Author Jonathan Melville: My trip behind the scenes of classic movie Local Hero

Superfan Jonathan Melville takes an in-depth look at the legendary Scottish comedy-drama movie as it’s 40th anniversary approaches

By Jonathan Melville

“It’s not a high-concept movie, there’s actually no story there really. It’s what happens in between the story that’s important.” The words of filmmaker Bill Forsyth, spoken to me on a rainy night in Mallaig in 2013 after a screening of the then 30-year-old Local Hero, lodged in my mind and refused to budge.

Fast forward a decade and I’ve just finished writing a book examining the evolution of the concept that would go on to become one of Scotland’s best-loved exports, adored around the globe and with famous fans including Top Gun: Maverick producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The key word here is ‘evolution’, as the idea for the film that follows Texan oilman “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), sent to buy the Scottish village of Ferness so that it can be turned into an oil refinery, took various twists and turns that I felt deserved documenting as the 40th anniversary approaches.

It’s tricky to pinpoint a single moment that could be said to be the birth of Local Hero, though one could plump for a chance meeting between writer-director Bill Forsyth and David Puttnam, producer of the future Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, in a Soho tobacconist’s shop in 1980. The pair had first met a year earlier when Forsyth, fresh from the success of his first zero-budget Scottish film, That Sinking Feeling, tried to interest Puttnam in producing Gregory’s Girl, only for the producer to turn him down and leave the young Scot to find the funding himself.

When their paths crossed again, Puttnam had the kernel of an idea set against the backdrop of the Scottish oil industry, which had hit the headlines in the early ’70s when oil was found 100 miles northeast of Shetland’s capital, Lerwick. News of the deal secured by Shetland Islands Council, which ensured special funds were set up for the benefit of the area’s residents, sparked Puttnam’s interest. It led him to pitch the idea to Forsyth, who initially thought that a Scottish hotelier would be the local hero of the title, out-negotiating the oil company in a series of thrilling sequences. He soon jettisoned the thriller aspects, upped the comedy quotient, kept the title and focused on an American oil man.

Most fans are aware that Local Hero’s original ending was hastily reworked at the insistence of nervous studio executives who feared leaving audiences on a downbeat note. But it was only once I spoke to members of the cast and crew, starting with Forsyth in 2013, and read early drafts of the script that I realised how much wasn’t yet known.

Riegert explained just how much he wanted to secure the role over other contenders Michael Douglas and Henry Winkler. John Gordon-Sinclair (rogue motorcyclist Ricky) told how he and Peter Capaldi (Danny Oldsen) rehearsed beach landings between takes in the spring of 1982, fearful they’d be called up to fight in the Falklands War. I also heard how Chariots of Fire winning an Oscar led to skyrocketing fees for filming in empty fields.

Then there were the deleted scenes revealed in Forsyth’s hand-annotated early scripts, each one filmed and then discarded for time or logic reasons. With a longer sequence set in the mist after Mac and Danny hit poor Trudy, more discussion about mermaids than ended up in the finished film, an extremely dark moment on the beach, and Mac and Oldsen keeping their mission secret from the locals, there was  more to the film than I’d ever imagined.

There’s no single thing that makes Local Hero my favourite Scottish film, just a seemingly effortless blend of humour, casting and locations that, as the book hopefully shows, weren’t entirely effortless. Bill Forsyth doesn’t shy away from raising complex issues, pointing out the bad things happening around Mac and the villagers who are willing to see their livelihoods and homes destroyed in exchange for a few million pounds, but he does it in a way that isn’t heavy-handed and still leaves space for magical moments.

On a pilgrimage to Pennan [where the film was shot] earlier this year I was impressed by how little had changed, though there are now fewer residents and more holiday homes. Locals are proud of their place in film history, but they don’t fetishise the past and they’re happy to welcome surf enthusiasts and tourists as long as they’re allowed some space for themselves.

