Stuart Murdoch’s Chosen Trio

By
Photography Frank Sun

Published September 3, 2014

ABOVE:  OLLY ALEXANDER, EMILY BROWNING, AND HANNAH MURRAY IN NEW YORK, AUGUST 2014. PHOTOS BY FRANK SUN.

Following an unorthodox audition process, Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch cast his first film and musical, God Help the Girl. An extension of Murdoch’s recording project of the same name, the film follows Eve (Emily Browning) as she escapes from a mental institution and goes to Glasgow, where she befriends James (Olly Alexander) and Cass (Hannah Murray). The audience watches as the three strangers quickly become friends and create music, all of which Murdoch wrote alongside the screenplay.

For fans of Belle & Sebastian the film visualizes exactly what one might expect—a world that is awkward, yet beautiful, with characters who are shy, yet powerful. It’s a world dominated by chance encounters that push other matters to the backburner. Although Eve struggles with anorexia, the film focuses on her delicate actions, friendships, and the positivity of music.

The cast’s chemistry—their friendship on and off set—lends the God Help the Girl an abiding honesty. Browning, Alexander, and Murray spent seven weeks rehearsing and filming, but also playing the board game Settlers of Catan at Murdoch’s home and drinking wine while eating Nutella out of the jar and watching Spice World. We sat down with the three actors when they were in New York for the film’s premiere.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: I’m not always one for musicals, but I thoroughly enjoyed the film. None of you have done musicals before, right?

EMILY BROWNING: I did a film where I sang a couple songs on the soundtrack and another where I played a pop star and had to sing on stage, but this was different. I’ve never done anything like this. We had to sing live. It was kind of terrifying but I feel like we were all on the same page—we’d never done it before and were all excited and nervous about working with Stuart.

HANNAH MURRAY: I think we all felt like it was such a special thing to do a musical. It’s something I never thought I would be able to do in my career. We all had these moments of pinching ourselves and being like, “We’re in a musical. I can’t believe it.” That made it feel very fun, actually, and magical and silly.

MCDERMOTT: When you first heard about the project and were brought into the audition process, what was that like? What was it like working with Stuart?

BROWNING: I didn’t read the script until I got the part and that’s not something I usually do. I just wanted to be a part of it because I heard Stuart was making a film. I figured from his lyrics that he would probably write a really interesting script. I think it was helpful that we were all fans of the band because we understood the world [of the film], but we were all geeking out on the train on the way.

MURRAY: One time we all went over to Stuart’s house to play board games and me and Emily sat next to each other. We were a little bit drunk, she texted me, and was like, “Oh my god. I can’t believe we’re at Stuart Murdoch’s house!” [all laugh] I think we all managed to hide it him from him rather well, but it made the experience of auditioning more nerve-wracking than usual. I was nervous enough about going into a room to meet him, and then also had to audition and sing.

BROWNING: My first interaction with Stuart was doing a Skype audition with him and Olly.

OLLY ALEXANDER: We had to read a scene and then [do] a little improvisation. It was really strange auditioning with someone over Skype.

MCDERMOTT: Had you met in person?

BROWNING: No. It was kind of bizarre [and] a weird way to do things, but Stuart was saying it was perfect because he was on his computer and the screen was split. What he saw was me and Olly on screen together. He said that’s how he realized it was going to work.

MCDERMOTT: How long were you filming?

MURRAY: About seven weeks including the rehearsal time. It was really quick, but with this kind of movie it feels like quite a long time. To have two weeks rehearsal for such a small film was quite a luxury. I had quite a lot because I had a big number. Our choreographer was incredible. She wanted it to feel natural, so she was always like, “If it feels weird, tell me and we’ll change it.”

MCDERMOTT: I read that collectively your favorite scene was “Dancing with Cassie.”

ALEXANDER: Yes! That’s what I said. Did you say that?

MURRAY: Yeah. That was the biggest musical extravaganza.

BROWNING: That was really fun to film. I don’t know what my favorite scene is though. I’m quite a big fan of the sperm scientist scene.

MURRAY: I like the canoeing as well. 

ALEXANDER: We had canoeing rehearsal and jumped into the loch!

MURRAY: We had this day where we went to the cliffs. It was beautiful. There was a pier and at the end of the day he was like, “You have to run and jump into the loch.”

BROWNING: But I didn’t. As soon as someone says something like that, I’m like, “No.”

MURRAY: And then he was like, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Emily.” [laughs]

BROWNING: And I was like, “No it’s not. It’s water. I can do it whenever I want.” [all laugh] You know how we were talking about Girls Season Three? The episode where Shoshanna and Adam go on a hike? She sits down and is like, “I actually feel really comfortable in choosing not to do this.” That’s me. I can honestly say I don’t regret it for a second. [laughs]

MCDERMOTT: What are some of the struggles you had to overcome for this film?

