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The T2 Trainspotting director on how his unexpected sequel interrogates the very legacy of the first film

T2 Trainspotting star Ewan McGregor in a promotional photo for the original 1996 film, left, and 20 years later, right.

Early in the new film T2 Trainspotting, Ewan McGregor's one-time heroin addict Mark Renton, who by all logic should be dead by 2017, saunters into an Edinburgh pub to meet a former friend. "Hello, Mark," greets Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson, the charming hustler played by Jonny Lee Miller. There's a lengthy pause as the full weight of history wedges itself between the pair. "So," Sick Boy asks, "what have you been up to … for 20 years?"

That is the central question upon which director Danny Boyle's unlikely sequel pivots: What, exactly, has everyone been up to since Trainspotting burst onto the scene more than two decades ago, introducing the world not only to the spitfire director and his leading heartthrob McGregor, but also to its furious combination of sex, drugs and Britpop? And why, of all moments, is now the time to resurrect Trainspotting's sordid milieu?

The easy answer: nostalgia, that ineffable and all-powerful force that drives so much of current pop culture. But there is a more complex, artistically driven enterprise running underneath: T2 is Boyle's opportunity to reinvent the very concept of nostalgia, of how we're forever chasing past glories – no matter how inglorious that history actually was.

"Doing a sequel like this, everybody wants to know the basics. Are the actors coming back? Is the soundtrack as good? The expected stuff that reminds them of the first," Boyle, 60, says over the phone from Sydney, Australia, where he's in the midst of a worldwide publicity tour. "And of course there's going to be a new 'Choose Life' speech, too, right? An update of that sneering speech mocking your life choices? Sure! But here it changes halfway through, and suddenly Mark is saying, 'Choose disappointment. Choose not being the person you want to be. Choose losing the ones you love.' It becomes this personal thing about how you address the passing of time, and your own acknowledgment of what have I done, what have I got, was it worth it?

From left, director Danny Boyle, author Irvine Welsh and the actor Robert Carlye on the set of T2 Trainspotting.

"The first film doesn't give a hoot about time passing, because junkies live in a timeless oblivion. But now they realize that time doesn't care about them, either. We all have that feeling. And this is about trying to capture that indescribable feeling of obscure sorrow."

T2, then, is less a romp through the filthiest washrooms of Scotland and more a meditation on the false promises of the past – it's generational sadness writ large, with a delightfully profane bent.

When the first film debuted, it jutted out like a welcome middle finger to the culture, especially in Britain, where music was ruled by the Spice Girls, politics were defined by the drab and perpetually grey-suited John Major, and the earnest Braveheart was the year's film to beat. Like a serrated knife rusted to an inch of its life, Boyle's junkie epic cut through the staid cultural conversation with a jittery fury. With little warning, Trainspotting and its propulsive soundtrack – not only the immortal Iggy Pop but also soon-to-be-icons Damon Albarn, Blur, Pulp and Underworld – became a secret currency among those who fancied themselves dangerous, or at least different. It was a new iteration of punk rock, with the stick-thin and frequently shirtless McGregor a Johnny Rotten for a new generation.

How many dorm rooms were pasted with Renton's mile-a-minute "Choose Life" speech? "Choose life, choose a job, choose a career, choose a family, choose a big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers …"

From left: Johnny Lee Miller, Ewan McGregor, Kevin McKidd and Ewen Bremmer in a scene from the original Trainspotting.

But also, choose imitators. Countless facsimiles soon aped Boyle's drugged-out misadventure: Gridlock'd, Human Traffic, Go, The Acid House, 24 Hour Party People, Awaydays, Requiem for a Dream, and even Boyle's own The Beach. It's no exaggeration to say Trainspotting inspired as many filmmakers as Pulp Fiction. The two films represent a twin cinema of nineties subversion – although the notion of sequelizing Quentin Tarantino's classic seems impossible.

Yet a Trainspotting follow-up seems palatable. Two decades removed, and we're still nostalgic for Boyle's filthy world, but in a perverse way – as if we only recall the headbanging excess of Lust for Life and author Irvine Welsh's bombastic narrative, and not the horrors depicted within. It all seemed like a lark but, today, there's a schism between longing for Trainspotting's dirt, and simply washing our memories clean. It's a dilemma that Boyle decided to dissect for T2, that rare sequel that interrogates the very idea and legacy of the first film.

