Emily Browning’s turn in the film musical God Help the Girl was a charming surprise at the recent Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. The ever-daring Aussie actress, who bared all for the cameras in Sleeping Beauty, was up for the challenge of bursting into song at pivotal moments in the British musical, which marks the directing debut of Stuart Murdoch, the singer and driving force behind the cult Scottish indie pop band Belle and Sebastian.
“It was an interesting experience,” admits Browning, a petite cherub-faced 25-year-old acting powerhouse, who already has enjoyed Hollywood leading roles in the likes of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch and soon will be seen alongside Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington in Pompeii. “I’d never really done a musical before. I’m not a trained singer. It’s an odd transition for me to be singing in front of a bunch of people, but what made it easy was having Stuart and the band there. We had a lot of time to rehearse the songs together.”
An ode to summer in Glasgow—Murdoch, now 45, moved to the city from Ayr to attend university in his youth—the film has underlying serious concerns. It follows Browning’s depressive Eve as she decides to heal herself by pursuing a singing career rather than spending any more time in a hospital bed. Olly Alexander from Jane Campion’s Bright Star (and the singer of his own band Years & Years) plays an adoring gawky guitarist who helps her try to keep it together. He falls for her, of course.
“I think music is absolutely therapeutic,” Murdoch says of his film’s theme. “To paraphrase Morrissey, it saved my life several times. As a writer, where else you can you go if you can’t write something that you believe to be true? In the movie, the barometer of Eve’s moods is the music.”
Murdoch came up with the story in 2005. “I’d been at it quite a while,” he explains. “I’d started writing songs and then would fit the story around the songs. I didn’t have any control over it; it just kept coming and coming.”
Although Belle and Sebastian initially released God Help the Girl as an album in 2009, Murdoch insists it was always going to be a film.
“I didn’t want to do them both at the same time or I’d have a heart attack!” he recalls in his cute brogue. “So we recorded the album first because the songs were ready. It seemed to people like a concept album and they probably thought, ‘This guy’s never going to make a film’,” he chuckles at the memory. “But the producer and I were determined,” he says referring to Barry Mendel, who had a proven track record with Wes Anderson movies including Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums and more recently the smash hit Bridesmaids.
They cast the net wide to find their leading actress who would dominate the film, often in luminous close-up.
“We saw 1500 people, we did some casting online and everyone sent in auditions with singing and we eventually cast Emily because she was terrific,” explains Murdoch. He hadn’t seen any of Browning’s movies, though watched Sleeping Beauty before her screen test. “Emily’s complete engagement with that role was something I was interested in because I think Eve is a force of nature. I then heard Emily sing a song by The Smiths called ‘Asleep’ in Sucker Punch and she did a good version of that.”
There was also something about Browning’s wild child demeanour that appealed to him. (She became close friends with the colourful Juno Temple when they acted together in Sebastián Silva’s Magic Magic and the two women could be seen as two peas in a colourful pod.)
“Emily’s a child of the world and you never know which time,” Murdoch says with a chuckle. “I mean, in real life she doesn’t live anywhere; she just pops up in places. She travels a lot and she never returns your emails. It kind of appealed to me because Eve in the film is quite hard to pin down.”
When Browning bowls in late to the Sundance press proceedings wearing high heeled silver boots, she is vivacious and excited. She explains how she had arrived in town the previous night alone and had eaten dinner from a vending machine. She’s proud of her new movie. She enjoyed her time in Glasgow, which she likens to her hometown of Melbourne.
“The character I play came to Stuart in a dream and he started writing songs for this girl,” she says of Murdoch, who in many ways seems like a kindred spirit and gave her the confidence to sing. “I’d like to pursue it in the future,” she admits. “I don’t know how that’s going to happen—I don’t think I’ll be bringing out an album anytime soon—but it made me realise how much I love it.”
I tell her how her first-time director was happy to have someone with her acting experience to teach him a thing or two.
“Oh God, I don’t know if I taught Stuart anything,” Browning responds. “If anything, it was a very different experience for me. Obviously, there was a shooting schedule, but we’d grab a lot of things from old drafts of the script and just film on the fly.”
“People have different reasons for writing and I write to escape, whether its songs or films,” Murdoch explains. “With God Help the Girl, I wanted to create the summer I never had when I was a youth, so it’s slightly pathetic. If you’re going to be this long with a project you might as well write about something in your head. It goes back to the first six months when the members of our band got together to do music in Glasgow. It was like having a seven-way romance; it was really powerful stuff and I wanted to get a little bit of that feeling in the film.”
Ultimately, God Help the Girl was an adventure. “Everything’s shot within a mile of my house because we didn’t have much money and had to make it quick.”
The film was well received in Sundance and won the festival’s Special Jury Prize. When it releases in Australia, Murdoch says he’s likely to let Browning do the promotion here, though he’s keen to come back with his band. (Formed in Glasgow in 1996, Belle and Sebastian won the Brit award for best new band after a public vote in 1999 and in 2005 were voted Scotland’s greatest band in a poll by The List magazine.)
“We were talking about Australia a couple of days ago as we were planning our tours. I said, ‘Just as long as we go somewhere warm in the winter’. That’s why I always love to come to Australia.
“We’ve actually been to Australia three times performing and the last time, in 2011, we played at the Sydney Opera House and I don’t mean to brag, but that’s practically my favourite concert ever. It’s an amazing room and it sounds better than any other place we’ve played.”
Watch 'God Help the Girl'
Monday 11 May, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Drama, Romance, Musical
Director: Stuart Murdoch
Starring: Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger
What's it about?
Life has never been easy for Eve (Browning), but this troubled young girl has a talent and songwriting becomes her way forward. Through her passion for music, she's led to Glasgow where she meets James (Alexander) and Cassie (Murray), two kindred spirits each at a crossroads of their own. Together they storm the city's music scene as their lives and lyric intertwine. What follows is a toe-tapping, heart-warming story of renaissance, friendship and romance over a long, dream-like summer.