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Stephen Daldry

‘Billy Elliot’

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What’s up with all these English theater directors coming over here and stealing our Oscars? And on their first damn try, no less? One year after Sam Mendes snared a statuette for American Beauty, here’s Stephen Daldry, 40, giving it a shot with Billy Elliot, a Rocky-in-tights fable about a little boy Brit with nothing but a hard-bitten coal miner’s life to look forward to, leaping and stomping and twirling his way into the Royal Ballet School.

Though Daldry’s own story includes some time spent in the circus as a clown, Billy Elliot was best served by his five-year stint as artistic director of England’s estimable Royal Court Theatre, as well as helming a number of acclaimed productions, notably the Tony award-winning revival of An Inspector Calls. Still, Daldry says, his first filmmaking experience was largely an intuitive one. ”My approach? Pretty much just throw yourself into it,” he says, acknowledging a debt to cinematographer Brian Tufano and first-time screenwriter Lee Hall, who is also nominated. ”I think the only thing one brings from the theater is a sense of story and working with actors.”

Billy‘s plot may be pure formula, but Daldry cooked it beautifully, letting the sentimentality warmly simmer but never letting it boil over. With Julie Walters, Daldry guided a former Oscar nominee (Educating Rita) to yet another nod, this time for supporting actress, and from newcomer Jamie Bell, now 14, he extracted a revelatory performance that literally leaps off the screen. And yet Daldry’s greatest asset may have been his own naïveté: ”It was sort of blind ignorance of what the problems could be. You sort of have an enthusiasm that isn’t tempered by experience. Now I know just how hard it is to make a movie, and actually, I think I’m much more terrified now.”