Ewan McGregor as Trainspotting's Renton
The Drum gets under the skin of one of the most iconic movie posters of all time, talking to Trainspotting photographer Lorenzo Agius and designer Mark Blamire, and asking whether the sequel can ever live up to the original...
Choose nostalgia. Choose more of the same. Choose black and white photography, a splash of orange and sans serif fonts. Choose watching history repeat itself... but choose a different photographer and a different design team.
Two decades after Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ irreparably injected the zeitgeist with the idea that Edinburgh is a needle-strewn international capital of squalor, the movie’s distinctive ‘choose life’ mantra returns with a modern twist in the film’s sequel, reflecting the culture of nostalgia currently fuelling the entertainment industry. But with T2: Trainspotting, are we merely ‘watching history repeat itself’ or can the sequel, and its marketing, ever emerge from the colossal shadow cast by its predecessor?
Coming on the back of 1994’s Shallow Grave which won Best British Film at the Baftas, Trainspotting was only Boyle’s second stint in the director’s chair and the film put a slew of obscure actors in the awful Scottish places Scottish people don’t dare tread in a loyal adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel. Surprisingly, the characters, setting and ghastly plot struck a chord with moviegoers, and, the icing on the cake, its irreverent marketing produced one of cinema’s greatest ever posters. Total creative freedom.
Armed with a sizable marketing budget of £800,000, production studio PolyGram was always confident the movie would be a success. It was less confident, however, about how exactly it should get the word out.
“We didn’t get a brief as such from the studio,” says Lorenzo Agius, the photographer who captured the visuals immortalised in the movie’s marketing. “It was still editing the film at the time and couldn’t really tell us a great deal about it because it wasn’t too sure yet how it was going to market it.”
The only thing Polygram was sure of, according to Agius, is that it didn’t want to glamourise drugs, “despite the fact at that time in the 90s, everyone was doing drugs”. The public would have to connect with the characters instead, he says. As Boyle was relatively new to the business, Agius and co were given free rein when creating a poster concept, so much so, in fact, that he claims he hasn’t worked in such an unrestricted environment since.
“We never had anyone telling us what to do, and it shows what you can do when you have total creative freedom.” The stars were assembled in London for a photoshoot in where Agius was intent on emulating Richard Avedon’s ‘In the American West’ (a black and white photo-essay documenting ‘the human predicament’).
“I showed the actors these Richard Avedon pictures – tramps, hobos, workers, gritty, nasty pictures – and they brought their own characters to the studio.
Calvin Klein’s benchmark work for the CK1 brand, especially Kate Moss’ aptly-named ‘heroin chic’ was an influence too, as he looked beyond film at work grounded in the fashion and music industries.
“It was easy to get Robert Carlyle to shout and scream and be quite aggressive, this is what we wanted.”
Lorenzo also captured under-ager Diane’s contempt for authority, Sick Boy’s arrogant passion for James Bond, Spud’s drug-addled peculiarities and Renton was broken and moist, almost as if he’d just taken a dive into the ‘Worst Toilet in Scotland’. For the cast, Trainspotting was, at the time, just another movie – another job in a series of burgeoning careers.
Epitomising this was the fact Kevin McKidd missed the photoshoot, opting instead to go on a £250 package holiday to Tunisia, according to biography Lust for Life: Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting Phenomenon. McKidd would later say he “felt like a bit of an idiot when he returned to the UK to be greeted by a giant Trainspotting billboard at Waterloo Station which did not feature him”.
The campaign was “perfect for the time” says Agius. “There was a massive explosion of creative culture in Great Britain at the time. I felt it was important to do something that reflected that.”
From that era, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects and Trainspotting often find themselves grouped together, all great examples of how a unique poster can bolster the lasting power of a great film. Arguably this is even more important nowadays when, in bumper Netflix-like libraries, artwork is the ultimate differentiator.
Topically, Agius claims PolyGram asked him to reshoot the iconic Usual Suspects line-up poster. “It showed me what had been done and it was that unforgettable line-up. I turned down the job. Why would you want to do it again? It’s perfect.”
On T2: Trainspotting, Agius says: “I think the marketers spent a lot of money looking to relive that poster campaign. It was obvious they’d use the orange, the typeface and the black and white, but I was surprised they took the easy option. I thought they would come up with something a little more unique.
