xoInterview! Claire Talks To Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch About His New Film "God Help the Girl"

Stuart Murdoch was nice enough to call me up (on his birthday!) and chat about "Girls," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and (of course) his exciting new film.
Publish date:
August 26, 2014
musicals, interviews, Belle & Sebastian, Stuart Murdoch, God Help the Girl

If you are familiar with any of my music writing, you know how I feel about Belle & Sebastian; I'm very into them.

Probably a little too into them, if I'm being completely honest. So when I found out that front man Stuart Murdoch was creating an indie-pop musical, my little twee-core heart almost exploded. When I read that Barry Mendel ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou") would be producing, I called for my fainting chair.

"God Help the Girl" is exactly the type of film you would expect Stuart Murdoch to write and direct, and that is not a bad thing. It's easy on the eyes, brilliantly cast, full of catchy songs, and -- yes -- a bit twee. This coming of age tale centers around Eve, a young woman who is struggling with disordered eating and depression. She begins writing songs in the hospital and soon music becomes her focus and drive. She meets James and Cassie, and the three become serious about playing music together.

Here, I'll let you watch the preview.

Needless to say, I loved it.

Stuart Murdoch -- writer, director, and (obviously) lead singer of Belle & Sebastian -- was nice enough to call me up (on his birthday!) and chat about "Girls," "Jesus Christ Superstar,"and (of course) his exciting new film.

Claire Lower for xoJane: First of all happy birthday.

Stuart Murdoch: [Laughs] Thank you very much.

CL: I hope you’re enjoying it. OK, so first of all I really enjoyed the film. I watched it twice. I thought the music was great and the choreography was adorable. It was just really enjoyable. Did you enjoy watching it?

SM: Oh, that’s a good question. At various stages, not so much. You must understand that during the editing process we showed it to audiences in London and LA at different stages and we’d take questions and we’d try to improve the edit. But there was one point -- I think it was when we finally showed it to an audience in Glasgow towards the end of the edit -- and I felt that suddenly we were close and suddenly Emily Browning’s character dominated the screen and at that point I started to enjoy it.

CL: Do you enjoy consuming your own art in general? Do you listen to your own albums? Did you read your book?

SM: [Laughs] I think what happens when you’re making this stuff is that you’re absorbed with it while you’re doing it. And so you are listening. Like for instance yesterday –- I’m trying to get back to Belle & Sebastian; we’re making a new record just now –- I started listening to the mixes from the album and tried to choose which mix to use, and tried to imagine the videos we’re going to make along with it. So you know at this point you’re quite concentrated and you’re playing the songs half a dozen times in a row to get into it, but then after that you probably never listen to it for a very long time.

CL: I've always thought that B&S songs were like little stories that the listener could kind of interpret and put a bit of themselves into. What was it like making the transition from writing these sort of short, 2-5 minute stories to writing one, long, movie-length story?

SM: You know you have an actual sense of hubris and confidence. I'd write these songs and I always imagined it wouldn't be too huge a step to join them up -- to join some songs up and make a story. I remember doing the artwork for an album we made called “The Life Pursuit.” I got three of my friends –- one of whom I’m now married to –- and I told them to play -- they had to be kind of ditzy sort of models that were working for the Scottish tourist board and they’re wearing kilts, and we drove around Scotland for a couple of days and they had to be “bad models” and I kind of felt that for all this effort that I’m doing to shoot an album sleeve, surely I could turn this into a little narrative. So I think it was a natural step.

CL: What was your favorite song in the film?

SM: You know when I started enjoying the film, the thing that struck me was that "Down and Dusky Blonde" at the end does draw things to a necessary conclusion. It might not have the greatest plot in the world and it’s not a huge emotional roller-coaster or too much drama, but that song does sort of sum up Eve’s sort of mental state and the machinations of her mind. And you know that when she finishes singing that song she’s almost, you know become a different person, so that was the one for me, I think.

CL: Yeah, I really liked that and I also really liked ending with “Dress Up In You.” I thought that it was perfect for the credits.

SM: That was written for the film it just so happened. Because it was written around 2006 when I was writing the script. I fancied singing that song for the record; I thought it was good for the Belle & Sebastian record so that was one sort of little crossover.

CL: Are you familiar with the Bechdel test at all?

SM: With the...?

