Andrew Macdonald is in the Groucho Club, introducing his team
to me. "I lie on the phone," he says with a chuckle,
then points at Danny Boyle. "He shouts at actors, and [indicating
John Hodge] he writes scripts in his bedroom." The three
of them – producer, director, writer – dissolve into
giggles at a flippant remark which belies their position as the
potential saviours of British Cult Film, the UK’s answer to A
Band Apart, makers of Pulp Fiction.
Last year, they produced Shallow Grave, a black comedy
which came from nowhere and left its audience looking at their
flatmates in a different light. This year, their production company,
Figment Films, is the force behind Trainspotting, the most
exciting film about British youth since Quadrophenia.
Based on Irvine Welsh’s cult novel about heroin junkies in Edinburgh,
Trainspotting is a fantastic ride and a bad trip rolled
into one. Ewan McGregor, one of the UK’s hottest young talents,
plays skag-addled anti-hero Mark Renton, hanging out with a group
of mates, shooting up and shooting their loads. Fuelled by a soundtrack
provided by the best of British – people’s band Pulp, ambient
stormers Leftfield and a crooning Damon Albarn, who wrote a song
especially for the film – Trainspotting leaves you
buzzing, high on cinema. A superb depiction of that surreal hallucination
known as urban living, it’s also a great kick up the arse for
the British film industry.
"Cinema is a popular medium," insists Boyle, leaning
forward to empahise his point. "We have to make more idiosyncratic
films, but that needn’t eschew popularity."
Their film sidesteps the bleakness of Welsh’s novel, and concentrates
instead on its black and cynical sense of humour. In fact, for
the first 40 minutes, it’s a laugh-a-minute comedy, more Carry
On than Christiane F. When it kicks in, getting intimate
with needles, a dead baby and toxoplasmosis, it hits hard.
So did they think about toning it down? "Oh God, no. No!"
asserts Boyle immediately. "All the traditional information
about heroin is there. It’s just used in a form that is going
to get people into the cinema to listen to it rather than repel
them. We wanted to be honest about heroin, so the beginning of
Trainspotting is highly seductive. The dilemma was that
we wanted to make an entertaining film about something that is
potentially lethal, and this is something that people may find
It was Macdonald who read Welsh’s novel first, introducing it
to the other two just as they were finishing Shallow Grave
at the beginning of 1994. This was before Trainspotting‘s
paperback publication, before it became a cult classic and certainly
well before it was read by people travelling on the Tube. "When
you come across something that special, you just know," says
What they didn’t know was it whether it would make a great film.
To start with, as Boyle points out, there’s "fuck all"
of a story. Then they were faced with the episodic complexity
of Welsh’s novel. "When I first read the book, I thought
it could never be a film," says Hodge. What he did was cut
it ruthlessly, honing the cast of characters and transferring
scenes, keeping only what the team thought was essential. "If
you’re going to compare us to the book," says Boyle, "we
have to hold our hands up and say you’re right, the book is
better, it is a masterpiece, it is ten films
While Boyle is by far the most loquacious and eloquent of the
trio, his partners continually nod in assent. Macdonald is self-assured,
leaning calmly back in his chair, counterbalancing Boyle’s energetic
intensity. Hodge listens rather than talks, only expressing himself
with a flurry of words when he has to. But they do, however, share
the same dry sense of humour.
Trainspotting is full of jokes. Not just literal ones in
the script and soundtrack but ones that require a certain knowledge
before you get them. There are cameos – Irvine Welsh as a
drug dealer, Dale Winton as a TV game show host (how postmodern),
even Macdonald himself puts in an appearance. And Keith Allen
procures an extremely large sum of cash in Trainspotting,
playing a shady character not entirely dissimilar to the one who
headed for his shallow grave leaving behind a suitcase of money
in Figment’s first film. "It’s sort of like a joke,"
Macdonald smiles wryly. Of course.
Not many producers can afford to be this blasé. Few producers
under 30 are even in work. But Macdonald is following a remarkable
precedent – his grandfather, Emeric Pressburger, produced,
wrote and directed some of the greatest films of British cinema
with his partner Michael Powell.
Although this legacy works its effect on them all, Figment is
firmly focused on the now; Boyle, Hodge and Macdonald just as
influenced by today’s independent American cinema and by contemporary
music as they are by the brilliant fantasy of Powell and Pressburger’s
The Red Shoes. Danny Boyle loves Pulp’s Different Class.
"A lot of the album is about Jarvis Cocker’s experiences,"
he says, "and you realise that’s what art is really, just
trying to write about your experiences as they happen."
"The people who should be making films in this country are
in Blur," continues Macdonald. "And in Pulp, and in
Oasis. But they’re writing pop songs instead of great screenplays."
In a way, it’s up to Figment to do for British film what Pulp
and Blur have done for British pop. They could even achieve more.
Next up is Hodge’s second original screenplay, a "boy-girl
story" entitled A Life Less Ordinary. Macdonald wants
Uma Thurman, and he wants to crack the American market. For the
time being, however, Boyle says they’ll be happy striking the
same chord that Jarvis Cocker has done.
"We’re not up on a hill waiting for the masses to arrive,"
he says. "What’s important are those who actually commit
their five pounds a week to the cinema. Our films may prove worthless
in ten year’s time, so we’ve set ourselves up to engage with that
audience now rather than let it come to us."