Witness the new film's sparing but highly original use of flashbacks, spliced into the film as if frenetic background noise to the deadening hum of the present day, adding a meta layer of commentary on the choices of not only the characters, but of Boyle himself.

"It was like realizing there's an artifact, which is this earlier film. Do you ignore it, or do you use it as a resource to draw on?" Boyle says. "It's not exactly breaking the fourth wall, but it goes to the point that film is the best art form to examine time. As an art form, film can slow time, or speed it up, or freeze it, or unfreeze it. That's the cinematic language. And it felt so important for these guys who haven't met each other for 20 years, and for the audience, to have film as the tool to tell that story – where they are now, and where they came from, what disappointments they've become."

Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) drinking in Simon’s flat in TriStar Pictures’ T2 Trainspotting.

One such disappointment that's immediately pulled apart is Boyle's long estrangement from McGregor, sparked when the director cast Leonardo DiCaprio in 2000's The Beach over his go-to leading man. It's no secret that the aforementioned scene of Renton and Sick Boy reuniting in that Edinburgh pub – where they proceed to smash each other's heads open with beer glasses – echoes T2's central behind-the-scenes relationship.

"Whether people see that meta level of commentary or are too polite to mention it, I don't know, but absolutely – we had this terrible rift of lovers," Boyle says. "Mark and Simon are lovers, just as Ewan and I were very close. And it was my fault. There is this terrible Britishness to it where we never said anything about it. We didn't speak to each other. What I should have done is what we did in the film, and bash each other over the head. I fell out with [Trainspotting producer] Andrew Macdonald, too. And [screenwriter John Hodge] knows all of this as he's writing it. And we know as we're filming it."

The details of T2's plot are inconsequential – like the first, there's a criminal scheme at the centre of things, and heroin, or the threat of heroin, is present in every narrative corner. But the story is only employed to further push Boyle's fascination with what mark his original work left on the world: T2 is about disappointment, and how to reconcile our idealized past with the future we made for ourselves. It's a Boyhood without any time-gap production tricks. A riff on Michael Apted's Up series with the benefit of a new, killer soundtrack.

"Depending on what you were doing at the time, the first film has its own vocabulary with people. It was like that for us, too, for myself and the actors – we felt like we were doing something slightly bigger than ourselves," says Boyle, who reunited the entire cast here, including McGregor and Miller but also Ewen Bremner as spacey junkie Spud, Robert Carlyle as psychopath Begbie and Kelly Macdonald as one-time underage partier Diane.

"It was a funny feeling making it, like the film was talking about the characters, as it should, but myself and the actors, too. There was this strange connection with the living world, with our lives. Age is a way of connecting everyone. It doesn't matter your wealth or success or looks – no one buys their way out of this one."

Ewan McGregor as Mark Renton and Jonny Lee Miller as Simon on railway tracks in TriStar Pictures’ T2: Trainspotting.

You'd be forgiven, though, for thinking Boyle might want to buy his way out of T2. It's the director's first sequel over the course of an incredibly varied career (28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Steve Jobs), and one that he dismissed before.

"We tried to do this 10 years ago, to make a more conventional sequel out of Welsh's book Porno, and it would've been okay," says Boyle. "But we didn't go ahead because we didn't feel it had a reason to be. Then, when our 20th anniversary was on the horizon, we sat around, me and John, and the script emerged. It was more personal, more acute. We used these characters as a prism to examine age, and what happens when you really look back at the past, for better or worse."

T2 is as much about Mark Renton as it is about Danny Boyle as it is about the culture Trainspotting sparked – a delightful hall of mirrors that would trip up the most hardened junkie. And all of which sets it far apart from any of Hollywood's other nostalgia-fuelled enterprises, crass as they are obvious. A new Trainspotting might not have been expected, or, to hear Boyle tell it, easy to make. But it is welcome.

As Mark Renton might say, choose life – real life. Choose T2.

T2 Trainspotting opens March 17 in Toronto, March 24 in Vancouver and Montreal, and March 31 across other Canadian cities