Q&A Special: The Making of Local Hero | Film reviews, news & interviews
Q&A Special: The Making of Local Hero
Writer-director Bill Forsyth and stars Denis Lawson and Peter Riegert recall a great film's birth 30 years ago
Local Hero was released 30 years ago this weekend. No British film from the Eighties can lay claim to quite such lasting and deep-seated affection as Bill Forsyth’s modest masterpiece – not even Chariots of Fire, which was David Puttnam’s previous triumph as a producer. Though not a great commercial success at first – it had a limited release in America – it went on to bloom on VHS and DVD. It also has an asteroid named after it (the 7345 Happer, for the record).
The film was brought back into the light all over again a few years ago when Donald Trump’s plan to plant a golfing resort on a pristine strip of Aberdonian coastline hit a glitch. In Forsyth’s film, a Texan oil company’s attempt to buy up a whole Scottish village is thwarted by a lone white-haired beachcomber (played by Fulton Mackay). Sadly Trump did not turn out to be as human as Burt Lancaster’s Felix Happer and the result is there for all to see in You’ve Been Trumped.
Half of the film was shot just up the road in the tiny port of Pennan - nowadays known, according to undiscoveredscotland.co.uk, as the home of “Scotland’s most famous phone box”. The other half was filmed on the west coast around Arisaig. The result is of this bi-coastal shoot that the village in Local Hero is a geological impossibility.
All I knew about Houston was how to pronounce it
I first saw Local Hero as a school-leaver in 1983, and it has been in residence in my cerebral cortex ever since, alongside Mark Knopfler’s bitter-sweet acoustic theme. On initial viewing it seemed merely a comic gem. The joke was that the village hicks, led by local fixer Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), are far cannier than they appear to Macintyre (Peter Riegert), a cocksure emissary from Knox Oil in Houston sent to negotiate the purchase of the village and its coastline. The older you get, the more it looks like the bleakest Nordic tragedy: having fallen in love with this bucolic paradise, the incomer is brutally expelled from Eden back to the snazzy all-American inferno of skyscrapers and tailbacks, with only sea shells and snapshots as mementoes.
In recent years its environmental credentials have crystallised into what now looks like a timely sermon about our over-reliance on oil. Knox Oil mogul Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) choppers in like a deus ex machina to close the deal, only to come up against old Ben, the wise man of the beach who persuades him to switch from oil to astronomy. (Pictured right, Lancaster standing on set with Fulton Mackay; in front from left, Peter Capaldi, Peter Riegert and Christopher Rozycki.)
It was in Gregory’s Girl, his no-budget comedy about teenage angst, that Forsyth first paraded a taste for off-beat whimsy. (Previously he had made his living in documentaries.) In Local Hero he quietly folded that quirky voice into a capacious narrative about sea and sky (hence the two main female characters named Marina and Stella) but also the tectonic plates of the Cold War. By night the northern lights twinkle benignly in a sky which daily swarms with NATO test-jets, while the ancient waters yield lobsters, embargoed South African oranges and a hearty trawlerman from Murmansk, who boats in to sing at the ceilídh and check on his investment portfolio. This colourful character was no fanciful invention. Ditto the plot’s other fish out of water, the parish’s West African vicar.
Local Hero’s success brought Forsyth the chance to make three movies in America. He returned disillusioned and since Gregory’s Two Girls (1999) hasn’t shot a frame. But along with Peter Riegert and Denis Lawson, the film’s two male leads, he blows out the candles with theartsdesk.
Watch the US trailer to Local Hero
Could you shed some light on the plot’s genesis? In the DVD extras you talk about how the Orkneys had done a deal with an oil company similar to the one you portray in the film.
It was quite key to the inspiration. It was the chief executive of the Orkney council who negotiated a really really great deal for the whole community when they were developing the oil terminal. It wasn’t just one company. They were negotiating for this oil terminal which they were all going to use and so he realised that he had quite a strong position and he just did incredible things which hadn’t been done before. Got the community a cut of the revenue and social things like take care of libraries and community centres. It was the scenario where a small community made the best use of the power that it had.
There were examples of small communities which had become en masse wealthy. Pig farmers would be driving about in Jensens
The film skirts over the negotiating situation because that was one thing I didn’t know anything about and didn’t care to research too much. I remember thinking, what they hell can they say to each other? But I had spent the previous 10 years making documentaries all over Scotland so had a fairly good feel for the Highlands and Scottish communities and the economic mechanisms that were at work. I was actually pooling a lot of information. One thing we were always trying to counter in these films was that if you weren’t city-based then you were slightly inferior. That wasn’t the reality. Most of the people you encounter from the Highlands – there were a lot of people who worked at sea and you would find people from the outer islands who were broadly travelled and very sophisticated. It was to counter all of that. That’s what Gordon’s character was all about.
How much did you know about Houston before you started writing?
All I knew about Houston was how to pronounce it. I didn’t know anything about the city and how it functioned. I suppose it was in the news in those days. Because of the oil boom and oil companies were coming to Scotland and were in the headlines, I vaguely knew that was one of the bases of the American oil industry. I didn’t research it. I’m not very good at research. I remember somebody once said if you’re making a fictional film about any particular aspect like a business or a way of life all you need is two real facts. You can make up the rest. As much as anyone else I had a vague idea of what an oil executive would be and how he would function. Macintyre is an everyman executive. It’s the idea of people losing their personalities in the glass tower of work. At that time they were in the air - all these questions about how are we conducting our lives: are we losing a sense of ourselves?
So how did you embark on solidifying that idea into a commissioned film?
The deal came before the plot. David Puttnam came to me and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing next but if you can find an idea in Scotland that would involve one or two American characters so we could have a couple of Yanks in it then I could finance it.” Warner had a pick-up deal for anything he was making. I went away and because of the fact that I knew Scotland well and about the oil business I came back with that idea fairly quickly. It was a no-brainer having American oil men in Scotland. I had to write a two- or three-page treatment. I invoked the Beverly Hillbillies. This is boomtown Scotland. At that time there were examples of small communities which had become en masse wealthy. Pig farmers would be driving about in Jensens. I remember a joke at the time. This farmer has got a brand new Rolls Royce and phones up and says, “I can’t get any more than 40 mph out of this.” “What gear are you in?” “I’m just in my dungarees and Wellingtons.”
Overleaf: "Burt Lancaster didn’t have a lot of small talk, which suited me fine"
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
theartsdesk recommends the half-dozen top films out now
They are undoubtedly seven, but are they magnificent?
Two film noirs showcase the impeccable coolness of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake
Poignancy of friendship explored in sensitive new film from Ira Sachs
Bestselling book reborn as underpowered movie
Five films from the great German director offer insights into his inconsistency
Inept, patronising Highland romcom from debut writer/director Talulah Riley
Unforgiving dissection of the consequences of Argentina's dictatorship chills
A frustratingly timid return to the found-footage woods
Intimate portrait of a Hollywood diva fills in the darkest shadows
Renée Zellweger and Colin Firth star in a sparkling return to form for the franchise
Inhuman employment's human cost is weighed in a French prize-winner