”Billy Elliott”’s success
Let this be a lesson to you, kids: Putting your foot in your mouth can be a good thing. Just ask Jamie Bell. When he was a wee English lad, all of 5, Mom forced him to come along when she took his older sister to her dance lessons. Unfortunately, Mom and Dad had split up years before, so there wasn’t anyone to watch him at home. If only to save himself from brain-numbing boredom, he took to killing the time by mimicking the girls and their moves. One day, after he boasted he could do better, Mom bought him some dance shoes and issued a challenge: Prove it, mister.
Boy, did he ever. First tap, then jazz, and now Billy Elliot, a British indie starring Bell as a young lad who grapples with funny looks and his father’s scorn when he takes up ballet. An award-winning sensation in the U.K., Billy Elliot has begun working its magic Stateside. In the first month of Universal’s slow rollout — a strategy that will place the film in more and more theaters as awards season approaches — Billy has already grossed almost $6 million. Beyond the numbers, the film has announced the arrival of two major talents: Bell, now 14, and director Stephen Daldry, 40, an acclaimed English theater figure now following his peers Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible) into film.
Both Bell and Daldry owe a large portion of the buzz to screenwriter Lee Hall, who found his inspiration, fittingly enough, in a hummingbird. Like Billy, Hall came of age in a hard-luck mining town in northeastern England; unlike Billy, it was the bard, not ballet, that colored his teenage alienation. Four years ago, when he decided to write a movie inspired by his childhood, a hard truth hit him: ”A film about a kid writing plays and poetry would be pretty boring.” Seeking something more cinematic, he thought of dance, and lighted upon the film’s striking first scene: Billy, bouncing on his bed in super slo-mo to a T. Rex tune. ”The image I had was like a hummingbird, hanging in the air,” says Hall. ”It wrote itself from there.”
Hall then sought feedback from his old friend Daldry. His advice: I must direct this. ”It was immediate,” says the director. ”The idea of creative expression as central to our lives is something I’ve always very passionately believed in.” Just the kind of high-mindedness you’d expect from a former artistic director of England’s Royal Court Theatre who’s known for mounting brainy productions like the Tony-winning revival of An Inspector Calls. But Daldry directs from the heart as much as from the head; in fact, one knock on Billy has been its unabashed sentimentality. ”Some people have gone, ‘Come on! Aren’t we all more sophisticated than that?”’ he says. ”I wanted to make a film that was an emotional roller coaster and wasn’t afraid of that.”
Daldry and Hall spent six months fine-tuning the script. Special attention was given to Billy’s best friend, Michael, whose growing awareness of his homosexuality mirrors Billy’s artistic coming-out. Hall says Michael broadens the theme ”that behind every closed door, there’s a different Billy Elliot with a different story.” Complementing this point — or undermining it, depending how you see it — is a depiction of Billy as constantly insisting his interest in ballet doesn’t make him ”a poof.” Hall’s intention was realism: ”I don’t think you could deal with the subject of a boy wanting to do ballet, especially with the prejudice that comes from the community around him, without dealing with sexuality.”
Still, these provocative themes aren’t to blame for Billy‘s surprising R rating. It’s the fusillade of F-words, all of which were scripted. ”It’s part of the natural patois of this particular life,” defends Daldry. ”It’s a shame…. Obviously, I would have preferred a PG rating, but I think it’s a good film for kids.”
Yet the film’s most defining choice was casting its star. For months, Daldry searched Hall’s old stomping grounds for a kid with the talent, maturity, and charisma to carry his film. Over 2,000 auditioned — including Bell, who was then 12 and spending his Sundays studying acting and dance at his local drama club. It took seven auditions before Daldry was convinced Bell was his Billy Elliot. ”Jamie doesn’t smile right away, so his inner qualities don’t shine right away,” says Hall. ”But when you see them — boy, you get them full-on.”
”When I’m just rehearsing,” explains Bell, ”I never use my face. I always get embarrassed when it’s just in front of eight people. But when it’s in front of 100 people, I feel like I have a lot to give. I wow them with personality.” Hence Bell’s nickname: The Personality Boy.
Daldry put Bell through three months of rehearsal before filming, working first with choreographer Peter Darling. Daldry wanted Billy’s dance sequences to be expressions of his personality. What he got was a cocky blend of ecstatic Riverdance tap, nimble ballet, and guitar-god thrash. Later, Bell practiced with other actors, including Gary Lewis as Billy’s crusty pop, and Julie Walters (1983’s Educating Rita) as Billy’s chain-smoking ballet teacher. Through it all, Bell hardened his reedy body daily with 50 push-ups and 160 sit-ups. His most important lesson? ”I really had to want it.”
Nothing in the film challenged Bell more than the electrifying set piece in which Billy goes on a blistering stomp through his town’s streets. Set to the Jam’s ”Town Called Malice,” the scene demanded that Bell maintain a hot head. Daldry couldn’t settle on a dance he liked, forcing Bell to learn five routines. Then there was the anxiety of shooting on location, with real people watching. The pressure had Bell in tears. Still, he found the inspiration he needed. ”Between shots, people would come up and fiddle with my clothes and makeup. That really helped, all that fiddling,” says Bell. ”I think that’s why actors go, ‘That’s it! I’m going to my trailer!’ That’s where I got the anger from. The crew was very annoying. I have a feeling they were told to be.”
For Daldry, the hardest thing about Elliot wasn’t the steep learning curve (he gives props to cinematographer Brian Tufano and theater friends like Hytner). Rather, it was saying goodbye. ”It became quite personal,” says Daldry, who has remained close to Bell and helped with his readjustment back to teenage life. For his part, Bell seems to have had a grand time on his U.S. press tour, reveling in hotel amenities (”Sweets and cameras and first-aid kits!”) and talk-show hosts (”Rosie O’Donnell was very nice. A bit wacko, as well.”). His coping mechanism? ”I do interviews, but I don’t read the reviews. That way, I don’t know what they’re writing about me.”
For his movie encore, Daldry may direct Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman in an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. As for Bell, he dreams of acting opposite Samuel L. Jackson. For now, he’s listening to Travis, reading Harry Potter, and trying to get through school. As for this Oscar nonsense, ”I already got one — my dog,” Bell jokes. ”Nah, pretty far-fetched. Besides, I’d probably faint before I even got up there.”
Don’t sweat it, Personality Boy. You’ll rise to the occasion.