Stuart Murdoch has been the guiding voice of Belle & Sebastian for nearly 20 years now, as they grew from a cult Scottish indie pop project into a glam-influenced touring machine. But in recent years, Murdoch's interests have been split between the worlds of music and cinema, as he's been working hard to complete his first film, God Help The Girl, which opens in select cities around the country this week. The movie is a must-see for any Belle & Sebastian fans, Grease by-way-of depressed indie kids, filled with joyous musical set pieces, a complicated female lead, and a triumvirate of main characters straight out of a Belle & Sebastian song.
We met up with Murdoch for pizza on a rooftop in Brooklyn and talked about the difference between making movies and albums, as well as his interest in proms, how his own health battles influenced the film, Buddhism, and how making the upcoming Belle & Sebastian record was like an old American sitcom.
Have you always been interested in making films? Is that something that has been in the back of your head? Well, the idea for this film came along ten years ago, which is a long time ago. Before that...well, before I was a songwriter, I never thought I was going to be a songwriter. Something just happened, and then I had to be a songwriter. And I suppose it was something like that. The songs started coming along for the film, and it was for female singers, and then I pretty much thought maybe I've got to try to be a filmmaker.
But I did entertain notions before that. I did actually write a treatment for something else, but I had no notion of how I would ever do it. I wrote this treatment that was based on a cafe, because my favorite cafe had shut down and I was missing it, so I wanted to write about my surrogate cafe. But then Eve [the movie's main character] came along, the songs came along, and then there was no turning back.
There was never any thought of turning them into Belle and Sebastian songs? You knew it was something separate? Yep, absolutely. The instant it came along, I don’t know why, it was like a radio switch going on in my head. I had the first song, it was the title track, “God help the girl, she needs all the help she can get.” And it was a girl group sound and it was a great girl voice singing and I specifically remember thinking, “Well this isn’t for me, this is for something else, this is going to turn into something.”
Had you always wanted to write for women in that way? That’s hard to say. Maybe in the back of my mind, but this was the defining moment, this was the moment that made me want to write for women. Or at least, again, I wasn’t really given a choice. It was a sound in my head and never, for a second, do I have any doubts about that. Sometimes there’s a question, if you get asked, “What makes you think that you can write for women?” Stuff like that. I was never given a choice. I never needed to have permission to write for a woman because I had a woman character come to me, like a muse, and demand to be written for.
So Eve came to you first, she was in your head. Were you writing the screenplay at the same time? Was it formulating as the songs were bubbling up? There was a delay. I maybe wrote about four songs, and then her character formed. The other two guys came along. I didn’t get a chance to sit down and write the screenplay, because I was too busy with the band. So by the time I did sit down, it really poured out of me.
Did any of the three main characters feel like extensions or continuations of characters you had written about with Belle and Sebastian? That’s a good question. Just before the group got together, this was way back in the '90s, I had written a short story—I had never written a short story before this—and it was called, “Belle and Sebastian.” This was me kind of defining the two mythical characters before I got the group together. And if you look back at the story, if I could find it, the relationship between the two characters is very much like James and Cassie, the younger character. In it, Belle was very carefree and young, she wanted to have Sebastian give her guitar lessons. So they were almost there. I had written that story, kind of forgotten about it. But I think when Eve came along, those characters came out of the woodwork.
You had directed some of Belle and Sebastian’s early music videos right? Yes, in a manner of speaking. Everybody kind of chipped in and directed. Sometimes it was no more than hold up the windup 16mm camera and tell somebody to do something.
So how different was directing this project? Was there anything that shocked or surprised you about the process? It was a bit of a shock. To be in front of a crew of about 50 people involved, all together, if you count the guys back in the office. I do specifically remember on the first day, while we were waiting to do the first shot, and we were just waiting for the actors to show up, I disappeared. I walked into a church that was just close by the first location, and I went and said a prayer because I didn’t know how it was going to go. Luckily I had a lot of good help.
Why did you decide to record the music before making the film? There was a simple and practical reason for that. I got to a stage where I felt that the songs were ready to be recorded; the songs were kind of ahead of the rest of the game. But I also knew that if I was going to direct the film, I didn’t want to end up producing that record and directing the film at the same time. That would have been a mental car crash! I just couldn’t do it. Luckily, I got the chance to produce the record, carefully arrange it, spend time with the singers—all these different singers—and it became a very separate entity. We even went on a little tour with the original God Help The Girl group. It kind of had a life of its own. And it also informed some of the stuff that was to happen afterwards as well.
Did you change things in the movie after you recorded the songs? It changed my perspective a little bit. But the backbone songs certainly remained the same—the ones that demanded the nailed down story.
How different was the process of making a film compared to making a record? I always pictured it as a square and a cube. If a square is a record with two dimensions, a cube is a thing with volume. And it has that much more layers and dimension to it. It’s nine times more difficult to make a film. Simply the amount of work that goes into it. I’ve been at this for quite some time. Luckily, there’s many areas of overlap. And if there wasn’t, I would be shafted. If you’re guiding a creative process along, with a group of like-minded people that are collaborating, you can shift that too… you can have a go at an opera, you can have a go at a ballet.
