Belle & Sebastian lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s first feature film, God Help The Girl, is a musical with an indie rock soundtrack, so comparisons to another Sundance breakout – the 2007 Glen Hansard musical Once – are only natural. But in fact, Murdoch’s film has been in the works since before Once was even a glimmer in Dublin’s eye. Back in 2003, Murdoch started work on a song that came to him during a morning run. In between working on three Belle & Sebastian records and touring with the band, Murdoch began working on a series of songs that were released as a compilation in 2009 and now make up the full-length feature, God Help The Girl, which premiered at Sundance on Saturday. The musical tells the story of Eve (Emily Browning), an 18-year-old who discovers her love of music one Scottish summer. If you think Scottish summer is an oxymoron, you’re not wrong. “It was terrible!! We had a terrible summer! The highest temperature was about 55 degrees or something but we made the most of it,” Murdoch tells EW of shooting the film.
Read on for more about how the band helped with the film, Murdoch’s girl group influences, and the hardest part of directing for the first time.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The original audition call for the film asked candidates to sing songs from girl groups of the ’50s, like the Ronettes. Why was that era important to you?
STUART MURDOCH: Phil Spector has a motto: “Little symphonies for the kids,” that’s what he wants to make in his records. And never mind what you might think about Phil Spector these days, it is an admirable thing to think, you know? I personally did veer away from the girl group thing pretty quickly with this record because I think as soon as I realized it was one main character who was singing these songs then it became much more about her and the background drama than strictly speaking being a girl group.
But you do have some pretty strong musical influences that come through in this film.
You know, that’s funny because I’ve been talking about films all day and which films have influenced the film, but not so much the music. But there’s a little moment in the film where Eve turns on the projector and suddenly you see some of her influences projected on the wall while she’s singing. I think it’s the Crystals are shown and then Blondie’s in there, there’s an English group called Sundays and then an American group mostly from the ‘90s called the Throwing Muses, they were an inspiration, and finally there was a punk group from the ‘70s called the Slits, an all-girl punk group. So that was some of Eve’s inspiration.
You used Kickstarter to help get the film project off the ground and YouTube to find the right singers. How did you decide to go that route?
First of all when we were simply making the record we did a search on the web and we invited people through the Belle and Sebastian website to audition online – at the time it was pretty cutting edge – we sent out songs, you could either sing one of two songs and they had to send a clip of them singing. We had hundreds of people from all over the world, from South America, from Asia and everyday I would get up and there’d be a fresh batch of video clips to watch. That was really fun and interesting.
You were holding your own little American Idol.
Sure, yeah yeah, a clumsy American Idol.
There are two songs in the film that are Belle & Sebastian songs from previous albums – “Funny Little Frog” and “Act of the Apostle II.” Did you have any issues with the rest of the band when you wanted to use those songs?
The band were great about everything, there was no problem. In fact, there’s a lot of Belle & Sebastian music in the final film, often in the background and stuff, and the reason for that is it’s simply cheaper than using anybody else because I can just ask the guys. The song “Act of the Apostle,” that was written specifically for Eve’s character. Just coincidentally at the time I wrote that song we happened to be recording The Life Pursuit and I thought I would just put it down, you know, as a little kind of exercise, so to speak. That song was always for the film. “Funny Little Frog” was a little bit of an accident because that happened to be a song that we used for people to audition for the part and there was a girl from Seattle called Brittany and she sang it so well that I thought I’d love to have a version of that song on record.
You wrote this film and also directed it. I imagine the directing was tougher than the songwriting for you.
I’ll tell you right now, everything was difficult. I loved writing but actually putting the screenplay together, I did that with the producer and he was giving me copious notes and telling me to go rewrite, so it was difficult to finish the screenplay and make it worthy. And then another surprising thing to me – I tell you, if anyone is reading this and think they have a film in them – the one most important thing for this kind of film is the casting. And Barry [Mendel] the producer always said that, and I wasn’t really believing him until we got into it. So it’s just crucial, the casting and the way the three characters work off each other. We had to look a long way to find these guys.
What was the most challenging aspect of making this film?
[Directing was] definitely the hardest part – it was only about a year before principal photography began that I realized I was going to have to direct. Up until that point we were maybe thinking I could pass it on so I could go back to work with the band. Then I got so deep into the production/pre-production of the film that I realized I would have to direct. And that scared me silly. Because that’s a completely new thing. It’s like on one of those TV programs when a bus driver gets an opportunity to conduct an orchestra or something. I was that bus driver. The first day you’re up there with the crew, and they’re all waiting for you, a singer, to tell them what to do. It was an anathema. So every day was tough for me. I just kind of held it together and we got through it. I learned a lot.
You’ve worked on soundtracks before, like the 2001 Todd Solondz film Storytelling. Would you work with the band on a movie that’s maybe not your own again?
I would love to. The one thing is that when I was working on the film I did have to take time off Belle & Sebastian. I’d love to take my band into a big movie project. I’d love to do a true collaboration where you do work from the start with writers or a director where you can form something, hopefully, that’s original. We have Stevie [Jackson], for instance, in the group, who’s really good at writing to order and I think that would be really good. Definitely we’d do that in the future.
God Help The Girl stars Browning along with Olly Alexander, and Hannah Murray, and is currently screening at the Sundance Film Festival, which runs through Jan. 26 in Park City, Utah.