“If this is their idea of Christmas, I gotta be here for New Year’s.”
“Die Hard” (1988) is hands down one of the best action movies. Since it takes place on Christmas Eve, it has become a great alternative to the classic holiday fare we will soon be seeing on the networks.
There are many reasons why I enjoy watching this movie so much – and they’re rather quirky. As some of you may know I’m obsessed with Frank Sinatra. The singer was quite a good actor. I’m particularly fond of his performance as Joe Leland in the gritty “The Detective” (1968) – where he investigates a gruesome murder while his marriage is falling apart. (An interesting footnote is that his recent bride Mia Farrow was supposed to be the female lead, but she was held up with shooting delays in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Frank filed for divorce.) The movie was based on a 1966 novel of the same name by Roderick Thorpe. In 1974, after seeing “The Towering Inferno,” Thorpe was inspired to write a sequel with the idea of Frank reprising his role in the adaptation. “Nothing Lasts Forever” finds Leland now rescuing his drug-addicted daughter, who was attending a holiday party in a skyscraper when German terrorists take over. When the studio decided to go into production of “Die Hard” in the late 80s, Sinatra was contractually obligated to be offered the part which had been re-christened John McClane. He was 70 years old at the time, and turned it down. I like imagining Ol’ Blue Eyes when I hear “Yippee-ki-yay…”
The main theme from the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, commonly known as “Ode to Joy,” is the classical music used in the climax of “Die Hard” – when the German thieves (Director John McTiernan thought that terrorism as was used in the book wasn’t palatable) open the building’s vaults. Now every time you hear that tune you immediately associate it with this film. It was Kubrick in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) that had connected the aggressive and impulsive tones in the traditionally joyful piece by Beethoven and juxtaposed it with violent visuals. In “Die Hard,” composer Michael Kamen weaves it throughout the film. The quartet plays a muzak rendition at the Nakatomi Corporation’s Christmas party – and Hans Gruber hums it in his first appearance. It is also used in a lower key – performed with double basses and cellos – during the tensest moments. Kamen’s score is fantastic to hear. I love how he subversively incorporates sleigh bells in the darkest and most menacing scenes. Pay close attention and you’ll hear the melodies of “Singing in the Rain” and “Winter Wonderland” as motifs for the criminals.
Which is a nice segue to talk about Hans Gruber – one of the best villains in cinema. We get two narratives in the film – the point of view of our hero McClane – who’s at the holiday event to reconcile with his wife– and the point of view of Gruber. The latter’s management of the robbery and the way he approaches everything so matter-of-factly is fascinating to watch. For a while you think it’s his story. He is smooth and intelligent and has a keen eye for art and clothing. “I could talk about men’s fashion and industrialization all day but I’m afraid work must intrude,” he mentions. I had seen Alan Rickman on Broadway in the original production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” – and it is terrific watching him take the seductive badness and infuse it into Gruber. The best scene in “Die Hard” – ironically one of its quietest – is when Gruber stumbles into McClaine. Rickman convincingly and instantaneously switches into an American accent and transforms himself from a controlled antagonist to a scared victim. I miss Rickman. What an incredible actor. I love listening to the timbre of his voice. His accomplice Karl is also memorable – played by former ballet star Alexander Godunov – which explains his lithe moves with a machine gun in hand.
The character of McClaine is refreshing. We had grown accustomed to our larger than life, invincible and muscular action heroes of the 80s embodied by Stallone or Schwarzenegger. In Bruce Willis we got a character that seemed more plausible and vulnerable. You see his body take the toll of the beatings and stunts – and yes, Willis is charming. I like that he describes himself as “just a fly in the ointment. A monkey wrench.”
McTiernan keeps things taut and exciting. With the help of cinematographer Jan de Bont – who will go on to a successful career directing action films himself (1994’s “Speed” and 1996’s “Twister”) – they make the building one of the main ingredients. A great shot is that of McClane tightly framed inside the air vents. “Now I know what a TV dinner feels like,” he flippantly says. De Bont captures a lot of lens flare – and with handheld shots moves close to the actors. The Oscar winning editing by John F. Link and Frank J. Urioste grabs some tips from French New Wave techniques.
Hans Gruber: “It’s Christmas, Theo. It’s the time of miracles. So be of good cheer…”
Available to stream on HBO NOW, HBO MAX and HBO (via Hulu and Prime Video) and DIRECTV.
Available to rent on iTunes, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Redbox, YouTube, Redbox and DIRECTV.
Screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza. Based on the novel by Roderick Thorp.
