This week, we discussed the movie Billy Elliot, a 2000 film written by Lee Hall, directed by Stephen Daldry, and produced by Greg Brenman and Jon Finn.
In 1984, Billy Elliot, an 11-year-old from the fictional Everington in County Durham, England, loves to dance and has hopes of becoming a professional ballet dancer. Billy lives with his widowed father, Jackie, and older brother, Tony, both coal miners out on strike (the latter being the union bully), and also his maternal grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease and once aspired to be a professional dancer.
Billy’s father sends him to the gym to learn boxing, but Billy dislikes the sport. He happens upon a ballet class that is using the gym while their usual basement studio is temporarily being used as a soup kitchen for the striking miners. Unknown to Jackie, Billy joins the ballet class. When Jackie discovers this, he forbids Billy to take any more ballet. But, passionate about dancing, Billy secretly continues lessons with the help of his dance teacher, Sandra Wilkinson.
Mrs. Wilkinson believes Billy is talented enough to study at the Royal Ballet School in London, but due to Tony’s arrest during a skirmish between police and striking miners, Billy misses the audition. Mrs. Wilkinson tells Jackie about the missed opportunity, but fearing that Billy will be considered to be gay, both Jackie and Tony are outraged at the prospect of him becoming a professional ballet dancer.
Over Christmas, Billy learns his best friend, Michael, is gay. Although Billy is not, he is supportive of his friend. Later, Jackie catches Billy dancing in the gym and realises his son is truly gifted; he resolves to do whatever it takes to help Billy attain his dream. Mrs. Wilkinson tries to persuade Jackie to let her pay for the audition, but he replies that Billy is his son and he does not need charity. Jackie attempts to cross the picket line to pay for the trip to London, but Tony stops him. Instead, his fellow miners and the neighbourhood raise some money and Jackie pawns Billy’s mother’s jewelry to cover the cost, and Jackie takes him to London to audition. Although very nervous, Billy performs well, but he punches another boy in frustration at the audition, fearing that he has ruined his chances of attaining his dream. He is sternly rebuked by the review board, but when asked what it feels like when he is dancing, he describes it as being “like electricity”. Seemingly rejected, Billy returns home with his father. Sometime later, the Royal Ballet School sends him a letter telling him he has been accepted, and he leaves home to attend.
Fourteen years later in 1998, Billy takes the stage to perform the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, as Jackie, Tony, and Michael watch from the audience.
“Billy Elliot” Wikimedia Foundation, accessed October 23, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Elliot.
The Six Core Questions
1. What’s the Global Genre? Performance
Billy Elliot is a Performance story, where the global value at stake runs from Shame to Respect. The spectrum of values is best embodied by Billy’s father, a coal miner with traditional working-class male values who is ashamed of his son’s love for ballet, and whose eventual respect for it is the huge payoff. We had some disagreement about the internal genre: On the one hand, Billy himself, though he eventually earns social and artistic respect, is almost untouched by shame at any point in the story, which makes Status > Admiration the more likely internal genre. But some of us thought it was Worldview > Education. In the beginning of the story it seems Billy is searching for meaning, and by the end, he’s found his passion and is pursuing it wholeheartedly. And it could be argued that this story is, like Rocky, Status > Sentimental because Billy doesn’t seem to be without meaning in the beginning. But he is weak in the sense that he has a low status in his family and community (brother doesn’t treat him with respect and won’t let him use his records; another kid says he’s bad at boxing).
This is where things get, as Shawn would say, squishy. As people and editors, we bring our own worldview to the story and identify with different aspects of the journey the characters take. This is why it’s so important to check in with the writer to see what her/his intention is for the story.
There’s a parallel Society subplot centered on the coal miners’ strike, with values of Power and Impotence. Billy’s father and brother start out powerfully on strike, but the union caves in at the end, and they go, impotently, back down into the mine during the resolution.
You may notice in the Foolscap that the shift in values for the five commandments within the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff often change in the same way whether looking at the internal or external story (which isn’t the case in many stories). We think it’s because internally and externally we’re in the same “Needs Tank” (Esteem and Respect), so the changes will be similar.
2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
Inciting incident opportunity: Mrs. Wilkinson (dance teacher) gives him ballet shoes and tells him to join in with her class.
- Protagonist sidesteps responsibility to perform: After seeing Tony beaten by police and arrested, Billy misses the first audition to the Royal Ballet School in Newcastle. (he’s at the courthouse with Tony and doesn’t meet Mrs. Wilkinson as agreed)
- Forced to perform, the protagonist lashes out: Billy is shaken after he witnesses Jackie and Tony’s fight. At the next rehearsal Mrs. Wilkinson is angry because Billy hasn’t been practicing. When she forces him to stand up and “do it again”, Billy refuses and runs back to the change room where an argument between Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson begins. Later, Tony puts Billy on the kitchen table and yells at him to dance. He doesn’t. (but a fantastic dance sequence follows!)
- Discovering and understanding what the antagonist’s object of desire is: Shortly after Billy’s father (Jackie Elliot) discovers that Billy has been dancing instead of going to boxing, they have an argument over a meal. This is when Jackie outlines his objection to dancing (it’s for girls – boxing, wrestling etc is for boys), and reminds Billy that he’s working hard for the money (added pressure of the mining strike and financial pressures) for boxing lessons. The money will not be available for dancing lessons. While Billy doesn’t agree with his pov (“I ain’t you. You’re a bastard”) he does at least finally understand where his father is coming from.
- Protagonist, realizing he must change his approach to salvage some form of honour, reaches an all is lost moment: Billy’s all is lost moment is when he’s at the audition. He thinks he’s blown it. However, when they ask him why he wants to dance, he speaks from his heart. This is the first time he’s been so honest – to himself or anyone else.
