Interview with Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch on film debut ‘God Help The Girl’ and more

August 23, 2014

Stuart Murdoch is a busy man. Not one to rest on his laurels, aside from being the prominent songwriter with Scottish indie veterans Belle and Sebastian, in 2010, he penned his first set of memoirs, The Celestial Café. Now, he has turned his hand to directing and screenwriting with his debut film God Help The Girl, which is now hitting UK screens following a successful tour of the festival circuit.

Taking a seat in the cosy confines (or ‘bijou’, as Murdoch rightly stated) of a West London location, we spoke about this foray into film, where he stands on Scottish independence, the future of Belle and Sebastian and how ‘you’re better off not calling anything Christian’. But for that you’ll have to read on. 

How did you go about writing this film?

I had never written a script before, in fact I had never written dialogue before. So when I sat down to write it, I had these three characters, so it was character driven, and I just let the characters talk. Just page after page, there was no plot. I just let them prattle on just in the way that teenage or early twenties kids do. There was just pages of that stuff and we had pages scattered all across the floor of the hotel in Los Angeles, trying to make sense of it all. 

And I think Barry (Mendel – producer) said, it’s not strong enough. There needs to be more. It can’t just be this. 

That kind of depressed me a little bit.  Because it’s hard work. It’s hard work for me, I’m a song writer. A song is three minutes long. So I went away and wrote a new treatment for the film and it was called ‘Eve: An Introduction’ and it was a lot darker. It was based on my experiences, and a lot of people I knew experiences, of bad stuff happening to Eve and her renaissance. She starts off in a really bad way, so all the elements of health, mental health, spirituality, and music as a kind of rescuing thing that came in to it. 

There’s so much of the plot in the lyrics to the songs.

The songs all came first. I didn’t change the lyrics. It was almost like a subliminal thing, the songs were driving the whole process forward. They really were the skeleton upon which he hung everything else around. 

With you, perhaps more so than any of your contemporaries and peers, seem to have always been a songwriter who pens self-contained narratives; songs with characters and stories. Because you come from that place, did it come easier to you to flesh out the narrative?

That was part of the inspiration for actually doing it. I knew I had been a bit frustrated in the past, maybe I’m just old fashioned but we’ve had songs in the past and singles and people have come in to direct videos for them and they’ve always chosen an abstract idea or an idea of their own and sometimes I’ve thought well, why don’t you just flesh out what’s here? Some of my favourite pop videos, for instance ‘Babies’ by Pulp, they illustrate the songs and what’s going on. There’s a story within the song and it’s fantastic. It just makes the whole thing better, so I was thinking, I have these songs so if I flesh out what’s happening in the songs, that is already 30 or 40 minutes of a movie, just had to write the rest. 

Did you enjoy the new experience of writing a film?

I had a lot of fun. It was the first break I’ve ever had from the band for ten years and when I actually started writing the script at first, those couple of months, and we were not having band stuff, I was riding my bicycle all the time and taking notes. And that was just the best thing ever. I hope I get to do that again. 

Considering the content, how does the story and the characters relate to your experiences of starting a band?

I was using parts of my own experience of course, you have to, and people I knew and stuff, but some of it way in the past. But the characters felt real to me. At the same time, whilst I’m using that stuff, I’m painting a picture of an ideal summer, one that I never really experienced. 

You’re colour blind, how does that affect the making of the movie?

Nobody’s ever asked me that question or made a comment about! Let me just say that when it came to grading the film, thank god, the Director of Photography (Giles Nuttgens) was here. That is the one time when I was sitting there going: ‘er, I don’t know Giles, do you say?’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s fine’!

For me, it’s different shades and green and red. I’ve always done all our album covers but maybe you’ve noticed all our albums have kind of these single block colours and that’s why!

You say you started with the dialogue. I was wondering how much of the conversations regarding music, and James’ proclamations in particular, do you connect with and might be an inner dialogue that you have when creating art?

If there is one strand of the film that is as close to me, right now, or at least for the last ten years or something, it’s James’ little soap box moments when he’s talking about music. I say ‘recently’, but I’ve always held, even when I got my group together, that would probably be most like me when I first got Belle and Sebastian together. When you first get a group together, you’re under pressure from different people to do different things and all that kind of stuff and you have to be very stubborn. James kind of shows that stubbornness. The thing is though, he only has an audience of two people, so he controls his audience and he likes to get on his soap box. 

When you started out didn’t do interviews or photo shoots and then that did change. Perhaps when writing this, did you reconnect with your younger self and the attitudes that you had when you started out?

Possibly I was, because you are using little bits and pieces of your past, so I’m sure I did connect with my personality when the band was coming together to capture James’ point of view. I think that’s probably quite true. His standpoint, his stubbornness, his unwillingness to pander towards London or television or the outside world basically. There is something admirable in that as well. Because if you set your stool out and you don’t give in, it can go both ways…You can be sad and forgotten or if you keep going you can succeed. 