MURRAY: I had some big bicycle struggles. I couldn’t ride a bike before this movie, and I didn’t want to tell anyone because I thought they would take the part away from me, so I paid this guy 100 pounds to teach me how to ride a bike. [laughs] That went really well. Then I turned up and the vintage tandem was such a challenge. I’d get on the bike and wobble around for a bit. I think everyone thought it was me, whereas I thought it was the bike.

BROWNING: It was funny because I used to ride a bike all the time, but I can’t really swim and Hannah is quite a good swimmer. In the script Hannah is riding a bike all the time and I have to swim like a torpedo. You did a lot better on the bike than I did swimming… and Olly had no struggles. [laughs]

ALEXANDER: I can’t play guitar well at all, so I had to learn that. [pauses] I was worried that I was going to be really terrible in the movie, but I wouldn’t describe any part of the process as a struggle. I was having too much fun.

MCDERMOTT: What’s one moment that you all look back on as a highlight of the experience?

MURRAY: One thing I really remember is the scene in the movie that is me and Emily talking about our boobs. That wasn’t in the script. Stuart had written this very long screenplay because he had so many ideas. They explained to him that you can’t shoot limitless amounts of material, so he emailed us the night before and was like, “Guys, it’s not on the schedule but we’re gonna do it anyway.” It was this weird secret we had on set. I think it was only us, Stuart and Barry [Mendel], the producer, that knew this was happening. We did one shot, one take, and it’s in the film. I had never worked like that before. That was really something special.

ALEXANDER: I just really liked the Mexican food. [all laugh] I have a lot of food memories. We were so busy—we were shooting pretty much every day—but for some reason I managed to go to a lot of restaurants. I went out and did quite a lot. I never do that when I’m filming.

BROWNING: But also when we were working it didn’t really feel like we were working. Do you remember when we went to Stuart’s apartment and we had the Bowie sing-along?

MURRAY: We’d been rehearsing and Stuart was like, “Let’s just do a song for fun,” and we had a “Starman” sing-along. That’s when I was like, “This is the most special job in the world.”

MCDERMOTT: Some songs were recorded on an album prior to the film. Were you familiar with any of them?

ALEXANDER: I didn’t know any of them.

BROWNING: I listened to it a bit once I got the part and then had to stop myself because I knew that Stuart didn’t want to replicate it exactly. It would have been too much pressure if I got too familiar with those songs.

MURRAY: I remember in my first audition he gave me the CD, but I didn’t know if I was going to get the part. I listened to it once and loved it, but was like, “If you keep listening to this and you don’t get it, it’s going to break your heart, so stop.”

BROWNING: I feel like I knew “Come Monday Night” really well. I don’t know why that’s separate from the rest of the album, but I knew that song really, really well. That’s the one I always find myself singing.

MCDERMOTT: That song stands out so much. I find myself humming it all the time. So what are you all working on now?

MURRAY: I’m doing Game of Thrones Series Five.

BROWNING: I just finished a film and now I’m unemployed, or as my friend says, “fun-employed,” which means I’m supposed to just drink a lot. I don’t want to take a break though. I was working in London for three months, I’ve only had a week off, and I’m already like, “What can I do next?”

ALEXANDER: I’m just doing stuff with my band. We’ve been doing a bit of a tour over the summer with festivals in the UK and Europe and trying to finish the album. We’re supporting Clean Bandit and Sam Smith in the autumn.

MCDERMOTT: Is there anything memorable that Stuart said or did that will stick with you?

ALEXANDER: I have so much respect for Stuart because he has a lot of trust in his own vision. The film is so unique. I think a lot of people are like, “This film is crazy. Why are you making this film?” But Stuart is like, “This is a film I want to make. I’m going to make it.” I think we can all learn a lot from that. It’s really brave.

BROWNING: We were also Kickstarter funded, so it meant he had the freedom to actually make what he wanted. He didn’t have people looking over his shoulder saying, “What are you doing with our money?” He didn’t seem like he was ever questioning his own decisions, which is admirable.

MURRAY: Sometimes when you think about someone making something that’s so purely their own vision, you think they’re going to be a dictator or not have respect for the people they’re working with. What I found so incredible was how generous and kind Stuart was to everyone. He was really open to everyone’s ideas and made everyone feel like they were a genius. The way he talked to every member of the crew was like, “You’re so amazing. You’re so talented at your job. I’m so lucky to have you here.” But at the same time, you could see he was able to do that and still do everything he wanted to do. I also feel like Barry was such a little cheerleader for the project. Sometimes you think of producers being scary money people, but he was dancing during the musical acts. I’ve never worked on a job where every single person seemed so behind it and wanted to give everything.

GOD HELP THE GIRL COMES OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE ON FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 5.