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

THIS INTERVIEW was conducted during Trainspotting's penultimate week of filming. Irvine Welsh had flown over from Amsterdam, where he now lives, to do a cameo performance as the drugs dealer Mikey Forrester.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015