The director who dared to violate the Just Say No code.

Published July 15, 1996 10:50AM (EDT)

The "Trainspotting" machine, which started rolling as a cult novel in Scotland's slums (passed hand-to-hand at outlawed raves) and gathered steam as a controversial West End play, is now in full locomotion, a wildly successful movie in Europe with raging fires of hype being stoked for its arrival on our shores. But will a movie about a bunch of toilet-diving Scottish heroin addicts play in Peoria?

A few months ago, director Danny Boyle didn't think so. "I doubt it'll do any business in America," he said. Was he prepared to alter that prediction now, after a staggering pre-release campaign and stories in every major magazine?

"I still don't know, to tell you the truth," chuckles the British filmmaker. With his rumpled bohemian look, the jovial Boyle, who unleashed last year's wonderfully wicked "Shallow Grave" on an unsuspecting public, looks out of place in Los Angeles, where he's come for "Trainspotting's" press screening, in advance of its July 19 opening.

"I just drove across America for the first time, and there's really a sense that people just want to belong," Boyle says. "And of course the film is about a group of guys who don't want to belong to anything -- nothing heroic or normal or faithful, because they've been disillusioned so many times. So I can't imagine that it will ever play in Peoria or Nebraska. But I don't know! I hope it will."

Whether or not audiences will line up to see the black comedy, which was the surprise non-competition hit at Cannes in May and the second-highest grossing film in British history (after "Four Weddings and a Funeral"), "Trainspotting" is certain to provoke debate. It remains to be seen which will be louder: the clucking tongues of the Christian Coalition, outraged by "Trainspotting's" drug-saturated subject matter, foul language and generally sociopathic tendencies, or the cheers of disenfranchised youth.

Critics have praised the grimly picaresque yarn. (See Charles Taylor's review elsewhere in this issue.) The adulation is bound to trouble audience members who balk at the movie's unsentimental, non-judgmental view of heroin addiction, a perspective summed up by lead character Mark Renton in the film's opening sequence: "I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?"

Boyle says he consciously avoided the role of director-as-social-worker, noting that the unbiased view is the more complicated one. "In an old-fashioned message film, Renton would be destroyed in the end, because he's a terrible abuser, a despicable person in some ways. Instead he slides away. And yet the nicest guy in the whole film, and the last to use, is the first to die. There is no fairness, but there is plenty of mayhem."

Renton and his friends cheerfully mug tourists for drug money, shoot up, start brawls, even dive into toilets when the white treasure is accidentally dropped. Horrific as it can be, however, the film is much tamer than Irvine Welsh's novel.

"My writing acknowledges that drugs are now unremarkable," said the reclusive, 30-something Welsh in an interview last year. "As British society changed under the (Margaret) Thatcher '80s, drugs and drink became less recreational and more a way of life because people had fuck all else to do."

The book, more than the movie, blames Thatcher's policies for handing Scotland a staggering unemployment rate and a corresponding increase in drug use in the mid-'80s. Skag use became so rampant that Edinburgh was known as "the AIDS capital of Europe."

The improbable bestseller became something of a badge among British acid-house ravers, a group usually more fond of tripping than picking up a book. And the play, which after numerous runs in Scotland moved to London -- just a posh block from the long-running "Mousetrap" -- startled critics with its obscene humor. "It goes beyond hedonism to embrace human tragedy, large and small,'' proclaimed the Evening Standard. The Independent was less enthralled: "This is the kind of 'escapism' associated with a particularly virulent boil being lanced." The play was also produced in San Francisco, where it was twice extended and hundreds of theater-goers had to be turned away for lack of space in the tiny theater above the Edinburgh Castle pub.

Now America is inundated with "Trainspotting" artifacts. There's the "Trainspotting" script (a good source for those who have difficulty deciphering the movie's thick Scottish brogue), the "Trainspotting" CD, even "Trainspotting" T-shirts. And bookstores are selling out of Welsh's novel, which was finally released here recently.

It all further fuels the notion that these days, it's very hip to be Scottish.

Aiding and abetting the fever is Scotland's remarkable surge in the arts. James Kelman won England's top literary award, the Booker Prize, in 1994 for his jagged "How Late It Was, How Late." (Like Welsh, Kelman writes in the Scottish vernacular -- a linguistic nose-thumbing at the Queen and her English.) Not far behind Kelman and Welsh is even younger talent: Alan Warner, Gordon Legge and the ultra-feminist Janice Galloway.

In movies, historical epics like "Braveheart" and "Rob Roy" have further fueled seditious talk, and Boyle is a red-hot director. Boyle's career took off with the critically-acclaimed "Shallow Grave," but he also garnered points for having the chutzpah to walk away from a job directing the certain blockbuster "Aliens 4." ("I don't do storyboards," he shrugs.)

Boyle says he took on "Trainspotting" -- and the chore of turning a cult novel into a more commercial venture with a paltry budget of $2.4 million -- because the book changed his life.

"It really did. I was shocked by it and how much it changed the way I think about life. I consider it a very important work."

And then there was the matter of convincing John Hodge, who
did such a brilliant job with the screenplay of "Shallow Grave," to take on the chore of "Trainspotting."

"It took a while to convince John to do it," Boyle says. "Because I think he had a tough job, to turn an amazing piece of writing into a 90-minute film. It was pretty daunting."

Daunting especially because both the book and the play were episodic sketches, not sustained narratives: Hodge had to create a story line from scratch. Keeping the characters real -- neither heroes nor simplistic criminals -- also involved walking a thin line, Boyle says.

"My favorite drug movie has to be "Drugstore Cowboy," because it treats the addicts like human beings. If you're not an addict there's a temptation to imagine them as being monsters or freaks or mutants. But we can all go there in different ways. The book brings it back into focus that these people are part of our society."

Boyle is aware that the film will be criticized for its lack of just-say-no attitude. This is, after all, the first film in years that dares to point out that people who do drugs do them because, at least for a moment, it feels wonderful. And -- dare we suggest it? -- these kids are having fun.

"Although their world is terribly depressing, there is something very exhilarating there," Boyle says. "The film celebrates the spirit of these young people, rather than the thing they do that will eventually destroy them. It's also about just being young and all the crazy things you do in your 20s. It's not trying to celebrate heroin, it's celebrating a kind of spirit that exists in all of us before something like age, or a job -- or heroin -- crushes it."

By Anne Burns

Anne Burns is a San Francisco-based writer. She is not related to the poet.

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