By Danny Peary
God Help the Girl fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. In fact, the debut feature by Stuart Murdoch, lead singer of the Scottish cult band Belle & Sebastian, would surely attract young people to the Bay Street Theater for a change. Meanwhile, people of all ages can see it beginning Friday in Manhattan, where it opens at the Village East at 189 2nd Ave and 12th Street, and in L.A. It also has its DVD release that day. It’s the kind of musical where singers burst into song and dance even when they’re not performing. If you like Murdoch’s songs–which were introduced by singers he recruited for a 2009 “God Help the Girl” album and tour–and cheery performances, as I do, Glasgow, and the candy-colored cinematography, then you might agree the film can be infectious. From the Press Notes: “When we first meet [Australian] Eve (Australian Emily Browning, from Sucker Punch and the scandalous Sleeping Beauty), she is in a bad place, fighting depression, not eating, and a long way from home. In the hospital she begins to write; songs begin to materialize, and they become her purpose, a path forward. James (Olly Anderson, from The Dish and the Spoon and Le Week-End) and his music student Cassie (Hannah Murray, from Skins and Game of Thrones) are English emigrants at a crossroads of their own. James hasn’t found the right collaborators and Cassie is only beginning to stir, feeling the first inklings to write, play, and sing. The three ex-pats converge and form a friendship through music. With James as guide, they tour the town. Songs continue to pour out of Eve, and the three become serious about playing together. The question is: will music be enough to pull Eve through? Will she sink or emerge as the singing, songwriting leader of their honest to goodness new band?” And what will happen to them if they find success?
Last week, I did this brief interview with Browning about what she claims is the favorite film of her career.
Danny Peary: How often do you go back to Australia?
Emily Browning: Not as much as I would like to. I live in L.A. and I get to go back only about one month every year, over Christmas. I’m from Melbourne and miss it a lot so I would like to work there more. There just haven’t been that many opportunities recently.
DP: I was surprised to learn that not only do you know the movie Band of Outsiders  but even know the French title, Bande à Part. Not too many young actresses speak about Godard classics, so obviously you watch old movies.
EB: Yeah, I went through a big phase. It began from a very shallow place. I didn’t go to film school so it didn’t start there but from an obsession I had with Jean Seberg. I was like, “I have to see all her movies!” And then I moved on to Anna Karina [the star of Band of Outsiders].
DP: In your noncomedies, you’ve played women who are trapped or passive, and there has been an escape theme–Sleeping Beauty, Sucker Punch, now God Help the Girl, and soon, Shangri-La Suite, in which you play at least your third character who breaks out of a mental hospital.
EB: That’s right! But I don’t think I specifically seek out these roles. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to try and pigeon-hole yourself, but there are certain characters that I connect to, I suppose. Also there are also a lot of films that I want to be a part of that I am not able to be a part of because someone else has been chosen for them. I guess it’s what people see in me, as well. I read a script and I connect to a character and I guess I generally gravitate toward girls and women who seem like real people, and Eve seems like a real person to me. I like that she’s kind of selfish and awful sometimes!
DP: I was looking at the production notes in which your producer, Barry Mendel says, “I’m not expecting people to get it right away. Too many layers of subtlety are packed densely into the lyrics and songs which fly by… Hopefully it’ll be appreciated in a way that’s satisfying in ten years.” I’m sure you hope that there is a feel to the movie and to the music and lyrics that will make people relate to the film right now.
EB: I remember Stuart and Barry both saying, “We don’t care what people think about the movie today! It’ll be a cult film in ten years!” But it seemed sort of like a self-preservation technique. I’m like, “Well, it’d be nice if people liked it now, too.” That would be great.
DP: You don’t want to wait ten years.
EB: To be honest, I actually don’t care. It got reviewed badly in Scotland. Normally something like that would bother me, but with this film, I don’t really give a shit what people think. I love it. And it has never happened to me before where I’ve genuinely loved a film that I’ve made and I want to keep watching it, which is really strange and not something I would normally say. But it was such a perfect experience making it, and no one can touch that.
DP: While making certain films, actors say, “This is what filmmaking should be all about, every film should be made in this same way.”
EB: Yeah, it didn’t feel like we were making a film, really–it felt like summer camp. There was so much creative freedom. The fact that it was rushed and that we didn’t have much money just made it better in a strange way. It was like, “Quick, we have to run over to the other side of town before the sun sets!” It’s kind of amazing to do that, it’s when you feel that you’re really lucky to be doing the job that you’re doing.
DP: Did everybody have to get along for this movie to work?
