“You Can’t Avoid Melancholy”: Danny Boyle On Death, Regret, And Bucking The Shite Sequel Curse

Yes, he's still thinking about that baby scene.

Danny Boyle has been thinking a lot about the past recently. Not that you can really blame him for that, given the lauded Greater Manchester-born director’s most recent project is a sequel to the film that made him famous.

T2 Trainspotting, the long-gestating follow up to 1996 surrealist heroin drama Trainspotting, is a risky, inherently nostalgic endeavour, and one that has forced Boyle to take an uncomfortably long look at himself.

Indeed, the interviews that he’s given regarding the project so far have been full of a striking sense of morbidity and history — he’s stumbled into conversations about death, the past and regret with the frequency you’d expect of a psychological counselling session rather than a series of press junkets.

But T2 isn’t an oddly retrospective experience just for Boyle: the plot is a deliberate attempt to invoke a similar sense of nostalgia in the audience. Opening with the long-awaited hometown return of ex-junkie Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) following the passing of his mother and his own near-fatal experience, the movie sees him reconnecting — often messily — with the characters from the first film, chief among them arch reprobate Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller).

There is a weird sense of wistfulness threaded throughout, and as T2’s players obsessively recount and obsess over the plot of the original Trainspotting, so too is the audience encouraged to consider their own personal history with the 20-year old film.

“It [was] weird for that reason, doing this,” Boyle tells me. “That’s how it’s like nothing else I’ve ever done before, because you know that for a lot of people in the audience, there is a significance to the first film. It was a measuring point in their lives. Of course, in doing one exactly 20 years later, that encourages that retrospective feeling; encourages you to think, ‘Where was I then? Who have I met since? Did I pick the right guy?’.”

“We’re The Dead Babies.”

If the film’s stylised attempts at retrospection sound unremittingly bleak, that’s because T2 occasionally is, and it’s sad in the way the first film was angry. There are attempted suicides, heartbreaking lapses in sobriety, and asides in which characters like the once endlessly energetic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) wonder aloud where it all went so wrong. “You can’t avoid melancholy, not the kind that comes occasionally as time passes,” Boyle says. “[Not] with the casualties that time incurs.”

In its quest to provoke that uneasy sense of mournfulness, T2 even goes so far as splicing in footage from the original film, and features a number of key scenes from Trainspotting presented as though they’re flashbacks. But even that relatively minor artistic choice unleashed its own kind of temporal, real-world strangeness, particularly in a scene where Renton brings up Sick Boy’s dead child, a baby that succumbs to neglect in the first movie.

“When [Renton] says to Sick Boy, ‘She was a child, a baby: she would have been a grown woman by now’, we include a shot of the baby from the original film at that moment,” Boyle says. “So we thought, ‘Oh god, we better find out what happened to that baby.’ It would be a PR disaster if the baby had died in the meantime or something.

“So we found the baby — it was babies, actually, there were two of them because we used twins — we found them on Facebook, as it is with these times. And we met them; they came to the wrap party … And they had a great time, walking around saying, ‘[We’re] the dead babies.’ It was all very funny and disturbing at the same time. But those are the things you cannot predict. They just happen.”

Muscle Memories

T2’s level of self-referential, fourth wall shattering postmodernism also required Boyle to revisit the original film a number of times, a specific kind of nostalgia he is not entirely used to indulging. “They kind of talk to each other, the two films, in a way… We had a look at [Trainspotting] when we were writing T2, then again just before we started production, then one more time while we were editing. We had a decent version of T2 then, and the editor and I screened the first film in the morning and then our current cut in the afternoon.”

Yet despite the fact the films were designed to work side by side, that artistic through-line wasn’t always easy for Boyle to nail. After all, the original film, Boyle’s second, has a style entirely of its own, and one that he has never really attempted to replicate onscreen since.

His movies have slowly moved away from their rag-and-tag origins — save for occasional outliers like art heist drama Trance, or apocalyptic horror 28 Days Later — and have become decisively less grotty and grim in the process, with polished Oscar winners like Slumdog Millionaire defining his recent output.

As a result, making T2 required nothing less than a navigation between two distinct Danny Boyles, and the man fresh off the production of the bare bones, straight down the barrel drama Steve Jobs found himself forced to make a grotesque, frenetic, furious film without ever once seeming like he was ripping himself off. “Ultimately, you try to let the style of the film emerge through the characters or the story as much as you can,” he says of the unique problem.

“That’s the ideal. I wouldn’t deign to say that is always the case on every film. But I definitely tried not to copy the style of the first film in a self-conscious way. The idea was just to [keep] it heightened … T2 should be a visceral experience. I want it to swamp you, and that’s why I try and use music like I use it, and cuts, and camerawork. It swamps you, rather than standing away and saying, ‘Just watch. Just consider’.”

In that way, T2 is as much an art film as anything else — a weird sensory experience-cum-time capsule that overloads the audience with regret; with memories both artificially-inflicted and deeply personal; and with a staggering sense of time as an observable force. Is Boyle tempted to turn the Trainspotting series into a Seven Up style ongoing project, then? Maybe he could get the cast and crew to reconvene in another 20 years to make T3?

“Oh my god, can you imagine?” Boyle laughs. “If I’m even still here.”

T2: Trainspotting is out February 23.