In “God Help the Girl,” writer/director Stuart Murdoch created a coming-of-age story that doubles as an indie-pop musical. Murdoch is best known as a founding member of Belle and Sebastian and as one of indie pop’s biggest songwriters; the project began as a suite of songs, written while Murdoch was in between records and tours as lead singer of the band. He nurtured it for nearly a decade into a fully formed film, set in the bohemian fantasia of Glasgow’s West End, which is populated by mods, rockers and emo kids who have no qualms about breaking into song and dance.
The film stars Emil Browning as Eve, an aspiring singer who is low on self-esteem but high on fantasy, especially when it comes to music. Over the course of one Glasgow summer, she meets two similarly restless souls: posh Cass (Hannah Murray) and fastidious James (Olly Alexander) — together they form a pop group.
Murdoch spoke with Indiewire before the film’s release this weekend to talk about his experience making the film, his inspirations and what he ended up discovering about the filmmaking process.
I had written about half a dozen songs before I even sat down to write the script, so it was all very character driven. I had the characters first. The songs did seem to form the backbone of the musical summer. It’s a story through music. Every song was a different stage of these struggles or developments. That was the blueprint for me, that’s how the story developed. When it came to actual script writing, I just would sit down and write what I had. The characters would just talk to each other, they would get into the café and talk endlessly about the day and the things that obsess them.
There wasn’t necessarily a set list of films that inspired me. I did watch an awful lot of Woody Allen. He’s terrific. Hal Hartley, a kind of independent guy, his films were very influential. Filmmakers like Mike Leigh always struck me as interesting, due to the way he went about creating his films and collaborating with actors at an early stage. A big one was John Hughes, movies like “Pretty in Pink” and “The Breakfast Club.” For some reason I was in a nostalgic mood when I was writing the film and I found myself looking back at those films and reflecting on how good they were.
I remember reading that after making “Dazed and Confused,” Richard Linklater was so thankful for the people who made the film, that the actors were just as important as the creators of the film. At the time, I thought that was an odd thing to say, not knowing how these things are done, because surely you just handed them the script and they would do their job. But he gets the best from people because he lets them roll with things. He didn’t use big names at the time, he just used the best people he could, so it’s a bunch of young guys. There’s just something about that film that I emphasize with, especially the creative choices behind making that film. I always wanted to take that and apply that to the “God Help The Girl” project.
There was so much to enjoy, but there was one day in particular. I never knew I would be able to do something like this, I was worried I’d get sick one day and that I would have problems with energy, but this one day when we did the song “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie,” it was kind of the biggest day because we were leading up to it logistically, I kind of felt it all coming together and I knew everything would be ok. I practically started dancing myself. There was a great camera operator who was on the floor all day, and you didn’t really need to tell him what to shoot because he just kept getting it and getting it. So seeing him and knowing he felt it was good just kept me dancing.
I really hope a younger audience sees it, more than just “Belle and Sebastian” fans. They have been so kind so far, and they’ve come to early screenings and they’re supporting it on Kickstarter. But I just hope it finds a younger audience.