Talking 'God Help the Girl' with Emily Browning and Olly Alexander
The two leads in the new musical from Stuart Murdoch, frontman for popular Scottish group Belle & Sebastian, could hardly have been more excited to headline Murdoch’s feature debut, God Help the Girl. “Obviously I was like, I want to be in it. Let me be in it, please,” remembers Olly Alexander, who plays James in the film. “I read it and was like yes, yes, obviously yes! I mean, of course,” Emily Browning, or the movie’s heroine, Eve, also recalled with enthusiasm.
As the story goes, Murdoch was out for a run in 2003 when inspiration struck. He quickly produced the pad and pencil he always carries about, and scribbled a tune. It wasn’t right for Belle & Sebastian, he decided, but it could serve a new, different project. More songs followed, as did a trio of characters: Eve, James and Cassie. Three years later, after touring with Belle & Sebastian, Murdoch set to work. He began to write the screenplay for God Help the Girl.
He also posted an open call in a UK music publication: “Girl singers needed for autumnal recording project. Must have a way with a tune. Celine Dion wannabes, save your breath. Ballpark, Ronettes, Friend and Lover, Twinkle. Phone Neil: 0141 227 2751.”
The “autumnal recording project” would become God Help the Girl the group, Murdoch’s musical side-project. Several more years passed, after which Murdoch decided to heighten the call, posting his ad online. This version included a brief mention of his directorial hopes, and, fortuitously, caught the eye of successful Hollywood producer Barry Mendel (Bridesmaids). Mendel sent Murdoch a fan letter that included an offer to help the musician realize his cinematic aspirations. Murdoch quickly responded, and the two began their collaboration just as Murdoch was selecting his female vocalists for God Help the Girl the group, and then recording an album. When it finally came time to cast God Help the Girl the film, the process would take over two years.
“The project was floating around the acting world for a couple of years, and I had already heard about it,” recalls Alexander. “And a friend I was living with was auditioning for it, and a couple of other people were auditioning for it, and everyone was talking about the Belle & Sebastian movie, about how cool it was. And I just remember thinking, ‘Ah, shit, I wish I had an audition for that movie.’ And my agent was like, ‘You’re too young, you’re not right for it.’”
Browning initially met with similar disappointment. “I wanted to be a part of the film automatically just because I’m a really big fan of Belle & Sebastian and of Stuart. I read kind of like a breakdown of the character, and obviously read the scenes for the audition, so I had an idea of Stuart’s style of writing and I had an idea of the character. And I just kind of loved it straightaway. And then, I put an audition on tape, and didn’t hear anything back for like a year. And I was like, ‘It’s gone, it’s not mine.’ I was really sad about it. Every time someone would bring that film up, I’d be like, ‘Ah, such a bummer, should have been me.’”
Happily if however frustrating in the moment, the drawn-out casting process eventually concluded in Alexander and Browning’s favor. More time passed, rendering the objection of Alexander’s agent, that the actor was too young for the role, increasingly moot. Alexander continues, “And then a couple of years passed, and my agent said, ‘Oh, do you remember that movie? They’re still looking for actors. Do you want to audition?’ And I said yes, of course. Obviously.”
After Alexander had been cast, the pieces fell into place in a manner that seemed to Browning quite “all of a sudden.” A year after her initial audition, Browning heard from the filmmakers. “It was like, ‘they’re starting filming in two weeks and Stuart wants to see you again. He’s just watched your tape again and he wants you to audition over Skype with Olly...’ And I met him over Skype and we had a discussion over the phone, and I was like, ‘God, I want to do this. These people seem awesome.’ And then I got a weird email from him that was like, ‘Here’s the script. Let us know if you’re interested.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean? Obviously I’m interested, you fool!’ And I kind of didn’t know if that meant I had the part.”
Despite the uncertainty of its beginnings, which included the trouble Murdoch and Mendel encountered in their quest to finance the project (to be overcome with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign), God Help the Girl was, by all accounts, as buoyant a set as the resulting film. Girl centers about not only Eve and James, but their friend Cassie, played by “Game of Thrones” and “Skins” star Hannah Murray. Our protagonist Eve is a troubled talent who seeks solace in songwriting. New roommate James falls for her, and Cassie, whom James privately tutors in music, is also drawn in. The three form a pop group, flitting about Glasgow and coming-of-age to an eminently singable score.
