“Many men and women have lived empty, wasted lives in attics trying to write classic pop songs,” James, the bookish and earnest male lead in Stuart Murdoch’s “God Help the Girl”, tell his duo of female companions, Eve and Cassie. “What they don’t realize is that it’s not for them to decide: It’s god. Or the god of music. Or the the part of god that concerns himself with music. That’s why the hitmaker has to be considered part divine – because the divine spoke through them.”
“A preposterous notion,” Cassie responds, weighing the proposition.
“But quite a good one,” Eve, the film’s fragile heart and lost soul, retorts.
Murdoch’s debut film is full of conversations like this. Its three main characters muse on the nature and minutia of pop music as they decide whether to form a band and how it will sound and what to even call it. Much like the movie – a musical that steps in and out of fantasy as its inhabitants break out in song – these conversations are both endearingly preposterous and still quite good.
Throughout, it’s hard not to hear the voice of the Belle and Sebastian singer, one of the most beloved and distinguished indiepop singer-songwriters of the past twenty years. There are pieces of him in all three of the “God Help the Girl” protagonists, particularly Eve, the singer-songwriter who starts the film in a mental ward and gradually discovers her confidence – behind a microphone and elsewhere. The legion of Murdoch diehards will not struggle to find parallels. As John Foster wrote for BYT last summer: “One of the best parts of all of the early Murdoch songs is his insistence on pretending to be the reluctant star.”
“God Help the Girl” has been a longtime coming. Murdoch first recorded and released the film’s songs over five years, when the script was still a work in progress and funding the whole endeavor was a pipe dream. Murdoch will make one more push to promote the project before returning to his primary gig in Belle and Sebastian. The Glasgow band has a big year ahead of it: the reissue of its entire catalogue next month, a fall tour, and early next year, a new Ben Allen-produced LP.
I called Murdoch in Los Angeles last week to discuss the making of the film. He was fresh off an early run around Silver Lake. “My jog was short,” he said. “I realized that I was going to come way across town to do the interviews, and I wanted to be a good employee this morning.”
“God Help the Girl” is available on demand now. It opens at AFI Silver Theatre next Friday.
After over six years, how does it feel to have “God Help the Girl” finally coming out?
It feels great. I’m so happy with the way that things have worked out. This is a new company – Amplify – and I think that they’re doing a great job. I mean, it’s a small film, but they’re really getting it into cinemas in some interesting places. I’m really happy.
You’ve said you’ve long wanted to direct a film, at least in the abstract sense. What was fueling that?
That’s a good question, because a person can want to do something in an abstract way, but it’s not until the film comes along that you get permission to actually do it. I suppose that I was flirting with filmmaking. Around 2001 or 2002, I found myself living alone for the first time, and those long, empty nights suddenly filled up with characters. I started writing a description of a film that I’d like to make – one that’s actually based in a café, but nothing really came of it.
Your interviews have hinted at a somewhat arduous writing process. What were the difficulties you encountered in crafting the script?
The largest difficulty is always, “Is this any good?” [Laughs] You’re always asking yourself, “Is this good?” You sort of do a thing, and then you think, “Well, what do I need to do to make this better?”
But I’ll tell you what, though – “arduous” is not the word that I would use. I remember coming back from tour in 2006, and getting a break from the band, and putting my guitar away, and sitting in my kitchen and writing dialogue for the first time – letting these characters talk. And, seriously, I had a brilliant time. It was one of the most relaxing and just enjoyable things that I had ever done.
Were there certain realities of filmmaking that surprised you?
It’s an awful transition from the head of the pig to three-dimensions to meeting people in rooms and explaining things to them, and having them look at you with a blank stare. That was a little bit different. I might be a singer in a band, but when you get into these places and there’s real money involved, they don’t care who you are. They just want to know what’s going to happen to their money. It was certainly an interesting learning curve. Every process that I get into makes me feel more grown-up. Sometimes when you’re in a band, you can almost live like a child. You’re looked after. But when you actually get into the nuts and bolts of producing a film, you’ve got to grow up a little bit. It gets real.
You’ve said the script started to change once you finished casting. How so?
It relates to your previous question about the filmmaking process as well. It can become quite… stressful. We were a month before principal photography, and they had set up this big office in Glasgow, and there were all these people running about that I didn’t know, and they were asking me questions for, like, 12 hours a day. I think that I started getting little mouth ulcers around the time. But it was kind of fun if you can handle it.
