Greg Brenman (Head of Tiger Aspect's Drama Department) was immediately excited by the one-page synopsis brought in from writer Lee Hall. "The idea of a young boy growing up in a tough mining village who wants to be a ballet dancer was fantastically engaging". The script was developed with Tessa Ross at BBC Films and when Brenman felt it was ready he contacted Jon Finn who was heading up WT2, (a division of Working Title Films). "Lee's screenplay was wonderfully moving and powerful. It was also very funny. Thankfully, Jon was as taken by it as us and together we approached Stephen Daldry to direct the film."
For Jon Finn, there was a deep connection to the story. "My grandfather was a miner and I know those communities well. In fact, all the family on my mother's side worked in the pits in the area where we filmed. I also knew the feeling of leaving a tight knit community because I was the first person in my own family to leave home and go to college," revealed Finn.
This was the second time Finn was to team up with the director Stephen Daldry.
In 1998, Finn produced the short film Eight (1998), the Jerwood Film Prize's winning script that was also nominated for a BAFTA. The same year, Finn co-produced Jake Scott's feature film Plunkett & Macleane (1999). Appointed in 1996 as production executive for Working Title Films, Finn set up WT2 with Natascha Wharton in 1999. WT2 aims to cultivate the talent of emerging writers, directors and producers in the UK. BILLY ELLIOT is the first WT2 project and began shooting in August 1999.
Stephen Daldry makes his big-screen debut with BILLY ELLIOT. Already known as the "face of contemporary theatre", the man behind the long running "An Inspector Calls", the artistic director of the Royal Court (the most successful theatre in England), and the producer, director and creator of a string of critically acclaimed theatrical productions gracing London's and Broadway's foremost stages, Daldry was well equipped to move into feature films. He was in the middle of a three-year deal with Working Title and responded swiftly to Lee Hall's script. "I knew immediately that I wanted to direct this film by the simple fact that the script moved me. It made me want to read it again," confirmed Daldry. And he considered Hall the perfect scribe for the tale, "When I was running The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, I worked with Lee and realised all those years ago what great talent he had."
Daldry continually found amazing differences between the worlds of theatre and film. "Filmmaking is a matter of trying to find performances that you believe in and creating images that have emotional potency. Unlike most theatre, which is rooted in the re-creation of authentic experience, a lot of great movies are not about authentic experience at all, but rather they operate on a subconscious level - the language of dreams. That's the vernacular of film," reflected Daldry. "You have to have a completely different head on."
Eric Fellner, co-chairman of Working Title, supported Daldry's progression into features, "Stephen is intellectually and creatively stimulating, and he is incredible on a visual and aesthetic level." And Julie Walters was equally excited: "It's amazing how Stephen puts the actors first. It must derive from this theatrical experience. Stephen and I even wrote a little scene together - I can't think of a director that would give actors so much input."
Daldry was attracted to the story by its universal theme. "I think it's easy for people to identify with a story of struggle of any individual, in this case a young child trying to find a way to express himself in difficult circumstances. The audience will be able to relate to their own battles in childhood," said Daldry.
Lee Hall reiterated the point: "It is about wanting something better and doing everything you can to achieve it. I think everyone has a secret ambition and will be able to connect to Billy's determination to fulfil his."
The inspiration to write the story came in a flash to Hall while living in America and writing about his own childhood. He was also interested in writing about the 1984 miners' strike, which for him was one of the defining moments in British history since the war. "I wanted to write about it obliquely by looking at the various tensions within the community which were crucial in determining the strike's failure," Hall said. "The story sort of wrote itself once I had the image of the kid at odds with his family and the community and pitted against a larger, hostile world."
The strike had affected everyone living in the North East. "It was a class war where the state was mobilized against a small group of people. It left me with a sense of indignation which has fuelled much of my work," reflected Hall. His reference to Arthur Scargill, leader of the striking miners who took a stand against the government for closing down the coal pits, examines issues of culture and identity and is not meant to make any political point. "If there was to be a message, it would simply reiterate the sentiments of Arthur Scargill," said Hall, "Which basically suggested that creative people are left dormant because we, as a society, have no idea or ambition how to tap into them and that we are poorer for it."
