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

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

Gregory’s Girl: ‘The affection for it overwhelms me’

The teenage romantic comedy set in a Scottish new town has been an enduring success for 40 years.

Hardly a day goes by without somebody asking Clare Grogan to quote a line from Gregory’s Girl, the teenage romantic comedy set in a Scottish new town which became an unlikely hit when it was released 40 years ago this week.

“Sometimes they ask me if I can lie down in a bank of grass and dance,” says Grogan, who was just 18 when she filmed that scene in the film four decades ago.

Grogan, whose career also included huge success as a pop star in the band Altered Images, told BBC Scotland she does not mind the constant reminders of a film she made when she was a teenager.

“It is the gift that keeps on giving,” she says.

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Gregory’s Girl: the sweet teenage love story set in Scottish new town turns 40

The sweet coming of age film, written and directed by Bill Forsyth and set in the new town of Cumbernauld, was released four decades ago on April 23, 1981.

Then, it felt like a story of our times and gave Scottish life a lighter, more modern feel. A dreamy synth soundtrack unfolded over scenes of fresh housing, concrete walkways and wide open spaces shaped by the promise of a new way of new town living.

The sun always seemed to be shining – or setting – on this place where pretty girls in cool clothes played football and did science experiments at a gargantuan comprehensive, the real-life Abronhill High. Boys were gangly geeks, children were more grown up than the teachers and little sisters were the boss.

Dee Hepburn as Dorothy and John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory in the 1981 classic movie, Gregory's Girl. It was released 40 years ago today. PIC: Contributed.
Dee Hepburn as Dorothy and John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory in the 1981 classic movie, Gregory’s Girl. It was released 40 years ago today. PIC: Contributed.

For those who saw the film as a kid in the early 80s – possibly on one of the first VHS tapes to come into the house – it seemed to mark a moment. Forty years on, the same still seems true.

Dr Jonny Murray, Senior Lecturer in Film and Visual Culture at Edinburgh College of Art, said: “For many people from a certain generation there is an undying affection for Gregory’s Girl mainly because, for many of us, it was everyday Scottish life as we recognised it put on a cinema screen.

John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory,  the gangly schoolboy who got his girl in the end. PIC:  Contributed.
John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory, the gangly schoolboy who got his girl in the end. PIC: Contributed.

“You have the pleasure of watching the film and being able to recognise this incredibly imaginative and humorous depiction of how we lived our lives.”

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