THIRTY-SIX FLOORS. THIRTEEN TERRORISTS. THREE NEW INTERVIEWS. EMPIRE BRINGS YOU THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO THE GREATEST ACTION MOVIE EVER MADE: DIE HARD
Thirty years on, director John Mctiernan and writers Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza take the elevator to the 34th floor of the Nakatomi Plaza one last time. Lovely muzak.
EMINENTLY QUOTABLE AND endlessly rewatchable, Die Hard remains the gold standard for big-screen action. Adapted from a Roderick Thorp novel by first-time screenwriter Jeb Stuart and fizzed up by Steven E. de Souza’s quippy dialogue, it was meticulously directed by set-piece maestro John Mctiernan. Combined with the movie’s secret weapon — TV star Bruce Willis — these ingredients added up to create an action film like no other.
For the movie’s 30th birthday, we asked Mctiernan, de Souza and Stuart to talk us through Die Hard scene by scene. Yippee-ki-yay, motherfuckers.
__ New York detective and reluctant flyer John Mcclane (Bruce Willis) touches down at LAX with some handy jet-lag advice from a fellow passenger: “Walk around on the rug barefoot and make fists with your toes.” The tip was one shared with Jeb Stuart during his frequent-flying youth. Does it work? “Honestly, I think a Valium is just as good,” he says.
__ The first trademark Willis smirk. Everyone from Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman to Richard Gere and James Caan had been offered the role of Mcclane, but none bit. In desperation, the studio paid Willis, then starring alongside Cybill Shepherd in TV detective comedydrama Moonlighting, a humongous $5 million for the role. “There was a lot of hand-wringing at Fox, but they were over a barrel,” says Stuart. “I was a big Moonlighting fan, though. I loved it.”
__ Trainee limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White) picks up Mcclane (and teddy bear) in the departure lounge. Producer Joel Silver suggested the name, although no-one seems to know why. “It might have been his pet dog, it might have been the name of his sled — I have no idea — but he insisted on Argyle,” recalls Mctiernan. “It was just goofy enough that I thought it was wonderful.”
__ Thanks to Argyle’s side-gig as Basil Exposition, we get the lowdown on Mcclane’s backstory as a NYC cop whose wife moved to LA without him. Everyman Mcclane naturally sits up front. “It positions him as this typical blue-collar guy and a contrast to the terrorist leader,” says de Souza. In earlier drafts Mcclane (then called John Ford) was a more Fleming-esque counterterrorist expert. Mctiernan insisted he be downgraded to a run-of-the-mill flatfoot from New Jersey.
__ Argyle pulls into Nakatomi Plaza — in reality Fox Plaza. The studio’s spanking new HQ was still under construction and largely unoccupied, making it the perfect location to shoot in and, ultimately, partially blow up. “It was the only way the film was possible,” says Mctiernan. “I mean, no-one’s gonna loan you a skyscraper!”
__ Mcclane and Holly lock eyes across the office. “The only thing that dates the film is Bonnie Bedelia’s hairstyle and shoulder pads,” observes de Souza. “We should get whoever turned the guns into walkie-talkies for the special edition of E.T. to go in and tweak her fashion sense.”
__ The terrorists arrive in a Pacific Courier truck (a fictional company subsequently re-used in
Speed and riffed on in Die Hard With A Vengeance). While the terrorists had always planned to escape amid the chaos, the exact method — via an ambulance smuggled inside the truck — wasn’t settled on until the final weeks of filming, whereupon the truck miraculously grew to accommodate it.
__ Led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the terrorists spill out of the truck in a wave of blouson jackets, popped collars and fluffy blow-dries. It all looks less like an armed infiltration than a slightly glowery catwalk at Hamburg Fashion Week. “When Rickman came in they started fitting him with all this tactical gear and he said, ‘I’m not going to wear this, I’m going to look ridiculous,’” recalls de Souza. “[Casting director] Jackie Burch said, ‘Why do these guys have to look like the mooks in every other action movie? Let’s elevate it, let’s make them look like models!’”
__ Gruber steps out of the elevator and ends the festivities. Die Hard was Rickman’s first movie role, having been cast off the back of Broadway’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. “Once we started to see what he was able to do, it was like, ‘Hey, get the fuck out of his way! Just let him do it,’” recalls Mctiernan.