What Hall did need to research further was ballet so he visited the Royal Ballet School to interview dancers hailing from small villages like Billy. The story gestated for about a year, mostly because Hall was working on other projects, then in a flurry of inspiration, he completed the first draft in three weeks.
Hall's style acknowledges his heroes in filmmaking. "I deeply admire Bill Douglas, Ken Loach and Victor Erice and their work with children. I've paid them many moments of homage in the script," commented Hall. "It's a coming of age story about someone who finds beauty and reason for his life. It has great music and dancing too, and is funny and coarse but should also make you cry."
The film's ultimate success, however, hung on the quality of the performance in the title role of Billy, and for this the filmmakers auditioned over 2,000 boys. "It was a nightmare seeing so many boys and we started to think the film was uncastable," said producer Finn. Daldry agreed: "It was a tall order to find a child who could dance as well as act, who came from the North East and had the right accent, and was also the right age," he admitted. "But eventually we found Jamie who completely understood all elements of the story. And he had that elusive thing that allows you to fall in love with a child and be terribly concerned about what happens to him. We found our needle in the haystack."
Jamie Bell, aged 13, from the North Eastern town of Billingham, still can't believe his luck: "It was a friend of a friend that got me the audition and I went to quite a few call-backs before being picked out of 2,000 boys."
Bell started dancing when he was about six years old. "I saw this girl in a competition and she was doing tap dancing, but she was missing millions of beats," he said. "So I told my mum I could do better than that and she bought me a pair of tap shoes and said I could go to classes." Like his character Billy, it wasn't easy starting out. "It took a lot of practice to get into and there was hassle from the lads at school who kept saying 'you shouldn't be doing that Jamie, it's not for boys, it's more for girls'. They said I should be doing football or rugby so I just didn't tell them where I was going after football practice and went on to my dance lessons," confessed Bell.
Greg Brenman was always impressed by Bell's discipline and commitment. "For someone so young, Jamie had a staggering amount of energy and focus".
The confidence to persevere with dancing came from Bell's mother, in the same way that Billy's confidence grew with his teacher's support. "When I was dancing, I had to do competitions month after month after month, and year after year," said Bell. "After the last one I thought, 'I can't do this anymore', a bit like Billy who feels like giving up but his teacher keeps him going. My mum just kept encouraging me, 'something will pop up' she said. And it did- like this film!"
As for the acting side, Stephen Daldry believed that Bell's real life similarities to his film character, Billy, were key. "With kids, the idea of pretending to be someone else can often lead you up a bit of a gum tree. One of the great things about working with children is that it's very evident when they're lying, and the opposite is also true- it is very evident when they are telling the truth. This is why if you can get a child to act truthfully it is incredibly powerful and very moving," revealed Daldry, "and that's why Jamie's 'acting ability' was spot on."
Bell loved the experience of collaborating with Daldry. "He didn't tell me that it had to be done like this or like that, but he'd say you could try it like this or like that. We used ideas from his head and mixed them with mine to get it to be what it is," said Bell. The whole process of filmmaking was a fantastic new experience for the youngster. "Doing the dance scenes was very tiring because we had to get it perfect, but I began to love the type of music we used, like T Rex and Marc Bolan, which really helped," declared Bell. "But the best thing about filming was how they made snow on set- I wanted to take it home and show my friends!"
As for nerves, Bell insists that he never gets nervous on stage, "The only time I did get really nervous was the first day of filming, when we walked down this lane and I saw this massive camera. That freaked me out."
Billy's relationship with his dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, was another key element in the film and was allowed to build onscreen just as Bell's did with his own teacher. "You're with your dance teacher so often, it happens that way - the bond just grows stronger. Sometimes they'll drive you too hard, but they only want to get the best out of you when they know you can do better," he announced.
