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Stuart Murdoch on directing God Help The Girl and knowing when your band’s a band

Murdoch (left), with Hannah Murray and Olly Alexander

God Help The Girl has existed in some form or another for nearly a decade. According to the film’s writer and director, Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch, the idea for the musical came to him during the promotional cycle for 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, well before he blanketed his hometown with fliers reading “girl singer needed for autumnal recording project.” Between the releases of two more Belle & Sebastian albums and the diary collection The Celestial Café, Murdoch continued working away at the tale of Eve (played by Emily Browning in the film), who escapes a psychiatric hospital in order to realize her dreams of pop stardom in Glasgow. The cinematic take fills in some of the narrative ambiguities of 2009’s God Help The Girl LP: Outside of the hospital, Eve befriends an idealistic-to-the-point-of-snobbish singer-songwriter named James (Olly Alexander) and James’ wide-eyed guitar student Cass (Hannah Murray). The trio then goes on to form a combo that possesses the hooks and flash of a vintage girl group and the intimate, acute lyricism of Stuart Murdoch. In between, there’s plenty of meditating on Murdoch’s favorite lyrical themes: sex, faith, and pop music, and various combinations of the three. With the film set for a theatrical and VOD release on September 5, The A.V. Club spoke with Murdoch about learning to direct, why he needed to see his “baby” through every step of its development, and what it’s like to say farewell to these characters and songs after spending so much time with them.

The A.V. Club: At what point in the development of God Help The Girl did you realize you’d have to be the one to direct the movie?

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Stuart Murdoch: I always flirted with the notion, but I think we were a year out and actually raising the funding and already casting, and I thought, “Well, it’s getting real now. What am I going to do?” Because I was still—if somebody had walked in and said, “We’re going to get somebody else to direct it,” I would have said, “Okay” at that point. But that was probably a year beforehand, and then I thought I’d feel a bit like Edward VIII abdicating the throne of England. I’d feel an absence of responsibility if I did that.

AVC: What do you think you brought to the film that another director couldn’t?

SM: You could ask the question the other way around: What could’ve another director brought to it? And I think they could have brought a great deal. The only thing I had going for me was that it was my baby. It’s my songs and my characters. The best thing—the thing that I was good at when it came to directing—was being with the actors. That’s what I feel very natural being around, because I’d had those characters for so long. I knew how I wanted them to come across, I knew what their sensibilities should be down to every word, every pause. I knew that. Luckily, I had great actors, but that was the thing: the overall tone and sensibility of the film. Another director might have come in and probably would have ended up changing most of the script, to be honest.

AVC: So this was a situation where you could have a little bit more control over the final product?

SM: Of course, a director is completely in control of all aspects of the movie. This is my one chance to shine.

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AVC: There are certain scenes and shots within the film that feel like a movie taking place within a Belle & Sebastian album cover. How much did you want the film to represent the visual aesthetic of your musical projects?

SM: If I could have chosen not to go down that path, maybe I would have, but it was not a conscious decision. It was almost like a giving in, realizing that you’re going to have to learn so many other things when it comes down to how the film looks and the style of it, then you should just do what you’re naturally inclined to do. Everything that you see there was an extension of my brain, my adult brain, and of course it’s the same world as Belle & Sebastian. I even went down to London to try and pitch the movie to try and get some money off people, and they asked me what the movie was going to look like. I didn’t have an answer, because I’d never pitched a movie before. I said, “It’s going to look like a Belle & Sebastian album cover come to life.” They were completely unimpressed by that.

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AVC: Why do you think that is?

SM: Because they were a movie company. The leap between a record sleeve and a movie was not something that they were prepared to make. I was prepared to make it, but they weren’t prepared to put their money on it.

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AVC: One of the most striking elements of the musical segments of the film is the way Eve sings directly into the camera during her spotlight numbers. Is this her way of turning her life into a music video?

SM: I guess it probably is. That’s a tricky one. It was always what I saw her doing. It was very tricky. If you’re going to do a musical, you’ve got to get the tone right. You have to make the audience accept that the characters are going to sing to them. The one thing I knew was that during the very beginning of the film, Eve was going to walk along the hospital corridor, drop down out of that window, turn to the camera, and start singing, [Sings.] “I’m bored out of my mind”—that’s what I was clinging to. I thought, if she could sing that first song—which is about her telling the story of her life up to this point—and people believe that, then I thought we’d be doing okay.

