Scotland Week: Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian on Directing God Help the Girl | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Scotland Week: Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian on Directing God Help the Girl

A Dream at 24 Frames Per Second

Sep 05, 2014 Web Exclusive
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We have a special theme on Under the Radar's website this week which we're simply calling Scotland Week. All throughout the week we will be posting interviews, reviews, lists, and blog posts relating to Scotland and in particular Scottish music.

Since the very beginning, Belle and Sebastian's records have been populated by a wide assortment of characters; from Judy, Sukie, and Jane all the way through "Suicide Girl" on Write About Love. In making his first film, God Help the Girl, Belle and Sebastian singer and songwriter Stuart Murdoch had an opportunity to spend more time with his created characters than ever before. Unrestricted to how many details he could fit in a song, he fully developed God Help the Girl's primary cast with fully fleshed-out relationships and back stories. In the film, aspiring songwriter Eve (Emily Browning) leaves her mental health facility and connects with young like-minded musicians James (Olly Alexander) and Cass (Hannah Murray). They form a band, and romances bloom. Their charming story is in the form of a classic Hollywood musical, with characters breaking into song and choreographed dance numbers. It's an aesthetic that at times feels (understandably) like a Belle and Sebastian album come to life. 

Below, Murdoch talks about how he extrapolated characters initially dreamed up in song lyrics into a feature-length film and also gives a hint as to what to expect from the next Belle and Sebastian album.

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): You created your fair share of characters before this, and have written songs from many points of view. Typically, do the characters come to mind first, or are they born while you're writing lyrics? I supposed this is a "chicken or egg" question.

Stuart Murdoch: That's a good question. I think with the Belle and Sebastian songs that have characters in them...let me think. One song, for instance, "Judy and the Dream of Horses." I remember quite clearly writing that. I guess she sprang into my mind and then I wrote the song to accompany her, as a character.

With God Help the Girl, you had a longer format to explore your characters than ever before. How much do you know about their lives beyond what we see in the movie?

They certainly have back-stories. It's funny; I worked with an illustrator when we made the artwork for the initial album. There are lots of things that happened to Eve before the film starts, and we were going to do a comic novel of her back-story. Her downfall, so to speak, and how she got into such a bad situation. From the film side of view, I always knew exactly where I wanted to start it, which was at the bottom, so that the film would be a slow-burning renaissance. I thought if I was going to spend so long doing a film, I wanted it to be an uplifting experience. For me, anyway.

When you create these characters, how much of yourself bleeds into them?

There's a mixture. For instance something like "Sukie in the Graveyard," she's a completely separate character. That was something based on hearsay; a friend of a friend I'd heard about used to live in the loft space above the art school in San Francisco. Sometimes you only have a hint of an idea and then you can quickly write a whole scenario about that person venting, and that sort of thing. Of course, you're hinting at the characters in the film. To spend so long with them and to empathize with them, especially James and Eve, then I'd have to know them pretty well. Certainly some of their experiences come from my experiences, and from people I'm very close to.

You started writing the script after a long stretch of touring. Was the rest of Belle and Sebastian supportive as you were focusing on the film?

I think the answer to that question-and right up to the present day-is that they've been amazingly supportive all the way through. It's terrific. They were supportive way back then; they sort of knew that I wanted to take a break. They were feeling that too, I think. We were in a good place in 2006. We'd made our best record and we'd done our best touring, so we felt for the first time we could take a break. Everyone was quite happy at that point.

When you spoke about the film at South By Southwest, you brought your producer Barry Mendel on stage. It sounds like he's been an amazing collaborative partner in getting this made. At what point did you start working together?

He tells it better than me. My mind is pretty foggy on that time. I'd written most of the songs and I'd started writing the script by that point, so maybe it was the end of 2006, or some time like that, the start of 2007. He'd seen something on the website; he must have been going through a kind of Belle and Sebastian phase or something. He sent an email and it couldn't have been better timed, because all that time I'd worked without any means of moving forward. So, we were very excited when he first got involved. Furthermore, he's been involved in the whole thing. It's almost been like he's the master and I'm the pupil, in some sense. He's guided me through the process of how to get a script into a filmable state; obviously, how to raise the money; and how to direct the bloody thing, too.

What were the biggest challenges in writing the screenplay itself?

I think the toughest stage of it was definitely when I got to a point with the script and I thought we were doing pretty good. Barry took some time with it, and [said] "It's not good enough." I think this happened twice, and it set me back nearly a year the first time he said it. It's like a professor marking your dissertation and saying, you've got to repeat the year. It was easy for him to say, but I knew immediately that it was going to take me another six months to wrench into the story, to look into my soul and try to wrench up some better writing. But that was all fair enough, really.

Skipping ahead to casting: Emily Browning is fantastic as Eve. Had you seen her in a previous film and been impressed, or was she new to you when she auditioned?

