It’s 35 years since writer/director Bill Forsyth almost single-handedly kickstarted the modern Scottish film industry. At this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), Forsyth was invited to return for a screening of his 1983 international hit Local Hero, described by festival director Mark Adams as “a defining moment of Scottish storytelling”.
It was clear that for everyone in the packed cinema, this was a chance to relive treasured memories. At the Q&A afterwards, responding to sustained applause with typical self-deprecation, Forsyth commented that he didn’t feel as nervous about audience screenings now the film was 35 years old, as he was sure no one was seeing it for the first time. “I guessed that you would probably like it”, he told them wryly.
Listening to the audience, it is clear that for many people, Local Hero is still a “favourite film”, but it is difficult to pinpoint just what makes this understated comedy have such longevity.
Could its be down to the way the story is a timeless (and prophetic) eco-fable? A rapacious Texan oil company shifts from its attempts to buy up a picturesque Scottish fishing village for the creation of an oil terminal, to create instead an institute dedicated to preserving and understanding the natural world.
Or is it the gradual seduction of cynical American oilman Mac – sent to negotiate the deal – by the people and the landscape? Or the peculiar oddities of the main characters, from the monomaniacal obsessions of oil magnate Felix Happer, to the twinkling homespun wisdom of Ben, who refuses to sell the beach where he has always made his living? Or is it the charming guile of the Urquharts, Gordon and Stella, the oversexed owners of the local hotel, and the way Mac now desires their life over his apartment and Porsche in Houston?
Then there’s the magical, if innocent, attraction between young local Knox Oil representative Oldsen, played by Peter Capaldi in his first-ever screen role – awkward, clumsy and head over heels for Marina, the scientist, diver and possible mermaid. And the large ensemble of actors portraying a village – revealed through unexpected comic cameos – eager to make a fast buck, reminiscent of that other Scottish classic, Whisky Galore!.
Perhaps it’s the many subtle but joyous sight gags – the ubiquitous presence of the baby that no one will admit to fathering; the gentle on-the-spot jigging of the tweed-clad bushy-eyebrowed old boys as they consider the impending loot; the look of pure contentment on the lady shopkeeper as she slow-dances with the wandering Russian sailor; and the drunk man trying to pat the dog by the harbour – that evoke constant delight in the viewer.
The audience is drawn into this film through all of these elements and the way Forsyth’s script and direction are never predictable. He takes familiar representations of Scotland, such as the village ceilidh, and finds new ways to tell a multi-layered, complex and nuanced story with lasting resonance.
Local Hero: the musical
The enduring appeal of Local Hero was only part of the reason for the EIFF screening – as well as celebrating the past life of the film, this event looked forward to a new future for Local Hero the musical.
When playwright David Greig took up his post as artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre in 2016, he asked Forsyth if they could work together to adapt the film into a stage musical. The project reunites Forsyth with Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, composer of the original score, alongside a new creative team led by Irish theatre director John Crowley.
In conversation, Forsyth gave the audience some insights into the process of adapting the story from the film to the stage. The key challenge has been the ultimate question: what is the movie about? The musical version will need to find new ways to answer this question and develop the story of the village and the key characters.
When Forsyth asked Mark Knopfler he responded: “It’s about a beach”, and talked about how his film score responded to the “geological hum” he felt came from the landscape. In the film the way the characters Mac, Oldsen and Happer develop and change is a process of osmosis – the gradual, incremental ways they respond to the sea and the sky, captured visually by stunning cinematography. On stage the challenge will be how to transfer the effect of the beach, the sky and the sea, and how to bring a sense of place to the adaption, something Forsyth says Knopfler managed to capture as a character with his memorable score.
A marvellous fiction
It is well known that the film setting was itself a fiction. Shooting took place in two separate locations 175 miles apart to portray this idealised Scottish community. The main village of whitewashed fishermen’s cottages with its hotel, harbour and iconic red telephone box was filmed in Pennan on the east coast, looking out to the North Sea. The beach location was at Camusdarach on the west coast near Arisaig, looking across the Atlantic to the inner Hebridean islands of Eigg and Rum.
The location and story of Local Hero created a Scotland of the imagination – through story, characters and setting – which appealed, not because it gave an authentic reflection of everyday real lives and real places, but because the film captured emotional connections and humour that linked to a tradition of Scottish storytelling and comedy. Through these things Forsyth’s own perspective became universal. From the glimpses of how the adaptation is progressing, it would seem this is a good starting place for the film’s new incarnation.
Whatever it will be, its celluloid predecessor has banked enormous goodwill and affection for Local Hero, even before the musical hits the stage.