Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s writing-directing film debut, God Help the Girl, is, in essence, one of the band’s most famous lyrics embodied: “Do something pretty while you can.” With strikingly saturated colors, jangly indie-pop dance numbers, and three young leads plucked straight out of a Wes Anderson romp, God Help the Girl is nothing if not pretty, fanciful, and unabashedly sentimental.
That is to say, a lot of people will absolutely hate it.
“Twee,” that weird pejorative aimed at all things aggressively harmless, has followed Murdoch and his band since their first record was released in 1996. His film, about a recovering anorexic named Eve who breaks free from hospital isolation, wanders through Glasgow, and pulls her life back together through song and friendship, is also prime fodder for twee-haters. Which makes sense because…uh, what’s so abhorrent about sweet, harmless things again?
“I spent a long time making this, it had to be an uplifting thing,” Murdoch (who isn’t clear on what “twee” means anyway) says. “I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time making a downlifting thing—it would have been too much. So I picked the lowest point and then we went from there.”
Eve (played by Emily Browning) and her story came to Murdoch “like a spark, like clicking your fingers,” one night in 2003 while he was out for a run along an unlit canal in Sheffield, England. He scribbled the lyrics, “God help the girl, she needs all the help she can get” on a piece of paper. Nine years, one Kickstarter, and one 2009 God Help the Girl Belle and Sebastian record later, Murdoch found himself on set about to begin his first day of filming. He was terrified.
“It was daunting, I wouldn’t kid you,” Murdoch says. It was raining in the middle of summer on a busy Glasgow street (the crew couldn’t afford a permit to shut the road down) and, 10 minutes before the actors arrived, Murdoch—“not actually a Christian with a capital C”—spied a church.
“I must admit, I sat and said a prayer,” he says, smiling. “I don’t usually pray for things because, I don’t know, it’s kind of bad luck. But I’m sure I said, ‘There’s a lot of people here… I just hope this all goes OK.’”
(It did. God Help the Girl premiered at Sundance this year, where it won a special jury prize.)
Elements of the film, including Eve’s institutionalization, are drawn from the director’s own life. “Pretty much everything Eve experienced, I have experienced, and worse,” says Murdoch, who spent a part of his 20s in enforced isolation as he grappled with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. As the legend goes, that’s where he began watching strangers wistfully from afar, creating stories for them, and translating them into character-driven songs that would become Belle and Sebastian classics.
But again, this is Stuart Murdoch we’re talking about, the “gentle-revolution” icon who walked into our interview at New York’s Soho Grand hotel wearing blue-tinted sunglasses and a shoulder-button, purple striped sweater. He didn’t want to make a film about anorexia, per se. Instead, Murdoch focused on the role music played in Eve’s recovery, the same role it did in his own, when it became “the thing that’s driving a person, but also supporting a person, almost like a drug.”
“I always used to imagine being enclosed in that room and wishing that I could do what Eve eventually ended up doing,” he says. “So maybe there’s extended wish fulfillment there.”
Eve’s fellow outcasts, shy, stuttery James (Olly Alexander) and rich-girl Cassie (Game of Thrones’ Hannah Murray) also play a key role in her recovery. They form a band together, sing, and debate whether it’s stupid to give themselves a name. Murray in particular is a welcome sight outside the world of Westeros, where she plays one of Craster’s daughters, the constantly-in-peril Gilly. Murdoch has no idea what I’m talking about when I bring this up.
“The only show I watch is Seinfeld,” he admits. “Like, the only show I watch. My whole life is Seinfeld. Seinfeld are my alternative family.”
He thought of Jerry (his favorite character) during the filming of God Help the Girl, when he somehow found himself, the director, feeling superfluous on set during the musical numbers, when a choreographer was running most of the show.
“There’s a line from Seinfeld—there always is,” he says, laughing. “Where he’s talking about the conductor, saying, ‘You know, do we really need the conductor?’” He paraphrases Jerry’s famous stand-up bit: “’I get the thing where he gets everyone together and goes, tap, tap, tap, start! But really after that, surely they can get rid of this guy.’ Sometimes, I would say, ‘action’—then I could slip out the room ’cause the whole thing’s going, you know?”
In the end, God Help the Girl, 10 years in the making, took only five weeks to film. Murdoch is proud of the end product, no matter how many find it “twee”…whatever that means.
He takes another stab at articulating what the word might mean. “I get a feeling from that realm over there, that we are twee,” he says, including me because of the heart-printed dress I have on. “That you are twee and I am twee, ’cause you know…I’m like 46 today and maybe I should be doing something solid or better with my life, like building a career. But it could be worse. It’s not like we’re persecuted for our beliefs.” He pauses for a second, then laughs. “Or are we? I don’t know.”