Ballet and Modern Dance Information Resource
Now that the script was to everyone's liking, the search for the title character began. And everyone involved realized that the film's ultimate success lay in the part of Billy. For this role, the filmmakers auditioned over 2,000 boys.
"It was a nightmare at first seeing so many boys, and we started to think the film might be uncastable," says producer Finn.
Daldry agreed, and says, "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. But eventually we found Jamie, who completely understood all the 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, a 13-year-old from the northeastern town of Billingham, still can't believe his luck. It was through a friend of his that he was able to secure an audition, and after quite a few callbacks he was eventually chosen."
Bell started dancing when he was six years old. "I saw this girl in a competition and she was tap dancing, but she was missing millions of beats," he says. "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, 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,"' says Bell. "They said I should be playing football or rugby so I just didn't tell them where I was going after football practice and went on to my dance lessons."
Producer Brenman was impressed with Bell's discipline and commitment. "For someone so young, Jamie had a staggering amount of energy and focus," he says.
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," says 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!"
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," declares Bell. "But the best thing about filming was how they made snow on the 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," he says. "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," Bell says. "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.',
Acclaimed stage and screen actress Julie Walters, who received an Oscar® nomination and won a Golden Globe for her touching performance in Educating Rita, was thrilled with the opportunity to work with Daldry.
"It's amazing how Stephen puts the actors first," Walters says. "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."
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," says Walters. "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.',
It is this unique relationship between Billy and his dance teacher that sets Billy Elliot apart from similar-themed films.
"She doesn't treat him like a child at all, but more like a man," continues 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."
Walters could empathize with how it felt to go against the grain of what was expected as a child. She says, "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," explains Walters. "That's why he needs dance, it's a release from it all- a voice for his anger and his grief."
About her own character, Walters adds, "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, who received international acclaim for his role in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe, 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," says Lewis.
When Billy's father finds out that his son's has become 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 adds.
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," says Darling.
Darling researched a lot of footage of children dancing, watched how Bell 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,,' he says. "In my experience, relating a performer's work to their own life is important, and I could feel Jamie '5 own desire to get out- to break free. That's why, technically, I went for something aggressive with Jamie's character."
He continues, "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."
Initially, Darling felt some trepidation encouraging Bell to break free. "When you open up the emotions in a little boy, there's always an element of danger," he says. "But there couldn't be anyone better than Stephen to do it with. He supported Jamie so magnificently and has remained there for Jamie even after filming wrapped."
Producer Finn was also initially unsure. "I dreaded what it would mean taking a local kid out of school and putting him in the weird position of starring in a film," he elaborates. "The child has to go back to his normal life at the end of it all, which can cause problems, but Jamie is a very bright kid. The entire crew fell for him and he never lost his sense of perspective."
Director of Photography Brian Tufano, who has shot such edgy films as Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, was instrumental in setting the tone of the film. "Framing, composition, colors and texture are the elements you need to convey a story," he says. "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," explains Tufano. "When we shot the picket lines, we got right in there, making the camera a participant in the strike."
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," says 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.
Michael W. Phelan: email@example.com
Last modified: Wednesday, October 11, 2000 7:17 AM