We Talked to Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch About His Directorial Debut, 'God Help The Girl'
He wanted to make something beautiful and honest.
If you’ve been wondering what Stuart Murdoch has been up to since his band Belle & Sebastian released their 2010 album Write About Love, the answer is writing and directing a musical based on characters and songs introduced in the 2009 album God Help the Girl. The film of the same name is a voyage through the melodic melancholy world of Eve, a fashionable nymph who breaks away from a hospital to seek out like-minded musicians in Glasgow, a plot that shares faint resemblances with Belle & Sebastian’s own origin story. (The band started when, after suffering for years with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Murdoch emerged into the world with an armful of songs and a hunger to locate people with whom he could collaborate to bring them to life.)
Even at its most basic level—a cinematic manifestation of a Belle & Sebastian song—God Help the Girl is terribly infectious and heart-meltingly sincere. B&S superfans wont be disappointed with Murdoch’s attempt to translate the precious landscape of his imagination into a musical film. God Help the Girl hits theaters in New York and L.A. tonight (it will be released nationally on September 12), and so Noisey spoke with Murodch about making the leap from the mic stand to the director’s chair.
You’ve always worn your taste on your sleeve when it comes to books, records and films, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk about musicals. Are you a fan?
Stuart: I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan but sometimes the unfamiliar can inspire you. I had these songs and this character come along, and then felt “wow, this could be a film. This could be a musical.” I don’t really like musicals [so] maybe I should make a musical that I do like. The arrogance of being an artist will always drive you to do things.
You went to such lengths to capture the beauty of Glasgow and present this city to the world, and yet these characters aren’t even Scottish—two are from England and one is from Australia. Why didn’t you revolve the story around a trio of Scots?
I know People in Scotland are asking me the same thing. Some of them are a little pissed off about it. The fact is, we tried. The characters were Scottish originally, though Cassie was an outsider -- she was going to be English or American. We went through an extensive casting process, looking at probably around 2,000 people for the [lead] part of Eve alone. Everyone had to sing. So it certainly wasn’t for lack of effort.
We exhausted every corner, and ended up with what we thought were the best people, and you go with the best people rather than try to make the ugly sisters wear Cinderella’s shoes. You have to get the person that fits. Especially for me as a first-time director, we had to get people who played off each other well and felt natural. And that’s what we got.
Often when someone attempts to portray alternative culture in a musical they end up getting it wrong, because musicals are often overly-expressive, and indie culture is often about understatement. Was this something that was on your mind going into this project?
Well I’m not very interested in going big, especially with this subject matter, because it’s small. It’s about three people finding themselves in Glasgow over a long, hot summer. They’re not a part of the adult world. They’re just these three kids. They like to talk about daft, everyday stuff. This isn’t going to make the leap to Broadway—it was always a film. And with a film you can capture that intimacy.
The film explores ideas about careerism and self-expression; one character, James, doesn’t care about making money or if anyone ever hears his music, so long as he’s making the music he wants to make. That seems to be the story of Belle & Sebastian: making music for yourself first. Has that been difficult to maintain in the face of success?
It’s probably a little bit of the opposite in the Belle & Sebastian world. What James was saying there probably echoesthe feeling I had in 1993, 1994. That was the period that I was trying to draw from and describe, that insular world. Our band has kind of left that time behind. Now we’re kind of the opposite: We have an audience, a really good audience. You want to write songs that will galvanize the whole public. You want to make tunes people will love. So I do differ from James in that regard.
Personally, when I think of my favorite groups—from The Beatles to Abba to Hall & Oates—this is music that everybody loved. It’s nothing that Belle & Sebastian have broached. Our trajectory has been more like The Velvet Underground. So it’s very interesting for us to try and make popular music.
But unlike The Velvet Underground, you’ve seen success in your time. And that’s something that is commented on in the opening of God Help the Girl, when the two radio DJs are discussing Ian Curtis and Nick Drake and how inaccessibility is essential to myth-making. And that seemed to be the course Belle & Sebastian were on in the 90s when you did so little press and so few band photos. Since that’s changed do you think it’s altered the course of your band in the public eye?
Sure. Though a band never perceives itself; you do the perceiving. All we do is get on with it. This can’t be overstated: Back in the 90s it was the correct and proper thing for us to remain insular, because we were passionate about our music, and if we had entered the media world it would’ve torn our band apart. We were a delicate bunch. We weren’t like the kids in the film.
People change if they’re allowed to change. We changed. We became a band that wanted to go out and do concerts, because we had an audience—and that was also the right thing to do. We embraced the world. I like talking to people—I’m enjoying talking to you right now. I’m not a wallflower. That is a change from years before. And that’s acceptable. Nobody has a 20-year plan—Stalin, maybe. But I’m not Stalin.
Speaking of wallflowers, over the past 10 years we’ve had a lot of indie, coming-of-age movies with clever soundtracks and young-people maintaining their identity in the face of a colorless world of grown-ups. Was it a concern of yours going into this that your film would be lumped into the world of Juno or Garden State? Did you actively do something to set this apart from that genre?
Well, we made a musical. The music is the backbone for the film. The script is written around the songs, and I don’t wager there’s a lot of indie, grungy-bedsit films that are made like that. It’s not Garden State, and it’s not Perks of Being a Wallflower; though I must say, I enjoyed all of those films. I don’t know if any of them have been a particular influence on God Help the Girl. I have been working on this project since right around the time that Garden State came out. This is a genuine thing that lived with me for eight or nine years. Each day I got up and I felt Eve singing and I felt the characters with me. That’s the influence. That’s the thing that makes you do something.
With the success of those films, and the popularization of bands like yours, people don’t seem as cynical about precious aesthetics and romantic ideals like they were in the 1990s when you were a budding musician like the kids in God Help the Girl. Does it feel like this movie is being introduced to a different world than back then?
Again, that’s more of a perception question. I must admit it’s not been number one or even two, three or four on my list of things I think about. It’s hard for me to say: Are people kinder to this sort of thing? I don’t know. I’ve always been this…precious, for want of a better word, because that’s just how I am.
I was a damaged person. I needed art that reflected the way I’ve felt. I’ve always done that. For many years people have criticized me [about it]. Is it more acceptable now? I’m not so sure. The key is that you have to produce something honest. When you produce something honest and you stick to it, then eventually there will be a constituency of people that will come round to that.
With this film, [producer] Barry Mendel (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Sixth Sense) and I were criticized about the script, we were criticized about the delicacy of the film, about filming in Glasgow, everything. But we said to ourselves, “We want to make a film that we still like in 10 years.” And if there’s a core of people who still like the film in 10 years, then we have done our job. We’re not trying to hit the Zeitgeist. We’re not trying to aim for popular appeal. We were trying to make something honest. We were trying to make something beautiful.
God Help the Girl is playing in New York and L.A. now and is also available on iTunes and Vimeo On Demand. It will open in additional theaters across the country on Friday, September 12.
Want more? Check these out: