The Richmond Review

book review   


      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Monika Maurer

Related Links

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 unacceptable."

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 Macdonald.

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 in one."

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."


Search The Richmond Review

Enter email address and Subscribe for updates

Product finder

Browse our network:

Visit The Big Bookshop


The Richmond Review

Copyright © 1995/2003 The Richmond Review