CL: The Bechdel test. It’s a test that first appeared in a comic strip where one of the characters said that she wouldn't watch a film unless there were two female characters that talk to each other about something besides a man. Your film passed. I didn't know if you were aware of it.

SM: Oh, cool.

CL: I just thought that was interesting.

SM: You know what? If I could –- I know this sounds weird –- but if I could write that sort of stuff all the time. I am in awe of "Girls." It came out right around the time that we were shooting the movie or just afterwards or just before or something, and I didn't want to watch it because I knew that I would be intimidated by the script, from what I'd heard, because you know the writing’s so great.

CL: Have you watched it?

SM: Yeah, yeah. I've watched it since and I wasn't disappointed. I thought it was almost better than I could have imagined, I just love that stuff. You know, I love girl talk, but I think they just do it well and it’s like honest. It seems honest, and it’s funny. You know, that’s what I wanted. I mean Ollie –- I’m sorry, "James" -- he’s a guy and everything but in a sense he’s a guy with a feminine side that likes to listen to girls talk as well.

CL: I actually liked James a lot as a character even though he was kind of grumpy. When he said “Pop music has been on the slide since 1969,” is that something you think?

SM: No. No, I think pop music has been on the slide since 1985.

CL: Okay. [Laughs] Alright.

SM: [Laughs] There’s that wee difference.

CL: I noticed a lot of visual gags and visual references to things, specifically "A Hard Day's Night" and "The Sound of Music." Are you big into musicals? Do you have any favorite musicals?

SM: Those two are great examples. To me "The Sound of Music" is probably the greatest musical –- proper musical -- whereas "A Hard Day’s Night" is probably the greatest musical movie ever made. There’s a difference, I think. One is where they turn to the camera and sing and it's part of the drama, whereas "A Hard Day’s Night" is a pop musical. Those are right at the top of the tree. And there’s a lot that I don’t like but I've got a real soft spot for "Jesus Christ Superstar" for some reason. That’s just transcendent -- it’s like an opera.

CL: My husband thought I was making that movie up.

SM: Really?

CL: Yeah. He had never heard of it. I don’t know if it’s because he’s Jewish and so Jesus Christ hasn't played a big part in his life, but yeah he thought I was making it up.

SM: [Laughs] He probably thought like “How could they do that?” But you know that’s the great thing. They did it with utmost sincerity, and it was from the ’70s. You know the music sounds so great because of the period it was recorded in. It probably couldn't work now so well.

CL: If you could pick your favorite band to do a musical who would it be?

SM: That’s a question I've never been asked.

CL: Yay!

SM: Alright. Here’s one out of left field. How about the Prog Rock band Yes?

CL: Oh wow. I think that’s a really good choice.

SM: Just because we were talking about early ’70s, and you know it might be a little bit trippy, you know.

CL: Are you planning on doing another musical?

SM: I would love to make another film of any kind of variety. I’m assuming it would have a big musical element in it, that’s my way through the door.

CL: Yeah, I thought this was a great first film -- I mean a great film in general -- but it was pretty much exactly what I was expecting it to be and I mean that in the best way possible because I’m a big Belle & Sebastian fan.

SM: Oh, that’s very nice of you to say. In fact our manager, when he saw it, he said “There is absolutely nothing here that you wouldn't expect.”

CL: Yeah, exactly. I think anyone who is a fan of Belle & Sebastian is going to just eat it up, because it’s just exactly what I envisioned it would be. Oh! I've gone over my allotted time, but I’m going to go see you guys in Orlando so I’m really excited about that.

SM: Oh yeah! My family is going to be there as well so it’s going to be really fun.

CL: Oh, awesome. When I saw you guys at Pitchfork, I talked to Stevie at Richard’s DJ set and I asked him “Oh, please come to Florida” and he was like “No, we never go to Florida.”

SM: I know. Well, my wife has prevailed because she’s from there. So we’re going to do Miami and Orlando.

CL: Awesome. Do you think there’s any chance you could play “Women’s Realm”?

SM: Um. Yes.

CL: That would be amazing. That is one of my favorites.

SM: In Orlando. OK, I’ll try to remember. Do you know what? Send a little email through the contact address on the band website. We’ll get that and I’ll put it in my inbox.

"God Help the Girl" will be released to American audiences September 5 in theaters and on demand via Amplify.