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sundance 2014

Sundance: Belle and Sebastian Front Man Stuart Murdoch’s Glasgow Musical

What was the Sundance World Dramatic Grand Jury smoking? Last night’s closing-night award ceremony issued the most oddly titled special jury prize (given out for very specific achievements) I’ve seen in my years attending the festival: “World Dramatic Special Jury Award for the Delightful Ensemble Performance, and How the Director Brought His Own Unique Universe into Cinema.” That went to Belle & Sebastian front man Stuart Murdoch’s directorial feature film debut, the whimsical coming-of-age musical God Help The Girl.

Whether you’ll like or despise the movie, starring Emily Browning (Sucker Punch, Sleeping Beauty) as a young woman in Glasgow trying recover from anorexia and also start a pop band, likely depends on whether or not you like Belle & Sebastian’s music. As Indiewire’s Katherine Kilkenny put it: “God help the viewer who doesn't have the taste for B&S beats, because that distinct style is the honey coating that could either make this movie musical go down sweet or stick in your throat.”

Well, if you’re one of the latter, feel free to stop reading here. For all you Belle & Sebastian fans, though, here’s everything you need to know about Murdoch’s passion project:

  • It took ten years from conception to final product. “I don't feel bashful to admit that because I enjoyed it all,” Murdoch told me. “It wasn't like I wasn't doing other things. But you know, in that time, I sort of became kind of a filmmaker. I never went to college or anything. I started my apprenticeship with [B&S fan] Barry Mendel, the producer (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Serenity, Bridesmaids). So yeah, here we are.”
  • Why did it take so long? “Maybe we should have a seat,” said a cheeky Murdoch in the post-screening Q&A. Mainly for the obvious reasons, it turns out. “I have another job,” he said. “I’m in a band, and I didn’t get a break from the band until 2006 [at the end of B&S’s Life Pursuit Tour].”
  •  The music, though, had come to him in 2003. “It was like a radio switching on when I was out for a run one time,” he told me. “And I heard the title track, 'God Help The Girl.' And I wrote it down quickly. I realized it wasn't me singing. I realized that most of the songs were being sung by one character, a main character. And very quickly after that the other two characters came along.”
  •  After a year of writing, Murdoch paused to start working on the God Help The Girl album, for which he formed a girl group via an open casting call for singers that read: “Girl singers needed for autumnal recording project. Must have a way with a tune. Celine Dion wannabes, save your breath. Ballpark, Ronettes, Friend and Lover, Twinkle.” Then there were further delays and tours. Almost all the songs in the movie are from that album and subsequent EPs.
  • The main character is Eve (played by Emily Browning, who has a lovely singing voice), a talented but troubled young woman with bangs and great taste in vintage clothes who keeps breaking out of the institution where she’s being treated for anorexia and other self-destructive behavior to see rock concerts. She eventually is given leave to move into an apartment in Glasgow with James (Olly Alexander of the band Years & Years, previously seen in Enter the Void), a thin, shy guitarist who spends much of the movie mooning over Eve as she becomes the object of desire for every man whose path she crosses. Their third band mate Cassie (Hannah Murray, Skins) is a rich girl with a taste for adventure whom they meet when James tries to give her guitar lessons. The movie follows their meandering formation as a band, from Eve’s perspective, through the moment when they have to decide whether to stay together or take separate paths.
  • Eve also came to Murdoch in a dream, he said in the Q&A. “I dreamt that we were doing a Belle and Sebastian concert and Stevie [Jackson] and Sarah [Martin] from the band are up in … you ever have the dreams where you stand up to do a concert and you’ve forgotten … you don’t know any of the words? You’re playing like a fish instead of a guitar. It’s that kind of dream. But the music sounded good and this girl was jumping up and down, so she came on the stage and grabbed the microphone in my dream.” That girl was Eve.
  • They raised $121,000 of their budget in a 2012 Kickstarter campaign in which contributors could win prizes like Scrabble and tea with Murdoch; the privilege of yelling “Action” on the first shot and “That’s a wrap” on the final shot; or Murdoch’s “white label” press of the B&S album Tigermilk, of which there are only two in existence. Donors are categorized as Loan Sharks, Benevolent Aunts & Uncles, or Money Angels in the credits.
  • Murdoch apparently blew most of his meetings with “executives in big offices,” he said in the Q&A. “They said, ‘So what’s your style going to be like?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know because I’ve never made a film before, and what is style anyway? Isn’t style just the way it comes out?’ Wrong answer. We didn’t get any money.”
  • Between 1,500 and 2,000 girls auditioned for the part of Eve. Murdoch had decided at some point that Catherine Ireton, who’d sung Eve’s part on the album and gone on tour with God Help The Girl, wasn’t quite right for the film. Browning, a big Belle & Sebastian fan, sent in a tape of herself singing from Australia, but didn’t hear anything back for eight months. “I thought, Okay, it’s gone to someone else,” she said in the Q&A. It turned out Murdoch was methodically watching all the tapes, then going back through the hundred or so he liked. He called her up and made her sing over Skype with Alexander, who’d already gotten the part. “Which was horrendous,” Browning said, “and I think four days later we were all on a train to Glasgow. So it was kind of a long wait and then it all just happened very quickly.” Murdoch told me he knew Browning was Eve as soon as he had a chat with her. “I kinda knew straight away,” he said. “There's something about her. She's like a rock, like the rock the film is built on.”