Walters embraced the many challenges in the evolving relationship between Billy and her character, Mrs. Wilkinson: "Mrs. Wilkinson is the one pushing Billy. She clocks his talent and grabs it hard because it's what she never had - that spark and talent. She sees that he can achieve something that she never could. So she becomes completely obsessed with him and forces him onward- partly against his will. But she knows he's got that 'thing' that will enable him to make it and she wants to be part of it," said Walters.
It is the unique relationship between Billy and his dance teacher that helps make the script so different. "She doesn't treat him like a child at all, but more like a man," said Walters. "She makes no allowances for his age and they bicker like lovers. When Billy gets the audition, he doesn't come and tell her that he made it. I think he feels guilty that he's leaving and it's too adult a thing for him to deal with emotionally. It's a bitter-sweet movie."
Walters could empathise with how it felt to go against the grain of what was expected as a child: "My mother wanted me to be a nurse. 'Acting!' she'd say, 'what kind of job is that? You need a job where you've got a pension!' In a similar sense, Billy was expected to become a miner, yet not only was the tradition of following your father into the mines being destroyed, but also the boy doesn't want to do it anyway. He wants to be a ballet dancer!"
Walters' character is instrumental in Billy's rite of passage. "Billy is bashed from every angle. He has to grow up quickly because his mother has died and it's a male dominated society he's growing up in. That's why he needs dance, it's a release from it all - a voice for his anger and his grief," said Walters. "It's hard enough for a working class child to say they want to be a ballet dancer, but set against the dreadful situation of the mines closing - where there was nothing for the people but the drugs, the unemployment, the poverty- it's even more challenging." About her own character, Walters added, "I do like her, she's so real. She's not a saint; she's an angry, disappointed person. The dark side of people is far more interesting than the light side of them."
Gary Lewis plays Billy's father, Jacky Elliot, who is finding life very difficult. "He's grieving because his wife has just died and he's fighting an industrial struggle. They're desperately poor, so much so, that day to day decisions about what to eat are right down to the bone," said Lewis. When Billy's father finds out that his son's got involved in ballet rather than follow the family tradition of boxing, he's shocked. He's afraid for his son's sexuality: "This sort of thing just doesn't happen in mining communities," Lewis added. But the twist is that Billy helps his father overcome some pretty big hurdles, and in a sense the child becomes the father of the man. "Billy wakes his dad up pretty sharpish when his dad sees Billy dancing for the first time. He realises that his son's going to see his dream through and that's when it really hits him and he decides to do whatever he can to give the kid what he deserves," commented Lewis. "In the end, it's the solidarity of Billy's family and the miners around them who give the last of what they've got, that make things possible for Billy. That and Billy's huge spirit."
Choreographer Peter Darling had the task of creating dance sequences that would help Bell shine. "I had to find what makes Jamie tick, what gives him energy and life. But he's so good at rhythm and he knew how to move that we all felt incredibly lucky to find him," said Darling. He researched a lot of footage of children dancing, watched how Jamie moved and studied the themes of the script closely to come up with something spectacular: "I wanted the dance scenes to be a way of expressing Billy's desire to get out - to fly. In my experience, relating a performer's work to their own life is important, and I could feel Jamie's own desire to get out- to break free. That's why, technically, I went for something aggressive with Jamie's character. For instance, we have the sequence where Billy dances into a wall - it's a blatant metaphor about trying to break through a wall. It also shows that dance can be tough and not effeminate; ballet dancers often combine self expression with sheer athleticism."
Darling was equally impressed with Bell's determination. "Jamie is prepared to go the distance and he has done in every single area I can think of. And when you see a smaller person dance, there's something extra special about it- it's vibrant and generates a great deal of energy and high emotion," said Darling.