Where do you stand on Scottish Independence?

I’m for it. I don’t have anything against anyone from England or Northern Ireland and I don’t think we’re in any way better than any of the rest of Great Britain. I used to be against it. I hate nationalism. It’s rubbish. It’s a waste of time. And I used to be fearful that if Scotland ever left Britain it would be disaster because you would perhaps have a right-leaning government forever, because we have all these Labour seats and everything. 

But, I must say, it’s gone to this point where I think the advantages would outweigh the disadvantages. We have a chance in an idealistic thing. Maybe it’s because I’m a song writer or something. We have a chance of making a slightly fairer society. The way things are going, there’s a lot of things about Britain at the minute that I don’t care for.

I think we have a chance. I’m not saying it’s going to be any better but we have a chance to do that, to make things slightly fairer. The gap between rich and poor is forever getting bigger and it needn’t be like that! 

Sorry to go on about this but you got me going there!

I was in Denmark recently. We were playing a gig. The taxi driver is taking me to the gig and we were kinda late. I wasn’t in the mood to talk and he was like “So what is this about Scottish Independence? What do you feel about that?” I said, “I don’t know. What do you think?”

“Of course you should! Look at Denmark! You know, we are a small country. We don’t have poor people, we don’t have crazy rich people. We just have somewhere in between.”

I then spent a couple of days in Copenhagen and it’s a pretty right-on place you know! And I was actually thinking, yeah, Glasgow…Scotland could be like this. 

There’s a character in the film who criticises the songs, is that something drawn from your experiences?

Oh yes, that was again something from way in the past. I’ve certainly experienced all sorts of attitudes. Even when I was making this film I remember an acquaintance of mine, or a friend of a friend saying “Oh yeah, you’re, like, making a film? It’ll be rubbish.” It was some Scottish dude, “It’ll be shit, why are you doing it?” (laughs). Honestly!

And that’s what it was like when I was trying to get bands together. People saying “Why would you bother? All the great music has already been made.” That line from the film is absolutely true, somebody said that to me. “All the great music is from the 60s.” 

How do you deal with that?

If it makes you angry, that’s good, you use it to fuel your own thing. 

Do you now look back and see a shared faculty or crossover between the skill of film directing and song writing? Be it order or construction and so forth? Does one bleed into the other and vica versa?

Yeah, they definitely complement each other. If they didn’t I’d be stuck. The idea is that music and film should come together in the film and makes something greater. That the two come together and make something greater than the sum of its parts. On a personal level there is a kind of ying/yang with film and music just now, I find myself 10-12 years into a band, in pop music, it’s a kind of young man’s game. So to be able to flip over and do film is like a breath of fresh air. 

Does that mean that there any doubts over the future of Belle and Sebastian then?

Absolutely not! I just needed a bit of a holiday and I got it. I’ve been back with the band full time since the end of last year and we’ve made an album in Atlanta, Georgia, and I hope it will be our best album. And I genuinely mean that. We are firing all cylinders. It is possible to be older and still have interesting things to say in the pop music medium. 

Some of the songs that are on the soundtrack album are not in the film. 

When the cast first came up to Glasgow the first thing we had to do was record the music with them. We had to record the songs that were in the film so that we could have them lip-sync during the thing. The plan was to actually record live as well while we were filming to use the best version so we did some of the stuff you see in the film are actually “Come Monday night” for example, they were live versions that we used on the sound stage. But when I had the actors for two weeks, all those improvised scenes, all those extra scenes that I had that didn’t get into the script, because they wouldn’t let me, because there wasn’t time, I had them read them. And some, just read them once. And we ended up using all that stuff. We layered it over like the walking scenes or the canal. All that stuff was done before the film was made. And this was kind of rambling dialogue that I’d written back in the day.

I wrote “I Dumped You First” for James, and we did that funny little rap, “I’m Not Rich” and we did that in like 30 minutes. It was like a bonding exercise. It was them getting into character.  

Is this a Christian film? 

Probably not. I think when you call something a Christian anything, everybody immediately runs for the door. So you better not! (laughs) You’re better off not to call anything Christian… except maybe a church. (laughs again) You can get away with that. 

What were your cinematic touchstones the film?

I had different touchstones for different reasons, Billy Liar and Withnail & I, where the general arc of the film and the feeling that you get at the end of the film. There were the American films, like all the John Hughes stuff, like the breakfast club, pretty in pink and Fast Times at Ridgemont High by Cameron Crowe. It’s almost like I wanted to do the teen thing in Glasgow. Pretty in Pink in Glasgow… 

See for yourself if he succeeded, as God Help The Girl is in cinemas from 22nd August 2014.

The soundtrack album is released on 25th August 2014.

Here is the trailer for the film:

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