Scots director Bill Forsyth remembers the making of his Eighties classic Local Hero

Scots director Bill Forsyth remembers the making of his Eighties classic Local Hero

It is, of course, alchemy, all of it, nothing but damned alchemy. They're modern necromancers, the whole of the film-making industry, and the business of how on earth anything gets made, or works (or, equally entertainingly, fails) has filled many fascinating books. And one of the fascinating things about alchemy is the injection of time to the equation: because elements settle, and alter, and morph; and, today, after a quarter of a century or whatever, we can see what remained lead, and what became gold.

It was exactly 25 years ago when Bill Forsyth made Local Hero. It's still regularly hailed as one of the quiet must-see little masterpieces of British cinema: I can think of few friends, of all ages and backgrounds, without a copy nestling happily on some shelf, brought out on cold nights. The marvel is that it has lasted so tremendously well. It is, in some ways, of its time. A nefarious American oil company sends a yuppie ingenu to Scotland to buy a beach. He meets sturdy, feisty locals, falls in love, sees the Northern Lights, changes his mind about the oil business. In one late-ish crucial scene we see his pager, black and American and Eighties and very bleepy, burbling itself to death in a rock-pool. Back in his Houston loft, with his absurd trappings, he can think only of the locals, the lights, the beach, the pub, the phone box. Which he calls.

As, apparently, have hundreds, thousands of tourists down the years. Pennan in Aberdeenshire, where half the film was shot, still has, or at least did on my last visit, admittedly a few years ago, the same phone box. The guys in the bar opposite were getting a bit fed up, called out nightly through the rain to the ringing box, to chat to some Japanese couple who had taken its number on their trip, and wanted the same sense of phone contact with which the film ends. It is huge physical testament, if infuriating for the crofter wanting a quiet dram, to the global appeal, perennial success, of a home-funded, home-made Scottish Eighties film.

Yes, Burt Lancaster was on board. Producer David Puttnam says now it couldn't really have happened without that: despite the genius of Forsyth - a rising star after Gregory's Girl - they still needed a big Hollywood name.

Yes, Mark Knopfler did the music (and Dire Straits were the band of the moment, the soundtrack going on to outsell video sales of the film itself). But. But. There had to be something else. What's made this last, when so much other celluloid from those days should have been dumped straight back into the alchemist's chalice?

'It's probably the deficiences in it,' says Forsyth, now 60, speaking from his home near Loch Lomond. 'I don't think it was a manipulative film. If I'd known how to, at the time, I could have made it more manipulative. I'm not trying to be coy, but I've never had a great understanding for commercial cinema. A film-maker with more nous would have been more manipulative.

'I hesitate to use the word "innocence" about it, because the characters have attitude, have stories, have views, I don't think it was too innocent a film. But if there was a layer of purpose or intent missing, a layer of manipulation - here's where we want the audience to feel this, or that, I've always truly hated that - then, perhaps, that's been its secret, if you like.'

Forsyth says he hasn't watched it for about 20 years. 'I don't really do that. I'll see mistakes!' One, he admits, was completely his own, fortunately over-ridden. 'Looking back, you'd hardly credit it, but I didn't want music. I was a bit of an egghead about film: I was of this puritan streak that if you had to put music in it then you had, somehow, failed. I am proud to admit I was very, very wrong. Mark's [Knopfler] music helped make the film and I am very, very grateful to him. Plus, it wasn't one of those deals you often get with the composer, where the first inkling they get of the film is after it's made, in some grotty studio in Soho. Mark, because we'd wanted him to be involved with the ceilidh music - he wrote all of it, in the end - was on set, around, getting the feel, talking to the locals, picking up the atmosphere.

'I really was quite naive. Then. Probably still am. I couldn't, for instance, see how the settings could mesh. I'd just written down - I wanted the village here, the beach there, the church there. The place, such a place, couldn't be found. I was very confused when the location guys said, fine, let's shoot the village on one side of Scotland, the beach on the west. I couldn't get my head around it. And, of course, it worked. I remember settling on Pennan, on the very last day I could: I had a gun to my head, and had to make the phone call by five that day to confirm. I made the phone call, just before five. Yes, from that blooming phone box.'

