Arts, Culture & Media

How this filmmaker went from dealing heroin to working on ‘T2 Trainspotting’

T2 Trainspotting” is the long-awaited sequel to Danny Boyle’s classic film about young heroin addicts in Edinburgh, and it opened in US theaters a few weeks ago. Set two decades after “Trainspotting,” “T2” has all the drugs and crime of the original movie — even the same train-car wallpaper in one character’s childhood bedroom.

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But for Garry Fraser, the sequel’s second-unit director, the new film represents a break with the past. He was a young heroin addict in Edinburgh when “Trainspotting” came out in 1996, and his life looked a lot like the movie.

“When I was 19, a typical day was selling drugs, taking drugs, making money and losing money,” he says. He even remembers watching “Trainspotting” when it first came out. Back then, the movie was an excuse for him to keep using heroin.

“One of the first things that we said was, ‘We are not junkies,’ because everybody in ‘Trainspotting’ was injecting, and we were burning heroin in foil at the time,” he says. “So, you know, we were just starting out on our trail of destruction from heroin use.”

By the time his son was born 13 years ago, Fraser says his addiction had hit rock bottom. “I was desperate to find something else, to find an answer in something else.”

He began writing — first, just getting his thoughts out on paper, and then sharing his short stories with friends. Inspiration, he says, came from movies like “New Jersey Drive” and “Menace II Society.”

“For me, that’s a poetic art — you know, somebody who’s sitting in a house in Edinburgh can connect with car thieves in New Jersey,” he explains. “So, when I watched movies like that, I would look at them and say, ‘Well, what's my version?’ And I'd go away and write, you know? And it gave me a springboard, a way to go away and learn a bit how to make movies and stuff.”

In 2008, Fraser made his first short film, “In 4 Life,” about the knife and drug culture. It earned acclaim from MTV. “For the first time in my life, that gave me a definite sense of identity, a definite sense of achievement. And I think once I got a taste of that, I realized that I wanted more.”

Fraser gave up drugs completely — a process that took time. “Coming off wasn’t something that happened over a year or two years,” he says. “It took me 10 years of hard work.”

Also, he connected online with Irvine Welsh, who wrote the books that both “Trainspotting” films are based on. “Basically, I was asking [Welsh] for advice on other stuff,” Fraser explains. Then, Welsh emailed saying that “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle wanted to speak to him about the sequel.

“Danny called me a week later, and he says, ‘I want to offer you the job of second-unit director, it’d be good for your CV,’” Fraser says. “But Danny says to me, ‘I'm not handing you a bouquet of flowers. You know, the job will be boring, it’ll be long hours. And what's going to happen is you're going to do exactly what I tell you, and I'm not going to like it. And then you're going to go out and shoot more.’ And that's exactly what we did.”

In “T2,” Fraser filmed footage like establishing shots, images for quick-cut montages, and footage of doubles doing stunts. “And that was the biggest blessing of the movie, to get offered an opportunity from Danny to have a clear space to apply my craft,” he says.

But for Fraser, it’s been a difficult adjustment since work on “T2” wrapped. “After you've made the feature, you have a psychological comedown, because it’s consumed you,” he says. “Your body almost doesn’t have time to have the flu, to have a cold. You're working incredible hours, you know, you’re flat-out. But once that all stops, real life just kicks in.”

And for Fraser, that real life is in the rough housing estates of north Edinburgh, where “Trainspotting” is set, and where he still lives. “And what it means is after the job, people start thinking that you’re really successful, and they have a false idea, and a false expectation of what and who you are, and what you’re doing,” he says.

“So, I'm going to be grateful that I've made it this far and I'm healthy, you know? A lot of people from where I come from don't make it that far and don't get to that point.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen. You can watch two of Garry Fraser's short films, “In 4 Life” and “Tolerance,” on the interview page.