Director Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, starring Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster, recently marked its 30th anniversary. 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, an "extra normal" 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 Lancaster. The part of Mac went to Riegert, then best known for National Lampoon's Animal House, but who had never carried a film. "I thought it was the best screenplay I had ever read," Riegert said in a phone interview. "I called my agent and said, 'Get me into this meeting yesterday."
The studio, Warner Bros., originally pushed for a bigger name, he said. 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."
(Funny story: Forsyth had traveled to Rome to meet Lancaster. "I was sitting in the lobby of the Hilton Cavalieri." he recalled. "I'd been sitting there for some time, getting more and more anxious, wondering if he was going to turn up when suddenly the elevator doors opened and out came Van Johnson (who starred in Brigadoon)." Forsyth's panic that he had somehow mistaken Lancaster for Johnson disappeared when Johnson strode past him and Lancaster belatedly arrived).
The financially strapped villagers, a gallery of colorful characters 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" and he second guesses the entire venture.
"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.
Riegert agrees. "The magic was on the set, the special effects were the story and the people," he said.
Several of Local Heros most memorable, off-center moments were improvised. At one point, Mac is chatting with a group of fisherman and nonchalantly asks the parentage of a baby who is present.. His inquiry is met by an increasingly awkward silence. In another, Mac fails to notice the townspeople, who had been meeting in secret to discuss "the Yank's" arrival, sneaking out of a local church behind his back. Bill) was very open," he said. "He would shoot it if anybody had an idea. I asked him why, and he said, 'It's faster to shoot an idea than it is to debate an idea.'"
Local Hero 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.
Forsyth related that locals later told him 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 in homage to one of Crowe's favorite movies (at one point, "Zoo"-star Matt Damon's neophyte zookeeper is called a "local hero").
"It's very odd to be on the receiving end (of an homage)," Riegert said
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."
(This is a longer version of a story that originally appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times)