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Danny Boyle, T2 & the joy of creating

Words: Neil Wood & Paul Shiels

“There are more people buried here than there are alive today in Tower Hamlets,” says Danny Boyle from atop a small stage in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. Given the sky is treacle black and we’re gathered in the middle of a massive graveyard, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re on the set of a new Boyle horror movie.

In fact, we’re hosting a Q&A with Danny at Shuffle Festival in Mile End – an annual community festival celebrating creativity through film, science, performance, architectural installations, walks, food, and music.

Boyle, a local resident, enthuses about the surroundings and the festival’s history: he’s barely visible, cutting a half-man, half-shadow figure as he moves in and out of light cast from a giant screen to his left. We’re about to watch Trainspotting T2, Boyle’s incredible sequel to the 1996 classic, and the man himself is taking questions about the movie, its characters, and its themes of masculinity.

Actor Sam Pamphilon begging for a role in Danny’s next film

“Trainspotting was a big surprise hit,” he says unashamedly. “It was a film about a bunch of drug abusers and normally those films tended to empty cinemas rather than fill them. Everyone was advising against doing it but we were in love with the book, it’s an absolute masterpiece of modern writing, way better than the film.”

Everyone was advising against doing it but we were in love with the book, it’s an absolute masterpiece of modern writing, way better than the film.

“The first film is very hedonistic and it’s very masculine, all the things you think you can get away with in your 20s. But then you think what happens to those characters when they hit their mid-40s and they can’t have that attitude anymore?”

T2 happens. 20 years have passed but Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie, and Spud return older and, somehow, even more confused. They are men of a moment, clinging to their past; to their hopes; to their rage; to not a great deal it seems.

“I remember talking at the time of T1 about how men were very bad at maintaining friendships and how women are so much better at doing that. Men tend to fracture those schoolboy friendships. And, you sort of forget about it, but the first film is driven by voiceover. We decided on this one that there would be no voiceover because the characters have lost their voice in a way. They’re in their mid-40s and they don’t have anything. They’re forced back together to examine their lives.”

The characters have lost their voice in a way. They’re in their mid-40s and they don’t have anything.

You see this clearly in the central characters, particularly in Begbie, a man Boyle describes as an archetypal monster – “you’d hope you never know a guy like that.”

Is the middle-aged malaise that these men experience reflective of what many men in the UK are going through? Given suicide rates are highest among men in their forties?

“I’m 60, I can see the pattern of change there’s been. I come from a working class community. What began to change was apprenticeships. That was a huge factor in male lives, the job of the father was passed to the son either directly or through connections. I have a twin sister and I can tell the way our parents expected us to go was different, I think that’s changed for the better, but there’ll always be difficulty with change. I could see why there’s a crisis. These men in their forties and fifties are at an age where they’ve lost that invincibility. The physicality and muscularity. because of energy, internal resources begin to fade yet you’re still expected to be a provider, or you exert that pressure on yourself. Work is a huge factor for men. That stigma of not being able to make your mark. Men feel a leadership onus.”

“These men in their forties and fifties are at an age where they’ve lost that invincibility. The physicality and muscularity. because of energy, internal resources begin to fade yet you’re still expected to be a provider, or you exert that pressure on yourself.”

Strangely, the character who signifies progression and hope is Spud. And hope is a vital factor of T2: “I’m a big believer that in your storytelling you have to be hopeful; that your own life is enriched in a way by seeing these people that you recognise. Like your work with CALM to prevent male suicide. One of the characters is in that place, but he pulls out of it in a way that gives you hope.”

Spud uses creativity to make sense of the world and his past. We ask Danny if creative self-expression is conducive to better mental well-being…

“No-brainer. The benefit to a community of people of having little festivals like this, to have access to creativity, that you can go to drama school or go to film school, if you need some help to learn how to write or get published… It’s enormous. Culture will express itself in many different ways. Some of which we find unacceptable. But it’s like what people say about why do people read? You read to know that you’re not alone. If you’re in crisis or if you’re in joy, it’s still there. There are other people out there who share your pain. Or someone who’s found joy and hope when you’re finding it tough. It’s the great offset of loneliness. We’re born alone and we die alone but in the middle is this is opportunity to share experiences and knowledge and intimacy and discovery, and there’s no point doing it on your own. There have been great individual achievements. But unless you share it in some way it’s … not futile … but its hollow in a way, I think.”

Is that one of the things that drove him to be a filmmaker?

“I’d like to have been a footballer but I wasn’t very good at it.” And at a young age he was much more interested in music than film.

Danny with Filmmaker Helena Coan

“I was a punk when punk came out. And then I was just about young enough to be part of the house music scene when I was in London, all that music naturally informed the first Trainspotting film. So, the pressure to create a soundtrack as good as the first one was enormous, but you had to try and forget that and build it organically. Young fathers, who are just an amazing band, liberated me from that pressure with three songs for the new soundtrack.” He also praises Underworld, creators of the unforgettable Born Slippy, synonymous with the original, for their languid, ambient T2 rework Slow Slippy, which sounds “like a dredger in the ocean, pulling up memories.”

“I was a punk when punk came out. And then I was just about young enough to be part of the house music scene when I was in London, all that music naturally informed the first Trainspotting film.”

Boyle believes the real issue with gender in film is the underrepresentation of women: “it’s hugely male dominated, there are certain exceptions to that, great exceptions like Kathryn Bigalow who made Detroit, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsey… but the numbers are terrible. So you go ‘how does that happen?’”

“In the end economics will solve that because weirdly Hollywood doesn’t care about men or women, they just care about money. Men are abandoning cinema. Cinema is failing with the move to television. Studios have said ‘people in their late twenties stop going to cinema’ so they followed them home. And I think it’s women that are driving that. That’s why we’re seeing more interesting female characters, the demand is there for female complexity.”

As we close our chat with the classic advice for aspiring filmmakers question, the two-time BAFTA winner simply says: “film awards persistence over talent”. How grateful we are that he persisted in bringing these Irvine Welsh masterpieces to the big screen. 

Huge thanks to Kate MacTeirnan and Lizzy Daish at Shuffle festival, David Kirkwood, Helena Coan and Sheila Marshall from Chocolate Films and Sam Pamphilon for being a top host.

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