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Belle & Sebastian Frontman Talks About His First Film 'God Help The Girl'

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Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian wrote and directed "God Help The Girl" (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
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Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch's writing and directing debut God Help The Girl has been a passion project of his—and it's been a long time coming. It started off as a seed of an idea, where he started writing themed numbers for a female-led group, and then put ads out looking for female singers. He eventually released his wistful pop opera backed by his band as a standalone album in 2009. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, he was able to make his musical feature into a reality.

His film follows Eve (Emily Browning), a troubled young woman with an angelic voice who busts out a psychiatric hospital where she is being treated for anorexia. In Glasglow, Scotland, she meets a couple of young folks—shy lifeguard James (Olly Alexander) and posh girl Cass (Hannah Murray), and over a summer, they form a band together.

Murdoch spoke to LAist about how his younger and naive self was represented in his character James, how his chronic fatigue disorder parallels Eve's anorexia, and binge-watching John Hughes.

What made you go from creating music to making your first film?

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Without being disparaging, I was getting a little bit bored with the group. And I was thinking about films and suddenly I starting getting these songs from nowhere that were female singers and then I got a few good songs and they seemed to be forming a script right in front of my eyes, so I just went with it. It was never a decision—it always just seemed to be a verdict.

Was this adventure you have between the three characters something that was inspired by real-life situations?

To be honest, it wasn’t so much situations as characters. The characters came along and I couldn’t get rid of them—they were so strong in my head. And by the time I managed to shake myself free from the group and start to write what the characters were saying, you know I just let them talk—I let them chat along and they’d talk about anything. So really, the film never really had much of a plot—it was always just going to be about this summer that the three characters spent together making music.

Eve suffers from anorexia. Was there a specific reason why you chose to tackle that issue or did it just come out of the song as well?

I spent a lot of time when I was younger unwell. I had this thing called chronic fatigue. Obviously that loomed large in my experience which led me to have this weird time when I was young. Ultimately, that’s where the film grew out of. It’s very difficult to represent chronic fatigue in a movie because basically nothing happens—you just lie still. I guess giving Eve problems with eating and anxiety and depression—that was a way of making it worth filming, to be honest.

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When you were suffering from chronic fatigue, did you feel that—in the same vein as Eve—you explored music because of that?

Yes, absolutely. Again it wasn’t as much an explanation as a verdict. Music just came along at that time for me because there was nothing else. My slate was clean: I couldn’t work, I couldn’t see friends, I was back living with my folks. So, when music came along I grabbed at it and it became my lifeline, very much like Eve in the film.

How old were you when you were going through all that?

I would say that started in 1989—I was like 20 or 21.

How long did that last for?

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One answer is seven years until my group came along. Unfortunately, I had some relapses right up until present day.

There are some parts of the film that I was wondering if they came from your point of view—like how James says he’s never cried listening to a David Bowie album. Was there a particular character that was speaking from your voice?

There are definitely parts of me in James, especially when he’s talking about music. I just liked the fact that when I had the two girl characters in my head, I liked the idea that I just let myself talk through James and imagine what James would say. He liked a captive audience, he liked showing off to the girls. But sometimes he would be very opinionated—his opinions would be wrong but it’s sometimes funny to just laugh at people who open their mouths and talk.

Did you feel like you were like that at his age?

Oh, I was most like that when I got the band together or just before I got the band together. I was voice crying out into the wilderness in my native town of Glasgow because to form a band back then and to write songs seemed something very uncool. People did used to ask me, ‘What’s the point of [making music] when all the great songs have been written?’ which is a line that I appropriated that came out of James’ mouth. They really took exception to you thinking that you could write a good pop song.

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And since this is your first time directing, did you get any guidance from anyone?

My main creative partner, my mentor, was Barry Mendel (The Royal Tenenbaums), who came in the early stages. He helped me with the script and basically, in all aspects of filmmaking. He was there to help, and the rest I was just feeling my way. He liked the fact that I was new to this and didn’t want me to jettison my strongest ideas. We were quite yin and yang.

Were there any filmmakers or movies that were you inspired by when you were making this movie?

I watched lots of films for pleasure when I was writing this script. I’d only spend an hour in the morning trying to write dialogue and then I’d go for long walks and then I’d watch my favorite movies. I watched pretty much everything from John Hughes—the kind of Rat Pack films of the ‘80s. I was on a real ‘80s thing—you know being nostalgic and Fast Times at Ridgemont High—[that] was a good one for me. Pretty In Pink, Dazed and Confused, and Slackers. Trust and the Unbelievable Truth by Hal Hartley, and lots of films from English filmmaker Mike Leigh, and Ken Loach. It became this other blood—in your films—and then I went forward and wrote the script.

Can you tell me about the new Belle & Sebastian album?

I’m working on it almost as we speak. We’re still remixing some of the tracks. It’s a little early to say because it’s still forming. We recorded in Atlanta, Georgia and it was quite an experience—it was almost a little bit like shooting this movie because we had to move really fast and it was almost a little like a chaotic experience. But I think out of it, the main thing is that you capture good energy and you capture the life of the songs like our first album.

'God Help The Girl' opens in theaters today.