‘Die Hard’ On a Pedestal: Why John McTiernan’s Action Classic Is Such an Ode to Joy

 

May 20, 2022

 

By Tim Pelan

“Welcome to the party, pal!” On July 15, 1988, a new era was born in the action movie milieu, and the 80’s era of the muscle-bound, surly one-man army was changed forever. Move over Arnie and Sly, Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis, in his big-screen breakout role) is an accidental hero, the proverbial “fly in the ointment, the pain in the ass.” In L.A. on Christmas Eve to visit his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), a high flying exec at the Nakatomi Plaza headquarters of a Japanese Corporation, it’s up to him to save the day from slick euro-trash robber Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his cohorts, posing as terrorists to stall and steal. Willis, before the series descended into profanity-free bloodless “thrills” and ludicrous walks-away from mega destruction, summed up the character of McClane for Total Film in a few sentences. “He doesn’t give a shit about being a hero. As soon as you start thinking you’re a hero, you’re done, you’re dead—it’s an afterthought, when someone might say, ‘That was a pretty heroic thing you did.’ McClane loves his family, loves his country. He has a healthy disrespect for all authority. He’s got a very dark gallows sense of humor—and he has zero tolerance for allowing anyone to hurt an innocent person. He will always step between that threat and the person.” Die Hard is so good the rip-off ideas actually circled around completely to a pitch of “Die Hard in a building.” But it’s not just the setting that sets Die Hard on a pedestal, as we’ll discover.

The script was adapted from Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever, a follow-up to his previous bestseller The Detective, itself adapted for film in 1968 with Frank Sinatra in the role, playing their shared lead, Joe Leland. In Nothing Lasts Forever he is older, retired from the force, working as an anti-terrorism consultant, and visiting his estranged daughter at the Klaxon Oil Corporation HQ in L.A. (Thorp had read The Glass Tower, filmed as disaster classic The Towering Inferno, and replaced fire hazard with the 1970’s preoccupation de jour, terrorism). The terrorists are really terrorists, the daughter is involved in shady business dealings with Chileans, and she plummets to her death in the finale (if I recall correctly, her proto-Rambo disappointed father lets her go). Not exactly the witty thrill ride we’ve come to know and love. This led to the awkward requirement of having to approach an aged Sinatra to play the lead when the script for Die Hard was in development. Needless to say, he passed. Although Willis was by far the next choice—both Clint Eastwood and Richard Gere were considered, amongst others. In the end, producer Joel Silver took a punt on the co-star of then hit show Moonlighting, paying him $5 million no less.

Willis credits his co-star Cybill Shepherd for getting pregnant with twins and the resultant shutting down of the show for freeing him up, although co-writer Steven de Souza recalls, at least during the first two weeks of filming, shooting around Willis because he was pulling double duty on Moonlighting and the movie. This is why other players’ parts were bumped up, such as Bedelia laying out a list of demands for rest breaks, etc, slimy journalist Dick Thornburg (William Atherton), and delightful chauffeur Argyle (De’voreaux White) especially. Director John McTiernan was pleased that an “ordinary Joe” was cast as his accidental hero (cementing his blue-collar status from the off, McClean rides shotgun upfront with Argyle in the limo sent to pick him up from the airport). Speaking of “riding shotgun” and McClane’s fondness for cowboy Roy Rogers, our plucky detective was originally to be named John Ford, an unintentional call-back to the famed director of Westerns.

