Performers are often known for naturally exuding self-assurance and fearless when they promote themselves and their work to their audiences, as they’re always supposed to be confident in their ability to entertain. But when their frailties and vulnerabilities begin to take over and plague their courage to effortlessly present their heart-felt work, their creativity surely begins to suffer. The main characters of the new musical drama, ‘God Help the Girl,’ powerfully understand the difficulties many musicians face as they’re on the verge of their big break, as they’re plagued with self-doubt over whether they’re truly talented enough to succeed. The movie, which marks the feature film writing and directorial debuts of Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer and songwriter for the Scottish indie pop band Belle & Sebastian, also enthrallingly showcases how he smartly used his knowledge of music to garner the talent needed to make the relatable drama.

‘God Help the Girl’ follows the emotionally struggling Eve (Emily Browning), an Australian songwriter who moved to Glasgow, Scotland in pursuit of her musical dreams. However, she’s unable to contend with the pressures of trying to find success while pursuing her goals, which leads to her staying in a mental-health facility for depression and an eating disorder. When Eve decides to once again to embrace her passion, she sneaks out of the hospital to attend a concert at a local club. While there, she draws the attention of the singer of one of the rock bands, Anton (Pierre Boulanger). But when Eve becomes emotional after the concert, James (Olly Alexander), the English guitarist and singer of the disastrous act that follows, decides to bring her home to his flat and take care of her for the night.

Eve returns to the hospital the following morning, and when she later finishes her treatment, she moves into a spare room in James’ flat. As the two become friends, she pretends she doesn’t realize he’s romantically interested in her. She instead decides to continuously date the narcissistic Anton, in the hopes he’ll give her demo to a pair of radio hosts she frequently listens to, and is known for launching new talent.

As Eve anxiously waits to hear back about her demo, she joins James on his lesson with his music student, Cassie (Hannah Murray). With the help of Cassie’s family’s money, the three decide to form a band together, and slowly begin to garner attention and fans. But even as they gain notoriety in the Glasgow music scene, the trio, particularly Eve and James, increasingly find themselves at odds. As the friends disagree over major aspects of the group and their music, including how to market themselves, what kind of sound they want to convey and even what they should name the band, they realize that pursuing their dreams may not be as satisfying as they once believed.

Browning and Murdoch generously took the time recently to sit down down for a roundtable interview at New York City’s Soho Grand Hotel to talk about filming ‘God Help the Girl.’ Among other things, the actress and writer-director discussed how the first-time filmmaker wrote the drama’s songs before before he had actually penned the script, which he found to be helpful, as the music helped inform the story and the characters’ relationships with each other and their music; how Murdoch empathized with the characters, which is why it was easy for him to write from their perspectives; and how Browning was initially intimidated with the musical aspect of her character, as she’s a fan of Belle & Sebastian, and ‘God Help the Girl’ is her first true musical film, but once she began performing on the set, she became more relaxed.

Question (Q): Stuart, it’s interesting to see how you transitioned from being a musician into making a film. Can you talk about how long this you were thinking about directing a movie, and why did you finally decide at this point in your life to make this film?

Stuart Murdoch (SM): It took me a while to actually make it, but I decided ages ago to direct it. But I had to juggle the band, family and lots of other things to get it made. It was always a delight to make, and to be working on the side of the business. It never felt like a long time, really, because it was always enjoyable.

I know there’s always a little bit of suspicion when somebody jumps from one art form to the other, but it honestly feels like a very natural thing. It’s more like going from one hundred meters to two hundred meters or something. (laughs)

Q: You released the ‘God Help the Girl’ album before you made the movie. Was that a help for you, as you started working on the screenplay?

SM: Well, actually, I’d written most of the screenplay by 2006 or 2007. But I’d written the songs before that, and they had informed the screenplay. But it was helpful to nail down the music on a practical level because I wanted to get it out of the way before the film came along. Producing an album with different singers and string arrangements is quite a process. I wanted the two to be separate because else otherwise I’d have had a stroke.

Q: Emily, what was it like starring in the film with Stuart directing?

Emily Browning (EB): It was awful! (laughs) It’s so weird when we have to answer questions about each other when we’re sitting together! Stuart came up to us before we started shooting, and was like, “You know, you guys have made a lot of films, but I haven’t. So you might need to help me out.” But it didn’t really seem like we needed to help you. I don’t know if we were really any help, to be honest! (laughs)

It was a really different process and a experience than any other film that I’ve made, which is a really good and positive thing. It was also really great having Barry (Mendel) there to be the grown-up saying, “Well now we need to do this.” Most of the time it felt like the two of us, as well as Hannah and Ollie, were just messing around and getting to play. I hate saying the word ‘play’ when you’re talking about work!

SM: I was playing!

