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Interview: Stuart Murdoch on God Help the Girl, Belle & Sebastian, and More

Murdoch spoke to us about preferring breakfast to the rock n’ roll lifestyle and things he has in common with QT.

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Interview: Stuart Murdoch on God Help the Girl, Belle & Sebastian, and More
Photo: Amplify

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.

The main character, also the title character, is a troubled young girl. How was it to express yourself through a female character?

Well, I think it wasn’t that difficult as it may seem. The film is so unique and different particularly because of this female perspective. Of course, I realize that I could have written her better, but maybe there will come a chance for that one day. Anyway, writing lines for a girl liberated me in a way, it was new, but somehow I knew exactly what she would say, all the time. The one thing I know about is writing songs. So I wrote songs for her. This is the most important way she expresses herself and communicates with the world. Maybe in the movie James has better things to say, maybe also more important. But to me what Eve says is the most meaningful.

May it be because you were in a similar situation to Eve at one point in your life?

I think so. But I suppose that there’s some of me in James, and there’s some of me in Eve. Maybe not so much Cassie. When I was about 19 or 20 or something, way back in the 1980s anyway, I got really unwell and nobody could explain to me what was happening, so I had to deal with it all by myself. I was completely isolated and then I was ill for years and years. So I had plenty of time to, well, dream. That was when I started to write music. So this part is rather similar to my own experience. Definitely music was my salvation. I couldn’t have dreamed then that after almost 30 years I would still be in a band and that it would be such a great band that Belle & Sebastian is for me. Anyway, even after I got my group together, I thought we’d make one record, maybe two, tops and then it would fall apart. It’s a constant surprise.

“You don’t make a band, a band makes you,” says James in the film. How has Belle & Sebastian made you?

I certainly don’t agree with everything James says. I think he says a lot of things that may annoy many people. In fact, there was a lot more that he said that we took out from the film. I think he likes to feel important. And he likes to talk to Cassie and Eve like they’re children, like he knows everything. I think he says things and then contradicts himself. So I don’t know how much truth there is in his speeches and, consequently, how much truth there is in this particular line.

When Belle & Sebastian first formed, it was like a tender love affair for the summer. When a band starts, everything is great. It was similar to that, except there were seven people. We’d go around everywhere. To coffee shops, clubs, we’d be like this little gang, similar to the trio from the movie. Then everybody fell out. Sure, the unexpected thing is that when we established a band, we were still very nice to each other and we were friends. It’s always important to collaborate and stay friends with people you work with on a daily basis. Of course we used to fight and a couple of people left the band. And, by the way, one thing I learned is that, if you’re in a group, you should never go out with a person that’s in a band with you. That’s a terrible idea [laughs].

It feels sometimes that God Help the Girl is a sort of tongue-in-cheek manual for how to behave being in a band.

It sort of is, you’re right. James has that side of him when he feels like he’s a little bit older and he loves the fact that he has the girls as his audience. He’s like this sort of “I’ve been there, I’ve done that” kind of person. Add to that James’s backstory and you’ve got a ready recipe for how not to be a leader of a band.

Do you think that the band from God Help the Girl could actually be successful in the real life?

Oh absolutely not. It’s a disaster! And that’s why I think the story is true.

James, Eve, and Cassie don’t use the inventions of the modern time, like computers, social networks. They only use mobile phones from time to time, but generally they’re quite…retro.

Yes, I think they’re slightly untypical. They’re sort of “renaissance teenagers.” They’re trying to read better, trying to stay up at night. There are some kids like that in reality as well. They’re super-pretentious, really snobby, but I think that’s quite all right. Maybe some people will be attracted to the film precisely because of that.

Being in a band is all about collaboration. But being a director is usually a solo act, more individual.

Actually, directing is almost exactly the same. The thing that saved me was precisely the fact that the crew is like a band really. It’s how I think about it. In this scenario, Barry Mendel, the producer, was a drummer, and Giles [Nuttgens], our DP, was the guitar player. You have to feel like it’s a band. It’s only through collaboration that you can make anything good. If you’re writing a book, you can be one person. Making a film, you have to be lots of people. I’d love to make more movies. In film, the palette is infinite. You can talk about anything. It’s more mature, you can explore human nature.

Did you have any doubts at any point, a moment of hesitation, when you had no idea what to do next, as a first-time director, regrets about anything?

Nothing but regrets [laughs]. Moments of hesitation? Every single day. Seriously. Of course, we worked out the most important things beforehand. At times I would stand up in front of a crew thinking they must look at me like I was some sort of pathetic idiot. Obviously they didn’t—I hope. The cast and crew work in the business—they do it all the time and I’m a complete rookie, but I had the most amazing crew and they saved my name. To be honest, I’ve thought about making a film before, but I never imagined I would have the energy or stamina to be a director myself. I’m generally just too lazy [laughs].

So, how is the film industry different compared to the music industry?

To me, the film industry is infinitely more interesting than the music industry. That’s because it’s exotic. When you’re touring with the band, going to festivals, the most fun part of the day is always breakfast. I’m a morning person, I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink, I’m really bored with rock n’ roll. I hate rock n’ roll and I love breakfast! I had a great breakfast this morning, because everybody was talking about films, scripts, so many interesting things! Like in Robert Altman’s The Player, it’s super exciting! Whereas if I was now at a rock n’ roll festival and it was breakfast time, you would just have a couple of people around, all super-hungover, drool coming out of their mouths, all bragging about the time they stayed up yesterday and being just miserable. I’m bored with that. The industry, as I see it, is in general quite similar though.

The fourth character in God Help the Girl, the one we didn’t talk about so far, seems to be the city of Glasgow.

Sure, I think the band’s adventures couldn’t happen anywhere else. Okay, maybe in some cities, but it was very much Glasgow-centered, like Belle & Sebastian by the way.

And you managed to make the film a love letter to Glasgow.

I’m very glad you said so [laughs]. That was the intention.

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