It was when I saw the cast together that I realized that I had an Australian girl and an English girl and an English guy, and the characters were initially meant to be Scottish. They tried Scottish accents and it was no good. I thought, “Well, we’re going to have to adapt these parts.”
At the same time, I had my producers and the lady from the insurance office looking over my shoulder. You know how you have that in film, right? They guarantee the money, so they have to guarantee that you can shoot what you have. They were hassling me to get my script down to a shooting script – i.e., to take out loads of stuff. In the meantime, me and producer Barry Mendel were trying to put loads of extra stuff back in. It was extremely stressful that all of these people were messing with my script just a month out of shooting!
You described the characters early on as “very specific Glasgow characters.” Why was the location so important?
I’m a very geographical person. I react to my surroundings. It’s almost my biggest influence. I’m sitting here, looking at south Los Angeles spread out for miles, and one day I’m going to make a film in Los Angeles. But it’s not going to be a Hollywood film – it’s going to be a Los Angeles film, because I love this city and there are stories everywhere.
I feel that way, obviously, about my own city. I know my own city better than any town. This love for it has grown and grown. And I’ve known those kind of characters for years, as well. That’s where I was coming from.
How much of you are in these characters?
I’d say probably 52%, 46%, and 13%. I don’t why suddenly I’m just coming up with numbers, but that’s Eve, James, and Cassie, respectively. That probably adds up to a 100% or something.
Aside from the obvious change of new singers –the movie’s cast – what was your approach to rerecording these songs for the film and soundtrack?
That was quite painless. That was part of the plan. You know how often people say, “We had a plan,” but they when you look back, they didn’t really have one? Well, I actually did have a plan. The plan was to record the music first and then move on to film, because I knew that doing both at the same time would be detrimental. So, we took forward all of the backing tracks from the original album and simply recorded them with the cast. We had to do it super fast, which I knew was going to happen. But it was straightforward.
The lovely thing that happened is that because I had the cast for a couple of weeks before we actually shot the movie, we got to know each other. We sort of bonded in the studio. I was very comfortable in the studio. We got some really nice vocals from them. We ended up writing a couple of more songs while we were in there too.
Emily Browning said “I realized quickly that Stuart wanted it to be my voice, and [he] kind of liked how it’s a bit weird sometimes.” Was it more important to have voices with personality than one more polished or classically trained?
Ultimately, yes. At some point, Barry and I were really attracted to voices when we were recording. I can’t help it – that’s a musical side. I’m talking about strong, pop voices. We had a few of those around, and we nearly cast somebody who’s, like, a pop star, but then something happened and I realized that we had a responsibility to the movie. People were going to have to sit through this movie.
Ultimately, the choice of Emily was the key thing. Apart from looking and feeling so natural and great on the screen, she has a welcoming voice. It’s all greater than the sum of the parts. When you hear her voice and you see her, it’s something that you can fall into, as opposed to something that’s blasting you out of the screen. Nobody wants to be blasted for an hour and a half.
As a band, a touring entity, a venture, Belle and Sebastian is probably as big as it’s ever been. Did you have reservations about putting it on hold to work on a project in another medium, especially one with such creative and financial risk?
That’s a good question. I very rarely ever sit back and survey all that I own or something like that. [Laughs] I don’t really think, “Wow, where is the band? How are they doing?” This is more of a personal thing. The first responsibility is to the art, and the next responsibility is to the people who you work with and like. Thankfully, the people that I work with and like very much were very supportive of this project.
But it got to the stage in 2012 – just when we shot the film – where I felt the band calling me back. We actually got quickly back to doing some tours, even though I could have done without it at the time. [Laughs] But I felt like I had pushed my luck, and if I wanted to keep this very valuable thing that I had going, I would have to get back to it. I am fully back with the band now.
The band has said that you’re putting the finishing touches on a new record. What can you share about it? What’s it sound like?
Well, it’s early days – I know what it sounds like. It’s so much more difficult talking about music than film, because it’s abstract. But we like the album. We’re mixing it right now. We’ll start to play those new songs out in the fall.
You already mentioned your hypothetical Los Angeles film. It sounds like with the “God Help the Girl” experience in hindsight, this is something you’d want to do again.
I’d definitely love to. In a dreamy and sort of abstract way, you have these ideas sloshing around in your head. Even when I was driving in this morning, I was coming down Beverly Boulevard and getting that John Hughes feeling again – that “Pretty in Pink” or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” feeling. I was thinking, “Yeah, I gotta make a movie here.” Sometimes when you let go of one project, it makes space in your brain and the seeds of other one start coming in.