: make a sequel that isn’t one for the bucks, but one from the heart.
In T2 Trainspotting 2, Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns home 20 years after betraying his mates Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who are now middle-aged, disillusioned and, in the case of several of them, pissed-off and vengeful. I have male friends who’ve complained about missing the shock, joy and insane energy of the original.
This is a much more personal film about aging, about time, about looking at the end of things, about taking stock of things, and about the emotions you feel around those things. The first movie was about boyhood. This movie is about fatherhood. You know, flying into Los Angeles, I actually thought, “How is this movie going play in this city?” If there’s any city that says, “No, we don’t want to talk or think about age,“ it’s here. The city is built on that.
Look, the affection for the first film is overwhelming. You’re never going to match that. You don’t want to. You have to know ahead of time and deal with the fact that certain people will be disappointed. What you want to do is produce a reflection, something that can stand beside the first one. It’s not going to obliterate Trainspotting. It never could.
About 10 years ago, you, your four stars, and the original screenwriter John Hodge were set to regroup on a sequel based on Porno, Irvine Welsh’s 10-years-later continuation of the events of his book Trainspotting. Why didn’t that happen?
It wasn’t good enough. I never even sent the actors that script. In retrospect, the script was just a caper. It wasn’t about emotion. Rather than just cherry-pick characters and situations from a favorite film and repeat that, if we were going to get into another Trainspotting movie, we—the actors, me—I felt we had to confess something about ourselves and offer something personal of ourselves.
What surprised you most about working again with your four main actors as they tackle iconic roles they haven’t played in 20 years?
Often, one of my jobs is to help an actor over chasms in confidence. If they’re not confident, they’re careful and wary about making sure they don’t make fools of themselves. But on this, the four of them were so ready to go, I was really just unleashing them. These guys had done so much acting in the past 20 years that they wanted to hit it fast and hard—one or two takes, three at most. We had to be ready—the whole crew—to just grab it, because the actors gave it to us straightaway.
If we were going to get into another Trainspotting, we had to confess something about ourselves.
In T2, you occasionally show the actors in moments from the first film. How did they react to that when they first saw the completed movie?
They knew that I was going to do that. They also knew that I wasn’t going to do anything with makeup. I was going to let them look their age. What was truly weird for them was when they saw their doubles on the set, who I cast very carefully and closely to how the actors looked in the first movie. They were younger actors, of course, and when they walked onto the set dressed in the same kinds of costumes from the first movie, it was truly weird for the older actors, seeing "themselves,” alive but 20 years earlier.
With so many years between the first movie and this one, and with so many delays getting the sequel off the ground, did you ever fret about preserving your love for the material?
I could never show moments of “Oh, it’s never going to happen” or “It’s collapsing around me.” I am very evangelical. I don’t think a lot of other directors and crew members are, though, and actors are very susceptible to that. They’re used to people standing around looking bored. Ewan talked to me about having to record a song for a movie while everyone was in the recording booth. When he finished, they all just stared in silence. He and Jonny told me how often their work is received in silence, almost like suspicion. If I were in that recording session, I would have said, “Absolutely brilliant, Ewan!,” even if it was terrible. But, then I’d go in and say, “Let’s do another, but maybe this time, it could be a bit more like this.” I work in an evangelical frenzy, but actors like it if there’s a lunatic on the set who is laughing or cheering. It’s ridiculous and maybe that’s because you’re basically playing with children, making believe. With this one, I was with the actors all of time, going, “There really is a threat. It’s really scary!”
The first movie’s “Choose Life” opening speech, by Ewan McGregor’s character is so famous, it’s practically an anthem. “Choose life, choose a job, choose a career, choose a family, choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players…” The sequel has a “Choose Life” speech that is also a funny show-stopper but with a melancholy impact.
It’s interesting that speech, isn’t it? It’s an update, of course, a very entertaining and precise one. When you’re in your 20s, like Renton is in the first movie, it’s fine to mock what society has to offer. But when you’re in your 40s, you can’t mock society. It’s your society. Halfway through his litany, Renton now admits that he’s chosen disappointment over anything else. He’s chosen to not become the person he wanted to be.
At 60, you’re older than the lads in T2. What do you choose?
I’ve chosen an obsession with work and career that, I’m sure, certain people would regard as not entirely wholesome or healthy. I’d have to acknowledge and face that as a reckoning, an accounting of what I’ve done with my time. You’ve hit on a key question because I really wanted to make a movie about these guys measuring what they’ve done, what they’ve contributed because it’s something I’ve been thinking of while I’ve been off having this movie career. Some of the movies do well. Some of them don’t. But I stand behind all of them. I’m proud of them.
As a boy, you were going to become a priest but instead gravitated to acting and became a director instead. Do you like telling people what to do?
I guess I must. I can’t deny that. I don’t tend to go about it that way, though. I tend to be a bit more cunning. With actors or others, I try to make things feel as if it’s their idea. That saves me looking like a tyrant, but, in the end, you realize that you are still trying to tell people what to do. Which is exactly like a priest telling people what to think.
We’re right now casting a five-year TV series for FX called Trust about the Getty family dynasty. I’m going to direct the first couple. I also produced a movie called Battle of the Sexes about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine). I just saw it yesterday and there’s a scene between Billie Jean, played by Emma Stone, and Alan Cumming that had me in floods of tears. I don’t come from a cynical or intellectual background. My films come out of a working-class milieu. I’m not frightened of being emotional at all. I love that. I love crying in the cinema. I hope T2 makes some people cry because, like all my movies, they’re about people trying to overcome impossible odds.