In 2003, indie rock singer Stuart Murdoch, of Belle and Sebastian, thought it might take him a year or so to write a screenplay about a sad 18-year-old girl who comes alive thanks to her love of music. He got the idea for the story after he wrote several songs from the voice of a character he called Eve.
On Saturday, Jan. 18, more than a decade later, Murdoch will premiere his musical film, “God Help the Girl,” at the Sundance Film Festival.
The film is about two girls and a boy who are British expats during “a better summer, or at least a summer where something happens,” and that something is music, Murdoch says in notes for the film.
“God Help the Girl” is set against the backdrop of the thriving music scene of Murdoch’s hometown of Glasgow, Scotland. That was partly a matter of convenience, he said in a phone interview after a recording session for his band, which he referred to as “his other job.”
Most of the locations were within a mile of where the singer lives. The film was shot on such a short schedule that it was easier for the cast and crew to walk and push a trolley around Glasglow’s West End neighborhood than to transfer locations, he says.
And the film offers a snapshot of a town that grew during the industrial era and has become a center for folk and rock music. “We’re not much good at other things, sports, or outdoor pursuits, because it rains so much,” Murdoch says. “We like music and performing.”
Murdoch refers to musicals such as “Grease,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” or even “The Sound of Music” as inspirations for his musical film. Another gentle, quiet film that might be a more obvious comparison is “Once,” the story of a scruffy Irish street busker and a girl he meets on the street, played by Glen Hansard, of the Irish band The Frames, and Markéta Irglová, that screened at Sundance in 2006 and went on to become a film, then Broadway musical, sensation. There’s a simple reason Murdoch isn’t quick to compare his film to “Once,” as he chose not to see it until after his film premieres.
Instead, he refers to being dragged to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” as a 12-year-old and liking the way the story was punctuated by musical moments. That was easier to accept than the more recent “Dreamgirls.” Although it was beautifully produced and staged, he felt it had a fatal flaw in terms of winning over the audience: the decision not to feature a character singing until about 30 minutes in. Seeing the audience’s cynical response to that song taught Murdoch something simple: “My girl is going to come out singing, and the people who don’t want to be there should leave then.”
How do you describe the plot of the film to Belle and Sebastian music fans? Is there a difference in the way you describe the film to others?
Belle and Sebastian fans tend to get where I’m coming from. If I were speaking to my mother, I would say, “Well, it’s about a girl who’s in a psychiatric hospital who clings onto music as a way of getting better.”
When the song “God Help the Girl”first popped into your head, how did you envision the Eve character?
At first, and for the longest time, she was quite a chattery figure. She was like a sprite, like an elf of a girl, or something. I did have a dream where somebody came onstage with Belle and Sebastian; I had forgotten some of the words, as usual. And I saw a dynamic little character who sort of came and went, who you didn’t have any control over. And she was pure music.
Pure music? What do you mean by that?
I’ve written a new song that’s called “The Everlasting Muse,” and I think it is perhaps a song about Eve. I’ve kind of let Eve go with the film, which is a little bit sad for me. I think she lasts as a shadow or something. I think she was my muse in the most spiritual sense.
What is different about the songs for the film rather than for your band?
The principal difference is that they are sung by other people, other than me. When I got the idea for the first song I thought for once this isn’t me singing. I didn’t grab it for Belle and Sebastian and pretend I was an 18-year-old-girl. After I got the second song, I thought that seems to be the same person singing, and I had an idea for the character, and then the idea for the film.
What did you learn about musicals to make your musical film?
I need a little dose of narrative to go with my music. I love it when music just comes along and heightens the film. It’s always going to be tricky in making a modern musical to set the tone for people to accept the actors singing out of the screen to them. I don’t know whether we managed to do it. We won’t know until an audience sees it.
What should people know before they see “God Help the Girl”?
It’s gentle. Don’t be expecting to come along and laugh every 30 seconds.
‘God Help the Girl’ screenings
The movie, written by Stuart Murdoch of the indie pop band Belle and Sebastian, is set amid the indie music scene of Glasglow, Scotland, and plays in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition.
Saturday, 6 p.m. • Egyptian Theatre, Park City
Sunday, 8:30 a.m. • Prospector Square Theatre, Park City
Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Centers, Salt Lake City
Thursday, 5:30 p.m. • The MARC, Park City
Friday, Jan. 24, 4 p.m. • Holiday Village Cinema 4, Park City
Also • Stuart Murdoch’s band, Belle and Sebastian, who assisted in making the film, will play a concert Monday, Jan. 20, at 9:30 p.m. at the Sundance Music Cafe, (Rich Haines Gallery) 751 Main St., Park City, to support the film. One hundred pairs of tickets are available at firstname.lastname@example.org.