How Stuart Murdoch Made His First Movie
The Scottish singer opens up about his indie musical, the future of Belle & Sebastian, and his hope to eventually write religious hymns.
Stuart Murdoch has spent the better part of the past two decades as the primary songwriter for Belle & Sebastian, the beloved Scottish indie pop band that was instrumental in shifting the center of indie culture away from noisy, ironic Gen X rock and toward the more acoustic, orchestrated, bookish, and sensitive style that was dominant through much of the '00s. Belle & Sebastian has been laying low over the past few years — their most recent album, Write About Love, came out in 2010 — but Murdoch has been hard at work on the most ambitious project of his career: directing Gold Help the Girl, a feature film musical for which he wrote the script and all of the songs. The music for God Help the Girl was released as an album in 2009, but he's only recently completed the movie, which was independently funded and is set to hit the festival circuit later this year.
BuzzFeed caught up with Murdoch in February to talk about the long process of making God Help the Girl, as well as his plans for the future of Belle & Sebastian, who are set to play a U.S. tour later this year.
You've been working on this musical project for eight years now?
Stuart Murdoch: I guess it is that. I said to Barry [Mendel], the producer, the other day, I said I feel like I've been at university. I feel like someone should at least give me a qualification in filmmaking. I've been at university and it hasn't cost me anything. I've had a brilliant education.
What was the starting point for God Help the Girl? I know you were writing some of these songs during the making of The Life Pursuit, and that came out in 2006.
SM: Actually, yeah, that's true, during that time. It's a well-worked story now. At the end of 2003, we were touring the U.K. with Belle & Sebastian; I was out on a run on a dark and rainy night before the show. Suddenly I had a song in my head, it didn't feel like a Belle & Sebastian song, I felt like I could hear a complete song sung by a female and I wondered if it was someone else's song. I jotted down the tune, because I always carry pen with me, and later I wrote down the words and that was the song "God Help the Girl."
When did you realize you had a full story and that it needed to be a movie?
SM: I first thought I was going to try and make a record for female singers, which was new to me, and I thought it would be fun to try and find all these great singers and record an album, and then I wrote another song. After I wrote three songs, I realized it was a particular character writing the songs. I kind of realized perhaps I should try and join the songs up with a story. When I say "try," it wasn't quite difficult; it felt like the songs were all coming from a certain place. In fact the songs very much dictated where the story ended up.
Have you tried connecting narratives between songs before?
SM: No, never. As far as I can remember, no never. Perhaps by accident. So I was ambitious.
It seems like someone could pretty easily turn a lot of your Belle & Sebastian songs into a jukebox musical — you have a lot of songs about school and offices.
SM: I'm sure it could be done. People have done musicals about Abba and Queen from those songs, and I know it wouldn't be difficult to write a story with Belle & Sebastian songs, it would be easier.
When did you get the ball rolling with getting the film together, and how were you able to finance it?
SM: I worked with Belle & Sebastian pretty solidly until 2006. Then I took a break and I wrote my screenplay, and I had never written a screenplay before. That was a lot of fun; it felt like a different life trying to be a writer. Then a man named Barry Mendel got in touch with me through the band's website and he was a producer and maybe he had an inkling of what I was up to. I don't know how he did. We quickly became friends and talked about the project and he wanted to bring it to fruition. That was really the key thing to happen. When Barry was on board and he would give me notes on the script and we would talk about the script. He kind of guided me through the whole thing.
He came to you as you were writing this material?
SM: Yes, probably three or four months into writing my screenplay. I used to write a blog around that time, and if he chanced on reading it he might have got a hint that I was writing it. I don't know what made him get in touch, but it was very timely.
What was the first stage for seeking backers to help you produce the film?
SM: That was a mysterious realm; I really didn't know anything about that before I started this. I always wondered, while I was working on this, where the money was gonna come from. Barry was going to take a chance on me; I'm a singer in a band but I'm not a film director. Really the financial stuff, the money stuff, didn't happen until late, late on in the process. We had the script done, we had already recorded the record, we were already thinking about casting before we set out to see how we would raise the money.
You had some backers before the Kickstarter, right?
SM: The Kickstarter only really came about in 2011? 2010? I think the first time I mentioned in it on our website or on my blog or something and said, "You all know I've been working on this film for sometime, you're probably sick of hearing about it, but we are looking for people to come and invest in the film." We got a terrific response that way, and maybe some people told other people, and we got maybe three or four key investors that way. That got the ball rolling, and then we decided to do Kickstarter in its relative infancy. We wanted to do Kickstarter because we needed to raise more money but also because we wanted to see what the popular support was at the time.
I've talked to other musicians who have financed albums and other projects this way, and it seems like it becomes a whole other job, making the whole bonus prizes. Have you begun work on those things?
SM: We've started on some of the basic stuff. But the more elaborate stuff... Just today someone in our office said, OK, you've got to meet this girl in Toronto, and you've got to play Scrabble, because that's part of the Kickstarter thing we organized. There's a Scrabble tournament that goes across America, and a few people very nicely paid for the chance to beat me at Scrabble, so I'm going to try and play a few of those games while we're on tour.
