Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry on his film

First it was Nicholas Hytner, Danny Boyle and Sam Mendes. Now Stephen Daldry is the latest British theatre veteran with a massive film success on his hands. The director of Billy Elliot talks to Andrew Pulver

What have British theatre directors ever given cinema? Quite a lot, as it happens. Most notably they've given us The Madness of King George, Trainspotting, Notting Hill and American Beauty; now, in the shape of Stephen Daldry, they've given us Billy Elliot, the latest homegrown film to achieve vertical lift-off. Daldry joins a select but significant crew of theatre professionals - Nicholas Hytner, Danny Boyle, Roger Michell and Sam Mendes among them - who have stepped outside the cosy circuit of the performing arts and taken their chances in the big bad world of the movies.

Daldry, the 40-year-old director of London's Royal Court, has been lucky in one crucial respect: he has been groomed for a film-directing career by Working Title, the British-based production company whose product ranges from Notting Hill to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Working Title gave Daldry the prize-winning script of the short film Eight as a trial run in 1998, and Billy Elliot is the first film to be made by the company's "independent" arm WT2. But even Working Title were probably surprised by the staggeringly positive reception that has greeted Daldry's debut: sobbing reviews, roaring audiences, and a £1.54m opening weekend box-office take - outdoing Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Daldry remains mystified by the public reaction. "I'm relieved," he says, sucking on a cigarette. "To be frank about it, it was - is - a small budget British film that faced struggles in its making. But it was also a good working context, in that it became very special to the people working on it. It was a real surprise the way the Cannes audience responded to it; in Croatia they responded in the same way. I've just come back from three weeks touring it in the US, and it amazes me that what is essentially a small British film can have such a cross-cultural, cross-nationality reaction."

Superficially at least, Daldry still appears wedded to the student-company lifestyle for which he was renowned throughout his decade-long tenure as the London theatre world's shining star. He's wearing shorts, for a start, having pedalled down from a meeting at Working Title's Oxford Street headquarters. The hair is blond and neatly trimmed, the brow clear and unfurrowed. If cinema's siren call will change this, only time will tell.

He stresses that, in cinema terms, he's still a beginner. "The other month I did an afternoon at the National Film School, and I felt like such a fraud. I thought: what do I know about this? For me, it's such a new medium. Most of my enthusiasm is quite childish; it reminds me exactly of what it was like working in my early 20s in theatre. I find it genuinely exciting."

Daldry has yet to adjust fully to his elevation to the film-making elite. Even so, when he acted as master of ceremonies at the charity premiere of Billy Elliot last week in Leicester Square, you could sense the ease with which Daldry handles the spotlight, his confidence before a massive, if largely adoring, audience. Actually this is something Daldry has got used to. His flair for attention-grabbing first surfaced at the Gate in London, an unprepossessing fringe theatre which Daldry turned into the capital's premier works-in-translation venue.

Upon being appointed artistic director at the Royal Court at the age of 32, Daldry became a theatre-world phenomenon. (And all this on a Sheffield University education, rather than Oxbridge.) He assured his financial security with his production of JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls - originally for the National Theatre in 1992, but ever since a fixture in the West End and on the international touring circuit.

You get the sense he likes being a celebrity, even going so far as to be photographed with his shirt off in a Sunday magazine. He also has an appetite for public life, as evidenced by the colossal fundraising exercise he initiated to finance the renovation of the Royal Court. Intriguingly, it's this aspect of the creative personality, he feels, that film-making has brought out.

"It's a constant process of crisis management," he ruminates. "I'm not using the term pejoratively. In terms of the organisational management of a consistent process of crisis, it's not the same as rehearsing a play. It's a lot more like a going through a redevelopment project at the Royal Court. You're in a process of constant crisis over how to deliver something at the right time for the right money."

This, it would appear, is the principal factor behind theatre people's achievement in the movies: with the right script and the right support, their proven ability to organise and enthuse within what Daldry likes to call a "collegiate" environment can make the difference between success and failure. Working Title's John Finn, who produced both Eight and Billy Elliot, is clear on the point. "When we made Eight, outwardly Stephen coped well, but afterwards he said it was a bit like Vietnam - he had no idea what was going on. The short was a great experience because he's got a good sense of humour, and the ability to have people pull in the same direction.

"Initially Stephen was frustrated by how long it takes and how many people are on a crew," Finn continues. "But he picked things up so fast, and he is incredibly visual." Daldry has clearly found his ideal collaborators, too: Finn; screenwriter (and playwright) Lee Hall; and cinematographer Brian Tufano, the British veteran responsible for Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and East is East.

But this doesn't explain Billy Elliot; you can have the best team on the planet and still make a lousy movie. British theatre directors are celebrated for their silver tongues, and Daldry can talk with studied elegance about why he wanted to do Hall's script: "I liked the idea that it was a full-on emotional journey, and I suppose it was interesting to do something that wasn't doing a take on its subject matter or its characters. Emotion has gone out of fashion in lots of ways." But it's not until he starts to talk about the miners' strike that forms Billy Elliot's backdrop, that you realise here is something he really cares about.

"I think it was one of the most important moments of post-war domestic British politics. It's surprised me how there haven't been more films about it. Especially since the time of the strike was one of the most phenomenal periods of creativity ever seen in this country. Poetry, music, theatre." Daldry himself was part of that explosion, working on a play called Never the Same Again in a pit village with a co-operative theatre company. The irony that his film has been taken up and praised by the same social forces that orchestrated the vicious media attacks on the miners in the mid-1980s, is not lost on him.

'There's a sense across the political board, that the loss of those industries and those communities is elegaic, that something profound was lost that might have been worth fighting for in a different way. There was a great north-south divide during the strike, and a lot of people reacted against what Margaret Thatcher called 'Mr Scargill's insurrection' - the notion that they were the enemy within.

"Ten years later, with that last big march in London against the final pit closures, the miners weren't allowed to use the normal route, and they went down Kensington Church Street. I was there and it was phenomenal. You're in one of the bastions of Little England - it's full of antique shops and coffee shops - and there were people cheering out of their windows and bringing out tea. Suddenly the miners are the underdogs and it's OK."

But it would be unfair to characterise Daldry as a proselytiser, or even as a sentimentalist. He is, for example, nettled at the mention of showbiz politicians ("I think it's good when people are 'wheeled out' to say what they feel about things. More people should do it").

He recounts with glee a story about Billy Elliot's test screenings in the US, in mall-multiplex country. The distributors told him they'd be happy with a 40-average scorecard. The Full Monty got something in the 70s. Billy Elliot, in the end, got 86. That's something no one can argue with.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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