Ewan McGregor Got Hit By A Car 20 Times On The Trainspotting Set

The mid-'90s in the UK were totally ace. The music scene was jumping; England were doing all right in the football; the emerging lad culture told us it was okay to lash down 10 pints on a Saturday night, just so long as you didn't get into too much aggro. Doormen were still mug enough to accept fake ID, and there was nothing like hitting the bar with your mates just as the swaggering intro of an Oasis track started blasting out.

Things were on the move and a new, brash, vibrant Britain was all dressed up in the Union Jack and didn't care who knew it. Britpop was the soundtrack and, as a working-class teen, I naturally gravitated toward the rough-and-ready Gallagher brothers and the class anxiety of Jarvis Cocker and Pulp. Then came "Trainspotting," the flagship movie of Cool Britannia, which felt like a great Britpop tune turned celluloid. 

It promised to be the coolest movie since "Pulp Fiction," with one major difference: This one was ours. We just couldn't wait. An edgy newcomer called Ewan McGregor peered out from the front cover of Empire magazine; the issue was the first film mag I ever bought. Some of my mates already had the "Choose Life" poster on their wall and the soundtrack CD playing on repeat. Some tried notching up extra cred in the common room by boasting they'd read Irvine Welsh's novel years ago, though nobody really believed them.

After what felt like years of waiting, the film came out. It was good. Very good, in fact. But I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed, which I guess was inevitable after all the insane hype. Still, there was no denying that McGregor was a superstar-in-waiting, and he put his body on the line for the role.

So what happens in Trainspotting again?

"Trainspotting" opens with a pure burst of energy; feet pound gray pavements to the urgent rhythm of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life." This is Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Spud (Ewen Bremner), two Edinburgh junkies legging it from store detectives after a little light shoplifting to fund their heroin habit. Renton launches into his famous "Choose Life" speech as a car knocks him down and prevents his escape.

We then meet his other mates: Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), a handsome fellow addict and Sean Connery fan; Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a pocket-sized psychopath who hates hard drugs but has no qualms about carving up innocent bystanders in a pub; and Tommy (Kevin McKidd), a relatively clean-living, honest type who tragically decides to give smack a chance after getting dumped by his girlfriend.

That's just the pre-credits sequence, and it's the best five minutes of the whole film. After procuring some opium suppositories from another dealer and making a stop-off at the worst toilet in Scotland, Renton quits the drugs and must face life in a "state of full consciousness." Recovering his sex drive, he has a one-night stand with an underage girl, Diane (Kelly Macdonald), before the pressures of living a normal life send him running back to heroin.

After narrowly avoiding a jail term for shoplifting and almost dying from an overdose, Renton heads to London for a fresh start. It's not long before his mates follow him south, and a drug deal presents him with a chance to make a clean break of it.

Ewan McGregor repeatedly run over for a shot

After the success of "Shallow Grave," the producer-writer-director trio of Andrew Macdonald, John Hodge, and Danny Boyle all wanted Ewan McGregor as their Renton. McGregor read a first draft handed to him at the Sundance Film Festival and immediately thought he should play the part. His resolve was strengthened further when he read Welsh's novel and fell in love with it (via GQ).

While Hodge had some trouble imagining McGregor as a skinny junkie, all doubts were dispelled when he shed weight and spent time observing drug addicts for the role. How did he achieve it?

"Easy: I grilled everything, stopped drinking beer, drank lots of gin instead and the weight just f***ing fell off! That had to be done. Renton was living a life on heroin, so he wasn't going to be a beefcake."

His complete commitment to the role continued during the shoot in Edinburgh for the opening sequence. As Renton runs away from the security guards, he is knocked over by a car. It's a moment that only lasts a few seconds in the scene but took much longer during filming. Boyle had McGregor run over around 20 times to get it absolutely right, with frequent breaks for medical attention from their on-set nurse. 

The moment contains one of the film's most memorable images as Renton gets back up, leans on the hood, glares at the driver, and lets out a wild laugh. It's a great introduction to our antihero and must have been worth the pain; the film sent McGregor's career stratospheric and yet, 26 years later, Renton remains his defining role.  

Does Trainspotting still hold up?

"Trainspotting" still bristles with anarchic energy, but the rest of the film struggles to recapture the sheer exhilaration of that breathless opening sequence. There are still several excellent set pieces, not least the mournful "Perfect Day" overdose scene, but it suffers from an episodic structure that only finds any narrative thrust in the last act. That was perhaps inevitable given the nature of Welsh's scalding source novel, mostly a series of vignettes told from different perspectives.

Danny Boyle made good on the promise of "Shallow Grave" by following up with the key British film of the '90s. He directs with mischievous verve, whether it's staging underwater fantasy sequences or wittily cross-cutting three simultaneous sex scenes. Although "Trainspotting" has visibly dated, it still looks a treat thanks to assured cinematography, the distinctive retro threads, and brilliantly set design that takes up into scabby shooting galleries, dismal pubs, and heaving nightclubs.

Then you have the performances. The brilliant black-and-orange ad campaign put us on first-name terms with the characters well before the film hit theaters, and every member of the principle cast inhabits their star-making roles so naturally. Best of all was McGregor, perfect as Renton with his nervy energy, dry humor, and purring voice-over giving us the guided tour of his dark yet strangely alluring world. Neither he nor Danny Boyle have made a better film since.

While McGregor suffered for his art by repeatedly getting knocked over by a car for the opening scene, also spare a thought for Ewan Bremner. During the opening scene, he was also ran over — by the director himself, riding a quad bike to get the famous running shot (via The Herald)!