Stuart Murdoch on God Help the Girl

Stuart Murdoch's debut film God Help the Girl has been a long time in the making, but this month UK film fans get to see the efforts of his labour. The Belle & Sebastian frontman recalls how his lead character came to him fully formed

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 04 Aug 2014

A working men’s club in Govan, Glasgow, July 2012. The decor is 70s wood-panelling chic and threadbare carpet. It’s late afternoon and a dozen or so greying couples are swaying happily to the house band. Around the dancefloor, a dozen more sip on pale ales and G&Ts. It’s a familiar scene. At least, it is until a young, petite woman called Eve, with a cherubic face framed in a dark bob, takes to the stage and blasts out a cheery little ditty called I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie. As she sings, the dancefloor’s two-stepping sexagenarians are replaced by twisting teens who look like they’ve just stepped off the set of American Graffiti. Their dancing is freestyle at first, but soon they’re forming ranks, and dancing in step around the elfin singer on stage.

There’s not been a tear in the space-time continuum: this is the movie set for God Help the Girl, the debut film from Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. It’s a musical – hence the singing, dancing and magical realism – and Eve, played by Australian actor Emily Browning, is the girl of the title.

As the dancers twirl and the handheld camera operator roams the floor to record the action, Murdoch, dressed in black T-shirt and jeans, cuts a calm figure at the back of the hall as he observes the choreography and ushers another take. Considering this is his first feature, he looks surprisingly comfortable. “I’m too comfortable,” says the then 43-year-old Murdoch when we sit down to speak while the cast and crew break for dinner. “I sometimes feel that if I did slip away at this stage, no one would really notice,” he laughs.

While it might seem distant from his day job, Murdoch suggests directing isn’t too far removed from being a bandleader. “When our group is up on stage at a festival,” he explains, “we have us onstage, we have the background crew – it’s very similar to this. It feels like my [director of photography], Giles [Nuttgens], he’s like Stevie Jackson on guitar, he’s like my main guy on the left. And Neil [Wallace], the first AD, he’s like Bob Kildea [B&S’s bass player], he’s the guy who runs around and shouts a lot.”

It’s nine days into the film’s shoot, but Murdoch is looking fresh and energetic. As he holds court with a gathered group of journalists, he happily bats away questions about budget and casting. “I thought this was going to be the hard bit?” he says of the shooting process. “I’ve been kind of dreading this, you know. I’m a guy in a band – we don’t work very hard. These guys in the crew work crazy hours, so I was worried about my stamina, and having an answer to everyone’s questions. But if I can keep it up, this is the fun part.”

Cut to two years later. God Help the Girl has screened at Sundance (where it won the Special Jury Prize) and Berlin film festivals, and it’s soon to make its premiere on UK soil with a live satellite launch screening from Edinburgh followed by a Belle & Sebastian concert. Speaking on the phone from his home in Glasgow, Murdoch is recalling the moment, over a decade ago, when he first had the idea for the film.

“It was 2003 and I was on tour with Belle & Sebastian. We were playing Sheffield, but I was out running before the gig, and while I was running up some canal I heard the title track, God Help the Girl, in my head like a complete song, and Eve was singing it, and I thought, ‘This isn’t something I would sing in the band, this is a separate thing.’ It took two or three songs, which came in quick succession, and then I kind of thought, ‘Well, she’s a character, I’m going to try and write a script.’”

God Help the Girl may be a musical, but its premise is far from fluffy. As the film begins, Eve is in a mental institution suffering from an eating disorder and depression. We follow her as she breaks free from her closed-off world of therapy and attempts to heal herself through living. She meets James (Olly Alexander), an upbeat guitarist who takes her under his wing. Together they form a pop trio with piano player Cassie (Hannah Murray) and the film plays out as a paean to the healing power of music and to a glorious summer spent in Glasgow. You read that right: a glorious summer in Glasgow.

“I think perhaps the summer they spend is somewhat idealised,” Murdoch admits, “but that’s films for you.” As well as the beautifying power of cinema, the romanticisation of the city may also be due to some unconscious nostalgia Murdoch was channelling into the script. “That was pointed out to me after Stevie Jackson saw the first rough cut – he was talking about the obvious parallels between those three guys in the film and our band. It never occurred to me that that was partly what I was writing about, that great romance period when we first came together as a band.”

"For every song we do for Belle & Sebastian, now I’m thinking, ‘Where’s the film to go with that?’" – Stuart Murdoch

That’s not where the autobiographical details end. While Murdoch admits to sharing characteristics with the gawky James and the kooky Cassie, it’s Eve’s story, and her relationship to music, that’s closest to his own. “Her downfall in youth that’s unspoken about, what happened to her before the film that was so bad that brought her to Scotland in a mental institution, I had that kind of downfall.” Murdoch is referring to the long period in his early 20s where he suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome. “I got very ill, but shortly afterwards I started writing songs and I sort of clung on to that because I’d given up everything else at that point.” But, he says, these things happened so long ago that “Eve, when she came along, did feel like a real, breathing character separate from me. I could empathise with her, and that’s why I could write her character so easily.”

The songs may have been written in a flood, but the film came at a trickle; ten years from idea to screen is a long time, even for a first-time filmmaker. Murdoch has been no slouch in this period – God Help the Girl’s songs started life as a concept album of the same name in 2009, and he released and toured two albums with Belle & Sebastian (The Life Pursuit and Write About Love) in the intervening years – but the question remains: what took so long? “When you say it took me ten years, it sounds like, ‘Oh my God, what was that guy doing?’” he laughs. “The thing is I had to learn how to be a director in that time. I learned how to write a script. It took a while – it was like going to college.”

How did you go about learning?

“You learn by doing it, having a go. First off, I said, ‘OK, I’m going to make a record.’ We did that, then I was like, ‘Right, we’ve got to turn this into a film,’ and that ended up taking six years. I was definitely meant to do it. I woke up every day thinking, ‘I’m in the right place.’”

While it's rough around the edges (some scenes feel rushed, while others feel like they’re missing altogether), Murdoch has certainly succeeded in creating a film of charm, wit and energy, and he's teased out three sparky performances from his leads. A large part of the picture's appeal can be attributed to its visual style, which calls to mind the fizz and inventiveness of Jacques Demy and Richard Lester films. Anyone familiar with Glasgow’s music and art scene, meanwhile, is sure to have fun picking out the film’s wealth of cameos. As well as members of Belle & Sebastian (Bob Kildea and Chris Geddes join Eve’s band as session musicians; Sarah Martin plays a nurse), there are small appearances from the likes of Marco Rea (The Wellgreen), Sarah Hayes (Admiral Fallow) and Matt Brennan (Zoey Van Goey), as well as a hilarious turn by comedian Josie Long as an intense football captain. “I love that stuff in movies where it manages to conjure up a sense of community,” Murdoch says. “It’s a little bit like The Simpsons, where the whole town shows up at the end of the episode.”

What now for Murdoch? When asked on the set visit if this is the end of Belle & Sebastian he fires back a resounding “absolutely not.” What, then, for filmmaking? Can he see himself getting back behind a camera? “I think as long as I live and breathe I’ll definitely make another film,” he says emphatically. “I love the possibilities of the medium so much. For every song we do for Belle & Sebastian now I’m thinking, ‘Where’s the film to go with that?’ It’s hard for me to go back.”

God Help the Girl is screening live across UK cinemas from the Edinburgh Corn Exchange on 16 Aug (where it will be followed by a performance from Belle & Sebastian), and goes on general release 22 Aug