Local Hero: New book charts the making of a Scottish film classic 40 years on

Peter Riegert inside the famous phone box used for Local Hero.

It is revered as one of the greatest Scottish films of all-time, which brought Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster to the Highlands, turned a fishing village and a little-known beach into tourist attractions, and gave Peter Capaldi his breakthrough acting role.

By Brian Ferguson

Forty years after writer-director Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero put Scotland on the global movie map, the full story of how it was made is set to be told.

A new book due to be published next month explains why the production was shot on the east and west coast of Scotland, recalls the impact made on and off screen by Lancaster, and reveals the scenes which did not make the final cut.

The book recalls how Lancaster struggled to perform his lines, the director’s insistence that the depiction of a mermaid in the film be toned down and how he was forced to change the ending of the film to keep its American funders happy.

Jonathan Melville’s book is drawn from new and archive interviews with key players in the Local Hero story, and a Q&A event he conducted with Forsyth in Mallaig when the film was shown to mark the 15th anniversary of Scotland’s mobile cinema The Screen Machine.

It recalls how Forsyth joined forces with producer David Puttnam to try to make Local Hero, despite the latter’s “very stupid decision” to turn down the director’s hit comedy Gregory’s Girl.

As the finishing touches were being made to both Puttnam’s new film, Chariots of Fire, and Gregory’s Girl, the producer invited Forsyth to a private screening of the classic Ealing comedy Whisky Galore!

Puttnam suggested to Forsyth that there could be a contemporary tale inspired by the Shetland oil boom in the early 1970s and the financial benefits that were negotiated for islanders.

Actors Denis Lawson and Peter Riegert with director Bill Forsyth during the filming of Local Hero. Picture: Enigma/Goldcrest/Kobal/Shutterstock

Actors Denis Lawson and Peter Riegert with director Bill Forsyth during the filming of Local Hero. Picture: Enigma/Goldcrest/Kobal/Shutterstock

The director produced a two-page “treatment” of a story following a Texan oil executive sent to Scotland to seal a deal to acquire a small village and its beach for a new refinery.

Crucial finance from Goldcrest Films, who had also backed Chariots of Fire, was pledged at the BAFTAs, where the film won three awards, with Warner Brothers later coming on board.

Lancaster who was also at the BAFTAs ceremony, to collect an award for his role in Atlantic City, was handed Local Hero’s script. Forsyth had long had the actor in mind for the role of oil company boss Felix Happer.

Forsyth said: “When I was writing it, I imagined him saying the words, and I suppose once you get that locked in your head you start to write for that voice. I was kind of writing for him, but that was just for me.”

He recalled: “It was me and one of those tiny tape recorders. I’d start at 10am, when it was getting light and finish at 3pm when it wasn’t, find a pub and go and transcribe the notes I’d made, spend the rest of the evening in the bar, and start again the next day. It took about two weeks.”

Local Hero’s location manager David Brown, who would go on to produce Outlander more than 30 years later, said: “For many of us it was absurd, the notion that you can film on the east coast and West Coast and connect the two things. For a lot of the Scots, it was like ‘How can this even work?, but it works in the movie.”

Recalling filming in Pennan, Brown said: “I don’t remember any huge opposition to it. People were more accepting of it and also more prepared to get on with their lives without feeling a desperate need to photograph everything in a kind of an Instagram-type world.”

The production team had to create key locations for the film, including the church overlooking the beach and a shack which was home to beachcomber Ben, who resists Mac’s overtures to sell up.

Tasked with finding detritus washed ashore for Ben’s hut, property master Arthur Wicks had to recruit a local yachtsman for a week to find enough.

Actors Peter Riegert (Mac) and Chris Rozycki (Viktor) star in Bill Forsyth's classic comedy Local Hero, which was partly shot in Pennan, in Aberdeenshire. Picture: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Actors Peter Riegert (Mac) and Chris Rozycki (Viktor) star in Bill Forsyth’s classic comedy Local Hero, which was partly shot in Pennan, in Aberdeenshire. Picture: Moviestore/Shutterstock

The rest of Local Hero’s cast were a mix of established Scottish actors such as Fulton Mackay and Rikki Fulton, familiar faces from previous Forsyth films, including Gregory’s Girl star John Gordon Sinclair, newcomers like Peter Capaldi, Jenny Seagrove and Tam Dean Burn, and Peter Riegert, who was cast to play ambitious oil executive Mac despite pressure on Forsyth to consider better-known actors including Henry Winkler and Michael Douglas.

Riegert said: “At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, if I wasn’t working I was seeing them, and they had such interesting faces and distinctive voices. Not only were the beach and the sunsets interesting, but all the people were exotic.”

The book recalls the huge logistical challenges involved in making a film deploying key locations on either side of the country to depict the fictional fishing village and beach of Ferness.

Production designer Roger Murray-Leach travelled all over Scotland on a hunt that would eventually bring the cast and crew to the village of Pennan, in Aberdeenshire, and Camusdarach Beach, near Mallaig, in Lochaber.

He said: “We spent about a week scouring the west coast of Scotland and we didn’t find a matchstick on a beach. They were spotless all the way to Mallaig.”

Forsyth intended Local Hero to end with Mac returning to his flat in Houston and examining the beach shells he has kept in his pocket, but was forced to add an additional scene, which shows the red phone box in Ferness ringing, after the executives bankrolling the film insisted on a happier ending.

Riegert recalled: “‘Bill and I were in Los Angeles and we were meeting with one of the Warner Brothers executives. The executive said: ‘We love the movie, but the ending is so sad.’”And Bill said, “Oh, that’s great. Thanks so much, I really appreciate that. I had no idea you were gonna see it that way.’”

The village of Pennan, put on the map by Bill Forsyth's 1983 film Local Hero, starring Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Fulton Mackay and Denis Lawson, some of which was filmed here.

The village of Pennan, put on the map by Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film Local Hero, starring Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Fulton Mackay and Denis Lawson, some of which was filmed here.

 

Source: Local Hero: New book charts the making of a Scottish film classic 40 years on

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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