To bring authenticity to the film, costume designer Stewart Meachem also researched documentary footage and studied photos of the North East, especially the mining towns. To him, BILLY ELLIOT was definitely a "period" piece, but not in the typical sense. "There's a specific look we tried to re-create. First you have the miners and the strike and the being up north in Newcastle. Then you have a contrast in the ballet, where the class and teacher are very provincial," reflected Meachem. "It was about keeping the look very ordinary and very plain, but at the same time people can still recognise it's the Eighties," he added. "I avoided a dated Seventies look when people were wearing flares and pointy shirts. If anything, I used shoulder pads and double breasted jackets in a classic way - which I think we might see a revival of like the Seventies revamping we see today!"
Director of Photography, Brian Tufano, was instrumental in setting the tone of the film. "Framing, composition, colours and texture are the elements you need to convey a story," said Tufano. "Stephen knew exactly what he wanted and was happy for me to show him how he could achieve his vision on film." Together, they decided to frame the mining village in a claustrophobic way to reflect the tight knit community. "The buildings were part of the narrative so we framed them tight and had them spilling outside of the framework," Tufano asserted. "When we shot the picket lines, we got right in there, making the camera a participant in the strike." At one point, amongst the jostling with moving bodies, Tufano was thrown to the ground. "We wanted to capture the energy of 100,000 angry people!" he declared. By making the frame go with the action, as opposed to just filming the action within the frame, they achieved a powerful portrayal.
As for the dance scenes, Tufano shifted perspective to encompass a wider, more open frame, which was to enhance the feeling that Billy was breaking free of his surrounding constraints. "We shot in the way they did in the 1930s for Fred Astaire's movies," suggested Tufano. "When Billy ventures out of his town to the audition, we wanted full emotional impact so we shot much more sky to show that his world was opening up."
BILLY ELLIOT started shooting on location in the North East of England in August 1999, although finding locations proved much more difficult than expected. "We didn't realise how hard it would be to find working pits. We had to go all the way to Lynemouth and Ellington to look for them," said Jon Finn, "but luckily we managed to secure the last remaining mine in the North East and didn't have to rely on recreating the pits through the wizardry of computer technology." Greg Brenman added, "In fact, we were able to capture what was in Lee's imagination when he was writing the script because it was Easington that he was describing. However, less than six weeks after shooting up in Ellington, the mine faced closure."
For shooting, the streets were dressed as the town would have appeared in 1984, when the miners and police were at loggerheads. Grim-faced riot police with helmets and shields and drawn batons stormed the streets while striking miners ran at their oppressors with fists and homemade weapons. But for the locals who stood by observing, there was a clear difference. "It is now a scene without bitterness, just a feeling of nostalgia. You can't believe that it was 15 years ago," offered an ex-miner amongst the crowd on set in Easington. "Then you watch this and it all comes back."
Despite the memories, the story of hope rubbed off on the residents who kept turning up on the set and bringing with them a spirit of kinship. "We not only got to appear as extras but having the film crew here meant we got the chance to feed a lot of hungry and thirsty people - it's boosted our economy!" said one local. It was this sense of community and hope that enabled the miners to survive, and this is the story the locals want the film to tell. "Having a film such as this written by a local writer and acted by a local actor is an amazing thing for this community".
Daldry hoped that filming on location in Easington would enhance the writer's vision of the story. "The film essentially exposes a tight-knit community that comes under extreme pressure and a young boy's battle to find a way of realising his full potential. This combination challenges a whole range of stereotypes which I believe was important for Lee," commented Daldry.
The producers also kept the authenticity of the film intact by recruiting for the crowd scenes in the local papers. Over 400 North Eastern residents were exposed to the "glamour" of movie making. "Who knew in the movies they shoot the same scene over and over again?" commented John Jones, an ex-miner who lived on the street that was taken over by the crew. The "production crew" kept getting larger as even the neighbourhood kids got involved by taking over the tea and biscuit tables to dish out refreshments for cast and crew. Youngster Bell made a fair share of fans on set, as the number of local girls grew everyday just to catch a glimpse of him. "I love him," mused one local lassie who returned daily to be a "help" to the crew.