We looked at so many people, and there were actually very few people whose work I'd known beforehand. I specifically wanted to not have any prejudices that way, and to be approaching new talent. Not that Emily is a new talent, but she was new to me, as were Olly [Alexander] and Hannah [Murray]. During the process of casting, we started off by seeing a tape of [Emily] reading and singing. Eventually we got her on Skype reading opposite of Olly in split-screen. You know, she's Australian; Olly's in London; I'm in Glasgow; Barry's in Los Angeles. It's crazy, because we're all on Skype and watching the two of them. But it's amazing how effective that is, because you're actually seeing it on screen. It's somehow better than being with them in a room. I mean, if I was making a play I'd have to see them in the room, but watching them on screen you get the idea of the intimacy and the subtlety of her acting; the fact that she can do very little on screen, but she can hold the screen. At the point when we cast her, I knew that I needed that solid influence on the film.

How long did you search to find a cast that fit characters you'd had in your head for so long?

I'd actually been looking way back from the time we did the record, because although I was auditioning singers, I was always looking for an Eve. It would have been easier if an Eve had come along and I had written the part with her in mind. The actual, formal period of casting-when the casting director came on board-lasted about a year and two months, or something. It got pretty intense.

What were rehearsals like for the film, from the music side? How long did you work with the actors on their performances?

This is interesting because, thinking about it now, I'd spent all this time developing and changing the script, trying to raise money, and casting, and then when it came down to it we got about five days. It wasn't even that much, really, it was more like three days. And also in that time period, when we were getting all of the cast up to Glasgow, they had to sing everything. We had to do all of the music first! It was a blitz. There were no rehearsals. [Laughs] It was a couple of read-throughs, that's all. We went straight into the studio and started singing the music so that they could lip-synch to the music while we were filming.

In the film, these somewhat odd-fitting kids get together to make music and magic happens. Can any parallels be drawn to your own experiences, in the early years of Belle and Sebastian?

It really wasn't something that occurred to me as I was writing the script because everything came from these characters. But, saying that, I think there was a nice consequence that the theme of music and a band developing came very easy to me, and of course it came from the band and from my knowledge of how we all came together. Though, the circumstances were very different. But in fact it was Stevie Jackson from the group; the first time he saw the rough cut I think that was the bit that affected him the most.

You get a wonderful sense of the Glasgow music community in the film. There are a lot of fellow musicians who have cameos. Was it just a matter of phoning up friends when you needed to fill scenes?

I think it was something I naturally moved towards, and something I love in other films; that maybe I took from Richard Linklater or someone like that. He gives a nice sense of the community in whatever he films, and the geography of the space where he films. I think it was inevitable that I was going to get some characters from roundabout here. In fact there were many more small characters and local color in the film, but in the editing room we had to focus on the main story.

Were there any notable scenes or songs that didn't make the final film?

Not any songs, thankfully; that would have been a disaster, because we spent so much time and money filming the songs. There was a little song that went, but that's okay. We were pretty economic. We ended up using a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff we actually ended up improvising on set. We had to film really fast, but we left some space for improvisation and we ended up using all of that. 

What were the biggest lessons you learned while making the film-things you might not have expected when you were first setting out to make a movie?

Barry always said casting was the biggest thing, and he was right. I'd thought that was ludicrous; I'd thought if you went into it with a script and a good idea, casting wouldn't be so important. The biggest thing I've learned [from making a movie] was probably the biggest thing I'd learned from being in a band, as well, but this reinforced it, and that was collaboration. If I make another film, I'm going to take so many shortcuts by collaborating with people who know what I'm doing. Getting together with fun people, wise people, and making the whole process more fun and quicker.

Now that you've done it, and have the experience under your belt...would you want to make another film someday?

I'd love to, God willing. [Laughs] It's such a nice art form. I tend to embrace something as it's dying out; I know that television is the medium of choice these days, that even people in Hollywood kind of say that. I don't know what the future of movies is going to be, but I'm such a movie snob, you know?

Obviously, music and film are different mediums, but I'm curious whether you felt there were any commonalities shared between shooting a film, and, say, stepping into the studio to record an album?

If there wasn't then I'd really be in trouble. That was the big thing that allowed me to think that I could direct: the fact that I'd produced so many records with the band, and directed so many shows with the band. Working with crews, and performers, and orchestras, et cetera. I'm comfortable with that role. I like standing in the middle of a bunch of people and directing traffic, which is basically what directing is. So, that made things okay. 

I know it's still early and you probably don't want to spoil any surprises, but is there anything you can share yet about the next Belle and Sebastian record?

It's funny; because I've been allowed to talk about film recently it's so much harder to talk about music. [Laughs] The beautiful thing about music is it's an abstract art form. There's more to talk about with film because there's always the story, the people you're working with, et cetera. I can say that I've made what is probably my favorite Belle and Sebastian track, and it's a duet with Dee Dee from Dum Dum girls. We're still mixing some of these songs so I don't know if I'll feel this way in six months' time, but there are some tracks that really affected me on this record so I hope they're still like that when it comes out.

[Pick up Under the Radar's next print issue for more from our interview with Stuart Murdoch on God Help the Girl.]

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God Help the Girl opens theatrically in the U.S. on Friday, September 5th, and is available on demand.  For more information about the film, check out its website

 



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