Postcards from the edge
First it was a best-selling novel, then a West End play. Now it's an acclaimed film. In a rare interview, Irvine Welsh, author of the phenomenal 'Trainspotting', talked to Kevin Macdonald about the journey from page to stage to screen
Sunday 28 January 1996
KEVIN MACDONALD: Did you ever consider when you were writing the book, or when it was published, that it might be turned into a film?
IRVINE WELSH: I never even considered that the book would be published in the first place - I never thought about it in terms of publication. So getting it published was a big enough surprise, it being successful was a surprise and then it being made into a play was a surprise and now it being made into a film is a surprise. So it's just been a series of different surprises that I've become quite inured to. I don't see what can possibly happen to it next. Surely this has to be the end!
KM: When Andrew Macdonald, Danny Boyle and John Hodge [Trainspotting's producer, director and screenwriter, who also collaborated on Shallow Grave] got in touch with you and said they were interested in doing the film, what was your immediate response?
IW: I thought it was brave of them to do because, especially with the success of Shallow Grave, they could have taken big bucks in Hollywood. I couldn't really see it as a film at first just because of it being episodic and not a strong kind of narrative thing. But on the other hand, I couldn't see it as a play before it became a successful play, so it's got an appeal. I think that a lot of people are sick of the kind of representations of the world that we live in as a kind of bland Four Weddings and a Funeral sort of place - they want something that says a wee bit more about the society we actually live in and a wee bit more about the different cultures within that society that tend to be ignored.
KM: Do you think that the film will be faithful to your book?
IW: I think that as an author the first thing you have to tell yourself is: I wrote the book but somebody else is making the film. The whole point of it - the exciting part of it - is that it's going to be transformed in some way. The more transformation the better from my point of view. People go on about a "faithful interpretation", but you can't have a faithful interpretation of something; you can maybe have it in spirit, but it's going to change as it moves into a different medium. I think that with film, or any other different medium, you don't have the same degree of freedom as you maybe do with the blank page, on to which you can put whatever you like. You can build up a lot of psychological depth to the characters in a book, whereas in film you've really got to take a line on it and say, maybe, "Is this a black comedy?" Or, "Is this social realism?" And then stick to that line. That's the exciting part about it: how people are going to see it, how they're going to interpret it.
KM: Are you glad that they haven't taken the social realist approach?
IW: Yes, I am kind of happy with that. I think I would have been a wee bit despondent if - not to knock Ken Loach or anything because I think that he's brilliant at what he does - if they had made it in the Loach fashion because I don't think we need another Ken Loach. I would have been disappointed if it had been a kind of worthy piece of social realism. I think there's more to it than that. It's about the culture and the lifestyle in a non-judgemental way. It's about how people live their lives and how people interact. To see it as just a kind of reaction to social oppression, to social circumstance, is to rip some of the soul out of it and to make the characters into victims. I don't think that they really are. I think that they're people whose ideals and ambitions perhaps outstrip what society has to offer them, but I think they've got great strength in spite of that.
KM: Did you like performing in the film?
IW: You admire the discipline that actors have. I've now worked a fair bit with actors over the year and I used to think of it as very much a bunch of people poncing around on stage. But the effort, the concentration and work that goes into it from the actors and the whole crew ... you see really what a sweaty, grafting kind of work-intensive industry it is. It destroys my stereotype that I had about actors, theatre, film people, all of that, of being a bit kind of effeminate. The reality is very different.
KM: Were you surprised when Danny asked you to do this little cameo?
IW: I wasn't surprised in a sense. It's something that I would have done if I'd been him because it's effective. It stops the author from criticising the film because you can't say, "Oh, my God, they've ruined my book!" because you've been a part of the whole process and you've joined in. That's a kind of frivolous thing to say, but I think that it always adds a bit of intrigue.
KM: What part are you playing?
IW: I'm playing this drugs dealer who's probably one of the least sympathetic characters in the book. He's a pretty manipulative, nasty, horrible guy, so a lot of people will say typecasting again!
KM: Do you think that Trainspotting - the book - is dated in any way?
IW: Yes, it's dated in the context of Edinburgh because the whole drug scene has changed slightly there. It's still a "Class A" drug society, but there's fewer people doing smack these days and people that are into that hard-core subculture ... it's being managed through methadone programmes. But the drug which people chose to fuck up on isn't really the issue. The fact is that there's just so few opportunities for people that it's not surprising that they try to escape from it or try to obliterate as much of the pain of the world as possible. So while the drugs may have changed, the issues are just the same. People have always abused drugs. Traditionally it's been alcohol, now it's a cocktail of different drugs simply because there are different drugs available. It doesn't really matter whether it's heroin or alcohol or whatever. In fact, you're probably better off being a junkie than an alcoholic because if you're a junkie you can reform quite successfully if you change the people you're hanging around with. It's very difficult for an alcoholic to do that because you're being bombarded with these messages all the time about drinking and it's so much a part of the culture.
KM: So it's not a period piece?
IW: No. If you're being pedantic about it, you could say it was set in Edinburgh between 1982 and 1988, but the issues of drug addiction and drug abuse and the on-going HIV issues are as pertinent as ever - probably more so now.
KM: What was your opinion of Shallow Grave - and did you think the makers of that film had the right abilities or vision for a film of Trainspotting?
IW: Yes. I only saw Shallow Grave a couple of days ago on video - it's just been a series of coincidences that I didn't see it when I was in Britain, and then I moved to Holland and then when it came to Holland it was only there for a day before I was off to the States. But I have seen a video of it. What appealed to me about Shallow Grave was the constant action and movement. I think that sits really well with the bias towards action that modern writing has, that constant motion and movement, keeping things moving and keeping things happening - the kind of visceral, hard- edged humour sits well. The characterisations and characters were completely different and I didn't find the characters particularly empathetic - I couldn't particularly care for the characters - but maybe that's just where I'm coming from. That might just be a class or cultural thing. Everybody I know seemed to feel really sort of gleeful when Ewan (McGregor) got punched and then got his legs broken! But the other thing I liked about it was the sheer beauty of the camerawork and the use of colours - primary colours. That detail in film-making and that kind of craft and stylisation have really been absent in British films, and that was one of the things that really appealed to me.
! From 'Trainspotting and Shallow Grave' by John Hodge, published by Faber & Faber on 19 February (pounds 8.99).
! 'Trainspotting' (18) opens at cinemas around the country on 23 February; 'Trainspotting' - the novel - is a Minerva paperback (pounds 6.99); Ewan McGregor interview: see the 'Real Life' section.
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