A Belle and Sebastian album cover come to life

As any fan of the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian might expect, Stuart Murdoch, the band’s central figure, is direct — to a point — about his directorial debut “God Help the Girl.”

“These are characters that I love, and people that I know and then bits of my own past, but I am not sure what my philosophy is,” he said during a recent phone interview.

The Sound Unseen Festival is presenting the movie’s Midwestern premier Thursday at a screening at the McNally Smith School of Music in St Paul. It’s an appropriate site because at its heart Murdoch, said, the film is about music.

“Music is not only the practical theme, but it’s the theme of the music,”  he said. “It’s music as life, music as spirituality, it’s music as a force that can come along and change your life and make your life better.”

The plot is simple. It’s the story of Eve (Emily Browning), a young woman who runs from a psychiatric hospital where she is being treated for an eating disorder. She falls in with James (Olly Alexander), a reclusive musician making ends meet by working as a lifeguard who introduces her to Cassie (Hannah Murray), who is taking music lessons from him. They decide to form a band. There is a lot of talking about the power, performance, and meaning of music. There’s a brief detour into the possible healing power of spirituality. And there is a lot of singing.

Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s debut film stars (left to right) Olly Alexander, Emily Browning, and Hannah Murray. Murdoch describes the film as a Belle and Sebastian album cover come to life. (Image courtesy Amplify Releasing)

The songs are wistfully complex, with lyrics about teenage angst, romance, and the general chaos of everyday life. They play out against the grubby Victorian splendor of Glasgow’s West End, presented by the winsome stars, who each have remarkable wardrobes, despite apparently having very little money.

Murdoch said the idea came to him about 10 years ago, and film grew organically as he was working in Belle and Sebastian.

“First of all the songs came along, and I just started hearing songs that weren’t for my band,” he said. “It was almost like complete songs and it was a female singing. So after I had written a few of those songs I sat down and thought ‘I’m going to try and write a script, because this girl’s a real character.’ So I just sat and let the characters talk.”

He got a script together and then began looking for a way to to get the film made. Along the way he met up with producer Barry Mendel who worked on various Wes Anderson films and “Bridesmaids.”

“I didn’t actually know much about what a producer did,” Murdoch saids. “And I expected the producer would just quietly come in one day with a briefcase full of dollars and open it up and away we went.”

Reality soon dawned however, and Murdoch found himself with Mendel in many meetings with potential funders. As a first-time director with no film track record, he quickly found that things rarely went well.

“I remember them asking me about ‘well what’s the style of this movie going to be like?’ And I wasn’t much good at pitching things at this point and I said ‘Well I guess it’s going to be like a Belle and Sebastian record sleeve come to life,'” he said. “And actually that’s a pretty good description of what the film is, but it meant nothing to them. And the briefcases were closed pretty quickly,” he laughed.

Part of the challenge was Murdoch insisted on sticking with his original vision.

“At some point variously people suggested to me, ‘does she really need to be anorexic? Do we really need to talk about depression? Do we really have to bring God into this?’ And each point I could have said, ‘yeah, you’re right, lets make it easier for ourselves. You know we might actually sell this movie easier,'” he said. “But how often do you get a chance to make your first film? So I fought for it all the way. And I just wanted to leave that stuff in there because it interested me and to be honest, it was real. It was truthful, that stuff.”

When he thinks about how the spirituality in the story made potential backers uncomfortable, Murdoch can’t help but laugh.

“I know, isn’t that funny?” he said “It’s one of the last taboos. You can switch your TV on at any time of the night and see all sorts of crazy violence and sex and stuff that people are doing. But as soon as you bring God into it, people raise their eyes and turn it off.”

“The whole spirituality aspect of the film is underplayed. You don’t really know what the characters are thinking. They are sort of flirting with things. They are sort of moved by forces. I think if I went on and made another film … it’s something that I’d probably like to get into more directly.”

Ultimately the film got made with the help of a very successful Kickstarter campaign. The crew was still operating on a shoe string, however, and spent five weeks literally running around the city of Glasgow to get the scenes they needed. As the director, Murdoch found it fun to stand behind the camera and watch the story he had written playing out before him.

“It was great because I had been walking around all the places that you see in the film constantly,” he recalled. “While I was writing the thing, while I was writing the songs, I just like to walk and that’s how my mind works. And I’d been imagining the girl singing here, or the ballerina singing here or them doing a dance here. And to see it come together was great.”

The film opened at Sundance where it won a special jury prize for an ensemble performance.  Now the film is about to have a limited theatrical release, including a screening at the Zinema in Duluth on Sept. 16. It is however going to be simultaneously released on both Vimeo and iTunes.

Murdoch said he going back to the band for a while, but he says making “God Help the Girl” is making him see things in a new light.

“Well, I can’t go back. Cat’s out of the bag. I’ve had too much fun doing this and I feel too powerful now,” he laughed. He says he wants to do bigger projects with the band, always being visually aware when doing shows.

He’s also realistic about the potential impact of the film. He remembers how seeing films from other parts of the world made him want to go visit, and he says maybe it’ll be good for his hometown.

“I think we have have to remind ourselves that it’s a pretty small film and I don’t know how many people are really going to see it,” he said. “But I think some people will see it and say ‘I want to go there.’ So I am sure I will bump into people that have made it to Glasgow and I’ll buy them a cup of coffee.”