When you got everything into place, what was it like stepping into the role of directing? What was the learning curve of that like?
SM: The learning curve, the mathematical curve, I think they're called exponential? They go along for a while, go along for a while and then shoot up? I mean, even a year before I thought to myself, Really? You're going to direct this? I'm not qualified to direct anyone to the bathroom let alone a film. But you just get launched into something, and you get very good help, and I kept thinking the crew was going to say, "Ahh, this guy's a charlatan, what the hell does he know?" It was a very interesting time. Even yourself, could you imagine a situation you've been thrown into in the past — and at the time it felt awful but becomes one of your best memories? Making that film, I think, has become one of my best memories.
What are the differences and similarities between directing actors and having them work through your script and working with musicians on songs you've written?
SM: This is what I was clinging to during the whole process — the fact that I produced the album and that I was very comfortable directing people through my songs but I knew what I wanted because that is my background. At least I wrote these words and I knew what I wanted to do. I was very comfortable with the actors themselves, but I didn't have the vocabulary of acting obviously in the way I had the vocabulary of music and so my direction wasn't so sure. Once you get into it, it's basically your job to get what you need to see on screen. You're guided by what you want, you're guided by what's in your head and you don't stop until you get it as close as you can. Even if people want you to stop, even if people hate you, even if people want to go home, it's your job to get it on screen. I at least had that much confidence and bloody mindedness.
The most similar thing I'd done to the film was making Tigermilk, the first Belle & Sebastian LP, because that was entering to the arena of something I had never done before. That was a quantum leap, something we had never done before. It was terrifying, but it was new, and we went by instinct. That was an exact parallel to the film. But with the film there were twenty times more people, a hundred times more people, a hundred times more money, but is basically the same kind of process as making our first LP.
Were you looking for a bigger creative challenge for yourself before this project?
SM: I don't know if anyone looks for a bigger challenge. Maybe crazy people. Or engineers, you know? I'm perfectly happy being happy, but what happens — a thing comes along, a challenge comes along, and it drives you. You don't go looking for it; it's irresistible, and it makes you get up every day. You feel like a boxer, you feel punchy. It took a long time, but I'm so happy we made it.
Do you have the desire to make another film? Or to make another musical of some kind?
SM: You'd think at this point I'd be tired of it, but I absolutely do. I love it, there's no going back for me. I don't mean to jinx it, because of course it's a large possibility that I will never be by a camera again — but I think I will be involved in film or something.
Have you been working on new Belle & Sebastian music?
How's that been, going back to music after basically climbing Mount Everest?
SM: It's interesting. We had about a year and half in 2010 where we did an LP and toured for a year, and that was great. Going back into this, the transition is almost happening a little fast. Belle & Sebastian will be getting really serious. Hopefully I'll get a chance to do something that's more visceral than actually directing instead of all planning you can actually grab a guitar or grab a microphone and perform. It's a nice thought that you can flip between two disciplines.
How often do you write songs now?
SM: I haven't been writing songs; I've been jotting down ideas. I haven't really followed through on them. I wake up with ideas and throw them down. I think I've got enough ideas that when the group gets together, some of these ideas will come into bloom.
At least from my perspective there was a constant flow of Belle & Sebastian albums and singles coming out between 1997 and 2003.
SM: It is kind of up and down now. I had a crazy patch in '95 and '96, but I actually had another really good time in 2005 and 2006 when I wrote all the film songs. You can't really plan it. The beautiful thing that happened is that I was already writing songs for the record for Belle & Sebastian, but because I had a new thing where I was writing for a female character it brought out a bunch of songs that were unexpected, and I loved that. I love writing songs for other people, it liberates you. It's easy to become unliberated. It's easy to become boring.
How do you mean?
SM: If you basically have a rock 'n' roll lifestyle, it's kind of boring. People think of it as this terrific thing, but really you're just going up night after night playing shows and being interviewed, talking about yourself and having your picture taken — it's very boring as far as I'm concerned — when you need to be up writing songs about being a rock 'n' roll song, I can't think of anything more boring. Real life means pain, and that's usually where the best songs come out, being young and they've been through a period of sustained discomfort.
What do you look to when you start writing? Are you observing other people's lives?
SM: That's the nice thing, we've always kind of done that. You can't force it. It's like poetry; I think with good poetry, you can't force it. It just flows out, I think, with prose or screenwriting, whereas I think songwriting is quite ill-disciplined and just kind of tumbles out.
I can't remember what it was, if I had read something or other, but I got the impression that you weren't as happy with Write About Love as you were with some of your other records.
SM: I'll tell you what; I was delighted with the process of actually doing it. I think Tony Hoffer did an excellent job. I think perhaps it was a different-sounding record than the previous record. I liked it fine. You kind of just make these things and move on. I had a great time making that record. I had too good a time making that record, maybe that was the problem. The thing about that record is that the interesting thing that happened, compared to the record that came before it — night after night when we played concerts, we could play anything off of The Life Pursuit. Write about Love was much more of a quiet LP, and there were more Stevie [Jackson] songs and we don't play so many of them in concert and that's something that just happens.
