Trainspotting is a 1996 British black comedy-drama film directed by Danny Boyle and starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, and Kelly Macdonald in her debut. Based on the 1993 novel of the same title by Irvine Welsh, the film was released in the United Kingdom on 23 February 1996.
The Academy Award-nominated screenplay by John Hodge follows a group of heroin addicts in an economically depressed area of Edinburgh and their passage through life. Beyond drug addiction, other themes in the film include an exploration of the urban poverty and squalor in Edinburgh.
The film was ranked tenth by the British Film Institute (BFI) in its list of Top 100 British films of the 20th century. In 2004, the film was voted the best Scottish film of all time in a general public poll. In 2017 a poll of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers and critics for Time Out magazine ranked it the tenth best British film ever. A sequel, T2 Trainspotting, was released in January 2017.
The title of the film comes from a particular scene in the book where the main character, Mark Renton, meets an old drunk in a disused train station, who turns out to be his friend's estranged father. The old man asks Renton and Begbie, who is the man's son, if they are "trainspottin'". This scene showed up in the film's sequel as a flashback.
26-year-old Mark Renton is an unemployed heroin addict living with his parents in the suburbs of Edinburgh, Scotland. He regularly partakes in drug use with his friends: Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson, a treacherous, womanising James Bond fanatic; Daniel "Spud" Murphy, an outwardly docile confidence trickster; and Swanney, "Mother Superior", their dealer. Renton is warned about the dangers of his drug habit by his other friends, Francis "Franco" Begbie, an aggressive psychopath, and Tommy Mackenzie, a footballer, who both abstain from drugs. Growing tired of his reckless lifestyle, Renton attempts to wean himself off heroin with opium suppositories given by dealer Mikey Forrester. At a nightclub, Renton notices that his cessation of heroin use has increased his libido. He woos a girl named Diane Coulston and they have sex in the apartment owned by her parents, but is horrified to learn that she is below the age of consent. Diane uses this as a threat against Renton to continue their relationship.
After several unsuccessful attempts to reintegrate into society, Renton, Sick Boy and Spud relapse into heroin use. Tommy also begins to dabble in drug use, after becoming depressed due to being dumped by his girlfriend. Even the negligence-induced death of Dawn, the infant daughter of Sick Boy and his girlfriend Allison, does not persuade the group to recover. Later, Renton, Sick Boy and Spud are caught shoplifting; Renton and Spud are arrested while Sick Boy narrowly escapes by running down Princes Street. Spud receives a six-month custodial sentence at HMP Saughton, while Renton avoids jail time by entering a drug rehabilitation programme. Renton quickly relapses and nearly dies of an overdose at Swanney's home. Upon returning home after revival at a hospital, Renton's parents lock him in his childhood bedroom and force him to go cold turkey. Following a difficult withdrawal, Renton is released upon condition that he have an HIV/AIDS test. Despite years of sharing syringes with other addicts, Renton tests negative.
Renton is now clean, but bored and devoid of a sense of meaning in his life. He visits Tommy, who is now severely addicted to heroin and has tested HIV-positive. On Diane's advice, Renton moves to London and takes a job as a property letting agent. He begins to enjoy his new life of sobriety and corresponds with Diane, who keeps him up to date with developments back home. However, to Renton's exasperation, Begbie, who is wanted for armed robbery, tracks him down and takes up refuge with him. They are soon joined by Sick Boy, now a pimp and drug dealer. Begbie and Sick Boy later attack two of Renton's clientele, resulting in him losing his job, and the trio return to Edinburgh for the funeral of Tommy, who has died of AIDS-related toxoplasmosis.
Following the funeral, Sick Boy asks Renton, Begbie and Spud (who has been recently released from prison) help in buying two kilograms of heroin for £4,000 to later resell at a higher price. Renton reluctantly covers the remaining cost, and the group returns to London to sell the heroin to a major dealer for £16,000. As they celebrate in a pub, Renton secretly suggests to Spud that they could both leave with the money, but Spud, motivated by fear of Begbie and loyalty, refuses. However, Sick Boy indicates he would happily do so, and Begbie brutally beats a man after a petty confrontation. Concluding that Begbie and Sick Boy are unpredictable and cannot be trusted, Renton quietly steals the bag of money and leaves. Spud witnesses him, but does not warn the others. Renton leaves £4,000 in a safe deposit box for Spud, who "never hurt anybody". Begbie, discovering Renton and the money are gone, angrily destroys the hotel room where the four stay, prompting the police to arrive and arrest him as Sick Boy and Spud flee. While Spud claims his share of the money, Renton walks towards his future, at last "choosing life."