According to Puttnam, 'One of the reasons it all worked, still works, is because it was a very honest film. It didn't pretend the villagers didn't want to sell up. It has classic elements of absolute chaos, back to the kind of writing of Victorian times - Trollope, Pooter. Although it was, yes, telling a story from its time, there were certain classic elements. The wise old man on the beach is a staple, down centuries.

'Also, perhaps it's lasted because the very experience of making it was so enjoyable. It was as if we'd all gone on holiday and someone had remembered to bring a camera. Looking back, too, it was probably the first mainstream entertaining film that ever questioned the complexity of ecology.'

Bill Forsyth is immensely grateful still to Puttnam and co - do you remember those heady days of 'The British are coming!' - for the 'luxury, very rare in those days, of being paid. I got paid to write it. Because Puttnam had got involved, we knew that a) we had funding, and b) it was, come what may, going to be released. That was unusual. Very.

'But I think some of them maybe had more fun making it than me. I had, all the time, rewrites. Something up with the cast, or a location: rewriting 24 hours a day. That's what you have to do. Yes, the others had a good time, I do think. Immersed themselves. There were... romances.

'You know, I haven't actually watched it for about 20 years myself. It is a surprise, a delight, that people still like it. Local Hero never did massive business. It was well received, but it never made a pile, it wasn't in the year's top 10 films or anything. It washed its face, modestly. I think there's still some kind of financial record associated with Gregory's Girl. We made it for £200,000. Less, in fact. We had a great accountant, we actually handed £8,000 back to the investors! So when that goes on to make five million or whatever - but these were different, different times.

'Yes, you probably could still make Local Hero today, but I don't actually know who'd want to. Young film-makers today, they seem to have too much pressure on them to arrive with a film, their second or third or whatever, to make a big publicity statement. Rather than just, you know, make a film. With Local Hero, we were lucky with the funding, with the time it gave me to write: but we were slackers! We were stumbling into the limelight!

'Also, I don't want you to think there was some deliberate message. You talk about the plot, but was there one? I mean, people can look back and say, oh, this was all an early one about the environment or whatever, but it didn't happen that way, or if it did it was accidental. I'm not political, either in film or personally, and I don't really do plot, and certainly don't aim to broadcast a "message". I suppose I like to tell stories. And if I'm writing a film, and don't really have a plot, then you have to fill the screen with something, so I try to do so with characters, incidents. The aurora borealis, for instance: I hadn't had any plans about that, but that year I was writing Local Hero I found myself up in Orkney, doing a short film for the BBC with Cyril Cusack, and I saw the aurora one night, first time ever, on the beach. So: that went in. It was all a bit like that.'

Forsyth is still involved with films, collaborating this winter with his friend, producer Iain Smith, on something 'supernatural, cold, stark'. Age has, he says, brought him something: if not wisdom, then a smidgen more self-knowledge. 'To have, at this age, the realisation that maybe I got some things wrong is quite nice, in a way. The main problem is I think I was too full of irony, that laid-back irony. Watching from the wings. It's a very Scottish thing, holding up the kitchen wall at parties, casting comment from the sidelines. Hiding in the wings. I don't know, after all these years, whether that really was the way to have gone. Maybe I've found out in time. Maybe I'll have some time to fix that, get things more right.'

Where the stars are now

Burt Lancaster (Felix Happer): Film projects included thriller The Osterman Weekend (1983) and Field of Dreams (1989). Died on 20 October 1994.

Peter Riegert ('Mac' MacIntyre): Appeared in 1994 comedy The Mask and drama Traffic (2000), and in The Sopranos

Denis Lawson (Gordon Urquhart): Directed a 1999 production of Little Malcolm & His Struggle Against the Eunuchs with his nephew Ewan McGregor in the starring role. Appeared in the 2005 BBC adaptation of Bleak House

Peter Capaldi (Danny Oldsen): Played spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in TV political satire The Thick of It

Fulton Mackay (Ben Knox): Appeared alongside Michael Caine in 1986 comedy Water. Died on 6 June 1987.

Jenny Seagrove (Marina): Co-starred in The Letter at Wyndham's Theatre in 2007.

Mark Knopfler (composed the film's soundtrack): Released Brothers in Arms with his band Dire Straits in 1985. It is the fifth bestselling British album of all time.

· This article was amended on Friday October 3 2008. We mistakenly referred to Peter Riegert's character 'Mac' MacIntyre pining for Scotland in a Manhattan loft. We should have said Houston and this has been corrected.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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