EB: Yeah, I know. It’s just such an awful word! But it was just easy. It was really enjoyable, so it was really depressing when it ended.

Q: How did you prepare for a singing role?

EB: I didn’t at all! I mean, I came in and said, “What singing teacher should I go to? I’ll go and take lessons.” Stuart was like, “Don’t, because I like it if it sounds a bit crap sometimes.”

Q: Was it intimidating at all when you were starting off, working with a director for whom this is such a personal film? Was that troubling for you before you started?

EB: Yes, it was.

SM: I presume with every film you make, there’s somebody there for whom it’s very (personal).

EB: Yeah, and if it isn’t, it’s kind of awful and soulless. I’ve done films where the story and the character isn’t a big deal to anyone if it’s a big-budget, silly film. That’s awful and horrible. There’s always someone that the story belongs to. But I was far more intimidated with the musical aspect, just because I’ve been a fan of Belle & Sebastian for a really long time. I was like, I have to go in and just sing. I’m just singing my songs and I don’t know what I’m doing. It was all fairly relaxed.

Q: How was it seeing the finished film?

EB: Weirdly, it’s maybe the only movie that I’ve ever done that I want to keep watching, which is really strange. Maybe because I’ve acted for such a long time, it doesn’t really interest me anymore, seeing myself acting. But seeing myself singing, it’s like, oh look at this cool thing that I did! I’ve seen the film about seven times.

SM: The music does lend itself, which is one bonus that music has over film. Sometimes you spend a long time editing, and it’s a very technical process. It doesn’t reward you then and there, and it comes together very slowly.

But when you’re mixing music, when you’re in a studio mixing music, you can be in there for twelve hours and enjoying yourself. It has a beat because it’s a thing that’s happening. It’s real and it’s live. So the music does help you. I can see how you’d want to watch it a few times.

Q: Was there added stress about the fact that the film’s a musical where people are singing to the camera, but they’re not performing music all the time? Sometimes it’s in their head and it’s almost an old-fashioned type of musical.

EB: We did ‘A Down And Dusky Blonde’ live.

SM: You also performed ‘Come Monday Night’ live, as well.

EB: ‘Come Monday Night’ was okay because it was in the rehearsal room, so it was just a comfortable bunch of people. Then for ‘Down And Dusky Blonde,’ we had about two hundred people in the audience, so it was like a gig. It was like playing a show, which was terrifying. I think the first take I was just mumbling and not looking at anyone. By the third time, it was the most fun ever. I didn’t want to stop doing it, I understood why you’d want to be onstage singing for people.

Q: With that in mind, given that you come out of the alternative rock scene before the internet and before people were constantly marketing themselves, there’s this organic quality to the experience of emerging as a band. Then you step back and think about what that process is. What did you learn in terms of stepping away from your own experience and thinking about it as a process, and then being able to write this story?

SM: To me, it was mostly a story about Eve and the other two characters. It was very much driven by the characters. I wrote the script simply by listening to the characters talking, and they didn’t talk about music that much. I never really thought about them in parallel with Belle & Sebastian or anything else.

It was only late on that I realized I would miss a trick if I didn’t use some of my own experience about the experience of being in a group. We did end up putting a few of those kind of markers using my own experience. Like when James gets on his soapbox and talks about music in a condescending way to the two of them, I’m using my own experience.

Q: So that’s what you did?

SM: To an extent, because occasionally the band would rehearse ten percent of the time and we talked shit the rest of the time. We’d talk about the eighties and the sixties, and everything that had to do with music. There were opinions flying all over the place, and I’m a very opinionated person. Often my opinions are long. So there’s obviously a hint of that in James. James talking to those two is a little bit like me addressing the group sometimes.

Q: Is James your surrogate character or all of three of them?

SM: Well, he’s certainly not like Cass. She gets away with it. She’s free and easy, and light as air. She’s just the delightful person that comes in and helps the other two. But certainly there are bits of me in both of the other characters, even though this might be a long time ago. I like to say that I empathize more with the characters than I actually am the characters. That’s why it was easy for me to write from their positions. They definitely came to me like distinct characters.

Q: You were saying you gave certain markers to pay attention to, whether it was movies or music. What do you remember telling the actors to see?

EB: I can’t remember much. It’s really weird to answer these questions sometimes, because we made this movie about three years ago! What did we watch? You left a bunch of DVDs.

SM: They were there for two weeks and somebody asked me, “Did you leave these?” You were all like, “Do we have to watch these?”

EB: We all watched ‘Dazed & Confused’ together, which I’d seen before.

Q: Did you do research or try to watch a lot of movie musicals, with this being your first film, to help you try to translate the story to the screen?

SM: It was little bit of a mixture. As soon as you see research, it kind of puts you off, because we’re not at school anymore. This is absolutely my fun project, so I wasn’t really researching.