 
First draft writer Jeb Stuart set to adapting the book and credits an argument and near-fatal accident for the key – storming out of the house after a flare-up with his wife, he got into his car and nearly died when a refrigerator tumbled out of the back of a truck directly in his path. He realized then the film would be about a man coming to town to tell his wife he’s sorry. “And he doesn’t get to say he’s sorry because of what breaks out in the building.” Indeed, during McClane’s lowest ebb, barefoot and bleeding footprints from embedded glass shards all over a restroom, he radios his man on the outside, the only guy he can count on, former beat cop and desk jockey Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), called out to investigate McClane’s supposed bull-shit prank call at the building. “She already heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times,” he tells Powell, his voice cracking, a sob never far away. “She never heard me say ‘I’m sorry’.” To red-blooded Americans this vulnerability was startling, but a counterpoint to chief bad guy Hans Gruber’s initial dismissal of McClane as “Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?” Also observe the superb cinematography from Jan de Bont and blocking on Willis when Hans executes smarmy yuppie Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), who pretended he knows John to talk him down (just another mergers and acquisition play). Truly in a dark place, McClane retreats into the shadows.

Alan Rickman, who played Gruber, was another risky casting. He’d just finished a two-year run in the stage production Les Liaisons dangereuses, as the unprincipled seducer and conspirator the Vicomte de Valmont. Die Hard was his first feature film. Producer Joel Silver and McTiernan caught the play on Broadway—they’d found their refined Eurovillain, a prototype for many a bad guy to come. Rickman recalled that, “When Bruce and I first met, we thought that if Hans and McClane could, oddly enough, develop a relationship while communicating over the CB (radio), it would serve the final conflict rather well. We wanted to steer away from the stereotypical hero and villain types of behavior and try to be as normal as possible on the surface.” It was Rickman’s idea that Hans Gruber be a well-dressed type, an executive of extraction – they plan to steal $640 million in untraceable bearer bonds from the building’s vault, under the pretense of hostage negotiating terrorism. (The excellent site Bamf Style covers the looks of major players in the film.) When I saw the film on the big screen in Northern Ireland just before Christmas 2020 in a brief Lockdown lull, as Hans reels off the list of fellow traveler incarcerated terrorists he wants released, the “New Provo Front” got a hearty chuckle (why do screenwriters always shy away from existing groups?). The filmmakers and the gang are in on the gag though—when Karl queries one obscure group, Hans shrugs and replies he read about them in Forbes magazine.

 
Indeed, as the gang sweep into the lobby party and demand attention, Hans refers to a Filofax, reeling off Nakatomi’s record of so-called exploitation. At one point he and executive Mr Takagi (James Shigeta) stand before a large detailed model of a bridge, planned for construction somewhere across the globe. The model was actually made by Frank Lloyd Wright for an unrealized project. The architect’s style is present elsewhere in the film – the plant-filled, water-tinkling party room resembles his famous “Falling Waters” house in spirit. By the time McClane has finished, it resembles some smoke-filled Vietnam war-era swamp. But Hans is a busy man. “I could talk about industrialization and men’s fashion all day but I’m afraid work must intrude.” When Takagi refuses to give the codes for the vault, Hans shoots him. His, “I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative. Not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way… so he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life,” was an ad-lib suggested by Silver. When Hans and McClane finally meet face to face (Hans has gone to check on explosives, exasperated by now with snarl-ups), Hans immediately switches accent and demeanor into escaped, panicked hostage act. This arose because de Souza heard Rickman playing around with the accent off camera. Checking back, they realized McClane didn’t actually see Hans shoot Takagi, just witness the death. “These movies are like romantic comedies,” de Souza reasoned. “In a romantic comedy, a boy and a girl have a meet-cute, they have a couple of dates and then they go off together. In this movie, the hero and the villain have a meet-cute, they have a couple of close encounter dates and then one kills the other.”

Director McTiernan crafted a clear-eyed crowd pleaser, his idea to replace terrorists with colorful robbers. As told to Empire’s Nick De Semlyn, “the original screenplay was a grim terrorist movie. On my second week working on it, I said, ‘Guys, there’s just no part of terrorism that’s fun. Robbers are fun bad guys. Let’s make this a date movie.’ And they had the courage to do it.” Director, writers and editors Frank J. Urioste and John F. Link honed the craft behind the crime with precision structure through visual articulation and architecture. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz: “Even when the film is cross-cutting between multiple lines of action in several locations, and killing people off by the bushel, you’re never confused about what’s happening, where you are, who you’re looking at, or what’s at stake.” Witness McClane rush for the second time up a back stairwell, nodding to the pin-up stuck to the wall he passed earlier (“Ladies.”). The book’s action now restricted to a single claustrophobic space over one “Midsummer’s Night Dream” as McTiernan thought of it, “and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except… the four assholes coming in the rear in standard two-by-two cover formation,” as preppy locksmith computer whiz Theo (Clarence Gilyard) observes of the incoming clueless cops.