You know what the arc of the creative process is when you're making an LP record. Starting from scratch, starting with your script, to the finished thing. Every process has a parallel in film. You could talk to my editor, but I felt that the editing side was easy. Not easy—he was doing the work. But it was easy for me, compared to shooting. Because, when you’re mixing records you’re basically editing sound. So it’s a natural parallel.
Did you have any particular music or cinematic influences that you held up as what you were aiming for? I never did that because...Oh… I did. I was going to say, “I never did that because I would find it intimidating.” For instance, two people gave me copies of West Side Story, neither of which I watched. By some fluke I’d never seen that before, and I’d never seen Guys and Dolls either. And I heard that these two were kind of the pinnacles. So I didn’t want to watch those. I didn’t want to be scared shitless. But, I watched Grease a lot.
Grease was the one that got through. That’s more my level. I did look at Grease a lot, and tried to learn from it. I love Grease, I think it’s terrific. Obviously there are many, many movies, not particularly musical movies, but ones that were benchmarks for me that I learned a lot from, very different aspects and different things. One I keep coming back to was Fast Times and Ridgemont High. These were kind of youthful movies: they were ensemble pieces, there was a degree of naiveté in them. It was Cameron Crowe’s first movie, I was inspired by that. It was the first one that he wrote. It felt honest. Pretty in Pink, is maybe not as good as The Breakfast Club, but it had the same dynamic, the central dynamic.
I can totally see James as a Duckie. These kind of movies, they’re very musical films. And they all have great musical moments. Like Duckie singing the Otis Redding song … that’s a musical set piece. There's not much different between that and "I'll Have To Dance With Cassie," one of the songs that I wrote. In Fast Times it was always, what do you call it, a hop or a dance. In Grease, there’s a prom. There’s always a prom. Prom is a great American tradition that all British school kids are jealous of. At least when you’re my age, watching movies in the '70s and '80s.
There are no proms in Britain? We had dances. But there was nothing so...
Mythologized in that way? Mythologized or momentous as the prom. It’s almost featured in every other American film. Certainly in any teenage film, it sneaks in.
The musical performances were some of my favorite parts of the movie and they’re very whimsical. I felt at times there was a little Richard Lester in there, the A Hard Day's Night sort of vibe at times, like when they’re being chased and the flyers are going everywhere. Did you set out for a whimsical tone for those parts of the movie? I think the film in its original form was way more whimsical. And I’m glad [producer] Barry Mendel wheeled that back. He didn’t have to tell me straight. I could tell by the way he read things that he was really trying to wheel back the whimsy.
And at some point after we’d been working on it, he said, “You actually need to do a rewrite now. It’s not good enough.” And that was when the darker elements of Eve—Eve being unwell—and the real arc of her recovery came into it. Before that, it was much lighter. I wouldn’t really compare it to Richard… I mean, hands down I think that A Hard Day's Night is my favorite musical film of any kind, but it helps that it was The Beatles.
Help! is also hilarious. And it’s even weirder in a lot of ways. They all live together, and they have the instruments/beds that come out of the floor. I think that’s the best thing about Help!, to be honest.
The scenes where they’re just hanging out at home. That’s a brilliant cinematic moment: “Oh these boys, they haven’t changed.” But Hard Days Night, all the way through, just delivers every time.
It’s a timeless film. But as you were saying, there’s a very dark element to the film because of Eve. Do you believe she's anorexic? Sort of. Apparently the name for anybody who’s underweight, no matter whether they’re doing it willfully or deliberately or anything, is anorexia. Because I looked into this sort of stuff. I had some people saying, well she’s not really anorexic because she’s not going through… but I didn’t want it to be a film about anorexia. I think that the real rough stuff, the bad stuff, that led her to get into that sort of shape is before the film.
Right, we’re only given hints about her life before the summer. One of the things about her disease is that it forces her inside a lot, to that world where she comes up with the songs. You had chronic fatigue syndrome as a teen, right? So was Eve's experience a reflection of your own youth, something you drew upon? Yes. There’s a parallel there. Of course I don’t think I could have written that, being an inexperienced writer, as my first feature. I’m writing from my own experience back in the day. I think perhaps even using the fact that she was underweight and depressed, and stuff like that, that was a way of putting across the chronic fatigue but actually making it filmic. Something for people to see. Because chronic fatigue—nothing happens. The span of time that I had the thing, like seven years plus, you’ve got to constitute into one summer. And bring some elements of things happening, of drama. So that’s what I was doing.
Do you feel like that was a million years ago for you? Aspects of it do. Lots of aspects do. And that’s why the characters feel very separate. They do feel like a very separate world, a different generation. And that’s good. It’s not just you, it’s the character. Saying that, it’s also annoying, especially the last two or three years, I’ve actually been struggling with my health again. It never really goes, it’s always going to be there. It’s always going to be your thing. Everyone’s got a thing.