__ Gruber addresses the hostages, citing Nakatomi’s legacy of greed around the globe as reason for the attack. This was, in fact, the original set-up until Mctiernan (after turning the job down several times due to the dour nature of the script) insisted the ‘terrorists’ be transformed into thieves. “Terrorists make you feel bad,” the director explains. “There’s no joy in that. But robbers are fun, you can root for them. They just want the money.”
__ “Nice suit. John Phillips, London. I have two myself.” Fabric fact: Gruber’s suit in the movie is a customtailored Armani.
__ The vault’s security consists of a code, which Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr) cracks, five mechanical locks, which he drills, plus the seventh seal (a Bergman nod from de Souza): an electromagnetic lock that can’t be cut locally. “That’s the most stupid thing in the movie, which I take full credit for,” laughs de Souza. “That the final lock is a fibre-optic cable that runs from this building to another one in Tokyo under the ocean is the most ridiculous thing ever. But it enabled us to put the audience in suspense. In the book, they’re searching the office for documents, but in the movie it’s this lock that gives the terrorists something to do.”
__ Having alerted Gruber to his presence by pulling the fire alarm, Mcclane is hunted by Tony (Andreas Wisniewski), the world’s least stylish terrorist. Despite being part of a group resembling the militant wing of Spandau Ballet, Tony sports a simple grey tracksuit. It doesn’t save him from getting his neck snapped when Mcclane drags him down the stairs, though.
“That was inspired by Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, where you see how hard it is to kill somebody with your bare hands,” reveals de Souza.
__ Just as Gruber utters the words, “We have left nothing to chance,” the lift opens to reveal a very dead
Tony, sporting a Santa hat and bearing everybody’s favourite festive slogan: “Now I Have A Machine Gun Ho-hoho.” “Bruce rode the top of that elevator for real,” says de Souza.
__ Our introduction to Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), loading up on Twinkies at a convenience store. According to the film’s casting director, Mctiernan originally pushed for Robert Duvall but she went to bat for Veljohnson, insisting he’d be a grounding influence. Mctiernan recalls it differently, maintaining he’d actually wanted Laurence Fishburne.
__ “Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.” Ad-libbed by Willis, the line was inserted after the production mistakenly commissioned real air vents instead of oversized movie versions. “They were too small and it was taking Bruce, like, a month to move from point A to point B, so we needed lines to fill the dead air,” says de Souza. “That’s how the, ‘Come out to the coast…’ line ended up in there, too.”
__ Terrorists Heinrich
(Gary Roberts) and Marco (Lorenzo Caccialanza) take on Mcclane and lose. The moment Mcclane shoots Marco through the conference table is, according to Willis, responsible for permanent hearing damage in his left ear. Mctiernan, however, dismisses the claim. “You’re not allowed to shoot a gun without hearing protection all around. There’s a safety man on set whose job it is to make sure that doesn’t happen!”
__ Willis’ hearing might have survived, but the building’s other occupants proved less understanding. “There were some big law firms based there,” recalls Mctiernan. “They screamed their heads off every time we let off any gunfire. They were absolutely furious and threatened to sue us on several occasions.”
__ Slimy reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) is introduced, discussing dinner plans with his girlfriend (he’s referring to Wolfgang Puck’s ’80s hotspot: Spago on the Sunset Strip). Thornburg was inspired by Stuart’s time at university, where he disliked most of the journalism students. “I didn’t hold them in high regard, so, anytime I could find a chance to stick a dig in, I did.”
__ Mcclane cold-calls Gruber for the first time. The call wraps up with Die Hard’s most famous line: “Yippee-kiyay, motherfucker.” While Willis has claimed it as an ad-lib, the line is in the shooting script. “That came out of a conversation Bruce and I had in his trailer,” corrects de Souza. “We grew up about 40 miles apart and were talking about our childhood and how we both watched The Roy Rogers Show. Roy always signed off that way, and that’s why it’s in the movie.”
__ Mcclane tells Powell the terrorists have “enough plastic explosive to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger”. A persistent rumour maintains Die Hard was once intended for Schwarzenegger as a sequel to Commando. This is, de Souza confirms, nonsense, although his unfilmed screenplay for Commando 2 did feature a hostage situation in a building, likely where the confusion originates. “The Arnold line was actually an ad-lib,” he recalls. “In the script it was [full-figured American songstress] Kate Smith.”
