Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch Brings His Film, 'God Help the Girl,' to Park City (Q&A)

Stuart Murdoch (left) and Stevie Jackson lead Belle and Sebastian through a 10-song set at the Music Cafe on Monday night.

If Stuart Murdoch had his way, at the very least, Katharine Ross's bicycle-riding scene from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" would have been beamed behind Belle and Sebastian when they performed "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" Monday night at the Sundnace Music Cafe. With no visual reference, Murdoch looked a bit panicked after the band finished performing the Burt Bacharach-Hal David Oscar winner from 1969.

"Did you get it?," Murdoch asked the crowd, a good three-quarters of which was not born when "Raindrops" or the show opener, John Barry's theme to "Midnight Cowboy," were written. "I think they're too young," he said to bandmate Stevie Jackson. "We're old."

The audience rejected Murdoch's age assessment as the Glaswegian band, flown to Park City for two gigs, resumed their 10-song show in support of Murdoch's musical film "God Help the Girl." The film's stars, Emily Browning, Olly Alexander and Hannah Murray, joined in as enthusiastic dancers and a smidgen of background singing on "Sukie in the Graveyard," "Legal Man" and "God Help the Girl"; although they play a trio that forms a band in the film, it was obvious only Alexander is a musician.

"God Help the Girl," which wrapped shooting in May and was test screened in Glasgow, London and Los Angeles last year, received its world premiere at Sundance on Jan. 25. Murdoch will take it to the Berlin Film Festival in February and then head to Atlanta in March to begin work on the next Belle and Sebastian album with an eye toward a fall album release and an extensive tour. The film does not yet have distribution.

Murdoch spoke about the band's plans, developing a musical and "God Help the Girl's" themes of mental illness and spirituality in pop music.

Most films show up at Sundance fresh out of edit sessions. What did you do to the film after you received audience reactions?
The first time we showed people, they thought the film was about James (Alexander), his character and his philosophy. We had to make sure it was Eve's film (Browning's character). It was just finessing it.

A musician from a band with members of both sexes makes a film about a guy and two girls forming band. How much biography is in this?
Quite a lot. I have had a question about spirituality, connecting music and spirituality, even before I started my group. It goes back to the late '80s. They were characters, not just bits of me. There are elements of me in Eve and Cass [Murray]. I just like the company of women -- I like 'girl talk.' I knew when I was writing it that I wanted to be in the company of women, and I didn't really have a choice; when the songs came, when they switched on in my head, it was a female singing.

When you released "God Help the Girl," it was clear there was a framework of a story. Which came first, songs or story?
The story and the music weren't separated by much. I had a few songs when I came up with the story. So I think after I had written two or three songs I knew the characters. I wrote the script, the bulk of it, in 2006 and we didn't record the album until 2008. I was on tour, busy with an album ("The Life Pursuit"), but everything was firmly in place. Once the record came out, it made me determined to finish [the film].

Throughout the film, you bounce between the actors singing, Belle and Sebastian songs and the "God Help the Girl" studio versions. How did you determine which versions worked best?
There [were] lots of decisions, too much to go into. We hedged our bets by recording our music live with the house band through much of it, with everyone singing live. We wanted to do that because sometimes you get the best takes. There are two conspicuous Belle and Sebastian songs. 'The Psychiatrist Is In,' that was pretty much written during the script [process]. 'Pretty When the Wind Blows' was written at a later stage when I was typing the script.

There are handful of musical references throughout, beginning with two BBC DJs discussing Nick Drake and Ian Curtis at the outset of the film. Why start there?
I would toss a topic at them and they would rap for while. I'm not being too heavy-handed with the Nick Drake/Joy Division thing. It seemed quite topical -- musicians as myths seemed to work. It is also about mental health and music and those are two guys who didn't make it. The question is 'Will Eve make it?' She definitely wants to live.

Some of the score suggests 'Pretty Ballerina' by the Left Banke, and then a 45 of the song is put on a turntable. Once they're in a band, we see a Smiths T-shirt. How much did you want your tastes to come through in the score's reference points?
I would say its more [of a] fundamental idea. If there is a band that is a touchstone for Belle and Sebastian, it's the Left Banke. It's in my blood. I had a classical upbringing so that pseudo-classical thing is always in there. Most movies are overscored and there were so many musical highlights, [and] I didn't want to fill it up with music. I wanted a simple palate. It's mostly me on piano and sometimes Stevie on harmonica. Most of them are variations on a tune, but there is a creeping warmth as the film proceeds.

Stevie is listed as the music coordinator. What was his role?
On the original record, Stevie's title is associate producer but nobody ever knows what the associate producer does. Stevie is just my overall right hand guy, so we gave him that title. Actually, the nuts and bolts of making the music side was separate and he rounded up the musicians to make sure they were there on time, it was he who was plugging the amps. He was vital.

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The "Girl" in the title is Eve, who has an eating disorder, and she meets James, a lifeguard who wants to make great pop records, and Cass, whose a bit lost but wants to be a songwriter. James is the one with a philosophy, mainly how the ability to write a hit song is a sign of divine inspiration. You believe that?
I didn't know if it would make it into the film, but I just left it in. Any topic of spirituality in modern life makes some people run. Of course I more or less share his opinion on that stuff. When the record came out, I wrote three articles for the Guardian newspaper, and the first one was about inspiration, about music coming from somewhere else. I didn't realize people could write comments and the first one was 'this is the most naive thing I have ever read. You're an idiot.' So when this film comes out, the cleavers are raised. People will say 'you're an idiot', but I don't care.

You have a lot of believers. The end credits say the Kickstarter campaign received money from 51 countries. That's impressive.
I didn't want to do it at first. It's much easier to raise money by getting someone to give you a big lump. It got to a point where we were short so we went with gusto. There are a lot things we have to deliver. I have to take people on a bus tour of Glasgow to the filming locations. I also have a Scrabble tour. I will go peoples' house to play Scrabble while Belle and Sebastian are on tour. In Toronto we had the first of the Scrabblers come to the concert because we did not have time to go to her house. We set up a Scrabble board onstage and the guys played some light jazz and I started this game with a her. A bit of fun.

You have a few dates booked for summer. Any more tours planned? And when will we hear new material?
Last October we got together and started to write -- it's been awhile. We're going to record in Atlanta, Georgia. It's going to be a new city to explore, in March.

Who's the producer?
Ben Allen [Bombay Bicycle Club, Cee Lo, Matt and Kim]. We listened to a bunch of the stuff he's done. Maybe the record will have a slightly warmer, sweeter, heavier feel to it. Maybe. It's good to shake it up. There are a lot of good gospel singers in Atlanta so maybe we'll rope in some as backup singers.