  • All three leads geeked out when they met on the train from London to Glasgow. “Within five minutes we were all like, ‘Is anyone else really excited about meeting Belle and Sebastian???’” Browning told me at the film’s premiere part. “It was crazy. And then to like get to the rehearsal and if I didn’t get a bit of the song I’d be like, ‘Stuart, can you sing this for me so I can hear how it goes?’ And then he’d sing and I’d be like, Eeeeee! He’s singing in front of me! I was really a geek. I was very excited.”
  • It wasn’t until six months before the start of production that Murdoch decided he’d direct it himself. The only thing he knew was that he wanted to shoot on 16mm film. “I didn’t want to work on digital because I knew that we’d have to work really hard to get it to something that I liked,” he said in the Q&A. “But I knew with film there’s a dreaminess.” Grainy 8mm sequences of the band running around in the rain having umbrella fights were shot by the actors and meant for a marketing campaign, but were so cute Murdoch decided to include them.
  • The scene where Eve appears dangerously anorexic was CGI, thanks to the 26-day shooting schedule, which didn’t allow Browning the time to lose weight and gain it back. “Which I’m kind of happy about,” said Browning. “I just think it’s dangerous to toy with that shit.”
  • Browning had worried that Eve, with her bangs and vintage blouses and singing and kooky awkwardness would be just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but realized that was impossible because the movie is told from Eve’s point of view. “The idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is essentially a prop who is used as a tool for the male lead to help him find himself, and she’s not,” Browning told me. “I feel like that term has been overused a lot to describe any quirky girl in a movie, but Eve, she has her own inner life and she’s incredibly self-absorbed; that’s one of the things I loved about the character.  Olly wants her to be his muse and she’s like, ‘No, I’m not having that. I’m gonna go do my own shit.’ And I think it’s cool to flip that idea.”
  • All the parts where the band plays live in the film were recorded live, which Browning found terrifying. Murdoch also refused to let her take singing lessons. “I was like, ‘Really???’” she told me at the film’s after party. “He’s like, ‘No, no, I want it to sound a little bit shitty.’ I was like, ‘Oh, good.’” Browning did ballet as a kid and sings for her family or just alone at home, but has never been formally trained. She also hates karaoke, and can only enjoy it if she’s had half a bottle of wine. “I mean, you can hear in the film there are a few bits where my voice is slightly strained, and I think he liked that sound,” she told me. “And I get that. It’s nice that it isn’t too polished. I’m definitely not a professional singer.”
  • Murdoch watched tons of movies for inspiration. “I became obsessed with the original Fame,” he told me during our chat. “ The first half hour of Fame is just so beautiful the way they experience all the school of performing arts. It's very clichéd now, all that stuff. But back then it was quite, kind of radical to see it. It's beautiful.” He also watched Dazed and Confused over and over again. “It's such a great rambling film,” he said. “And it happens over 24 hours. I loved the secret life of kids. What we once were. It's fascinating. If somebody can get that right, it's great. You become part of it. Linklater did it, and Star Wars guy, [George] Lucas did it with American Graffiti.” If Girls had come out before he was shooting, Murdoch says he’s sure he would have found it inspiring. “It’s just the best thing. It’s amazing.”
  • Wes Anderson, obviously, was also a huge influence, and not just because of Mendel, the producer, working on the film. Murdoch says he’s not a fan of musicals, but finds himself drawn to movies where “music comes in and it just takes you away somewhere. For me that can happen as much in a Wes Anderson film as it can in The Sound of Music. It's either used well or it's used badly, whether it’s original or drafted in from other place. I just wanted to be in the Wes camp. I wanted to use it well, try to use it well. We come from the same world,” he said of Anderson. “I mean he's a whole different level. I'm very sloppy compared to him.”
  • The hardest part to figure out was a tone where characters burst into song and it doesn’t make people cringe, Murdoch told me. “I always had the picture of Eve dropping out of that hospital window, turning to camera, looking it straight in the eye, and singing. I thought if people would accept that first, even the first verse, that she was going to be telling the story through song, then you kinda got it made.”
  • No parents are featured in the movie on purpose. “It was a little bit like Charlie Brown. Wonk-wa-wonk-wonk,” Murdoch said in the Q&A. “I wanted the kids to exist in a non-adult world. They’re sort of adults, but they’re definitely kids. I think it’s possible. There’s generations of people like Eve and Cassie. You know them and just want them not to grow up, be Peter Pans, live in music and off as little money as they can get by on. I wrote backstories for all the characters and complicated things about what happened to them when they were younger and we just ended up leaving it all out.”
  • But Murdoch did become a parent himself over the course of shooting the movie. “I told my wife, ‘If you think we’re having kids before this film is done, think again,’” he said in the Q&A. “We had a wrap party baby. He’s eight months old now, young filmmaker in the making.”
  • Yes, there will be a new Belle & Sebastian album. They’ve just started writing it and will record it in the spring. “It's very lucky that we're still a band. I knew that, we got together last summer to play shows. I kind of had this feeling that if we didn't that maybe it might crumble soon. But everybody is in good form.”
  • No, the new album isn’t reflexively inspired by the movie. “It’s just a relief that it’s finished now,” Murdoch told me. “As soon as we finished editing that was it, I felt like I’d achieved it. It already feels like part of my past. It feels quite a young and naïve film, movie. So it's nice to get back with the band.”