Under The Influence: Stuart Murdoch and “God Help The Girl”
The Belle and Sebastian frontman, and first-time director, discusses the inspirations behind his emotionally fraught and musically bright debut feature film.
Sukie in the Graveyard. The Boy with the Arab Strap. Catastrophe Waitress. The Stars of Track and Field. The familiar, multi-dimensional characters that populate Belle and Sebastian albums are as equally illustrative and dynamic as the unforgettable Technicolor covers that front them. In fact, with pop songs so story-driven and visual that they materialize like movies in your head, it’s a bit of a wonder lead singer and songwriter Stuart Murdoch hasn’t taken a crack at filmmaking sooner.
For his directorial debut, Murdoch (also the film’s screenwriter) has adapted his 2009 same-named project and album into God Help the Girl, an expectedly charming and, yes, twee musical of the adventures of three young misfits in Glasgow. At the center of the story is Eve (played by Emily Browning), an Australian transplant with appropriate fringe and a heavy, black cat-eve, who’s brilliantly talented musically, but is suffering from the mental and physical effects of an eating disorder. It’s here Murdoch surprises us: Eve is troubled, and not in a charming or twee way—her problems are real, and realistically portrayed—but the bright, deceptively upbeat tunes might just be the antidote that saves her. When we first meet our heroine, it’s the opening musical number as she sneaks out of the facility where she’s been under care to attend a rock show. There, she meets bespectacled, sensitive guitar player and future flatmate James (Olly Alexander), who’s head-over-heels for Eve at first sight. James’s private lesson pupil Cassie (Hannah Murray) joins the pair, and rounds out the wide-eyed pop-group-in-the-making.
Recently, FLOOD sat down with Murdoch in Los Angeles to discuss the inspirations behind the film, and all the pieces—both real-life and imagined—that came together to create it.
My favorite café in Glasgow
I was living on my own for the first time, in this big, old sort of church building, and that’s when I maybe thought I could take songwriting a stage further. The first thing I came up with was my favorite café in Glasgow, where I wrote a lot of songs. This was something that was kind of part of my existence; it disappeared, and so immediately I wanted to romanticize what I’d lost. I started writing about a café, populated by various characters. That was the first thing I wrote a treatment for. I went back to work, Belle and Sebastian made another record, but then when I was on tour with the band, that’s when the first song for God Help the Girl came along.
“The musical force is the great savior. It carries everyone along, makes your life better. But, underneath, you’re still dealing with, you know, life.”
We’ve had [outside] people come in and sing B and S songs before. We’ve had different players. But [the idea for God Help the Girl] was a schism, this was like, “Oh, no, this is a different thing. What if I just did a different thing here?” I think around that time, there was a little bit of pressure on the band that the last album [2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress] had been quite orchestrated. They wanted to do a band album that was just people playing in the band. My palette was a little bit wider. I like all that orchestration stuff. This felt like maybe I could go there with this new music and the band won’t mind so much.
Real life, and the saving force of music
[In the film,] you have darker topics but you have the music, the bright music. I guess, in miniature, that’s the philosophy of Belle and Sebastian. In the early days of the group, I thought, “I want to do great pop songs, but I want to talk about things that bother me. I want to talk about people that I see. I’m not going to candy-coat it.” In a sense, this is the same philosophy applied to film. The musical force is the great savior. It carries everyone along, makes your life better. But, underneath, you’re still dealing with, you know, life. There’s nothing extraordinary about what these characters are dealing with. Nobody gets killed. Nobody gets sent to jail. It’s just everyday stuff—stuff that happened to me, stuff that happened to my friends, the scene in Glasgow in the ’80s and ’90s. I was trying to tap into that.
There was no “eureka” moment where I was watching a film thinking, “I could do that. I should do that.” I was looking at it in that abstract way, where you’re thinking, “Oh my god, I would give my life to have made Annie Hall.” To make something that affects me as much as it does.
But then the idea for the film came along. That’s when I knew I had to do it. I continued watching films and they inspired me in very different ways. I kind of cling on to certain ideas. I used films as certain benchmarks. It ended up being a group of about fifteen or twenty films that I knew were just really helping me—from Mike Leigh to Richard Linklater to Hal Hartley to François Truffaut.
Connection and communication, in the pre-digital age
When I started writing the script, nobody was using phones the way that they use phones now. The Internet wasn’t the huge prevailing force that it is. I’m thinking about the world—during my sort of glory- or non-glory days—in the ’80s and ’90s. There is a simplicity about it when people just talked. When you wanted to talk to someone you had to walk right to their house and knock on the door. There’s something endearing about that, especially in a city like Glasgow. There’s lots of street life. I like the neighborhood, that sort of vibe. Because suddenly when people start talking on phones and computers, you could be anywhere. But I wanted to nail that sense of place.
Some were personal places; places that I walked all the time, especially when I was writing the film. I’m addicted to walking around my city. Some things are lost in time. Some things don’t exist anymore. The thrift store, I don’t go in there all the time, but it looks good. And there’s this working man’s club and that’s actually on the other side of the city, I just knew about through a friend. It all kind of adds up to the right vibe.
It’s all mood. You take the essence of that feeling and you run with it for years. I wouldn’t have done this unless that mood was around all the time. And the mood was a character, and the character was Eve. You have this moody character feeding you songs. But it’s just that feeling, and that was the force that made the movie. FL