EB: I’m not sure. I generally get along with people and haven’t had many experiences where I don’t like the people I’m working with. But I’ve worked with a couple of people I wasn’t very fond of, and found you can always make it work, I think. People say you can’t fake chemistry but I think you can to a certain degree.
DP: Yes, but this movie is kind of infectious, and that comes from the actors as much as the material. If it turned out you hated each other, I’d be shocked.
EB: Right, yeah, I think there is a special kind of energy that comes from the fact that we all really loved each other. We still do. I’m going to be ridiculously sad tomorrow because it’s the last thing we’ll get to do together, and that’s a bummer. We were all really on the same page. Hannah and I knew each other before, actually, but she and Olly met me on the train to Glasgow, and we realized very quickly that we were all just as nervous and just as excited as one another because we were all huge Belle & Sebastian fans. I think it really helped that we all understood that world already, because it’s such a specific aesthetic that Stuart has created just with the album covers. It’s a very specific kind of world and I think we all got it straight away.
DP: What about his lyrics? Obviously the title song has relevance to Eve, but what about the other songs? Were you thinking that Eve’s singing autobiographical songs?
EB: Yeah, I think so. There’s a moment where she’s in bed with Anton [Pierre Boulanger as the rock singer she is attracted to] and he admits that he didn’t give her tape to the radio producers because he thinks her songs are baby songs and stupid. What I love about some Belle & Sebastian songs and some of the songs in the film as well is that on the surface they might seem to be just cute little pop tunes, but if you pay attention to the lyrics, you’ll find that sometimes they’re dark and sad. It made sense to me.
DP: On the title track, which has such funny lyrics as “I love my room,” Eve is singing happily but if you listen closely she’s sad and lonely.
EB: I think Stuart writes from a female perspective really, really well. She’s talking about this boy in the song, and then she’s like, “Please, stop me there, I’m even boring myself. Stop it, you’re smarter than that.” I get that kind of struggle.
DP: Did you ever talk to Catherine Ireton about the role, because she sang Eve’s part on the “God Help the Girl” album and on the tour?
EB: No, I’ve never met her. I’d like to but I think I would have been too nervous at the time because her voice is so beautiful. Once I got the part I tried to ignore the album she was on and pretend that I was doing it the first time myself.
DP: Stuart loves the movie Stolen Kisses, by Godard’s contemporary, François Truffaut. He says it’s one of his benchmark movies. In that film, at the time one person loves a second person the second person loves someone else but when that second person finally comes around, the first person’s attentions are on a new person. Love is never in synch. In this film, James is attracted to Eve while she is attracted to Anton. Is there ever a time when Eve and Ollie could connect as a couple?
EB: I don’t know if James could really handle Eve, to be honest. But there’s a moment when she says, “The time for this was ages ago,” and he says, “Maybe I didn’t fancy you then,” and she’s like, “Yes, you did.”
SPOILER ALERT END
DP: I believe Eve followed some musician from Australia to Scotland, as a groupie, and he dumped her. Is that why she’s hospitalized and devastated when we meet her?
EB: No, I don’t think so. To be honest, my idea of Eve is that boys kind of will come and go but she’s not the kind of girl that’s pinning her hopes on anyone else. I think she’s got her own struggle and I don’t think it’s a big thing if that happened! It’s just her personality type. I guess it’s just mental illness to a mild degree.
DP: Music is what saves her. Her writing it and performing it.
EB: I think that’s what it does. But I think there are people who think too much, and analyze everything. I think she’s one of those people who is never going to feel settled or comfortable in their own skin. I think the music is where she finds peace. I don’t think anyone around her affects her as much. I think she’s self-absorbed in a way that a lot of people are, in a way that I totally understand being an actor. Bad things happen, good things happen, but at the end of the day you’re left with yourself–you’re your own biggest enemy.
DP: Her name is Eve, so do you think that’s because the film has a rebirth theme?
EB: I’ve never thought of that before…I don’t know. Perhaps!
DP: I watched an interview you did to promote Sleeping Beauty in which you said you’re not adventurous in the real world so you try to be adventurous in your movie choices.
EB: I remember that!
DP: Was making God Help the Girl adventurous enough?
EB: Definitely. Making a musical was a big challenge for me, and also there was so much improvisation, and that was something I’ve never really done before. I think that this might be my favorite film so far. This one and Sleeping Beauty are really my two favorites, and I like that they’re so different from each other.
DP: Where does this film fit into your master plan?
EB: I don’t have a master plan, I just kind of look for things that I’ll love. I get bored really easily and have a short attention span, so I just want to do films that will interest me…and keep me excited.