 
When McClane first arrives he and Holly have a tiff, he retreats to a vacant office and removes his shoes and socks on the advice of his fellow traveler on the plane to “make fists with toes” and de-stress. At this point, the bad guys crash the party taking everyone hostage and John must outthink and outgun them to work out what’s happening, enlist help and save the day; hiding, taunting (“Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho” written by him on a target’s sweatshirt), picking off villains, constructing makeshift weaponry (a load of C4 strapped to a computer monitor and chair tossed down an elevator shaft) and, of course, crawling through air vents in an increasingly grubby vest (“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.”). That line and the “now I know what a TV dinner feels like” added after the vents commissioned were mistakenly made normal size, instead of oversized movie versions. The lines helped fill dead air while Willis squeezed on through.

But what if you remove the threat to McClane? In Nakatomi Plaza on Vimeo, Wolf Petersen strips away our hero’s interactions with the other characters in the film, having him basically running around an empty building, getting more grubby, bloody and scared. This de-contextualization is a fascinating exercise—as Petersen states in his notes:

“NAKATOMI PLAZA is a reorganization of selected shots from the 1988 film Die Hard. The Protagonist, John McClane, runs around Nakatomi Plaza getting dirty and bloody but finds no enemies: they have been removed. As the scenery is repeated and John’s situation does not change, he is stuck in this building, scared out of his mind, looking around for someone to shoot. The breaking of continuity in the color of his shirt and selection of guns breaks the linear narrative and open interpretation to what is happening. Is he in a videogame? A dream? Nightmare? Is he simply insane?”

 
So many details in Die Hard are memorable and delightful, character development in play, not through exposition, geography as grounding. The candy-stealing robber (Al Leong) who guiltily looks around the lobby before doing so while waiting to ambush the SWAT team assured the character a longer life and the actor more exposure, to the delight of his agent. He’s now one of the last bad guys to die. The SWAT cop who pricks his finger on a thorn (“Ow!”) in the landscaping outside the building was a spontaneous delight that McTiernan kept in. The FBI agents, Johnson and Johnson (Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush), this film’s clueless Thompson Twins from Tintin (estimated casualties, “Twenty. Twenty-five percent of the hostages, tops.”). The bumbling police chief (Paul Gleason) who sucked up to them, observing their fiery demise in the chopper: “We’re gonna need some more FBI guys.” Although de Souza felt this was a yuk too far. Generally, they all come out of the context of the moment. Not every major plot point was fully worked out either though. The filmmakers hadn’t yet figured out the baddies means of escape when the Pacific Courier truck delivering the bulk of them pulls up in the Nakatomi garage, so later when the ambulance that is supposed to whisk them away in the confusion rolls out you could say it’s an… unexpected item in the bad guy’s area.

The McGuffin of the film, the bearer bonds, is only reachable through a torturous series of obstacles. The vault’s code, five mechanical locks, and a seventh seal—an electromagnetic lock that can’t be cut locally, a fiber-optic Pacific cable that runs from the building to Tokyo HQ. De Souza acknowledged it was ridiculous, but observes that Google are now planning to implement the same thing. As the seal is broken and the vault swings open, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, scattered intermittently throughout the score, now swells and a grinning Hans is bathed in golden triumphant backlight.