- The big event/performance: the performance of Swan Lake at the end of the film when his father, brother and best friend all come to see him dance.
- Protagonist is rewarded at least on one level of satisfaction (extra-personal, personal, inner): Billy is rewarded on all 3 levels. He’s found inner happiness through dance, his father and brother are proud of him, and the larger world (dance school. Audience etc) love his dancing/skill.
- Training – the protagonist must practice to gain and/or recover the skills necessary to perform: Billy has several lessons with Mrs. Wilkinson.
- Explicit all is lost moment – the protagonist must understand that there is no getting around their imminent failure: All is lost moment is when Billy is at his audition and think’s he’s completely blown his chances. The board is clearly not impressed with him or his father.
- Mentor recovers moral compass or betrays the protagonist to act out perceived victimhood: After Billy misses the first audition, Mrs. Wilkinson comes to Billy’s home and confronts Jackie and Tony wrt their lack of support for Billy’s desire to dance. This is the one thing that Billy asked – begged – her not to do.
- The power divide between the antagonist and protagonist is wide and deep: The antagonist is Billy’s father and he is without a doubt the patriarch of the family. Tony is like a second father and if anything, is even less supportive than Jackie. Billy by contrast is just a boy, not even old enough to have a job (age 11).
- Ironic ending – the protagonist wins and loses, or loses and wins: Billy wins because he’s been accepted to the dance school and has become a star. But that meant leaving his family, his community, his best friend, and everything that was familiar to him.
3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device?
- POV is primarily Billy, but also shows the story from Jackie’s and Tony’s POV occasionally (E.g., Jackie finds out that Billy hasn’t been going to boxing as he’d thought).
- From SG pp.130–32: Global Genre dictates POV choice: What POV will best serve the Genre? Since this is a Performance story, and the value shift has to be expressed along all three levels of conflict, staying with Billy’s POV (primarily) makes perfect sense. How else would we see the inner conflict? The switch to Jackie/Tony’s POV is to reinforce the personal conflict (i.e., show the audience just how serious the financial pressures are). Except for very short shots (e.g., Tony in the crowd yelling “scab”), the POV stays with Billy during the BH to firmly establish him as the protagonist.
- QUESTION: How is POV/Narrative Device expressed in film vs. novels? Robert McKee is a great source for this..
[I]t enhances the telling to style the whole story from the protagonist’s Point of View—to discipline yourself to the protagonist, make him [or her] the center of your imaginative universe, and bring the whole story, event by event, to the protagonist. The audience witnesses events only as the protagonist encounters them. This clearly is the far more difficult way to tell story.
The easy way is to hopscotch through time and space, picking up bits and pieces to facilitate exposition, but this makes story sprawl and lose tension. Like limited setting, genre convention, and Controlling Idea, shaping a story from the exclusive Point of View of the protagonist is a creative discipline. It taxes the imagination and demands your very best work. The result is a tight, smooth, memorable character and story.
The more time spent with a character, the more opportunity to witness his choices. The result is more empathy and emotional involvement between the audience and character.
McKee, Robert Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting, 364.
4. What are the Objects of Desire, in other words, wants and needs?
- Wants: Billy just wants to dance and find meaning in his life.
- Needs: Acceptance that he is not a “poof” for wanting to dance so that he can find meaning in his life.
5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?
- Follow your heart and passion, even if society is against you OR we gain respect when we commit to expressing our gifts unconditionally.
- *Two moments when the theme is expressed: (1) Billy’s mom’s letter to him in which she says, “Always be yourself.” (2) Mrs. Wilkinson’s telling of Swan Lake: A woman turned into a swan can become her real self for only a few hours a night. She meets a prince, thinking this is the way she’ll become real, but he goes after someone else. Billy dismisses this as a ghost story.
6. What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, Ending Payoff?
- Beginning Hook: Billy Elliot discovers his passion for dance and joins a class, but when his father finds out, he must decide whether to be true to himself or follow his father.
- Middle Build: Billy’s teacher gives him private lessons to prepare for an audition with the Royal Ballet School, but he misses the local audition, and when his father sees Billy’s talent and has a change of heart, he must decide if he will become a scab to pay for the trip to the London audition or disappoint his son.
- Ending Payoff: Billy performs well at the audition, but hits another applicant out of frustration, and the panel must decide if he deserves a place based on his statement that dance “feels like electricity.” Billy is accepted, and years later performs in Swan Lake with his family watching.
7. Bonus Question: Good Examples?
Special Scene Types, Outstanding Tropes, clear tie-ins to other genres…?
- The movie comes very close to the musical style genre, with some long dance scenes set to pop music. The story was turned into a hit stage musical a few years later.
- “Benny Hill” scene with laundry and English back gardens, a scene type that’s typically farcical but has an extra edge of real danger as the riot-geared police chase Tony down.
- Magical world intro–late in story–is visually arresting and emphasizes the difference between Billy and Jackie’s ordinary world and the new world Billy is going to be entering (the interior of the Royal Ballet School).
- Jackie’s All is Lost Moment hits two Dickensian tropes when he first has to break up his late wife’s piano for firewood at Christmas, and when he pawns her gold jewelry for bus fare to London. These two scenes avoid being cliched because they’re fully earned by the realistic buildup of the terrible miners’ strike.
- Interesting variation on typical performance-story structure: the obligatory Big Event Scene occurs in the final minute of the film. There’s no ramp-down or denouement afterwards except by means of the closing credits.
- By standard movie story structure, the Resolution is Billy’s acceptance into the Royal Ballet School and the miners going back to work. The final scene, which takes place fifteen years later or so, serves almost as an epilogue. But there’s still a big unanswered question at that point: Was it worth the sacrifice Billy’s father made? And that question is only answered definitively in the last few seconds.