“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.