 
The other star of the film was the building itself, a steel and glass construction, 20th Century Fox’s L.A. HQ, Fox Plaza. The paint was still drying in places and several floors were still under construction, so it was ideal for the action being staged, not least because its location ensured it was unobstructed by other buildings. “We had to periodically run downstairs and apologize to the lawyers beneath,” according to McTiernan as multiple movie explosions rocked the structure. As stated before, Willis was a risk, so for the first few weeks of the film’s release, only the building featured on the poster. Later, the penthouse at Fox Plaza was used by former President Ronald Reagan after his retirement from politics. When Secret Service agents swept the floor before occupancy they were alarmed to discover stray bullet casings from filming that had been overlooked in the clean-up.

The most spectacular stunt sequence occurs when McClane scares the hostages back down off the roof, wraps a fire hose around himself and leaps off just as the packed C4 explodes, taking out the Feds chopper. Swinging out, McClane shoots through a glass window, batters through it with bloodied feet, and scrambles to release as the now detached hose reel tumbles beneath him, dragging him on a carpet tile almost with it. The helicopter flyby took months to prepare, but they only had two hours to film it with six cameras. McTiernan was forbidden from taking them in on the deck, but flipped the bird to permission. One chopper clipped a fountain before soaring up to the roof. The director restrained himself to one run though. “If something had fallen into the intake of the turbine, we could have had 75 people killed.”

For the explosion back-lit jump, the director was initially going to use bluescreen, but was persuaded to do it for real (although not off a real skyscraper!). SFX coordinator Al Di Sarro set up a parking lot with mortars and jet fuel. Willis, smothered in heat-proof gel, jumped onto an airbag as the explosives were set off. Willis improvised “I promise I will never even think about going up in a tall building again,” as he leaps to safety.

 
Rickman got to do his own stunt too. As he and McClane finally confront each other with the plan now in ruins, McClane shoots Hans, who is holding Holly hostage. Cockily blowing smoke from his weapon, he fails to realize Hans is dragging Holly back with him over the edge of the building. As John struggles to release his wife’s fancy watch clasp that Hans clings to, the villain tumbles backwards to his doom. Rickman also fell towards an airbag, 25 feet away, but to maintain the shock on his character’s face, the crew released him on “one,” not the promised “three”.

And of course Die Hard is a Christmas film! McClane, in town to deliver a massive teddy bear, is stuck in the chimney/air duct. Al Powell represents the ghost of Christmas past with guilt at his rookie shooting years ago of a kid with a toy gun holding back his career—he redeems himself now by blowing away a previously thought dead Karl and saving the happily reunited couple (de Souza compared this hilariously with the mental patient who joins in the mayhem in The Big Red One (“Oh wow, I wasted all that time with the Police psychiatrist!”)); the two useless Feds are ghosts of Christmas present maybe (reaching here!); and the happy family life McClane is searching for is the ghost of Christmas future. Of course his wife is called “Holly”, the fluttering bearer bonds a Christmas snow shower, it’s packed with Christmas tunes, and there’s a pregnant woman! But the real reason it is a Christmas film is a basic plot point, according to de Souza. At what other time of the year would an office hold a party the bad guys could crash? Duh. Happy holidays, Hans.

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

 

“Bruce and I grew up watching the same TV shows. Roy Rogers used to say ‘Yippee ki yah, kids.’ So it had to become ‘Yippee ki yah, motherfucker’ in the movie. That line was from me. Whenever you think you’re writing a line that’s going to catch on, it never does. A lot of people, cough, Sylvester Stallone, cough, think they can invent them. The line you think is going to catch on never catches on and the audience decides what is the takeaway line.” —Steven E. de Souza

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Jeb Stuart & Steven E. de Souza’s screenplay for Die Hard [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). With many thanks to the brilliant Steven E. de Souza. The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

Loader Loading...
EAD Logo Taking too long?

Reload Reload document
| Open Open in new tab

 

‘DIE HARD’: THE ULTIMATE VISUAL HISTORY

Written by Variety senior producer David S. Cohen and James Mottram, Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History is available on Nov. 13 from Insight Editions.