This is my impression, but as you go along, the songs seem to become more openly religious, like "The Ghost of Rock School" and "Read the Blessed Pages," on the last record. Is that something you've thought about?
SM: Things are primed. These things just happened. You ought to sit down honestly and openly and write what's on your mind. The songs do come out differently, it's not a conscious choice to write about religion more, it just seems to happen. I think you can't help but change as a person and that comes out in what you're writing about. I don't know if it necessarily makes for a better song; I think the confusion of you sometimes leads to better pop lyrics. You don't necessarily want to explain things in a pop song. Sometimes it's better to give an impression than an explanation. I think if I was to move more religiously, I would have to write religious music, and that's another thing altogether. I think I would take that beyond Belle & Sebastian and begin writing hymns.
Have you tried that before?
SM: Years ago I wrote a song for the choir I sing for, and we performed that, but really you'd be surprised how much of a pop song that was — but because we sang it with a big church organ and a choir, it kind of sounded like a hymn. There's not too much between a hymn and a pop song besides its intent. Musically, it comes down to words and lyrics. But yeah, I'd like to do that in the future. You go wherever your passion leads you.
Where do you put the boundaries in songs that would go to Belle & Sebastian and songs that would have to go elsewhere?
SM: You just know. I would love if the church of Belle & Sebastian was a Catholic with a small "c" and that we could encompass many different tastes of music. I wish that net could go a little bit wider. That's certainly something I want to go next with the group. So you don't feel like you have to take it somewhere else with it. My band is a soulful bunch of people, and when you've known people so long, you can go with them somewhere soulful and spiritually that you couldn't go with a bunch of people. I want to explore that. I want to explore stuff with Stevie and see how far I can go with that.
If this movie does fairly well, it can open you up to all sorts of people who have never really heard you music before.
SM: Sure, but that's not really the intent. All you can do, all I can do, like with the records, is so simply do the best that you can. We're trying to make the best film we can, and all I want is for you to look back and say, "This film is OK."
SM: You want people to like the film in 10 years' time. It would be so easy to blow it. It's easy to do that when you're under pressure, when everybody is screaming at you, when everybody says it's a piece of shit. You know that when the film comes out it will be badly reviewed, and I don't mean to cast a bad spell, but it's probably more subtle than most people's taste.
Do you think your involvement puts a bias on people's taste? Like the way critics would approach the movie?
SM: I don't know. I would hope to make something great [rather] than something that came out and got terrific reviews but didn't really stand up to the second viewing. I'm not saying the film will be a favorite or anything. For instance, I stumbled upon a few film magazines on a book shelf recently — they're all British film magazines from the '60s — and I looked in the review section, and there were pages and pages of reviews of films you've never heard of. And by reading those reviews, you'd think they were classics. Then I turned the page and there was a review for The Graduate in amongst them, and it was so critical. It was really dismissive. He said, basically, I don't understand why the director chose these camera angles and I don't understand why the director decided to film it in this style, it completely took me out of the film, which was a flimsy plot anyway.
If you were to flip that perspective, that film now would look so much more modern than anything else.
SM: It's completely timeless and it towers over the other films like a giant; it's one of the best films ever made.
Your own work has aged really well, and there are tons of people who have lived with your records for a long time. Do you think it's hard for you to have a perspective on your own work?
SM: I think it would show a lot of hubris to comment on that. You try your best and you try to be honest. I think honesty is the most important thing in art. That might be a funny thing to say. Truth might come through. People don't believe your truth sometimes. They might hear a song from you and think, That's just fantasy, that's just lying. I don't understand where you are coming from. But from your perspective it's completely true. You might be talking about God, you might be talking about illness, you might be talking about love, you might be talking about whatever — that's what's most important, is that it's honest. Other people sometimes, it doesn't mean anything. It surprises me that people like [If You're Feeling Sinister] so much, in a sense. I don't want to say it's over appreciated but that I'm very grateful that they like the record so much. I know it meant a lot to me at the time, but I didn't think it would have that kind of effect.
That record, I think, comes from a very particular time and place. My favorite is actually The Life Pursuit.
SM: Oh good. That's probably the band's favorite, if you took a straw poll. It was so much fun to make, and I think we got the sound right on that.
I noticed that you guys were playing a lot from Dear Catastrophes Waitress last time you were touring. How did that come about?
SM: We played a number of shows with an orchestra on the last tour, and that was certain the most orchestrated record, so that was easy to do. I think it was also that they're a fun bunch of songs, and they're fun to play as well. I must admit that going into this little run of summer shows were going into, we haven't made a record, and that's unusual for us to tour. I hope people will be forgiving if we just pick songs from our back catalog to play.
So you won't be trying any new ones?
SM: I don't think we will this time. I think we'll get straight to work in the autumn. It will be like back to school, after Labor Day.