There’s always a thing. Our bodies are constantly falling apart a bit. My best friend, we met through ME (Chronic Fatigue) stuff, we’ll meet privately to mourn and swap notes about it. And I’ll say, “I don’t know Kara, it’s just another threshold.” You think you’re doing okay, you’re going along, and then something else happens. But everybody’s the same, and it’s mental and it’s physical… I think if you can understand that and empathize with people. There’s so much going on behind everybody’s daily life, it feels like they’ve got it totally together, but if you've been unwell for so long and all you’ve been doing is watching, then you can see the signs. Maybe that helps you to write.
Do you think that you would have had a music career if you hadn’t gone through that? Oh, absolutely not. Because like I said, I never planned to be a musician, it was a decision made for me.
It sparked your creativity, in a sense? It was a little bit like a Buddhism thing. I’ve been going to Buddhism classes recently. There’s a parallel there. When things get stripped back, like when I became ill and I couldn’t work anymore, I couldn’t go to college and I couldn’t see my friends anymore… when you are forced to strip things back to basics, there are other things there. When you’re meditating there are good things. When you’re depressed and up against it, there are bad things, there’s a hideous void there. But, thankfully, the music thing came along and I clung onto that with a journeyman’s grip. Which obviously, Eve does as well.
Out of all the characters, do you feel the most sympathetic to her? I feel the most empathetic towards her. But in an up-to-date way, I suppose I feel closer to James. Because Eve really does feel like she’s a separate character. She is a separate character, because she’s a woman and she has traits that I enjoyed, or, not enjoyed, but I empathize with her more than am her.
Do you think, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but do you think the ending is more hopeful, or resigned? I think it’s hopeful. I purposefully avoid reviews, but my wife came in on the weekend and she was pissed off, and she said, “I can’t believe The Guardian shat on your film.” The Guardian, it’s a big paper, and I didn’t want to know that! So the weird thing is, the producer, Barry, said that The Guardian reviewed the film again. Somebody else reviewed it! And they gave it a much more warm review.
And he sent me a quote from the fella, and he said some nice things. He said at the end that it reminded him of a Phillip Larkin poem. He wrote this poem called the Whitsun Weddings, it’s a wonderful poem; I’m not a big poetry fan. But there’s a line, and I’m going to paraphrase it, there’s a line at the end of the poem where he’s been down on all these kids getting married, getting down on them, and he’s just commenting, being critical… but toward the end he puts in this one little thing about how they are like arrows being fired into the air, sent into the night. And it’s a very hopeful view from a slightly cynical person. And the man in the review compared the end of God Help the Girl with that. And I was like, “Wow. I’ll take that. I’ll definitely take that.”
Did you ever have a summer like this? Did you ever have a moment where things shifted so much? No, I didn’t have a summer like this. It’s like the end of Annie Hall where Woody writes his little play within the play, he writes, “sometimes in art, you’ve got to have a happy ending.” You’ve got to make it so. That was my driving thing throughout, to write about the summer path that I never enjoyed because I spent seven years of my youth indoors.
How did the band feel about the film while it was being made? Were they part of it at all? Were they concerned at all—'Oh he’s going to leave the band and go off and become a director.' I was more concerned that the band would get fed up with me, and it actually did reach a point where I could have not toured. And last year, I had a feeling that things were maybe going to break apart. So we started touring again, and got back together and I’m so glad, we’re in good shape. But the band couldn’t have been more supportive, considering it took me a long time and they had put things on hold. But they went off and did their thing.
[Belle & Sebastian guitarist] Stevie [Jackson] was also down as Associate Producer or something on the film. He kind of did a lot the grunt work. Getting all the musicians together, and directing the musicians. [Belle & Sebastian singer] Sarah [Martin], she was one of my main critics. She’s seen the film almost as many times as I have. And most of them are in the film, as well.
I thought I had seen a couple of them pop up here and there. [Belle & Sebastian trumpet/brass player] Mick [Cooke] was actually the orderly from the hospital, but he took them out. He was in charge of the ladies football team. And Chris [Geddes], the keyboard player, he’s the referee.
I read you were in the final stages of mixing a new Belle & Sebastian record. Yeah. Talking about music, after talking about film, is so difficult, because it’s so abstract. But, really one thing happened—that was going to Atlanta and recording with [producer] Ben Allen. If everything with [Dear Catastrophe Waitress producer] Trevor Horn and [The Life Pursuit and Write About Love producer] Tony Hoffer was Mach II, then this is Mach III. Every ten years...
You do a reboot. Yeah, and you have to. Because we were kind of treading water on the last record. It was a fine record, we were all happy with it. But we took a side step while I was still doing the movie to make that record. We made it fast, then we went back with Tony, who did a great job. But this one, we realized we needed to try something else, put ourselves out there. So we went down to Atlanta and worked with Ben.
Did you know Ben Allen professionally or personally before this? No, not at all. We got a new manager who worked with him on a previous record and suggested Ben.
This guy Ben, he's pretty tough though. It was a little but like Hart to Hart, 'when they met, it was murder.' Do you remember that show, Hart to Hart? Cause when we came together with Ben, there were definitely a few clashes, different ways of working, things like that. But that's okay if the stuff that's coming out is good.