__ Holly strides in to see Gruber, laying out a list of demands
(wee breaks, a couch for her pregnant assistant) that clearly puts Gruber on the back foot. It’s a great scene for Bedelia and one she owes, in large part, to Willis’ Moonlighting schedule overrunning. “At one point he was shooting 10 hours a day on the show and filming this at night, getting 20 minutes sleep in his trailer,” says de Souza. “Mctiernan came to me and said,
‘We’re killing Bruce! Can you fatten up the other sections of the movie?’ So I wrote more scenes with Thornburg, Holly and everyone else. This scene was the first one I wrote.”
__ LAPD’S elite SWAT team go in — an operation slightly undermined when one of their crack troopers pricks his finger on a rose: an unscripted moment that Mctiernan kept. Terrorist Uli (Al Leong) brings his own sprinkle of improv magic when he steals a Hershey bar from the concession stand and starts munching away. “That assured him a longer life,” says de Souza. “I was killing somebody every eight or 10 pages but that moment made him interesting. He’s one of the last guys to die.”
__ After their squad is gunned down on the steps, the cops up their game, sending in ‘the car’ — in reality a modified World War II Scorpion tank. “I’ve always loved old military vehicles,” says Mctiernan. “So we went and bought one of these things from a collector in the desert, just because it would be fun. It’s a goofy action sequence, but we had to find ways for the police to do things other than shooting people.”
__ Über-yuppie Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner) swaggers into Gruber’s office, offering to solve Gruber’s cowboy problem once and for all: “Hans, bubby... I’m your white knight!” Bochner played Ellis as coked-up, much to the irritation of Mctiernan, who had told him to aim for Cary Grant. Silver, however, loved it, insisting Bochner cut loose and go for maximum asshole.
__ Gruber and Mcclane finally come face-to-face, Hans pretending to be an escaped hostage. Not in the original script, this scene originated when Rickman goofed off, putting on an American accent for the crew. De Souza immediately ran to Mctiernan with an idea for this scene, which required re-thinking Takagi’s (James Shigeta) execution so that Mcclane never sees Gruber’s face. “These movies are like romantic comedies,” says de Souza. “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.”
__ The pair share a friendly cigarette and chat, Rickman standing on one leg (out of shot) the whole time because he’d damaged the cartilage in his knee jumping down from the ledge in the previous shot. The camera deploys a distinct Dutch angle here to indicate the deception — a Mctiernan homage to The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari.
__ The game is up! How Mcclane sees through Gruber’s ruse has been the subject of endless fan theories, but the truth lies on Gruber’s wrist. All of the terrorists have matching Tag Heuer watches — signposted by a scene shot early in production where the gang synchronise them. “When they all set
their watches you were staring into the maw of an empty truck,” says de Souza. “There was clearly no ambulance! So we had to lose it and also cut the bit where Bruce looks at the watch. It makes no sense now.”
__ Mcclane pulls chunks of glass from his bloody, mangled feet. “All things being equal, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” he quips, quoting W.C. Fields. Mctiernan and de Souza came up with the film’s most gut-churning scene weeks into filming to lend Mcclane sympathy and show he’s in pain. Largely so his smart-ass attitude came across as courageous, rather than just being a dick.
__ The film’s literal money shot. As the Agents Johnson (Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush) cut the building’s power (a $20,000 effects shot, since they couldn’t do it for real), Hans gets his Christmas miracle and the vault door slides open to Theo’s amazement as ‘Ode To Joy’ swells around us. “It’s preposterous that Gruber wouldn’t have told his team what the whole deal was,” laughs de Souza. “But withholding that information makes the audience intrigued. You secretly want the authorities to fail, ’cause otherwise you’ll never find out what he’s up to.”
__ Beaten and bloody, Mcclane gives Powell a message for Holly: “Tell her that John said he was sorry.” A simple sentiment but also the inspiration for the entire movie. When starting the project, Stuart had a row with his wife, jumped in the car and sped off. Tearing down the freeway he crashed into a (thankfully empty) refrigerator box and, badly shaken, pulled over in a cold sweat. “At that moment it came to me in a flash,” he remembers. “The story wasn’t about a 60-year-old man whose daughter falls from a building [as in the novel]. It was gonna be about a 30-year-old man who should have said sorry to his wife and then something bad happens.”
__ Hans has wired the roof to blow and the FBI are sending gunships: it’s a quadruple-cross! Just as he finds out the truth, Mcclane is bushwhacked by a pissed-off Karl (Alexander Godunov), which kicks off the mother of all artless brawls. “Choreographed fights can be so formulaic and boring,” says Mctiernan. “We tried very hard to figure out how the hell you actually make it feel like a real physical fight. It’s messy, like a fight in the sixth-grade schoolyard.” Unlike the average playground tussle, Karl is left hanging from a chain-link noose.
