'Trainspotting' at 25: How an Indie About Heroin Became a Feel-Good Classic

Will Hersey
·6-min read
Photo credit: Film4
Photo credit: Film4

From Esquire

It says quite a bit about Trainspotting’s reception upon its release 25 years ago, that Damon Albarn and Keith Allen were at a preview screening in late 1995 (and yes, let’s take a moment to consider just how Nineties a picture that is) and were reportedly shocked by what they were watching.

You wouldn’t put the Blur frontman and ‘Vindaloo’ lyricist down as easily offended types after all, and yet even today the film’s brilliant opening sequence manages to excite and confuse in equal measure. Are we going to be rooting for these guys?

As a reminder, Ewan McGregor’s shaven-headed, stick thin and grey-skinned Renton sprints through Edinburgh being chased by the police to a soundtrack of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’, with a voiceover scorning the banality of consumerism when put up against the excitement of heroin: “Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had, multiply it by 1,000 and you’re still nowhere near it.”

It’ll never be released, thought Albarn and Allen.

Backed by a memorable billboard campaign and some clever teasers, it was released of course, on 23 February 1996, and the inevitable controversy around its subject matter played into the hands of its producers, who were pitching it more as a film about youth rather than drugs.

The film’s backers Channel 4, in their attention-hungry prime, actively welcomed the criticism, which included a direct attack from US presidential hopeful Bob Dole.

Given how grim many scenes are, it seems both ridiculous that it was ever charged with glamourising drug use, yet at the same time undeniable. The experience just of watching it was a rush in itself.

To fully anchor its Nineties credentials, the film came out the same week that Jarvis Cocker famously flapped around on the sidelines of Michael Jackson’s Brits performance. A technology called the world wide web was starting to gain traction. And of course, this was just over a year before Tony Blair came to power against a hopeful soundtrack of D:Ream.

There are probably only a handful of times in your life when you’ll leave the cinema feeling thrilled, inspired, even slightly changed. Trainspotting had this effect on many; catching a cultural moment as much through its fresh and energetic film-making style as its story of heroin-addicted Mark Renton's attempts to kick the habit.

In this way, it shared something with Pulp Fiction, which had come out to similar acclaim two years earlier.

The stylised structure was an obvious similarity, so too was the dialogue which found the same humour in over-delivering on detail. Sick Boy’s Sean Connery obsession, for example – “Goldfinger's better than Dr. No. Both of them are a lot better than Diamonds are Forever. A judgement reflected in its relative poor showing at the box office" – had shades of John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson’s 'Royale with cheese' chat: “I don’t know, I didn’t go into Burger King.”

Certainly the audience of the two films were the same; Trainspotting was even directly marketed as the British Pulp Fiction by Miramax in the States.

Its other big selling point was that it came from “the makers of Shallow Grave”; the directing/producing/writing trio (Danny Boyle, Andrew MacDonald and John Hodge) who had hit critical and box office gold with their first project, a dark and funny indie, the success of which Boyle played down, saying they stole it from the Coen brothers.

Flooded with offers for their all-important follow-up, they stumbled upon the idea of adapting Irvine Welsh’s cult Edinburgh-set novel, after Macdonald read it on a flight.

Original, funny, with strong characters and – not unimportantly – Scottish, Hodge began to write the script while Macdonald tried to solve a mix-up over film rights. Welsh, who wasn’t interested in working on the film but was a fan of Shallow Grave, had mistakenly sold them to the wrong guy.

Given the book was a series of vignettes with no clear plot, Hodge had to balance out how to retain the original spirit whilst making it work on screen.

The first half hour is like a series of twisted comedy sketches; Spud’s job interview for the leisure industry, the air rifle in the park, the worst toilet in Scotland, Begbie’s pint toss and the nightclub scene when Renton goes home with a schoolgirl, all happen in the first 20 wide-eyed minutes.

Filmed in a poppy style of freeze frames, captions and clever cutting, there is no moralising or mawkishness. Either you come along for the ride or you don’t.

This sensory overload sucks you in and sets you up for the second thirty, which changes tone for a much grimmer reality check.

Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle and Ewan McGregor were already in the team’s mind for casting.

Bremner had been playing Renton in a stage version at the Bush theatre. McGregor, though, gave what is a fairly unpleasant character in the book some movie star anti-hero charm. He came close to trying heroin as part of his preparation, before a meeting with a drug recovery group changed his mind.

Everyone is perfect but Carlyle steals the show as the pocket psychopath Francis Begbie, comic and terrifying in equal measure. Kelly Macdonald’s memorable cameo came thanks to an open casting.

Despite the team’s ‘hot’ status, the budget only nudged up to a fairly measly £1.5 million, giving them just seven weeks of pre-production to confirm the cast and scout the locations, which became such an important part of the film’s look.

Set in Edinburgh, it was mainly filmed in Glasgow during a sweltering June of 1995, with a guerrilla approach to hustling their way through a tight schedule.

Almost half the budget was allocated to the soundtrack. With 'Atomic (Blondie)' by Sleeper confirmed, MacDonald wanted to make the music one of its defining features, both for its emotional punch and as a wider cultural story; again, following the example set by Pulp Fiction.

Through Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Underworld and Pulp, it was crucial in establishing Trainspotting as the youth film it wanted to be.

Music and voiceovers made it a very hard edit but at 90 minutes, it was tight, and the ultimate tone oddly optimistic, even as our 'hero' stitches up his mates and decides the banality of washing machines and dental insurance is better than the alternative.

In the London denouement, there’s a hint of post-Thatcher relief and a prescient nod to the world still to come: “1,000 years from now,” says Renton’s voiceover, “there’ll be no guys, no gals, just wankers. Sounds great to me.”

Its success was immediate of course, and not just with its intended audience. Taking in nearly £50 million at the box office, it also earned an unlikely Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, losing out to Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade.

Because of its timing and success, it would be easy to pigeon-hole Trainspotting as a film of its moment, too entrenched in the Britpop-era to live beyond it. Far from it. With the distance of 25 years, it can now be enjoyed on its own terms, as one of the true greats of British cinema.

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