The Belle and Sebastian frontman discusses the near decade-long struggle to get his debut feature film God Help the Girl made
Pitching your first film, the first script you’ve ever written in fact, to poker-faced media executives at London production companies must be inexorably nerve-wracking. So imagine that the film is a musical film and the script, by your own admission “probably isn’t the strongest part of the film”. Despite being a well-known and successful musician, and band-leader of a Brit Award winning indie-pop ensemble with a Hollywood producer in your corner, when asked what kind of style you envisage for your film, protestations along the lines of “there’s no such thing as style, style’s for people like you to tell me, I’m just going to do my thing” barely cause a flicker of recognition. What next?
For Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian fame and producer Barry Mendel (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense, Bridesmaids) the answer was to start a Kickstarter campaign, with the promise that were $100,000 to be raised, the film would “definitely” be made. Unsurprisingly, given the affection in which Murdoch’s Glasgow-based band are held, that target was easily surpassed (though the total budget was eventually closer to £2million). Nine years after the inception of the project, which started as a collection of songs Murdoch could see only being sung by a girl group, God Help the Girl (also a 2009 studio album) hits UK cinemas today.
“It’s a risk taking a flyer on a guy who’s never made a musical before”
The film centres on Eve, played by Emily Browning, a fragile young Australian singer-songwriter, who after following a boy in a band to Glasgow now finds herself an inpatient at a mental health facility. She often sneaks out at night to watch bands at Glasgow Barrowlands and soon hooks up with musician James (Olly Alexander) and his precocious, ethereal friend Cassie (Hannah Murray). They form a band called, yes, God Help the Girl, and a tight bond forms over one magical summer. It’s a film about friendship and the unifying power of creativity.
“As with songwriting, I tried not to try too hard with the script,” says Murdoch when we meet in the bowels of a video production company in Covent Garden. His trademark black hat and a half-eaten egg salad sit on the small table opposite the sofa on which we’re perched. “You don’t want to try too hard. P.G. Woodhouse said a great thing once: ‘You become a writer by simply applying the seat of your trousers to the surface of the chair’. Basically, just do it. When I got a break from the band I had the characters around, I could feel them. So I just sat down and typed and had them talk. I didn’t know what they were going to talk about, I didn’t have a story. It was as you see it in the film, endless scenes of the three of them just walking around and talking about shit, talking about stuff. Talking about trivial prattle the way that kids do.”
“James was meant to be as Glaswegian as me… but then we cast the thing and you pick the best people. I don’t regret that for a second”
The lack of a coherent plot, as Murdoch concedes, was probably what led to the likes of the BBC, Film 4, Sky and the BFI passing on his first draft. “They probably thought it wasn’t going to be any good,” he says with an air of slight embarrassment but also satisfaction. “I don’t mean that flippantly. It’s my first script. It wasn’t plot driven, nothing super-dramatic happens in the film. It was a character driven film and it came to life through music. When you see the script you maybe can’t feel that and it’s a risk taking a flyer on a guy who’s never made a musical before”.
Admittedly the script isn’t the strongest part of the film – it’s functional and sufficient, whereas the real moments of humour arrive during some of the improvised scenes. It’s the songs that really grab the attention and get the feet tapping at a frenetic pace. They bristle with unbridled joy in places, aching melancholia in others, recalling The Shangri-La’s or 1960s French pop at its most playful. One only has to look at the beaming, unapologetic smiles on the faces of some of the non-professional extras during the ‘I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie’ (one of the standout tracks) scene, which takes place at a community centre dance for OAPs, to realise how classically great these songs are. The dawdling pensioners are immediately transported back to their teens.
Murdoch’s cinematic influences include giant musical films such as The Sound of Music and “the first half” of My Fair Lady – “the scripts are snappy and the songs are amazing” – as well as American Graffiti and Harold and Maude, and the narrative arc of classic British films such as Withnail & I and Billy Liar. But perhaps his biggest influence was the city of Glasgow itself, his home since the late 80s (he grew up in Ayr). Its sights and sounds and ever-changing weather provide the perfect backdrop to the transient moods of the film’s characters.
“It’s funny, sometimes when I’m away I get homesick and I’ll go on the BBC website and I’ll find the Scottish page, then the Glasgow page,” he says as we begin to wrap up the interview. “It’s like any other big old town, there’s still rough stuff. But I must say, and I talk to my wife about this, it is getting better. There used to be a lot of no-go zones in Glasgow, places you wouldn’t walk into. I tend to range across the city, I like to walk right across the town and I’m still intact.
“I was in the East End yesterday to see what’s happening with the Athletes Village. The whole area has been transformed, it’s amazing, they’ve built new bridges and landscaped. When the industry goes, a town really starts to die and things stagnate, but it’s more vibrant now than it was in the 80s and 90s.”
Interestingly, none of the main characters in the film are Glaswegian, or even Scottish. “It was absolutely not meant to be. James was meant to be as Glaswegian as me. I always thought that Eve drifted in from somewhere on the east coast of Scotland or the north. Cassie was always meant to be the exotic one, either posh English or American. But then we cast the thing and you pick the best people. I don’t regret that for a second.”
Somewhere, in a pristine glass-walled meeting room in London, those non-plussed folks who turned Murdoch down might just be counting theirs.