- Ewan McGregor as Mark "Rent Boy" Renton
- Ewen Bremner as Daniel "Spud" Murphy
- Jonny Lee Miller as Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson
- Robert Carlyle as Francis "Franco" Begbie
- Kevin McKidd as Thomas "Tommy" Mackenzie
- Kelly Macdonald as Diane Coulston
- Peter Mullan as Swanney "Mother Superior"
- Fiona Bell as Diane's Mother
- Susan Vidler as Allison
- Eileen Nicholas as Mrs Renton
- James Cosmo as Davie Renton
- Shirley Henderson as Gail Houston
- Stuart McQuarrie as Gav Temperley/American Tourist
- Irvine Welsh as Mikey Forrester
- Kevin Allen as Andreas
- Keith Allen as the Dealer
- Dale Winton as Game Show Host
- Lauren and Devon Lamb as Baby Dawn (uncredited)
Producer Andrew Macdonald read Irvine Welsh's book on a plane in December 1993, and felt that it could be made into a film. He turned it on to director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge in February 1994. Boyle was excited by its potential to be the "most energetic film you've ever seen – about something that ultimately ends up in purgatory or worse". Hodge read it and made it his goal to "produce a screenplay which would seem to have a beginning, a middle and an end, would last 90 minutes and would convey at least some of the spirit and the content of the book". Boyle convinced Welsh to let them option the rights to his book by writing him a letter stating that Hodge and Macdonald were "the two most important Scotsmen since Kenny Dalglish and Alex Ferguson". Welsh remembered that originally the people wanting to option his book "wanted to make a po-faced piece of social realism like Christiane F or The Basketball Diaries". He was impressed that Boyle, Hodge and Macdonald wanted everyone to see the film and "not just the arthouse audience". In October 1994, Hodge, Boyle and Macdonald spent a lot of time discussing which chapters of the book would and would not translate into film. Hodge finished the first draft by December. Macdonald secured financing from Channel 4, a British television station known for funding independent films.
Pre-production began in April 1995. Ewan McGregor was cast after impressing Boyle and Macdonald with his work on their previous film, Shallow Grave. According to Boyle, for the role of Renton, they wanted the quality of Michael Caine's character in Alfie and Malcolm McDowell's character in A Clockwork Orange, "repulsive ... with charm "that makes you feel deeply ambiguous about what he's doing." McGregor shaved his head and lost 2 stone (12.7 kilograms) for the film. Ewen Bremner had played Renton in the stage adaptation of Trainspotting and agreed to play the role of Spud, saying he felt the characters "were part of my heritage." Boyle had heard about Jonny Lee Miller playing an American in the film Hackers and was impressed when he auditioned by doing a Sean Connery accent. For the role of Begbie, Boyle considered casting Christopher Eccleston for his resemblance to how he imagined the character in the novel, but asked Robert Carlyle instead. Carlyle said, "I've met loads of Begbies in my time. Wander round Glasgow on Saturday night and you've a good chance of running into Begbie." For the role of Diane, Boyle wanted an unknown actress so audiences would not realise that a 19-year-old was playing a 15-year-old. The filmmakers sent flyers to nightclubs and boutiques and approached people on the street, eventually hiring Kelly Macdonald. The casting of Keith Allen as "the Dealer" was a reference to Allen's role in Shallow Grave, with the implication that he plays the same character in both.
McGregor read books about crack and heroin to prepare for the role. He also went to Glasgow and met people from the Calton Athletic Recovery Group, an organisation of recovering heroin addicts, who play the opposing football team in the opening credits. He was taught how to cook up heroin with a spoon using glucose powder. McGregor considered injecting heroin to better understand the character, but eventually decided against it.
Many of the book's stories and characters were dropped to create a cohesive script of adequate length. Danny Boyle had his actors prepare by making them watch older films about rebellious youths like The Hustler and A Clockwork Orange.
