Danny Boyle sought to portray the bleak themes of Irvine Welsh’s novel with a film full of energy, color, and humor. Despite the art-house subject, his prior work making small, independent films, and the difficult content, he hoped to make a film with wide appeal. He did this by injecting elements of pop culture into the film, and building a protagonist who was somehow charming, and with whom we could identify, despite his often-reprehensible behavior. At the time, Boyle was just starting out as a filmmaker, having had critical success with his only prior film, Shallow Grave (1994). He again worked with the screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald, his collaborators from Shallow Grave, to develop the script and production plan for Trainspotting.
Boyle's influences while working on Trainspotting were older classic films that featured rebellious youth, like The Hustler and A Clockwork Orange. He was operating with a small budget and time constraints, so many scenes were filmed in one take, at the same location—an abandoned warehouse in Glasgow. This shooting strategy helps to create a grungy look, which fits with the characters’ lifestyles, and which Boyle plays up with the imagery, color, and lighting he chooses to employ. Boyle was also greatly influenced by non-cinematic works, such as Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel, Gravity's Rainbow, which inspired the scene in which Renton dives into a toilet. Boyle also tried to recreate the colors of Francis Bacon’s paintings during shooting, which contribute to a bleak surrealism. Boyle wanted the film to be a British version of Pulp Fiction, and used the soundtrack as another way to set the mood of each scene. The soundtrack went on to be one of the best-selling soundtrack albums of all time, and a companion volume of music that had influenced the director was also released.
Boyle also employed a unique style of photography. He often employs long tracking shots, which are frequently filmed with a handheld camera, and which generate a documentary quality in the images. Such tracking shots have become a signature of Boyle’s work, and in Trainspotting they have the effect of establishing the perspective of the film as being from Renton’s eyes. This documentary feel is at odds with the often surreal images that we see, and helps to establish an understanding that the film is an honest but subjective telling by Renton. These types of shots also contribute to the frenetic and fast-paced nature of the film, which is used to bring energy to the subject and elicit feelings of confusion and anxiety that Boyle tries to associate with drug use, crime, addiction, and withdrawal. His use of zooms, sweeps, other rapid camera movements, and close-ups during transitions help to generate this sense of frenzy. A jumpy editing style also helps to blur the chronology of events in the film. Such frenzy brings energy and excitement to a film in which one of the major themes is futility, and in which hardly anything really happens, as the characters are stuck in their own form of “trainspotting.”