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'Trainspotting' 20th anniversary: Irvine Welsh on the movie's impact

There was a buoyant shock that hit audiences when "Trainspotting" banged into theaters in 1996. The insolent mayhem of the idiot heroin addicts of the movie, adapted from the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name, was both an endurance test and a vivid, darkly funny look at a group of frustrated young guys knocking around their native Scotland. It is a movie-as-middle-finger, merrily extended in your face, only to put an arm around your neck and pull you in for a pint and a bit of trash talk.

Twenty years later, the movie returns for a screening next month at the Music Box as part of the Sound Opinions film series hosted by Tribune critic Greg Kot and music writer Jim DeRogatis, who will be joined by Welsh, an Edinburgh native who has made Chicago his home for the past six years.

"Trainspotting" was Welsh's first novel and a major hit (particularly in the U.K.) when it was published in 1993. I was curious what his thoughts were when he sold the film rights. Any hesitancy?

"I don't think there are any good reasons not to sell the film rights to someone," he told me when we caught up a few days ago. "It's a complete win-win situation for a writer because if the film's terrible, the book's still there and you can distance yourself (from the movie) and say that it ruined the book. And if the film is fantastic, people become interested in the source material. So there's no downside."

"Trainspotting" made nearly $16.5 million at the box office, a hefty pull for a small film from the U.K. by future Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle starring a throng of then-unknown faces that would go on to become legitimate stars across the pond; Ewan McGregor leads a cast that includes Jonny Lee Miller ("Elementary"), Kevin McKidd ("Grey's Anatomy"), Kelly Macdonald ("Boardwalk Empire") and Robert Carlyle ("The Full Monty").

The film's success meant a boost in book sales that allowed Welsh to quit his day job working for the city of Edinburgh's housing council. "The book was already doing well," he said (much of it is written with phonetic spellings that bring Scottish accents to life on the page), "and the movie gave me the financial freedom to write, to travel, to just basically do the things I wanted. The film set me up for life."

(Last year, Welsh told an interviewer for the Telegraph that, after the movie, sales of the book "went off the scale. I had a couple of years where I was earning what, to me, was incredible wealth. I remember this cheque for 8,000 pounds arriving in the post, shortly before the film was released, and thinking it was brilliant. But 18 months later a cheque for 500,000 pounds came through. I assumed sales would eventually subside, but 'Trainspotting' is a cash cow because successive generations keep discovering it. It's almost like a rite of passage book for kids to read, so I still get a big wad of cash each year from that book alone.")

"It was a very hot book in the U.K. at the time," Welsh told me, "and these guys (the actors and director Boyle) were all emerging talents, so it all just came together really well. And now they're getting back together to kind of replicate it again."

He's referring to "Trainspotting's" long-promised sequel, which, according to Welsh, will film this summer and will be loosely based on his 2002 novel "Porno," which revisits the same characters (Renton, Begbie and Sick Boy among them) 10 years later, with the pornography business rather than heroin as the binding agent among them.

I asked what the film would be called: "Well, we can't call it 'Porno' because nobody's going to walk into the cinema for a film called 'Porno,'" Welsh said dryly. "I think we'll probably call it 'Trainspotting 2' so people know what it's about, or we'll find something else to call it. It's not decided yet. But everyone's signed on for it" — the original cast is returning — "and we're ready to start shooting in Scotland. I'm going to be an executive producer on the sequel, and I'll also be acting in it again. I'll probably be the same guy I was in the original, that was Mikey Forrester, the drug dealer."

Mikey Forrester is the one who supplies the infamous opium suppositories that send Renton (played by McGregor) reeling into the worst toilet in Scotland. The scene is richly graphic in the book ("My jeans crumple tae the deck and greedily absorb the urine, but ah hardly notice"). Reading about it is one thing. Actually getting a look at the vomit-inducing visuals conjured by Boyle is something else. It's awful! It's incredible! And the surreal turn the scene takes (a departure from the book) as Renton dives headlong into that befouled toilet bowl tells you so much about where this character's head is — both desperate but also sucked into a druggy surreal moment all his own.

I wondered if Welsh had any concerns about how certain portions of the book would translate on screen.

"The one I worried about most was the dead baby on the ceiling (a hallucination Renton experiences during a protracted bout with heroin withdrawal). But the weird thing about that scene, you know it's not anything like a real baby and it looks — in a horrible, tacky, grimy way — it looks so good. It really fits in with the film."

The small role played by Welsh is described by Renton in the book like this: "Forrester sits opposite me in a worn-out armchair, beefy-faced but thin bodied, almost bald at 25. His hair loss over the last two years has been phenomenal, and ah wonder if he's goat the virus. Doubt it somehow, they say only the good die young."

Welsh's physique is a smidge thicker than that description, but otherwise the visuals line up. "I always get cast as a drug dealer or sex offenders or nightclub bouncers. Or some other thing that's unsavory," he told me. "I don't take it personally."

Welsh has said in the past that he chose Chicago because of its midway point between New York and Los Angeles (he and his wife have a home in the Lakeview neighborhood), but the city also appeals because of its distilled American-ness. So it's not surprising that among the projects he is currently developing is a TV series set in Chicago.

"I'm working on a TV show with Anonymous Content (the production company behind "The Knick," "True Detective" and "Mr. Robot"). It's called 'Legbreaker' and it's about a guy who gets out of prison and tries to get work and make his way in the world. But it's very hard for ex-convicts to get work, so it's a Catch-22. So it's a kind of dark comedy that we're working on. I've been here for six years and it's about time to do something here. And it's like, you kind of want to do something about where you live. If you live in Chicago, then this is your home, then you don't want to set things elsewhere."

He also has a show in development for TBS set within the Miami art scene. Welsh has a place in Miami (as well as a home base in Edinburgh) and I wondered if he gets much writing done when he's in Florida. "That's why I'm here! I normally would be sitting on the beach with a cocktail, but at least here I'm getting stuff done."

His latest novel, "A Decent Ride," will be available in the U.S. next month, and he has returned to a Scottish setting for that one. "I think where you come from is always going to have an influence on you. And Scotland is just changing before your eyes. It's a really weird phenomenon when I go back over and it's kind of changed. It's trying to invent itself as a country, as you saw with that big movement toward independence, and it feels very charged right now, in some ways good and in some ways not so good. But it's exciting and I was inspired by that."

Interestingly, Welsh told me he doesn't use the services of a literary agent.

"Because the book thing came quite easily to me, I never had an agent. I still don't. It's very easy to negotiate a book deal with a publisher yourself. I thought I could operate in the same way in film and I went out to Hollywood after 'Trainspotting' and they were saying to me, 'Oh, we'll set up you with a deal at a studio,' and I said, 'Great, great.'

"And they said, 'Well, who is your agent? Who do we talk to?' and I was like, 'Just talk to me. I look after myself.' And they looked at me as if I was crazy."

"Trainspotting" screens 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Music Box Theatre as part of the Sound Opinions film series hosted by Tribune rock critic Greg Kot and music writer Jim DeRogatis. They will be joined by "Trainspotting" author Irvine Welsh. Go to musicboxtheatre.com or wbez.org.

nmetz@tribpub.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews

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