It took Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer and songwriter for the internationally acclaimed Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian, more than a decade to finish work on the musical drama God Help the Girl. The film, based on the musical side project of the same name that he came up with in 2004, and which features a group of female vocalists, including Catherine Ireton, tells the story of a troubled young girl, Eve (Emily Browning), who escapes a mental health hospital and subsequently meets an out-of-luck guitarist, James (Olly Alexander). The duo is later joined by a music student, Cassie (Hannah Murray), and together this band of misfits shares dreams of performing their original music and living lives a little less ordinary. The film has screened at festivals the world over, from Sundance to Sarajevo, and garnered a devoted following that’s sure to grow upon its theatrical release. But fans of Belle & Sebastian shouldn’t fret: Though Murdoch admits that pop music is for young people and fosters an undeniable love for the cinema, he doesn’t intend to leave the music industry. While promoting God Help the Girl, he told me about his surprising film choices, songwriting rituals, preferring breakfast to the rock n’ roll lifestyle, and things he believes he has in common with Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino.
You took your time bringing God Help the Girl to fruition.
I suppose so. The reason why making the film took so long, and also the reason why I wanted to make the record first is that I knew that making a movie must be extremely difficult. I needed to do these things separately. It was a practical choice. “Let’s do the music first, I don’t care what happens later.” But then that helped get the film made.
Did you ever consider casting Catherine Ireton, lead vocalist of God Help the Girl, for the lead?
That was one of the big questions from the start, and right up until six weeks before principal photography Catherine was still the second or third candidate for the part. It was very unfair to her, because she was such a big thing all the way through: We made the record together, we toured, played some gigs, and during this time she was Eve all the time. I think Barry [Mendel, the producer] and I felt that we needed a different person. And also, quite simply, she grew older during all these years. We realized we needed Eve to be younger, because it’s a young person’s film.
When did you start thinking about making a film based on the project?
For me it was always about making a record and a film, the whole package. I just thought it would be better to start off with music. We made the record while we could, while the record company still trusted me enough to let me do that [laughs]. The title song came along first. Like a radio, I had it with me, and in me all the time [he starts to sing the first notes of the title track]. And then I went from there. I wrote more songs, and some of the script. So, obviously the music came along first.
And you decided to make a musical, considered to be one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult movie genre. Didn’t you feel a little intimidated by that?
For me, God Help the Girl simultaneously is and isn’t a musical. It’s a musical because the characters sing, but in the little trailer that we’re making it says that it’s a musical for people who don’t like musicals [laughs]. The producer thought we should keep that there, so here it is. Personally I think it’s a good description. I don’t like feeling intimidated, and in order to prevent that from happening, I forced myself not to watch certain films. For instance, I’ve never seen West Side Story. Someone said that if I intended to make a musical, I should begin watching that one. But I knew I wasn’t going to watch West Side Story! Instead I went and watched Grease. And of course Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and other films—the ones I used to watch as a kid that use music. And of course A Hard Day’s Night by the Beatles as well.
James, one of the main characters, enjoys writing songs. He presents a seemingly easy recipe for it: You just have to sit quietly, think about the things you did today, and there you go. I refuse to believe it’s that easy.
It sometimes is [laughs]. I think when you’re younger you have all these visceral experiences. Pop music is a young person’s medium. Now it’s difficult for me to write pop songs. Back then, when you have all this emotion, everything affects you and pop songs just simply pop into your head.
What’s your own ritual for writing?
I had the best time in my life writing a film. Best six months ever. I stopped working with Belle & Sebastian and was back in Glasgow. I had a little flat on my own and I just suddenly had an amazing time. I’d get up and write for about half an hour. And then I’d think it was enough for the day. Then I’d go for a really great bicycle ride. I’d cycle to Edinburgh all the way from Glasgow. And then suddenly I would hear a song in my head on the way. I wrote my best songs on a bike. I would stop with my recorder that I carry around with me all the time. I would sing into that thing pretending I was on my mobile phone. Little pieces would come that way.
Is it easier to direct a film or compose music for you?
After the experience I had with directing, I must admit that composing music is really easy compared to making films. Music is almost flat compared to the many dimensions film has. I’d say it’s at least 10 times as much work compared to making a record.
It must have been a difficult transition for you then, from being used to shooting music videos and composing to shooting a film: larger scale, lots of organizational issues, scripting, timing. Was it difficult to get used to the new circumstances?
I suppose so, but as long as you’re sure of your story, that’s not a problem, really. When the songs came along, the characters came along, I simply stopped having doubts. The most important thing was letting them talk to each other. I’m sure Wes Anderson does that sometimes too, Tarantino as well. They would start from characters. Get strong ones and just see what they’d say. I don’t know anything else. I’m not a great storyteller. I wouldn’t know how to write a story like a spy novel. So I just listen, see what Eve, James, and Cassie are talking about. So there’s probably 10 times more script than we later used in the film. There are just pages and pages of Eve and Cassie talking about laundry. Questions about washing their bras in the washing machine and so on.
A girly version of Tarantino?
Yeah, maybe [laughs]. But you know, when you have such wonderful actors, you just don’t want to waste any minute. I knew that whatever they’d make of their characters would be perfect. I’m saying this with certainty: The most important thing about God Help the Girl is the casting. If you get great cast, you’re home and you’re safe. We got great cast.
The actors in your films, although so young, they’re already well known in the business. They have a lot of experience. As a first-time director, have you learned anything in particular from them?
Everything. I learned how skillful you have to be to be an actor—how extremely difficult it can be. Now I know that I could probably never do that. They’re fabulous. They only came together about a week before we started shooting, but as soon as we had all three of them on set, we changed everything completely. Mainly because we observed how they spoke and reacted when they’re together. You know, they hummed and whispered a lot and no one could get into their circle. I knew we had to capture that feeling of this exclusive secret gang. They absolutely knew everything and didn’t like the adult world at all. That was exactly what we needed for the film. They hung out together, smoked cigarettes, we even called them “the three chimneys,” because they smoked all the time.
I don’t know a lot about the technique, lenses, light, but I do know about the cast. You know, about two thousand people tried to get the part of Eve over the years, lots of people online, but we finally went with Emily Browning. She’s such a professional. She’s been doing this for years, but at the same time she’s really cool. Doesn’t live anywhere, doesn’t have a house, she just kind of lives in the world somewhere. She never answers my emails, doesn’t get my phone messages, just shows up. She’s really kind of like Eve. I knew she was the right person. The same goes for Hannah [Murray] and Ollie [Alexander], although they may not be as eccentric.