INTERVIEW: Stephen Daldry Dances to Success with "Billy Elliot"
by Andy Bailey
(indieWIRE/10.17.00) -- Six unemployed steelworkers turn to stripping to raise cash; a divorcee peddles marijuana to save herself from debt; an 11-year-old boy finds salvation through ballet during a miner's strike. Hum the "I believe in miracles" chorus from Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing" and watch those box office figures ascend. If there's a formula for turning low-budget specialized fare into massive worldwide hits, the British film industry has fine-tuned the shameless safe bet into a seemingly effortless recipe for "sleeper" success.
But the bright-eyed ballet bawler "Billy Elliot" -- deemed "emotional pornography" by Time magazine, which of course means Oscar worthy -- confounds expectations and emerges as genuinely heartwarming, toe-tapping and crowd-pleasing. These factors were confirmed by the film's unexpected reception at Cannes and Toronto, not to mention its runaway success in Britain, where Elliot looks certain to recoup its initial budget after less than a month in theaters. Comparisons to "The Full Monty" are undeniable; cries of crass calculation on the part of its producers inevitable: a budget under three million pounds; seventies songs on the soundtrack (in this case, T-Rex and The Clash); U.S. distribution through a specialized film division of a major studio (Universal Focus); and a first-time motion picture director (culled from the London stage) at its helm.
But as director Stephen Daldry tells indieWIRE, shooting "Billy Elliot" was anything but effortless, from its grueling casting sessions to its conservative, often restrictive budget. "Had someone felt this was going to be another "Full Monty," chances are they would have given us more than 2.9 million pounds," says Daldry. Even the most casual moviegoer can feel the rumblings of "Billy Elliot's" imminent Stateside success, financially and Oscar-wise. Sleeper hit status, for once, couldn't be afforded to a more deserving movie.
indieWIRE: Can you talk about some key differences between directing for the stage and directing for the screen?
Stephen Daldry: I think there's very little relationship between the two, to be honest. I think the only thing you bring into both is the sense of working with writers and actors. I'm convinced that writing a novel has more relationship with making a movie than doing theater. There's very little correlation between the two. When you're actually filming a film, it's like running some sort of army -- like being a civil officer in an army peacekeeping mission. You have an objective and you've got to complete it by a certain deadline. And everyone knows what they're doing and when they're doing it and how they're doing it. Everyone moves it along within a given time frame. A lot of moviemaking is about organizational management as much as anything else. The methodology is different.
iW: And directing for the theater?
Daldry: Most theater methodology is predicated on the idea of repeated actions. That's what you work toward. Having the actor repeat the same moment eight times a week. In a film, it's getting that one moment right. The actor doesn't have to repeat it; they don't necessarily have to take responsibility for the rhythm of the scene, or for the whole narrative structure of the film. There's much less responsibility for the actors in a film.
iW: When you read the script for "Billy Elliot," did you immediately know that was the film you wanted to direct?
Daldry: There's a little problem -- the problem of the eureka moment. Which I don't think I've ever had. Many other people do have eureka moments. When you read a script and you realize straightaway there might be something in it. I knew the writer, Lee Hall, and I liked the emotional honesty of "Billy Elliot." Also Lee writes brilliant kids. And there's a series of themes in it I rather enjoyed: Grief; finding means of self-identification through some sort of creative act, in this case dance; and the miner's strike itself.
iW: What stands out most of all in "Billy Elliot" is the work of the young actors. Was it a real chore trying to cast the lead, or did Jamie Bell sort of just fall into your lap?
Daldry: No, it was a chore. You have to see thousands of kids. We were looking for something quite specific; the kids had to come from a very specific geographic area (for the accents) as well as a dance background, or some sort of movement we could work with. As it happens, Jamie had a dance background but we still looked at kids that didn't necessarily have them. And then they had to act.
iW: When did you know that Jamie was the right kid to play Billy?
Daldry: Right at the last minute, but he'd been there all the way through. He had about seven auditions and the last audition lasted two weeks. And there was another kid in the other room having a two-week audition as well. The idea that Oh my God, this is the kid -- in my experience it just doesn't work like that. We had to find out a lot about what sort of dance he knew, how his body might work, whether he could find the means of expression through dance that we were interested in. Jamie's gift is rhythm, primarily. We also had to audition the parents, to make sure they could support their kid through what could have been a very difficult time. Even if the kid's got determination, tenacity and courage, you still have to work out if he can act, what's his attention span, you know. In the end, you have to make sure the kid's got emotional depth -- kids hide it better than adults.
iW: What was your relationship with Working Title Films and how did you come to work with them on the film?
Daldry: They sought me out while I was still running the Royal Court Theater and offered me a deal. And I said Why not? My time was coming to an end at the Royal Court. I'd been there long enough, emotionally speaking.
iW: It seems that many of the successful films from the U.K. are heralded in America as the salvation of the British film industry. . . or else it's billed as the next "Full Monty," which creates a formula of sorts for these films: Economically disenfranchised people who make their dreams come true against all odds. Were you worried about accusations of perpetuating this formula?
Daldry: No, not at all, and I don't think the producers were either. This is why they gave us no money. The reason why you have a million different co-producers on this movie is because no one wanted to give any money whatsoever. Had someone felt this was going to be another Full Monty, chances are they would have given us more than 2.9 million pounds. What's surprising to me, given the success of "The Full Monty," is how few films have copied its formula.
iW: It seems like every British export we get, like "Saving Grace," which has done very well, sticks to that basic formula: her marriage falls apart but she finds this creative, often comical economic means of saving herself. Wouldn't you agree that a lot of British films have slipped into a formula?
Daldry: No, I suppose I wouldn't. England is strictly class-based. What's surprising is how many films are still made with a load of people in silly frocks running around gardens and talking in middle-class accents.
Or the heritage industry films. The audience is working class -- that's who goes to the cinema in England, not the fucking middle class in London. That's not the body of the audience! The money is out in the industrial towns. The really successful work in England tends to be working-class writers telling working-class stories. The film industry has been slow to wake up to that, for a variety of reasons. It still shocks me how few films are written or made in England about working-class life, given that those are the people who go to movies.
And then everyone goes, "Oh, they're doing really well, these working-class stories." Well that's the audience, you big twats. Chances are most of England doesn't want to watch Helena Bonham-Carter run across the lawn hitching her skirt up.
iW: Did you get what you wanted out of making "Billy Elliot"?
Daldry: That's a hard one to answer. You ask yourself, If I had another full week, what could I have done? You're bound to say that, though. The shooting schedule was a nightmare; we only had seven weeks. Kids can only work nine to five and you can't work Saturdays. And the kid had to dance the whole time. So it was tight.