Stuart Murdoch on films and fundraising

Stuart Murdoch on the set for God Help the Girl. Picture: Contributed
Stuart Murdoch on the set for God Help the Girl. Picture: Contributed
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Autumn in Glasgow, and a tour bus winds its way around the West End, taking in the Hogwarts charm of Glasgow University, the squirrely shops around Otago Lane, and the sprawl of the Botanic Gardens. Yet it’s likely these tourists will rarely take their eyes off their driver. “I’m going to be taking the bus to all the places where we shot God Help the Girl,” breezes Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. “We’ve got people coming in from all over, and there’s a lunch thrown in as well.”

Yet it’s likely these tourists will rarely take their eyes off their driver. “I’m going to be taking the bus to all the places where we shot God Help the Girl,” breezes Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. “We’ve got people coming in from all over, and there’s a lunch thrown in as well.”

This scenic trundle is part of a backlog of promises made to raise funds for his first film. Murdoch and Barry Mendel, a Belle & Sebastian fan but also a Hollywood producer who worked on Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Munich, managed to raise £76,000 of their £1.1 million budget by offering branded T-shirts and badges, autographed posters, a namecheck on the credits, or the chance to call “action” at the start of the shoot, in exchange for cash pledges.

One of most popular incentives was Murdoch’s guided tour. “Crowd-funding was a last-resort for us, after all other doors had shut in our faces,” says Murdoch, a light-voiced, light-haired 45-year-old. “People expect something – and they should expect something for their money. We all sat around and threw in ideas, and this was one of mine.”

His musical God Help the Girl is unmistakably another Murdoch idea, a wry observation of boy and girl interactions, set against leafy Glasgow streetscapes, familiar as backdrops to Belle & Sebastian’s early Super 8 videos. Naturally, the music came first, as a cache of wistful, bittersweet songs written in the early Noughties. “After a couple of the songs, I realised that I’d written most of them for a female character and thought perhaps I could string them together and make a film.”

Murdoch has been at the heart of Belle & Sebastian since the band formed in 1996, but he’s been a film buff most of his life. An obsession with the ironist Hal Hartley is reflected in some lightly-filched lines of dialogue in early songs, and he directed music videos both for the band and their friends, including Camera Obscura. In turn, Belle & Sebastian prove irresistible to film-makers seeking deceptively upbeat counterpoints. Todd Solondz commissioned the group to do an entire soundtrack for his movie Storytelling, although later, changes to the Solondz picture left many of them on the cutting-room floor.

God Help the Girl is about Eve (played by Australian actress Emily Browning) an anorexic who finds that writing songs gives her the courage to skip her psychiatric care. Out in Glasgow she finds James, an earnest singer-songwriter (Enter The Void’s Olly Alexander) and his playful protégé Cassie (Skins’ Hannah Murray).

Finding the right actors was an important part of the process, with the search for Eve resembling the quest for Scarlett O’Hara. “I remember our casting director Kathleen Crawford once saying to me around midnight ‘Eve doesn’t exist, she’s in your head’ and I think she was getting a bit despairing of me,” recalls Murdoch.

“Barry [Mendel] says we saw 1,500 people.” Other headaches included his original choice for Cassie, Elle Fanning, dropping out when her other film, Maleficent, changed its shooting schedule, but Murdoch learnt to take it all in his stride. “I’d planned for two Scots and an American but ended up with two English actors and an Australian. However, when the actors came up, they had this great rapport, so I changed the script and let them run with it. They felt like a more grown-up Railway Children. In fact, the first time I met Hannah, I said she had a Sally Thomsett vibe. She was a bit funny about that because she didn’t know who I was talking about, but I said ‘don’t worry, everyone loves Sally Thomsett’.”

As you might hope from a man who named his band after a 40-year-old French children’s TV show, Murdoch’s influences for God Help the Girl are retro pleasures such as Withnail and I, the John Hughes’ teen film Pretty in Pink, as well as Richard Linklater’s chatty slacker picture Dazed and Confused. On the other hand, he watched practically no musicals, and delights in confirming the source of his opener, where Eve, pays for a newspaper, then retrieves the coin she’s tied to a string. “A blatant Top Cat steal” he exults.

A later encounter with a ruthless game of women’s football is a nod to Gregory’s Girl. Murdoch is a big fan of Forsyth, and once tried to persuade the reclusive Scottish auteur to direct the Expectations video from Belle & Sebastian’s acclaimed first album Tigermilk. “We had a lovely lunch with him where he told us loads of great stories but I think he went away and thought, ‘actually I’m not going to be able to bring anything to this song that I wouldn’t have done ten or 20 years ago’. So he passed.”

Writing, scoring, raising funds and finally directing God Help the Girl is a significant workload and Murdoch admits he wondered about his stamina levels, especially since he had experienced a lengthy and debilitating bout of chronic fatigue syndrome in his 20s.

In the end, however, he was pleasantly surprised how much he enjoyed the 2012 shoot. “You just have to be confident or else people won’t respect you. And you must be decisive – which was fine because I’m decisive almost to a fault. Me and my wife are chalk and cheese. She’ll spend time thinking and choosing. I just point at the first thing.”

I remark that Bob Hoskins described the process of endless choices in film-making as being pecked to death by pigeons. Murdoch laughs, delighted. “That’s right,” he says. “That’s perfect.”

Murdoch had chosen locations that were within a mile of his home and sometimes so close to each other that cast and crew walked from one location to the next, pushing trollies. Despite the tight budget filming was upbeat, until nightshoots in the Western Baths took their toll on the harmony.

“It had been brewing for a while,” says Murdoch. “I don’t really know how to make a film, and sometimes I was treading on people’s toes, because we had to move fast all the time. Apparently I was doing things wrong and we didn’t have time to entertain that and I didn’t have time to be taught right.”

Matters reached boiling point when one person walked out, followed by half the crew. “It was an admirable show of solidarity,” understates Murdoch. “Barry and I were left standing, thinking ‘well, what do we do now?’” Mendel managed to coax everyone back to finish the day’s work. “The following day I got the crew together and made a speech but you could tell they were thinking ‘f**** sake, who’s this dick from a band, telling us our job?’ But I was just trying to tell them we trying to improvise in the American style. And in the end, it didn’t matter, because it worked out fine in the edit, and my cinematographer Giles was always on my side. He was amazing.”

God Help the Girl premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won a special jury prize. Since then it has screened at festivals in Berlin and Melbourne. “The reception’s been terrific,” says Murdoch. Why does he sound so surprised?

“Honestly? I thought the axes would be raised high, because the film is quite like a Belle & Sebastian record, and I thought people might be completely impatient with it, especially the wider critical mass. I didn’t really care – but people have been really nice so far.”

After walking red carpets in Edinburgh tonight, then New York and Los Angeles, Murdoch is keen to return to putting the finishing touches on Belle & Sebastian’s ninth studio album, produced by Bombay Bicycle Club’s Ben Allen.

Yet Hollywood may not let him stay away for too long. “At Sundance I got cornered by three beefy agents from New York,” he laughs. “It was like a cartoon, with all of them talking 20 to the dozen, saying ‘you gotta do a movie with this woman. She’s got this great script, and you gotta strike while the iron’s hot, kid!’ Eventually they stopped calling, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out having another go in future. ”

• There will be a special launch event for God Help The Girl at the Corn Exchange in Edinburgh tonight, with Bell & Sebastian playing their own songs and songs from the film, and the performance beamed live to cinemas nationwide. God Help the Girl is on general release from 22 August,