“We were a little gang. We were kind of inseparable the whole time,” says Browning. “We were living in the same apartment building, so we would hang out pretty much every night after work” in an atmosphere that was “like summer camp, kind of.” Though Murdoch asked his young cast to watch certain films for inspiration, including Dazed and Confused, Harold and Maude, and Blow Up, the girls supplemented with their own viewings. Says Browning, “Weirdly, I didn’t watch that many musicals. I remember watching Spice World with Hannah, but that wasn’t really for research. We just had a weekend where we felt like watching Spice World, I suppose.”
Alexander and Murray also bonded, and continued to have occasion to do so after filming on Girl wrapped. The two worked together on the BBC teen soap “Skins,” which, though it was shot after God Help the Girl, premiered first, in 2013. “I’ve known Hannah, she’s just been a friend for years,” explains Alexander. Filming “Skins” was “totally different” than filming God Help the Girl, he remembers, and not simply because the two were no longer playing best buds but rather stalker (Alexander) and victim (Murray). “It was rainy and cold. We shot in Manchester. Everyone was like a bit sad, and it was just such a different vibe, ‘cause God Help the Girl was like happy and joyful.”
And, largely to thanks to director Stuart, whose attitude Alexander describes as “filter[ing] down through the whole crew and the cast,” very calm. “Kind of amazingly calm,” offers Browning. “He came to us in the rehearsal period and was like, ‘You know, I’ve never done this before. You guys have made a bunch of films, and I’ve never made a film, so you might need to help me out a bit.’ But we didn’t need to help him out at all.”
On the contrary, both actors sought advice from their director. While this might seem to be the natural order of things on a film set, the experience was particularly heightened for fans Alexander and Browning. Like Murdoch, Alexander is a songwriter and the head of a band, Years & Years. “I definitely tried to pick his brain a bunch of times… We didn’t ever really sit down though and discuss it. I felt maybe too embarrassed to ask him, too star struck. But I think just by being around him, and seeing how he works had quite an impact on me.”
Though Browning is not a songwriter herself (“No, I’ve tried. I failed. It’s not really in me. I think I overthink things too much.”) she found herself also in awe of her musician director. “It’s such a weird combination of like, well, this is now my director and my co-worker, but I’m also a massive fan of this person for totally different reasons. It was very, very intimidating at first, but he was really, like I said, quite calm and easy about it, and happy to kind of roll with the quirks of my voice or little moments I couldn’t quite get. He was like, ‘I love it, I like when it sounds natural and real.’ So it was pretty comfortable pretty quickly, I think.”
It helped that Browning respected the role Murdoch had written. “I think he understands the female brain in a way a lot of other dudes probably don’t,” she says after calling his Eve “a real female character that seemed like an actual human being.” She recites certain lyrics that resonated with her: “If he gave me a sign, I’d think about it for a week. I’d build it up, and then I’d turn him down,” and, “I sit for hours just waiting for his phone call. Please stop me there, I’m even boring myself.” Says the actress, “I get that.”
Browning, the most well-known player in the cast, has previously turned down projects that featured characters with which she was far less enamored. She understands the need to occasionally accept the big-budget role and cash its correspondingly big paycheck, saying, “There are moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve done 10 indies in a row, I should do a big-budget film so I can actually pay my rent. That would be good.’ ” But even at her most pragmatic, she is discerning.
“To be honest, at the time I was just feeling like I wanted a little break,” Browning recalls of her decision to turn down an audition for Twilight. “But also, the idea of doing a huge franchise… I don’t think anyone knew quite how big Twilight was going to be, at first, but I knew it was going to be a big thing. And it just didn’t appeal to me. I just found the character quite boring and a little bit offensive as well. I started reading it, and was like, I mean, I get this. And it’s something I would have loved as a teenager, probably, but looking at it as an adult, I was kind of like, ‘What’s she doing? What? She has nothing to say. She’s a little boring.’ It wasn’t my bag, really.”
Today, Browning says she no longer likes to take breaks from acting, but would rather “be working constantly.” Alexander has taken a similar sentiment to heart, having touched down in New York City for a few brief days only, before his international tour with Years & Years kicks off in earnest. The musician, actor and aspiring writer, who previously contributed to the script for the Greta Gerwig-starrer The Dish and The Spoon and the upcoming Funny Bunny, expresses a desire to hone his multi-hyphenate skills. “I would love to write a feature,” he says excitedly. “I’m really just aware of how difficult that will be, and I feel like it’s a lot of work, and I want to make sure I have the right story and the right thing.” It seems his experience with the long-gestating God Help the Girl may have affected his outlook. “I just want to make sure it’s, like, perfect. I better start now,” he laughs, “and then in 15 years’ time, it’ll get made.”