You were talking about musicals early on, and this is an old-fashioned, turn to camera and sing, type of movie. I would say there’s a line, and that’s what musicals proper do, whereas musical films are on the other side of that line. That includes everything else like ‘Grease’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ We’re halfway between that.

I don’t love the old-fashioned kind of musicals. I sometimes find them really boring, ever since I was a child, when I would watch them with my mum. I couldn’t get into it when I was seven. I said, “Mum, I just can’t get behind this.”

Q: No ‘Fiddler on the Roof?’

SM: I did watch ‘Fiddler on the Roof’-it’s one of the gems. It’s really long, but it’s terrific, especially the first two hours. The first hour and a half of ‘My Fair Lady’ is just tremendous. The whole of ‘Sound of Music’ is the best. But I’ve got a real soft spot for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ That’s almost like real opera. I think it’s so great. So I do like some.

Q: Can you talk about who influenced you musically?

SM: I didn’t think about the music because I was letting the music be as natural as possible. I think I just let it out there. That’s the kind of music I love and aspire to do, but I was watching a lot of films. I was leaning on films for different things and reasons, and not all of them were musical. I watched a lot of John Hughes films, as well as ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ ‘Dazed & Confused’ and ‘American Graffiti.’

Q: You mentioned the girl group sound that you wanted for the album and the film. What was it about that style from almost the sixties that you wanted to capture?

SM: Well, that’s the sound that I heard when the first song came along, the title track. For a while I thought it was going be a girl group record that I was making. But as the songs were being created, as it was clear that with Eve being the lead vocalist, I had to ditch that pretty quickly. It was a signal, it was a flag. The first song that came along, ‘God Help the Girl,’ was a full-on sixties girl group sound.

Q: Emily, since this is your first musical, would you do more musicals in the future?

EB: I don’t know! I feel like this is a pretty special, singular thing. I auditioned for ‘Les Misérables’ when it was being made into a film. It was like the most horrendous experience of my life. It was awful and just horrible. I don’t know if that kind of proper, trained singing is really something that I want to do. I think we should probably do a sequel to this film, and then I’ll do another musical.

Q: In terms of the psychology of the character, Emily, yours is definitely the darkest character in the film. Did you look into her psychology, or did you just rely on the script?

EB: I don’t have personal experience with eating disorders, but I have a lot of people that do. So I kind of feel that I have an understanding of that. But also, I feel like I get being in that place of only feeling calm and comfortable when you’re being creative, and then otherwise feeling anxious and unsettled. I feel like I understand it. I have never been in that extreme place that Eve was in, especially being in the hospital, but I didn’t really find it necessary to research or anything. I feel like I got her.

SM: I think that’s another reason we were so lucky to get you in the role, as it’s almost like a fate thing. So many other people wouldn’t have been able to get in there. You had that position of understanding, and you didn’t have to create that. You just wear it, which is terrific.

Q: Stuart, do you see yourself directing more traditional narratives that aren’t based in the musical experience?

SM: I’m not sure.

EB: Has anyone done a horror film that’s genuinely terrifying, but also a musical?

Q: Maybe someone can make a musical version of ‘Barbarella.’

SM: It’s got musical moments, doesn’t it?

SM: I think doing a musical of ‘Barbarella’ would be very difficult to top if you love the original. The thing is with musicals is the best ones are genuine. I’ll wait to see what strong idea comes along. It’d have to be a really bold idea for me to step out from behind the curtain of music. If music wasn’t leading the thing, then people would really have the hatchets raised! (laughs)

Q: Do you have a favorite scene in the film?

EB: I really like the whole film, actually, which is a weird thing to say!

SM: The way the song ‘Come Monday Night’ comes together is more like a pop video than a scene. But it takes my blood pressure right down when I watch. You have written that song because you want to be in that situation where beautiful women are singing this song and trying to relax you. They’re saying, “Everything’s going to be okay.”

Q: Do you have a favorite song that you performed?

EB: The last song, ‘A Down and Dusky Blonde,’ is my favorite,. I don’t know why, but it makes me emotional as I was singing it. I think it’s one of my favorite songs to listen to it.

Q: Stuart, how different was it writing songs for other people to perform, as opposed to writing songs for yourself?

SM: It was a key moment when that first song came along and when I realized it was for someone else. It’s changed my perspective on writing. It’s an absolute dividing line in the life of the band, because I knew I’d never go back. I almost had come to the end of certain things I wanted to say. I’m not saying going back to the band is any easier. I don’t write songs like I used to, I don’t write as many songs as I used to, as they don’t come so easy now for the group.

Written by: Karen Benardello

Interview: Emily Browning and Stuart Murdoch Talk God Help the Girl

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By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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