 
Steven E. de Souza discusses adaptations and writing from the villain’s perspective, offers advice on writer’s block, and reveals who wrote that line from Die Hard.

“Bruce and I grew up watching the same TV shows. Roy Rogers used to say ‘Yippee ki yah, kids.’ So it had to become ‘Yippee ki yah, motherfucker’ in the movie. That line was from me. Whenever you think you’re writing a line that’s going to catch on, it never does. A lot of people, cough, Sylvester Stallone, cough, think they can invent them. The line you think is going to catch on never catches on and the audience decides what is the takeaway line.” —Steven E. de Souza on screenwriting: There is no such thing as an action movie

 
“I went about it like it was reverse engineering. I knew that I had to go and learn what a movie was, not just my experience of going and watching a movie. So I went and sat in Truffaut’s Day for Night, watched it for three days straight, eight hours at a time and memorized it shot-for-shot. I got past the story, all the original and secondary experience, so I could study what it was that I was really watching. Film is really sort of a chain that’s really linear. Yet when it’s all strung together, it just sort of feels like an experience. It takes quite a while to be able to deconstruct that experience to figure out what you really saw.” —John McTiernan

 
John McTiernan talks about how he approaches actors when making a film, his notions on filmmaking and editing. Do not miss this, you’ll learn something you didn’t know. Courtesy of filmschoolthrucommentaries.

 

‘DIE HARD’: FIRST IMPRESSIONS LAST

How the simple and to-the-point character introduction in Die Hard elevated it from a mere standard action flick to an all-time classic.

 

SHOT BREAKDOWN: DIE HARD

John McTiernan’s classic actioner Die Hard is broken down from top to bottom. To supplement his discussions of the film through filmschoolthrucommentaries’ condensed commentaries—you can also now take your time and study how he strung together the images together to form scenes and sequences.

 

JAN DE BONT, ASC

Jan de Bont, ASC, discuss his work on John McTiernan’s Die Hard, now considered a classic of the action genre. Citing an affinity for a proactive, participatory camera, De Bont details how he and McTiernan sought “the right style for the right moment,” and explains how production designer Jackson De Govia and editor Frank Urioste helped them achieve that. He also discusses the influence of John Frankenheimer, his approach to lighting the skyscraper interiors and exteriors (including balancing the two in shot), working with Panavision anamorphic lenses, and lighting the massive atrium set. —American Cinematographer Podcast: Die Hard

 
“Did Die Hard reinvent the Hollywood action genre? Definitely so. It also brought the talent of Michael Kamen to the mainstream with a nerve pounding score that constantly engages its audience. Assault on the Tower, the longest musical assembly of the whole movie, is a relentless equilibrium that addresses the failed Nakatomi takeover from within and from without; gelling the different dramatic point of views into one coherent piece.” —Pierre André Lowenstein

 

ALAN RICKMAN ON ‘DIE HARD’ ROLE

“I read it, and I said, ‘What the hell is this? I’m not doing an action movie.’ Agents and people said: ‘Alan, you don’t understand, this doesn’t happen. You’ve only been in L.A. two days, and you’ve been asked to do this film.’ Then I went back to England, and I kind of got the Joel Silver: ‘Get the hell out of here, you’ll wear what you’re told,’ and I said, ‘OK, fine.’ And then I came back and they handed me the new script. So, you know, it just pays to occasionally use a little bit of theater training when you’re doing a movie. It is shocking how thrilling it is to shoot a machine gun, that I discovered.”

 

JOHN MCTIERNAN ON FILMMAKING PHILOSOPHY

Here’s a compilation of all the valuable bits from all of the commentaries John McTiernan had recorded and then making them screen specific, courtesy of filmschoolthrucommentaries.

 
Director John McTiernan discusses defining the medium of filmmaking.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John McTiernan’s Die Hard. Photographed by Robert Isenberg, Virgil Mirano & Peter Sorel © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Gordon Company, Silver Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 

If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:

Spread the love