Movie: 'Trainspotting'

Release Date: July 19, 1996

How It Got Made: Reading Irvine Welsh's 1993 literary sensation about the highs and lows of a group of Scottish junkies, director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald believed they could invent a visual equivalent to the vibrant, urgent, shot-in-the-arm prose of Welsh's debut novel. "This has got to be the most energetic film you've ever seen," Boyle later told Entertainment Weekly, "about something that ultimately ends up in purgatory or worse."

Boyle's team secured the rights by convincing Welsh that they weren't going to try for gritty realism, like most movies about drug addiction; rather, they planned to make a movie as surreal, dreamlike, juiced-up, nightmarish, heartbreaking and funny as the novel. They succeeded, creating a movie generally regarded now as the best Scottish movie ever made, a picture that made stars out of Boyle, Ewan McGregor and the rest of the cast. It proved vastly influential even beyond the walls of the cinema; out on the presidential campaign trail, it reignited debate over whether the portrayal of drug use glamorizes addiction.
Following the success of their debut feature, the creepy crime-thriller 'Shallow Grave,' Boyle, Macdonald and screenwriter John Hodge reteamed with 'Grave' star McGregor, casting him as Mark Renton, the addict who decides to clean up his act and tries to resist letting heroin and his drug pals draw him back into his old life. One of those pals, the foul-tempered Begbie, was played by Robert Carlyle; another, Sean Connery–fan Sick Boy, was 'Hackers' star Jonny Lee Miller. The rest of the cast were relative unknowns, many of them making their film debuts.

'Trainspotting': Baby-on-the-Ceiling Scene

McGregor shaved his head and lost 26 pounds to play the emaciated Renton. He even considered shooting heroin, just for research purposes, before deciding against it. Not that realism and accuracy were important to the film -- two of the film's most celebrated sequences were its most surreal. In one, a detoxing Renton hallucinates seeing a friend's baby (which had died of neglect during its mother's drug stupor) crawling on the ceiling. In another, Renton dives into the murky depths of "the worst toilet in Scotland" to retrieve opium suppositories.

(In fact, the brown fecal muck Boyle had smeared all over the bowl was actually fresh chocolate mousse. Sort of the opposite of what happened during the making of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,' where the delicious-looking chocolate river that Augustus Gloop falls into was actually made of rancid melted ice cream.)

'Trainspotting': The-Worst-Toilet-in-Scotland Scene (Contains NSFW Language and Images)

The filmmakers made a virtue of their budget constraints (the film cost just $2.5 million). To maintain the film's manic energy, Boyle shot it in just seven weeks, often using the first take and refusing to shoot a second take as a safe backup. Most scenes were shot in an abandoned Glasgow cigarette factory that the crew turned into a soundstage. Special effects were makeshift, like the trap door used to make Renton sink into the floor when he collapses after an overdose.

For the film's American release, Boyle had the actors redub the first 20 minutes of the movie in less thick brogues. He also trimmed two scenes (one of a needle in an arm, one of a sex scene) to keep the film from being rated NC-17.

How It Was Received: 'Trainspotting' played out of competition at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival but was an audience favorite there. It arrived in the U.S. that July on waves of hype, touted by Miramax as the British 'Pulp Fiction.' (Which was not entirely inaccurate. Both films seemed plugged into direct currents of sex, drugs, rock n' roll, crime, violence and the kinetic joy of rule-breaking filmmaking.) Opening on just eight screens in North America, it earned an impressive $263,000 ($33,000 per screen) its first weekend, toward an eventual total of $16 million domestic and $72 million worldwide. Critics embraced the film on both sides of the Atlantic, and Hodge's screenplay earned him an Oscar nomination.

With its evocative use of both classic alt-rock tracks by the likes of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, and up-to-the-moment techno/rave cuts, 'Trainspotting' spawned two popular soundtrack albums. Iggy Pop enjoyed a brief resurgence, thanks to a new Boyle-directed video for his 1976 song 'Lust for Life,' used so memorably in the film's opening sequence.

