To See Oursels: Local Hero and Bill Forsyth Q&A
Eden Court Cinema
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by Margaret Chrystall
SO who was the Local Hero of the film title, director Bill Forsyth was asked – among 20 other questions – after a special screening at Eden Court last Tuesday.
But there was only one local hero in the room given the welcome he received from the packed cinema after the 1983 Scottish classic was shown.
Unassuming, quietly spoken and with a dry sense of humour, the notoriously shy director shared stories about the making of the movie and talked about his own journey into film-making.
He also dropped a hint or two about his latest film project for those still hoping for a sequel to Local Hero...
There was an early reminder of the part the Highlands had played in Bill’s career.
"I can’t come to Inverness without expecting a cheque," the director laughed before explaining that before the feature films, he and his partner, the late Charlie Gormley, were paid by the Highland Board, predecessor of HIE (Highland and Islands Enterprise), to make sponsored films.
"Travelling around Scotland and getting to make these films, about fisherman and boatbuilders and farmers and shepherds, it did give me, as a city boy from the Central Belt, not a conscious understanding, but an assimilation of the country I lived in. So all these little things that cropped up in Local Hero were really a benefit from that experience."
Many of the questions from the public came with a personal thank you to Bill for his films.
"I think the film is a masterpiece!" said one man who went on to ask about Mark Knopfler’s BAFTA-nominated Local Hero soundtrack.
With locations for the mythical Ferness including a beach, cliffs and the village, Bill said his made-up village ended up being made in locations from Penaan on the east coast to the beaches of Arisaig and Morar on the west.
He laughed: "There was a geology student in the film club of St Andrews who said the place just couldn’t exist – it had granite in one place and sandstone in the other.
"It’s Brigadoon really!" Bill grinned.
And he had a real Brigadoon moment when waiting in an Italian hotel lobby back in 1982 to meet Burt Lancaster, his first-choice actor to play oil baron Happer. Watching the lifts for Lancaster to emerge, Bill was bemused to see Brigadoon star Van Johnson striding out of the lift in front of him.
"I remember thinking ‘Christ, I’ve got this really wrong!’," said Bill.
It was producer David Puttnam who had bumped into Lancaster at the 1982 BAFTAS – both Puttnam’s Chariots Of Fire and Atlantic City with Lancaster as best supporting actor were nominated.
Knowing that Bill was desperate to have Lancaster in Local Hero, David made a first approach.
He also him helped persuade Bill to tweak the movie’s ending – originally oil executive MacIntyre back in Houstonon his balcony looking out over the night-time skyline.
Warner executives – who had agreed to back the film for American distribution – told David the ending hadn’t gone down well at test screenings in America.
Bill remembered: "The Warner people had said ‘We think the film will perform better if you changed the ending’. That would have meant reshooting. They suggested that when Mac gets on the helicopter to head back to the States he changes his mind and stays in Scotland, but I didn’t fancy that very much.
"Puttnam said to me: ‘You have to come up with something by the time they get on the plane.’
"I knew we had shot some extra footage of the Penaan phone box at the start of filming and I had the idea to put on the sound of a phone ringing. I explained it to them in the car to the airport – and they liked it."
Bill’s route into film came after he left school at 17.
"I made a speculative leap and became a Betterware salesman just before Christmas for a few weeks in ‘63," he said.
"My mother was so outraged about it that she wouldn’t let me leave through the front door. She made me go out the back way and climb over the fence in the back garden with my suitcase with the brushes in it.
"Then I saw this advert, ‘Lad required for film company’ and blagged my way into the company. It was only after having the job that I started looking at film in a different way.
"But I still feel I’m not a proper film-maker.
"I feel like a Formula One driver who doesn’t like going fast and I don’t know if I’ll ever get over that.
"I think I’m more a writer who learned how to use a film crew."
And he told the Eden Court crowd: "There are weaknesses in the film for me.
"I haven’t watched it tonight, but I can spot them without having to watch it!" he joked.
"The whole resolution is a little bit too easy, really.
"And – I shouldn’t be telling you this – there could have been more work done at the end I think."
But Bill has no plans to try and rewrite history.
"I have seen flaws in all the work I’ve done, but it doesn’t make me want to go back and change it. I just think ‘Well I won’t do that again’."
Asked by Edinburgh School of Art’s director of design context Jonny Murray if he’d now set the film somewhere other than Scotland if making Local Hero now, Bill said: "I would set it in Scotland because I wouldn’t know anything about anywhere else!"
The crowd laughed – and then got a gem from the film-maker.
"In fact I’m working on something just now which is a slight update of Local Hero in the sense that it’s set in a small, local community North of the Central Belt. But it’s a connected community where there are incomers who live and exist globally, so it’s an idea of an expanded Scottish community."
Was it too late to ask for a sequel, asked one woman with the final question of the night.
"Well, maybe not…" Bill replied.
Who would he choose to play oil baron Happer, someone threw in.
"Right now? Terence Stamp!" smiled Bill.
So maybe fans should do what Happer tells Mac – possibly the local hero of the title – "keep watching the sky".
Look out in our film section for details about more To See Oursels classic films heading our way,