As it happened, Puttnam and Forsyth had their eye on Lancaster to star in the film from get-go. “The first thing that Bill had said to me when he delivered the screenplay was, ‘I’d like Burt Lancaster to play Happer,” says Puttnam. While securing Lancaster was crucial for the film’s international appeal, this proved extremely difficult as the star’s salary took up half of the film’s budget. It took a year of negotiating to get him on board.
Despite considering stars such as Michael Douglas and Henry Winkler for the role of Mac, Forsyth was set on casting Peter Riegert as the oilman who experiences an awakening and succumbs to the charms of the rugged Scottish landscapes. For the key part of Oldsen, the local guide who escorts Mac around Ferness, Forsyth chose Peter Capaldi, a then fresh-faced Scottish actor just out of art school, with no credits to his name.
Another integral element of the film is the score by Scottish-born Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, who Puttnam suggested to Forsyth. While it is regarded as a key component of the film, underscoring shots of the Scottish coastline and the Northern Lights, it almost never came about.
“I heard his (Dire Straits) album Making Movies. So, I wrote to him, I got a letter from his manager who said, ‘Oh, that’s really, really interesting’. I got Mark and Bill to meet, Bill didn’t like Mark’s music, so it was a very tense meeting. But Bill liked one track, Telegraph Road. So, I managed to have a meeting where the only track we talked about was Telegraph Road. And, in the end, they got to like each other and they got to work together,” says Puttnam.
Ahead of its time
Released to immediate acclaim, the film was a major success in the UK and in the US, going on to be honoured as one of the top 10 films of the year by the National Board of Review in New York and launching the career of future Doctor Who star and multi-Bafta winner Peter Capaldi. Forsyth – who’d garnered praise for his 1981 sleeper hit Gregory’s Girl – won a Bafta for best direction.
While Local Hero remains arguably the finest film to have come out of Scotland, perhaps its most enduring legacy lies in its prescient caution on the environment. Fully aware that going ahead with the oil plant will irrevocably damage their village, the locals of Ferness willingly agree to sell their land, rather than oppose the corporation – bar one holdout, a dogged old man.
Well before it was echoed in the incident of the Scottish farmer who refused to sell his land to Trump when he built his golf course, Forsyth’s film implored audiences to conserve the environment, to stand up and fight for it, and to contemplate how easily it can be destroyed.
In the willingness of the residents to sell their land, Forsyth urged viewers to consider the irreversible repercussions of environmental harm. Looking back on the seminal Scottish film 40 years later, Puttnam says he believes it was prescient and is his favourite of the films he has produced: “It was certainly a good 20 years ahead of its time.”
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