Why The Beach Left Danny Boyle And Ewan McGregor's Friendship In Shambles

The 1990s were a glorious time for independent and international cinema. While well-moneyed studio fare was still gathering plenty of attention in the public eye, micro-budgeted films from first-time directors were also noticeably at the table, often attracting more press coverage and critical acclaim than their more expensive counterparts; This was a time when "Clerks" could entrench itself deeply in the popular consciousness and garner more clout than a misguided blockbuster like "The Flintstones." It was during this time that an English director named Danny Boyle and a Scottish actor name Ewan McGregor first came to prominence. 

Danny Boyle's first film as director was "Shallow Grave," which was released in England in May of 1994 and in the United States the following January. "Shallow Grave" is about a trio of flatmates (McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, and Kerry Fox) who like to play games. They need a fourth roommate to pay bills, but use the interview process to joke around more than seriously interview people. They eventually find a flatmate ... who very quickly overdoses and dies in his room. They also find a suitcase full of cash. The three leads decide to merely bury the body and keep the money. The story that follows details their mental degradation and Dostoyevskian journey of guilt. It was a critical success, earning several awards at various international film festivals.

"Shallow Grave" was also Ewan McGregor's second feature film, having only previously acted in Bill Forsyth's "Begin Human," a high-concept, centuries-spanning, transmigration drama starring Robin Williams. Boyle and McGregor were both suddenly getting attention, and though another round of acclaim awaited them, so did the crumbling of their friendship and collaboration.

The Rise of McGregor and Boyle

After "Shallow Grave," Boyle and McGregor were on the upswing. McGregor moved into fascinating and strange indie projects like "The Pillow Book," period romances like "Emma," and gloriously bonkers queer musicals like "Velvet Goldmine," wherein he played a parallel universe version of Iggy Pop. McGregor would also end the 1990s by playing a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace," one of the most successful films of the decade, and one of the more notorious. 

Throughout the decade, Boyle would also continue to gather attention, mostly with "Trainspotting" in 1996, a darkly jovial, intense, and wildly energetic film about junkies in Edinburgh. Based on a novel by Irvine Welsh, "Trainspotting" was a filthy blast of punk energy, and further cemented both Boyle and McGregor as important forces in cinema. The duo would re-team a third time for "A Life Less Ordinary" in 1997, which was just as wild and energetic as "Trainspotting," but far more upbeat and romantic. "Life" is about a kidnapper-with-a-heart-of-gold (McGregor) who ends up forging an intense romance with his victim, played by Cameron Diaz. It's dark, fun, and playfully twisted. However, the film wasn't as well-received as their previous efforts together, and it bombed at the box office. 

The same year "A Life Less Ordinary" was being ignored, another ascending star was making waves (*wink*) in James Cameron's remake of "The Boatniks," a little movie called "Titanic."

The Beach

Danny Boyle's fourth film, "The Beach," was released in 2000 ... notably without Ewan McGregor. "The Beach" is about an American tourist in Bangkok who falls in with an impossibly attractive French couple (Virginie Ledoyen and Guillaume Canet), and, following the directions of a mysterious bohemian (Robert Carlyle), discovers a mysterious hidden island in the Gulf of Thailand where a secret enclave of off-the-grid expatriates have been living in secret for years. They grow their own food, have access to free weed, and live free of the fetters of capitalism; the promise of the 1960s finally fulfilled. Of course, the idyll will eventually be interrupted. 

"The Beach" was a modest success, and sold many soundtrack records — Moby's "Porcelain" is a standout on the album — but was a critical flop. Boyle admitted in a 2017 Q&A that all the characters were unlikeable, making for a pretty miserable film. "The Beach" was also Leonardo DiCaprio's first film after the success of "Titanic," and audiences likely gathered just to see the world's hottest teeny-bopper idol in a new film. His performance was not praised, however, and DiCaprio received a Razzie nomination that year. He "lost" to John Travolta in "Battlefield Earth." 

Would "The Beach" have been better with Ewan McGregor in the Leonardo DiCaprio role? We'll never know, but it was the hiring of DiCpario that led to Boyle and McGregor not speaking to each other for years. 

Ewan vs. Leo

Ewan McGregor was originally cast as the lead character in "The Beach," but he came to blows with Boyle when, reportedly, Boyle was offered more money by 20th Century Fox to make the lead character an American. Boyle took the money, and Leonardo DiCaprio took the part. In January of 2017, on an episode of "The Graham Norton Show," McGregor admitted to feeling slighted upon the rejection. He said: 

"It's a big regret of mine that it went on for so very long. It's a shame we didn't work together all those years. It wasn't about "The Beach," it was about our friendship, and I felt I was in Danny's first three movies ... and then I wasn't in his fourth, and it made me a bit rudderless. I didn't quite get it, and yeah, we didn't speak for a long time, which was a waste."

McGregor and Boyle both continued to put out interesting work. McGregor, as mentioned, was already involved with the "Star Wars" movies and would continue to work with interesting directors in a series of high-profile films (Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!," Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down," Tim Burton's "Big Fish," Michael Bay's "The Island," Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream," etc.), and Boyle was repeatedly shaking up the cinema world with "28 Days Later," the charming "Millions," and the Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire."

By 2017, McGregor and Boyle finally began speaking again in order to make "T2 Trainspotting," a sequel based on the follow-up novel "Porno" by Irvine Welsh. "T2" caught up with the same Edinburgh junkies now that they were on-and-off clean, not-so-sober, rounding middle age, and still serial criminals. McGregor and Boyle may have missed several opportunities to work together after falling out over "The Beach," but thankfully for them — and for a grateful audience — they did indeed patch things up and appear to be copacetic. 

McGregor and Boyle haven't announced any future projects together as of this writing, but at least the potential for future projects is now back on the table.