'Trainspotting': Opening (Contains NSFW Language)

Long-Term Impact: Boyle and McGregor instantly became hot properties in Hollywood. They reteamed with Macdonald and Hodge again for the lovers-on-the-lam comedy 'A Life Less Ordinary' before McGregor graduated to such blockbusters as the 'Star Wars' prequels. Boyle went on to direct such cult favorites as '28 Days Later' and '127 Hours, as well as worldwide smash 'Slumdog Millionaire,' which won Oscars for Boyle and for Best Picture.

Carlyle jumped from 'Trainspotting' to the biggest role of his career, the lead in 'The Full Monty.' The film also marked the career launch pad for first-time film actors Kevin McKidd (who went on to TV's 'Rome' and 'Grey's Anatomy') and Kelly Macdonald (whose career highlights include 'Gosford Park,' 'No Country for Old Men' and TV's 'Boardwalk Empire').

Other filmmakers took notice. The movie's combination of quick-cut visuals and a pulsing techno/alt-rock soundtrack became the default way to depict the highs and lows of drug use (see 'Requiem for a Dream') or even general antisocial behavior ('Fight Club').

'Trainspotting' Poster

The design and fashion worlds took notice as well. Ad campaigns began to copy the 'Trainspotting' poster's graphics, with its black-and-white photos of aggressive-looking characters and its plain orange-and-white typography. Also, the movie played into what was then called "heroin chic," the trend of using ultra-thin models (like Kate Moss) in seedy locations and with dazed facial expressions in fashion campaigns.

Criticism of this trend went all the way to the White House. On the campaign trail that fall, Republican candidate Bob Dole criticized 'Trainspotting' for showing the "romance of heroin," though his aides admitted he hadn't seen the movie. Dole lost the election, but President Clinton made a similar complaint a few months later, saying, "This is not about art. It's about life and death. And glorifying death is not good for any society."

It's true that the movie's attitude toward heroine was more complicated than Dole's slogan, "Just Don't Do It." After all, the first third of the movie makes the junkie life look like fun, though the last two thirds show the grim flip side. As producer Macdonald told Entertainment Weekly, "People criticize it because it dares to show the truth: that people take drugs because they are pleasurable. But we also show that if you take too much of them, there's a serious chance that they'll f--- you up."

One unlikely result of the film: Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" suddenly began turning up everywhere - in other movies, even in commercials. As used by Boyle at the beginning of 'Trainspotting,' the song, with its propulsive Motown-style drumbeat and cheerful chorus, became the soundtrack for fun. It showed up as far afield as the kids' movie 'Rugrats Go Wild' and in Carnival cruise line ads; in both places, Pop's risqué lyrics about trying to kick drug addiction were omitted or rewritten.

Danny BoyleHow It Plays Today: Aside from the music that dates it to the mid-'90s, 'Trainspotting' appears as fresh, inventive, and energetic as ever. Renton remains one of the most memorable characters McGregor has ever played; in March, the UK Sun quoted him as saying, "It's still the main thing people ask me about when they come up to me in the street."

McGregor also said he'd be open to doing a sequel, but only if the script improves on 'Porno,' the sequel novel written by Welsh, which takes place a decade after 'Trainspotting.' "I don't like being the guy that's making it not happen, especially when all the other guys want to make it," the Sun quotes McGregor as saying. "But I wouldn't want to do a sequel to 'Trainspotting' if it was just for the sake of it and, if I'm honest about it, I wasn't that blown away by the book."

Talking to Cinematical last December, Boyle said he shared McGregor's apprehensions about 'Porno,' but he seemed confident that the book could be worked into a sequel. "We have been doing some work on it, and it's got potential, yeah, for sure," Boyle said. "And when the moment's right, I think we will approach it."

Recalling the original film, Boyle said of the cast of then-newbies, "They were brilliant, and it's quite rare when you get a cast that's that different. They're so different and yet they kind of jell together like they're all in the same film."

It's the love for those characters and those actors that would make the sequel worthwhile, he suggested. "This is an imaginative thing to look at these guys, who you kind of fell in love with and a whole generation fell in love with in a certain kind of way, and then you see them again and they've aged, just like we all do," Boyle said. "And then it becomes about that, and I think that would be really nice."

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.