LOCAL HERO, Peter Capaldi, Peter Riegert, 1983
Updated: March 18, 2013 6:18AM
Director Bill Forsyth’s “Local Hero” celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. As befits this modest, understated film, there has been no fuss, no 30th anniversary DVD or Blu-ray. But as Roger Ebert wrote in his original four-star review, it is “a small film to treasure.”
To experience “Local Hero” is to be besotted by it, much like the film’s main character, Mac, a Texas oil company dealmaker who finds himself in thrall to the Scottish fishing village to which he was dispatched to buy out the locals and clear away for a refinery.
The making of “Local Hero” seems as serendipitous as the movie itself. Forsyth had some cachet after his sleeper hit, “Gregory’s Girl.” Oscar-winning British producer David Puttman (“Chariots of Fire”) told him he could raise money for a film set in Scotland if Forsyth could incorporate American characters into the story.
“It was easy enough to pick the subject matter,” Forsyth said in an email exchange. “The whole North Sea oil boom was happening all around me in Scotland right then, with American oil people coming and going.”
Forsyth wrote the part of star- (and comet-) struck Texas oil magnate Happer for Burt Lancaster. The part of Mac went to Peter Riegert, then best known for “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” In a phone interview, Riegert said the studio, Warner Bros., originally pushed for a bigger name. Among the actors in the mix were Henry Winkler, Robin Williams and Michael Douglas, but Forsyth reassured Riegert that without him as Mac, there would be no movie (Forsyth confirmed this).
“Local Hero” is an enchanting film without being “enchanted.”
“For me,” Forsyth said, “there was some fun in undermining the Hollywood idea of Scotland as represented in something like ‘Brigadoon.’ ” The financially strapped villagers, led by the resourceful hotel innkeeper/town solicitor, are indeed very eager to sell out to the Americans. “You can’t eat scenery,” a friendly Russian visitor consoles Mac at one point.
But as Mac discovers, “It’s quite special here.” “Here” is the real-life village of Pennan, Scotland. “It was hard for [the cast and crew] not to get into the spirit of the script since we were working in the most magical of locations,” Forsyth said.
The film initially had a more melancholic, downbeat end, with Mac sitting bereft in his Houston apartment. “As with all productions,” Forsyth said, studio heads “only really flex their muscles when the shooting is over, and everyone has settled comfortably into the cutting room. So, after a couple of so-so previews, Warner Bros. came to me with the suggestion that the ending of the movie was lacking in ‘feel good,’ and suggested that we reshoot it, to the effect that Mac would stay in Scotland and live happily ever after. It wasn’t hard to resist this.”
The compromise, while not as hard-nosed, is true to Forsyth’s vision while still being more warm and wistful. It also helped make a red telephone box, prominently featured in the film, a tourist attraction in Pennan.
Locals later told Forsyth that a German businessman who made a pilgrimage to the village took home the telephone number of that phone box and “used to dial the number when he was particularly stressed, and he relaxed to the sound of it ringing out.”
Riegert can relate. “I can only liken it to myself,” he said. “There are movies I’ve seen or books I’ve read that attach themselves in a way that’s greater than the ability to understand why. How do you explain that kind of connectedness?”
That connectedness is why Cameron Crowe cast Riegert for a small role in his 2011 film, “We Bought a Zoo.” It was an homage to one of Crowe’s favorite movies (at one point, “Zoo”-star Matt Damon’s neophyte zookeeper is called a “local hero”).
“I’m a fan first and I can relate,” Riegert said. “It’s just very odd to be on the receiving end.”
Forsyth’s “Local Hero” experience has a characteristically fanciful epilogue. At the 1984 BAFTAs, the British equivalent of the Academy Awards, Forsyth earned best director honors for “Local Hero.” But in the original script category, he lost to Paul Zimmerman for “The King of Comedy.”
“After the ceremony, I found myself walking through London with Martin Scorsese and Zimmerman, Forsyth recalled. “We were high on the evening, and to cap it, Paul and I exchanged [BAFTA] statues. So I have his ‘King of Comedy’ award, and he took my ‘Local Hero’ award. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
Donald Liebenson is a locally based free-lance writer.