Much has changed in the 20 years since the first Trainspotting film, but with the long-awaited sequel about to open, Irvine Welsh tells Alistair Harkness that for Renton and co – and millions around the world – much has stayed the same
It’s early 1996 and Irvine Welsh is sitting in a screening room in London with a group of friends he likes to think of as members of the old school punk cognoscenti.
There’s Bobby Gillespie and Andrew Innes from Primal Scream, Heavenly Records founder Jeff Barrett and music journalist Paulo Hewitt. They’ve assembled to watch Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s take on Welsh’s groundbreaking cult novel about heroin addicts in Edinburgh.
Though Welsh has a cameo in the film, this is the first time he’s getting to see the finished movie and he knows it’s going to be emotional.
Hence the army of support: these are friends who love the book and won’t lie to him about the film (even if two of them feature on the soundtrack).
As the opening sequence kicks off, his instincts prove correct: the grumbling starts straight away.
“That’s not f***** Renton,” says someone as Ewan McGregor tears along Princes Street to the thunderous drumming of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life.
“That’s never Begbie,” complains someone else as Robert Carlyle appears.
But then Welsh notices something: as the film progresses, Gillespie and co start watching in stunned awe.
“That was when I knew the film would be absolutely massive,” says Welsh today. “They’d come ready to be critical and cynical about it and were completely won over.”
It’s the first week of the New Year and Welsh is on the phone from his adoptive home city of Chicago to talk all things Trainspotting ahead of the release of Boyle’s belated, much anticipated sequel.
T2 Trainspotting is loosely based on Welsh’s own follow-up, Porno, the sequel status of which snuck up on the author after writing the first draft of a book about the adult entertainment industry and realising the main character was really Sick Boy. Adding Spud and Begbie and a revenge plot against Renton, the novel’s publication in 2002 immediately sparked chat for a film sequel – although as Welsh remembers it, the idea for a follow-up was in place long before that.
“We’ve always talked about it,” he says, recalling a conversation he had with the film’s producer, Andrew Macdonald, back at the Cannes Film Festival party for the first film.
“Andrew and Danny always had that thing that we don’t do enough sequels in Britain.
“That’s changed now, but back in the 90s it was quite a radical thing to say.”
Boyle kept putting it off, however.
His well-publicised falling out with Ewan McGregor (Boyle cast Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach; McGregor took the huff) and the perennial joke about the cast not looking ravaged enough to play the characters again may just have been convenient excuses to delay production until he could make the sequel he really wanted to make.
“In Britain, we don’t make big, emotional, longitudinal movies like The Godfather,” elaborates Welsh. “We don’t work on that kind of scale. What excited Danny was the idea of doing something 20 years after.
“I think he got more excited 20 years on, basically, because he saw it as an opportunity to paint on a really big canvas.
“The rest of us – probably me in particular – got a bit more wary of it; thinking we’d maybe passed that opportunity. But I think he was right.”
The creative breakthrough was Boyle convening a sort of Trainspotting summit in Edinburgh at the start of 2014.
Welsh, Boyle, Macdonald and screenwriter John Hodge (who was nominated for an Academy Award for the original movie) hired a flat near the Castle, just behind the Camera Obscura. “It was like the Big Brother house,” jokes Welsh.
“I took them to meet people in the city that I thought would help us understand how things had changed and how things had stayed the same.
“John got all enthused and wrote a great script and it all took off from there, really.”
READ MORE: Film review: T2 Trainspotting
With its ubiquitous hash-tagged marketing campaign, the original film is now, of course, indelibly associated with mid-1990s Brit Pop and “Cool Britannia”, but it also came out the year before the Scottish devolution referendum and it’s easy to forget how radical Renton’s
“It’s shite being Scottish” rant seemed at a time when too much of the country’s cinematic identity was tied up with Braveheart.
With the new film coming in the wake of the independence referendum, Welsh reckons it reflects Scotland’s newfound confidence.
“Whether you were on the independence side or the unionist side, I think most people would argue that one of the bad things about Scotland’s relationship as a sort of peripheral player in the UK has been that lack of confidence and that’s changed a lot.
“I think Trainspotting has been helpful in that respect because it portrayed Scotland as very much a modern place outside of the caricature.”
Indeed, he says he’s still surprised when he goes to readings in places like Cape Town or Melbourne or Buenos Aires and people tell him they visited Edinburgh or studied there because they read the book or saw the film.
“It made it a cool spot. It portrayed Scotland right across the world as a kind of interesting, quirky, amazing place. It kind of is. I’ve noticed this through travel.
“When you come from somewhere you think of it as very mundane.
“I’ve lived all over the world and when I go back I’ve found Scotland to be incredibly exotic and incredibly weird and quirky mad fun.”
Welsh’s globetrotting lifestyle was one of the upshots of the original movie’s success.
The film made him “a global concern”, though his increased visibility made living in the UK less enjoyable.
“As a writer you don’t want facial recognition and I probably had a bit too much facial recognition – probably because I was in the film as well.”
(He reprises his cameo as drug dealer Mikey Forrester in T2. “I burned through less film-stock this time,” is his assessment of his development as an actor.)
Prior to the first film’s release, he says he was really just relieved that the back-to-back cult success of Trainspotting in 1993 and The Acid House in 1994 legitimised him as a writer. “I was buzzing off that. “I mean, going to parties and openings and hanging out with models … all that sort of stuff was great.
“But they were just the little add-ons. The real euphoria was discovering that I could write and I could get on with that.”
In the years since, Welsh has returned to Trainspotting’s characters several times (most recently in The Blade Artist), creating a sort of shared literary universe – like Marvel with skag.
But more than two decades on he’s come to the conclusion that the book’s legacy, and the film’s too, the reason they continue to resonate, may be their status as reflections on our ongoing transition into a world without work.
The decimation of industrial working class jobs is now spreading to middle class professions, he says, and it’s only going to get worse.
“So many jobs are just going to be automated and shed and people from all walks of life are going to have to find different things to do. That’s what Trainspotting’s about. It’s about finding different things to do other than work. That’s our quest.” ■
T2 Trainspotting is released on Friday. For Alistair Harkness’ review of the film, see www.scotsman.com