Trainspotting was shot in mid-1995 over seven weeks on a budget of £1.5 million with the cast and crew working out of an abandoned cigarette factory in Glasgow. Due to time constraints and a tight budget, most scenes were done in one take, which contributed to the grungy look of the film. For example, when Renton sinks into the floor after overdosing on heroin, the crew built a platform above a trap door and lowered the actor down. The faeces in the 'Worst Toilet in Scotland' scene was made from chocolate.
Marketing and theatrical release
MacDonald worked with Miramax Films to sell the film as a British Pulp Fiction, flooding the market with postcards, posters, books, soundtrack albums and a revamped music video for "Lust for Life" by Iggy Pop directed by Boyle.
Prior to its release in the United States, Miramax, the film's US distributor, requested that some of the dialogue be dubbed so the film would be easier to understand for American viewers unfamiliar with Scottish slang.
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, the company responsible for the distribution of the film launched a publicity campaign of half as much as the film's production costs (£850,000) in the UK alone, making the film stand out more as a Hollywood blockbuster rather than a smaller European production.
Trainspotting was able to portray itself as British and as an 'exotic' element to the international market while also staying relevant to the American public, making it an international success in its marketing.
Locations in the film include:
- The opening scene of Renton and Spud being chased by security for shoplifting is shot in Edinburgh, on Princes Street and Calton Road under Regent Bridge.
- The park where Sick Boy and Renton discuss James Bond, Sean Connery and The Name of the Rose is Rouken Glen Park in Giffnock, near Glasgow. The park was also the site of the grave in Boyle's previous film, Shallow Grave.
- Corrour railway station is the setting for the "great outdoors" scene in the film, where Tommy suggests the group climb Leum Uilleim.
- The scenes where they do their drug deal take place in Paddington. The scene where they parody the cover of the Beatles album Abbey Road takes place as they walk out of Smallbrook Mews across Craven Road to the Royal Eagle, 26–30 Craven Road, Paddington.
- The school attended by Diane is Jordanhill in Glasgow's West End.
The Trainspotting soundtracks were two best-selling albums of music centred around the film. The first is a collection of songs featured in the film, while the second includes those left out from the first soundtrack and extra songs that inspired the filmmakers during production.
The soundtrack for Trainspotting has gone on to become a pop culture phenomenon. Nearly all of the score is pre-recorded music from existing artists. This score is divided into three distinct groups, all representing a different eras and styles: The first being pop music from the 1970s, by artists such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop; who are all musicians closely associated with drug use and are referred to throughout the original novel. The second group is the music from the Britpop era in the 1990s, with bands Blur and Pulp. Finally, there is the techno-dance music from the 1990s, including Underworld, Bedrock and Ice MC.
Through the years, acclaim for the soundtrack has been sustained. In 2007, Vanity Fair ranked the Trainspotting original soundtrack at number 7 for best motion picture soundtrack in history. Additionally, Entertainment Weekly ranked the Trainspotting soundtrack as 17th on their 100 best movie soundtracks list. In 2013, Rolling Stone listed it as the 13th best soundtrack in their 25 best soundtracks. In 2015, New Musical Express praised it as a "perfect snapshot of 1996 music."
1996 saw a drastic change in British music with the rise of popularity for Britpop although old fashioned pop was still firmly rooted in British culture. With Oasis dominating the singles chart, and the Spice Girls on the rise, the face of pop shifted from guitars to digitised beats. The Trainspotting soundtrack aimed to champion the alternative music legacy of 1996 Britain with a focus on presenting electronic music on equal footing with rock music in a way that had never been done before.
Trainspotting was screened at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival but was shown out of competition, according to the filmmakers, due to its subject. It went on to become the festival's one unqualified critical and popular hit.
By the time it opened in North America, on 19 July 1996, the film had made more than $18 million in Britain. It initially opened in eight theatres in the U.S. and Canada and on its first weekend grossed $33,000 per screen. The film expanded to 357 screens and made $16.4 million in North America, one of the biggest grossing films of 1996 in limited release. Trainspotting was the highest-grossing British film of 1996, and at the time it was the fourth highest grossing British film in history. The film made £12 million in the domestic market and $72 million internationally. Based on a cost-to-return ratio, Trainspotting was the most profitable film of the year.