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AVC: When it came time to cast the actors for the film, what did Eve need to be on-screen that she was not necessarily on the record? Was there any thought given to making the movie with the performers from the record?

SM: I had an inkling when we did open casting for the record—and that just started in Glasgow with me posting notices up around cafés and stuff and in a local magazine—I thought that I would get an Eve. I thought that I would get this primal force, this singer that I could mold into an actor—that she could help me write the script. In a sense, you never quite get what you’re looking for. We ended up with a group of singers. The main person was Catherine Ireton. She became the voice of Eve for the record, and we toured around and, professionally, we became close, and she became a close friend of my wife. So Catherine and I, we had this real relationship, and she loved the character, she loved singing, and it was really a big thing to let her down, to say that she wasn’t going to play Eve. It wasn’t until very late on that I realized that wasn’t going to happen, because I was rooting for her. I’m a loyal person, on the whole. But I think what happened is that so much time had passed. When we came to cast James—as soon as I saw Olly, he was the one. But he was so much younger than James was in my mind. And it meant that he didn’t really match up with Catherine. It would have been sort of unbelievable because Catherine’s a little bit older. At that point, she wasn’t going to play Eve. Everything unraveled at that point.

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AVC: In writing the script, how did you decide which songs would be sung on-screen and which would simply play an environmental role? For example, “Perfection As A Hipster” is a duet between Eve and Anton on the record, whereas it plays on the radio during one of their rendezvous in the film.

SM: That’s a really good question. Luckily, with filmmaking, there is a lot of slack. It’s famously said that you make the film when you’re writing it, and you make the film when you’re making it, and then you make it again when you’re editing. So there is a lot of slack, and each of the songs had its own little journey. All the songs have different functions within the film. Some Eve sings straight to camera, some are conversational—two characters singing to each other—and, some of them, the band are playing on stage in a real situation. With that song, I think I remember writing somewhere there’s a scene where they do actually sing that song to each other. But I suddenly thought, we already have this version sung by Neil [Hannon of The Divine Comedy], we’ll just have it playing in the background and it can illustrate what’s going on. This is a different use for the songs. The songs are really quite flexible.

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AVC: You’ve now been living with these characters and these songs for more than a decade. Does the film’s release feel like an official end to Eve’s story? Or do you think she could return at some point?

SM: It is an official end. It definitely is. It kind of doesn’t feel like it right now. I’m just so busy with Belle & Sebastian. Too much stuff is going on. To an extent, I felt a kind of ending as soon as we actually started filming because my idea of the three characters is necessarily different to the real-life people that we were filming. As soon as we started filming, a little bit of your vision gets lost. It’s probably not an unusual thing. I guess I’ve been saying cheerio to my characters since 2012, once we shot the film.

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AVC: There’s a debate in the middle of the film about what makes a band. Cass suggests that because she, Eve, and James are taking day trips together and canoeing around Glasgow that they’re “definitely a band”; James counters that they’re “three people paddling a boat.” So what’s the difference between a band and three people paddling a boat?

SM: [Laughs.] That’s a good question because I’m not sure that I answered it. James says something about how a band should come along and sweep you away. Damn. When is that moment when a bunch of people actually become a group? I’ll have to refer to my own group, Belle & Sebastian. The people in Belle & Sebastian resisted it for quite a long time. We were a loose bunch of people called together to make one album for a college project. Stevie [Jackson] didn’t want to be in a band at that point. He was happy to help out, though. Chris [Geddes] and Isobel [Campbell] were just too young. They were just helping out. Richard [Colburn] was ready to be in a band. It’s a funny thing. I don’t know—when do you get to that moment when you get a tight-knit bunch of people? Even after we made two albums, I wasn’t sure. It doesn’t really answer your question.

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AVC: It’s sort of a “when you know, you know” kind of situation.

SM: That’s probably as good an answer as ever. It took Belle & Sebastian quite some time.

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