“No disrespect to the photographer behind the new poster, but I don’t think it will be on anyone’s wall.
“They won’t have had the same creative freedom we had. So many people are involved now, and they’ll all have an opinion how it should be. How could it possibly stand out as much as the original?
“We all have a romanticism with these films we grew up with. We want to see these characters again and there are elements that have been lifted from the original film. I think that’s what excites people though – you have to give people what they want. An artist has to play their hits. You expect to see the same things.”
Going back to that original campaign, it was Mark Blamire of Stylorouge who created the poster using Aguis’ stills. Blamire had no experience working in the movie industry, instead coming from a background in music. At the time, Stylorouge was putting the finishing touches on the design for Blur album Parklife - with follow-up The Great Escape yet to come. Blamire was ready to make his mark on the film industry and create work for “a unique bit of indecent British cinema”.
He ran with a modernist design, bold sans serif typefaces, a minimalist approach and simple colour palettes – especially the orange which was a leftover from an earlier poster in which a toxic warning symbol was present. “We managed to work it back in by keeping it for the overall colours for the branding – we realised that orange and black are the perfect warning sign for danger as it crops up in nature to warn off other animals.”
His inspiration came from far and wide, but especially from public transport and Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir’s British Railway system and UK road signs.
In Reservoir Dogs’ character-based poster, “each character had their own individual poster and colouring”. This somewhat inspired the character-focused approach, while the numbering of the Trainspotters, which could today pass as hashtags, came from the book, in particular how it numbered its chapters following 'Junk Dilemmas 64'.
Not a marketing tool
Blamire thinks the original work stands out because many film posters are a cluttered mess of badly photoshopped images, floating heads and explosions, all supplemented with dodgy typography. “I think film posters are relied upon too much as a marketing tool rather than being a piece of art or graphic design or great advertising like other more memorable posters are in graphic design’s history.
“I think because we tried to create a bold piece of design and not a marketing tool, we differentiated it from the crowd.”
The movie was heavily marketed towards young people and Odeon cinemas even stocked specially branded Trainspotting jelly babies. Blamire’s poster was distributed in student unions and ended up on many a student’s wall, remaining there for some time. Sony Pictures, T2’s backer, has the unenviable task of creating a product that measures up in some way to this.
James Herring, the managing partner of Taylor Herring who has worked with Disney on PR for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, with Sky for the launch of Sky Cinema and Blinkbox on the launch of Game of Thrones, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek, agrees that “nostalgia tourism” has undoubtedly played a big part in the marketing of the sequel.
“It is one of those rare films that has a cult following of loyal devotees and so it’s no surprise marketers wanted to engage with fans of the original.” He explains: “The updated speech, the poster design echoing the original, the trailer and cast reunion pieces have all garnered a commendable amount organic excitement.
“Other than La La Land, there’s been precious little to get excited about in the rush-hour that is the January awards season and showbiz media has totally feasted on T2.” Craig Oldham, creative director and founder of creative agency The Office Of Craig Oldham, when taking a comparative look at both campaigns, describes the original as “seminal” – both as a piece of work and as a reflection of society at the time. Recreating it some 20-odd years later may not be feasible, however.
“You can’t really fault Sony Pictures for wanting to echo the original as, naturally, the studio will want to capitalise on its success. But, as a designer, the instinct is to go against that and do something new instead of replicating the same idea.” The studio may be a victim of Trainspotting’s cult status, and the work heralding its return is “not the original and it’s not the best”, says Oldham.
“It is a new take on an old idea, not a failure. The creatives are trapped into doing something familiar. If the poster is anything to go by, you could feel a little let down – is it anything more than the same guys just grown up?”
The official trailer even gives off an air of too much familiarity, with nostalgia coming crashing home like an airborne pint glass.
Underworld’s Born Slippy welcomes us and is soon joined by other old acquaintances, from a tense standoff over a pool table to Renton reciting Choose Life and Spud watching a lad flee through the streets of Edinburgh, a fistful of ill-gotten goods no doubt under his jacket, as he and Renton had done previously. And that’s just the first 20 seconds.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s nostalgia we crave. Maybe we’re addicted.
This article was originally published in The Drum magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine here.