If it’s what happens between the story that’s important in Local Hero, then my hope is that this book will reveal what happened in between those moments to ensure a classic was made over the course of a few months in 1982. With any luck, fans will view the film with fresh eyes the next time they visit Ferness.

Local Hero: Making a Scottish Classic by Jonathan Melville

Local Hero: Making a Scottish Classic by Jonathan Melville is out now (Polaris, £17.99). You can buy from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

Source: Author Jonathan Melville: My trip behind the scenes of classic movie Local Hero – The Big Issue

Letters to The Hobbledehoy, October 2022

Aedan writes:

Hi there! Thanks so much for doing the research on “Long Time Sun” and posting your findings. I was told it was an old Celtic prayer, but the way I’ve heard it sung by the yoga people didn’t make much sense. I specialize in Celtic music on Celtic harp, and am glad to finally know it’s origin. Interestingly enough, like Mike Heron, I use it as a closer to performances. After listening to his rendition, like it much better than what I’ve heard. Thanks again!

Hi Aidan!
Thanks for visiting The Hobbledehoy. The post on “Long Time Sun” remains one of The Hobbledehoy’s most popular. Very big fans of Mr. Heron and the Incredible String Band.


Don writes:

Are you aware that Fellini made a movie titled, I Vitelloni. It was translated different ways across the world. In the UK it was translated variously as, The Spivs and The Hobbledehoys! Thought you might like to know. I recently acquired a copy of a theater handout synopsis with that title listed. If interested, I will send you a pic. I will soon upload it to my Fellini website. Cheers

Hi Don!
Thank you for your letter. I did not know that bit about Fellini and The Hobbledehoys – excellent! Good luck with the website on Fellini. I’m a big fan of Nino Rota who contributed music to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, as well as Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, for which he won an academy award in 1974.


Stella writes:

Hi there. I’m a retired American who just stumbled onto your webpage, and though it hasn’t been updated much lately, it doesn’t look like your dead. That’s a good thing.

I’ve been thinking of trying to do a pub tour of at least some part of the UK, since I’ve expanded my taste in beer and have always wanted to travel more. Searching tours mostly only brings up very costly and busily planned packages, but if I come alone it’s a bit daunting, and not just because you all drive on the wrong side of the road. You seem like a person with a wide enough range of interests to suggest some kind of idea. Would it even be feasible for a blue-haired lady (of the modern kind) to set out alone on this adventurous and liver-challenging quest?

Hi Stella!

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated! The Hobbledehoy is once again being updated regularly.

I was in Edinburgh a few years back and there are daily tours available featuring Scotch whiskey tastings. Not sure about pub tours, however I’d recommend a night of pint pounding at The Royal Oak (try a pint of “Heavy” a dark Scottish beer.) The Royal Oak is also a great venue to hear folk music. Among those to have performed in this 200 year-old Edinburgh pub have been legendary Scots Billy Connolly, Dick Gaughan, and Hobbledehoy recent favorite Karine Polwart. I would say most Edinburgh pubs would be safe travels for a blue haired lady, though Glasgow – not so much.

Check out this article written by travel authority Rick Steves, Britain’s Pub Hub. We’ve been in Rick’s company many times and enthusiastically recommend his tours. Here’s Rick’s advice for seniors traveling in Europe


I Could Grow to Love This Place

Fantasies and obstacles in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983)

By A.C. Webster

In the late 19th-century, a short-lived literary movement sprung up in Scotland known as the Kailyard School. Often told through the eyes of a stranger, these stories usually depicted rural life in Scotland as quaint and palatial, with something innate imparted not only by the local villagers, but also the geography of the country, its highlands and shores. Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth explored these sentiments in 1983’s Local Hero. The film contains many elements that define an outsider’s perspective of Scotland; however, it subverts these ideas without downplaying the ineffable qualities of the land itself.

“Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) works for Knox Oil and Gas in Houston, and is the archetypal young and ambitious American executive of the 1980s. From tailored suits to his Porsche 930, Mac has surrounded himself with enough objects to exude a sense of value. But he’s romantically inept, socially uninteresting, and uses materialism to shield himself from emotional fulfillment. Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) is the inheritor of Knox Oil and Gas—by all accounts, a rich and successful businessman. However, Happer takes little interest in the company. He seeks fulfillment through the stars, particularly his desire to discover a comet that he can name after himself. Despite their respective financial success, Mac and Happer are similarly spiritually adrift. With Knox planning to purchase land in Scotland to build a massive oil refinery, Mac is selected to close the deal in-person due to his Scottish-sounding name (there’s not a drop of Scottish blood in MacIntyre; his immigrant parents chose it to sound more American). Happer’s additional assignment for Mac—watch the skies for anything unusual—is quietly brushed aside as he plans to get in, close the deal, and get out.

When Mac arrives in the town of Ferness, it’s cloaked in an evening fog so thick he’s forced to stop his car for the night. This mystical quality introduces the fantastical perception of rural Scotland often held by outsiders; for Mac, it’s a misty inconvenience. His first few days in town are spent at the inn attempting to negotiate the sale. As time passes and Mac becomes used to the town and its residents, he becomes emotionally enveloped by Ferness. The process unfolds beautifully throughout Local Hero, first through acclimation to the town’s minutiae—from Scottish pronunciations to local customs and spending time with the towns’ quirky residents. Ultimately, it’s the town and its surrounding areas that seals Mac’s infatuation. Forsyth and cinematographer Chris Menges often let the landscape speak for itself, starting with the sandy white beaches in the daytime. Figures become silhouettes against the pastel dusk. When Mac gazes into the midnight sky for the first time, he is struck by its beauty, a sheet of blue midnight filled with twinkling stars.

The land is still majestic, but modern life is so different from those Kailyardic days, and Forsyth’s juxtaposition heightens the film’s comedy and drama. The town’s residents are more than willing to sell off their land for a hefty payoff. Financial success informs the decisions made by Mac, Happer, and the residents of the town throughout Local Hero, yet it never leads to emotional fulfillment; we see that wealth is what hardened Mac and left Happer disinterested in anything beyond celestial recognition. Even when the sale of the town’s about to occur, one local expresses his regret: “I thought all this money would make me feel… different. All it’s done is make me feel depressed. I don’t feel any different!”

If the film had a more self-righteous approach, it might take the form of an antagonistic villager pleading against the sale of the town. The closest to this is Ben (Fulton Mackay), an eccentric hermit who owns the beach due to an archaic grant from the Lord of the Isles. Living in a shack made of beachcombing refuse, his unwillingness to sell isn’t from resentment, but rather a matter-of-fact sense of the true value of the land and the stars above. Mac tries to buy the beach for an enormous amount but Ben refuses, much to the town’s chagrin. As the conflict is about to come to a head, Happer suddenly arrives in Ferness and speaks with Ben alone. This conversation leads Happer to have a sudden change of heart, pivoting to building out Ferness as a research hub in order to preserve the local environment and further research the sky above.

With Happer satisfied, he sends Mac back to America to finalize the deal. Mac’s entire purpose in Ferness isn’t only upended, but at odds with his affection for the town. Back in Houston, all that remains of his trip are the seashell keepsakes and Polaroids—small tokens of memory instead of the peaceful life he once briefly imagined. As the Mark Knopfler score builds with overlapping synthesizer lines and guitar playing, Mac gazes out at the Houston skyline, a humming electric blue that surely feels like a cosmic taunt. Half a world away, the phone rings in the only phone box in Ferness—a long-distance plea for connection.

Fantasies, everyday desires, and personal obstacles permeate Bill Forsyth’s entire filmographyAs he put it: “Thinking back on it, I think basically I’ve just made the same movie over and over again… in the sense that there’s a main character who sets out with a kind of story in mind and really nothing happens to the story. But a lot, maybe other things, happen to the characters.” Forsyth finds humanity in the mundanity and irony of everyday life.

Source: SpliceToday