__ The Johnsons soar over the LA streets. “Just like fucking
Saigon, eh, slick?” “I was in junior high, dickhead!”
“The LAPD told Joel Silver [producer] that they could not bring those helicopters in on the deck as it’s written in the script,” remembers Stuart. “Joel said, ‘Absolutely. We will, of course, not do that. We’ll keep it well above 1,500 feet.’ Then to the helicopter pilots: ‘Bring them in as low as you possibly can!’”
Mctiernan had six camera crews and planned three runs for the choppers, but the director got cold feet after he saw them soar over the hostages on the roof. “It wasn’t that long after the helicopter accident on The Twilight
Zone, and that put the fear of God into me. After the first run I said no more,” he says. “If something had fallen into the intake of the turbine, we could have had 75 people killed.”
__ “Blow the roof!” Hans hits the detonator, turning the top of Nakatomi Plaza into a searing fireball. The script had featured an elaborate scene in which Mcclane defused the bomb, but Silver insisted that, like Chekhov’s C4, as audiences had seen the explosives being set, they had to see them go off. “I had to reconstruct that whole part of the movie to get Mcclane off the roof, which led to Bruce jumping off with the fire hose,” recalls Stuart.
__ “I promise I will never even think about going up in a tall building again.” The perfect parting thought before Mcclane hurls himself off the roof as it explodes, crashing his way through an office window. “Bruce came up with that,” says Mctiernan. “He threw it out on the first take.”
__ “We’re gonna need some more FBI guys.” Stuart’s favourite line in the movie, though not de Souza’s. “I hated that line,” he says. “It was an ad-lib from Paul Gleason [Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson]; I thought it was a joke too far.”
__ Argyle watches Theo unload an ambulance from the back of the (now enlarged) truck. Look closely and you can see a typo on the side, which reads “LOS ANGELES CITY FIRE DEPARMENT”.
__ The final showdown. Mcclane confronts Gruber in the vault, suckering him in with banter before pulling the pistol Christmas-taped to his back and making good use of his final two bullets. Stumbling back, Gruber grabs Holly’s wrist and nearly pulls her out the window with him, until Mcclane undoes the clasp on her company-bought Rolex.
“Anyone who’s ever owned a Rolex knows that watch isn’t gonna just open,” observes Stuart. “It’s a sealed clasp! I brought that up at a production meeting and everybody looked at me like I was insane.”
The look of terror on Rickman’s face is entirely genuine, however. “They said, ‘We’ll let you go on three.’ And they dropped him on one,” says de Souza.
__ Despite glass-splintered feet and a bullet hole in his shoulder, Mcclane seeks no medical attention, driving off in the limo with Holly. As Christmas morning breaks, the pair kiss in the back seat while hundreds of millions in bearer bonds fall around them like snow and Dean Martin croons a festive hit. At the recent Comedy Central Roast dedicated to insulting him, the star of the movie declared, “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!” But his collaborators disagree.
“Of course it’s a Christmas movie!” says de Souza. “That’s why it has snowfall, and why the first time Bruce sees Al Powell he’s shot like an angel in The Bishop’s Wife or something.”
“It was always a Christmas movie,” agrees Stuart. “It was in the novel and it is in my script. The movie’s about family and getting together and all those Christmas things.”
De Souza even cites the new 30th anniversary edition Fox is releasing as definitive proof. “It comes with Christmas cards and the box is a Christmas sweater. Who are you gonna believe? Bruce Willis, a mere actor, or Rupert Murdoch?”
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Clockwise from above: Bruce Willis in a behind-thescenes shot as action hero John Mcclane; Mcclane finds himself in a tight spot; Alexander Godunov (as henchman Karl) takes a break from being hanged; Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) gets hands on with Mcclane’s wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia).
Below: gang attack Gruber the and vaults of the Plaza. Right: Mcclane picks out the broken glass from his bare feet. Pity the poor Nakatomi cleaner the next day.
Clockwise Original storyboards from above: illustrating a pivotal action sequence where Mcclane uses a fire hose to lower himself down the outside of the Nakatomi Plaza tower; The fire hose sequence is brought to life; Between-shot discussion with cinematographer Jan De Bont, director Mctiernan and Willis.