The film has an approval rating of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 85 reviews collected by the site, with an average score of 8.40/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "A brutal, often times funny, other times terrifying portrayal of drug addiction in Edinburgh. Not for the faint of heart, but well worth viewing as a realistic and entertaining reminder of the horrors of drug use". On Metacritic, the film has a score of 83 out of 100 based on 28 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim". In his review for The Guardian, Derek Malcolm gave the film credit for tapping into the youth subculture of the time and felt that it was "acted out with a freedom of expression that's often astonishing." Empire magazine gave the film five out of five stars and described the film as "something Britain can be proud of and Hollywood must be afraid of. If we Brits can make movies this good about subjects this horrific, what chance does Tinseltown have?"
American film critic Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised its portrayal of addicts' experiences with each other. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, "in McGregor ... the film has an actor whose magnetism monopolizes our attention no matter what". Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Like Scorsese and Tarantino, Boyle uses pop songs as rhapsodic mood enhancers, though in his own ravey-hypnotic style. Whether he's staging a fumbly sex montage to Sleeper's version of "Atomic" or having Renton go cold turkey to the ominous slow build of Underworld's "Dark and Long" ... Trainspotting keeps us wired to the pulse of its characters' passions". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Trainspotting doesn't have much narrative holding it together. Nor does it really have the dramatic range to cope with such wild extremes. Most of it sticks to the same moderate pitch, with entertainment value enhanced by Mr. Boyle's savvy use of wide angles, bright colours, attractively clean compositions and a dynamic pop score".
Rolling Stone's Peter Travers wrote, "the film's flash can't disguise the emptiness of these blasted lives. Trainspotting is 90 minutes of raw power that Boyle and a bang-on cast inject right into the vein". In his review for The Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, "Without a doubt, this is the most provocative, enjoyable pop-cultural experience since Pulp Fiction". Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his review for the Chicago Reader, wrote, "Like Twister and Independence Day, this movie is a theme-park ride – though it's a much better one, basically a series of youthful thrills, spills, chills, and swerves rather than a story intended to say very much".
The film's release sparked controversy in some countries, including Britain, Australia and the United States, as to whether or not it promoted and romanticized drug use. U.S. Senator Bob Dole accused it of moral depravity and glorifying drug use during the 1996 U.S. presidential campaign, although he later admitted that he had not seen the film. Producer of the film Andrew Macdonald responded to these claims in a BBC interview stating "we were determined to show why people took drugs ... you had to show that it was fun and that it was awful" to which Boyle adds "It's the music and humour that makes people feel it's glamorising drugs." Despite the controversy, it was widely praised and received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in that year's Academy Awards. Time magazine ranked Trainspotting as the third best film of 1996.
The film had an immediate effect on popular culture. In 1999, Trainspotting was ranked in the tenth spot by the British Film Institute (BFI) in its list of Top 100 British films of all time, while in 2004 the magazine Total Film named it the fourth greatest British film of all time. That same year, Channel 4 named it as the greatest British film of all time. The Observer polled several filmmakers and film critics who voted it the best British film in the last 25 years. In 2004, the film was voted the best Scottish film of all time by the public in a poll for The List magazine. Trainspotting has developed a cult following. It was recognised as an important film during the 1990s British cultural tour de force known as Cool Britannia. It was also featured in the documentary Live Forever: The Rise and Fall of Brit Pop.
The film title is a reference to a scene in the book where Begbie and Renton meet "an auld drunkard" who turns out to be Begbie's estranged father, in the disused Leith Central railway station, which they are using as a toilet. He asks them if they are "trainspottin'". This scene is later included as a flashback in T2 Trainspotting.
The 1996 public information film Pirate Videos: Daylight Robbery, features a young man trying to return an ostensibly pirated copy of Trainspotting he had purchased from a local car boot sale. The seller rebuffs the man's claim that he "can't understand a word" by implying that the thick Scottish accents heard in the film were to blame, rather than garbled audio that is sometimes present on pirated cassettes. This PIF was appended to the beginning of nearly every rental VHS tape in the UK from late 1996 until at least 2001 or 2002, usually immediately after the Beware of Illegal Video Cassettes warning. It was also present on many retail tapes sold during that time period as well.
The Slowthai song "Doorman" accompanies a music video containing various Trainspotting references.
Trainspotting was nominated for two British Academy Film Awards in 1996, Best British Film and John Hodge for Best Adapted Screenplay. Hodge won in his category. Hodge also won Best Screenplay from the Evening Standard British Film Awards. The film won the Golden Space Needle (the award for Best Film) at the 1996 Seattle International Film Festival. Ewan McGregor was named Best Actor from the London Film Critics Circle, BAFTA Scotland Awards, and Empire magazine. Hodge was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay but lost to Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade.
Style and themes
Music has great importance in Boyle's films, as evident by the best-selling soundtracks for Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, both of which feature many pop and punk rock artists. In Boyle's view, songs can be "amazing things to use because they obviously bring a lot of baggage with them. They may have painful associations, and so they inter-breathe with the material you're using".
The combination of images and music with the setting of the criminal underworld has drawn comparisons to Pulp Fiction and the films of Quentin Tarantino, that had spawned a certain type of "90s indie cinema" which "strove to dazzle the viewer with self-conscious cleverness and empty shock tactics". This impacted the shooting style of the film, which features "wildly imaginative" and "downright hallucinatory" visual imagery, achieved through a mix of "a handheld, hurtling camera", jump cuts, zoom shots, freeze frames and wide angles. This vigorous style contributed to the "breathless" pace that Boyle's films have been associated with.
For the look of the film, Boyle was influenced by the colours of Francis Bacon's paintings, which represented "a sort of in-between land – part reality, part fantasy". The scene where Renton (McGregor) dives in a toilet is a reference to Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow.
Boyle had declared his wish to make a sequel to Trainspotting which would take place nine years after the original film, based on Irvine Welsh's sequel, Porno. He was reportedly waiting until the original actors themselves aged visibly enough to portray the same characters, ravaged by time; Boyle joked that the natural vanity of actors would make it a long wait. Ewan McGregor stated in an interview that he would return for a sequel, saying "I'm totally up for it. I'd be so chuffed to be back on set with everybody and I think it would be an extraordinary experience."
In 2013, Boyle said he wanted to make a sequel that would be loosely based on Porno which he has described as "not a great book in the way that Trainspotting, the original novel, is genuinely a masterpiece". Boyle said that if the sequel happens 2016 would be the release date.
On 6 May 2014, during a BBC Radio interview with Richard Bacon, Welsh confirmed that he had spent a week with Boyle, Andrew Macdonald and the creative team behind Trainspotting to discuss the sequel. Welsh stated that the meeting was in order to "explore the story and script ideas. We're not interested in doing something that will trash the legacy of Trainspotting. ... We want to do something that's very fresh and contemporary." Welsh did not however confirm any kind of timeline for the film, unlike Boyle's comments about wanting the film to come out in 2016.
In a newspaper interview with The Scotsman on 17 November 2014, Welsh revealed that McGregor and Boyle had resolved their differences and had held meetings about the film, saying "I know Danny and Ewan are back in touch with each other again. There are others in the cast who've had a rocky road, but now also reconciled. With the Trainspotting sequel the attention is going to be even more intense this time round because the first was such a great movie—and Danny's such a colossus now. We're all protective of the Trainspotting legacy and we want to make a film that adds to that legacy and doesn't take away from it."
On 7 September 2015, at the Telluride Film Festival, Boyle stated his next film would be a sequel, tentatively titled Trainspotting 2.
In a September 2015, interview with ComingSoon.net, Boyle revealed that a script for the sequel had been written, and that filming would reportedly take place between May and June 2016, in the hopes of releasing the film within that same year to commemorate Trainspotting's 20th anniversary.
While promoting Steve Jobs in November 2015, Boyle reiterated the hopes of beginning principal photography for the sequel in May and June 2016, and started pre-production in Edinburgh. Boyle also clarified that John Hodge had written an original screenplay for the sequel, which would not be a strict adaptation of Porno. An earlier script was reportedly written about ten years prior, but was scrapped and redone so that the original cast would agree to return for a film sequel. The working title for the sequel was T2.
In a November 2015 phone interview with NME, Robert Carlyle confirmed he would be returning for the sequel to play Begbie. According to Carlyle, he and other members of the Trainspotting cast had already read John Hodge's script, which would take place 20 years (much like its intended 2016 release) after the original plot. Filming started on 16 May 2016, Carlyle praised Hodge's screenplay and hinted that T2 "is going to be quite emotional for people. Because the film sort of tells you to think about yourself. You are going to be thinking: 'Fuck. What have I done with my life?'"
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