Directed by John McTiernan
Starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, De’voreaux White, Hart Bochner, James Shigeta and William Atherton and Andreas Wisniewski
Director John McTiernan on the “Die Hard” Script
Part of the appeal of “Die Hard” is the humor and self-deprecating lines that Bruce Willis delivers as John McClane. That wasn’t always in the the script. The movie was originally written for another actor…and in McTiernan’s opinion, the movie needed to “be fun” rather than a more straightforward thriller with terrorists. One reason the movie has the legacy it has is because of those changes. We spoke with McTiernan about his work on the movie and how the script changed over time. “We completely changed it from the original screenplay, on the permise in my sense that terrorist movies are no fun,” McTiernan told Men’s Journal. “Movies need to be fun—that’s why audiences go. There’s something about terrorism that makes everyone feel sad. There are people who are so desperate, who perceive themself in a situation so desperate, that they resort to an insane form of warfare. You can’t enjoy even that it was foiled, because the fact that it happened can make you terribly sad.” “And Joel Silver let me run—and we said, these guys are robbers they’re not terrorists, because everybody likes a good robbery story. You like the good guy and you like the bad guy at the same time in a robbery. You don’t have to question that formula, just look at Ocean’s 8,9,10,11,12 and 14. [laughs]. That was why we made the change.” (mensjournal.com)
Cinematographer Jan de Bont on “Die Hard”
“Basically, it always comes down to the screenplay. Of course, I was a fan of American movies, and especially like the more realistic type of action movies, and Die Hard – the script itself – was something that I thought, the moment I read it, I could create a visual style that would be really perfect for the time. Where everything is so direct and very intimate, in a way. The camera is almost taking part in the action itself. Most of the film is shot handheld, there’s very close distances, the camera feels and moves around the actors in a way as if it is a third person participating in all of it. That makes it really interesting. I also felt that, when I talked to John [McTiernan], I said, ‘We need to do this all on location. No matter the location, we have to make this look real. Because if this film doesn’t look real, it’s going to be just like another action movie that we’ve seen so many of.’ And he totally supported that. And at that time, handheld was not used [very often] – it happened after, and was copied many times, but before that, it wasn’t really used. People didn’t think like that. It was such a big movie, you couldn’t do that. You had to treat it more like a regular stylized film like people had seen before. This was a moment in time where, basically, film was already on the verge of transitioning from analogue to digital. I always felt that this could be one of those last movies that still could really showcase all the advantages of analogue filmmaking.”
We didn’t storyboard much. The good thing is that John and I had such a great relationship, and to me, it’s always a matter of trust. When you storyboard the movie from beginning to end, I feel, as a DP, the movie has been made. So why would you get involved? Somebody else can do it. For me, you make the decisions on the set of how you’re going to do it. There’s no way in the world that a storyboard artist can imagine what an actor’s going to do, what the set will look like exactly, what the relationships between the characters will be. That’s how you have to film on the set, and the camera has to relate to that. You always have to see where everybody is at a given time in relationship to each other. Otherwise, you have all this confusion. I hate confusion in movies, where we have no clue where everybody is. John gave me an incredible amount of freedom in that way. We talked about it before – every day, we drove to the set together and talked about the scene and what was important, what are the key elements, what we had to make come across and how tense it had to be, or was this scene a bit more relaxed. We talked more about the emotional and the suspense character of the scene, not so much, ‘Then a close-up of this, then a medium shot, then a wide.’ We never thought in those ways. Those were really great conversations in that regard between us, and really important.” (slashfilm.com)
About Author Roderick Thorp
Mr. Thorp was born on Sept. 1, 1936, in the Bronx. He graduated in 1957 from City College of New York, where he won a Theodore Goodman Short Story Award. After graduation he sold cars, worked in a haberdashery, founded a catering company and worked in insurance. In his 20’s, he also worked in his father’s private detective agency, where he once spent a week lying under a bus spying on a mechanic selling stolen gasoline…Mr. Thorp stopped being a detective when ”The Detective” was published. The novel, a gritty look at the lives of big-city police detectives, earned him hundreds of thousands of dollars and some degree of fame. He was not quite an overnight sensation, though. ”The Detective” was his second novel; his first novel, ”Into the Forest” (1961), did not sell well. His other best seller was ”Nothing Lasts Forever,” about Joe Leland, a burned-out ex-cop turned security consultant who is caught in a terrorist siege of an office building. He also wrote ”Wives,” with Robert Blake (1971), ”Circle of Love” (1974), ”Westfield” (1977), ”Rainbow Drive (1986) and ”River: A Novel of the Green River Killings” (1995). His articles also appeared in many magazines and newspapers. Before moving to California, Mr. Thorp taught literature at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J., from 1971 to 1976. He also lectured on creative writing at schools, colleges and writers’ conferences in Southern California. Besides his son Roderick, Mr. Thorp is survived by his wife, Claudia; another son, Stephen, of Woodland Hills, Calif.; two sisters, Sandra Kuch of Tampa, Fla., and Patricia Kerrigan Roth of Oldsmar, Fla., and three grandchildren. (nytimes.com)
De Bont on the Location of the Fox Building
“The building itself is a character in the movie, so the character had to be seen and showcased. You needed the building to have character, and at the same time, we needed a building that was available [laughs] and was partially empty. So it was fantastic that, after all the locations we looked at, that was right next to us the whole time. What is so fantastic about that building, I think there were four or five stories occupied at the time, and many stories were still under construction. So we could use all of the floors that were not built yet and use them as set pieces. Also, what is so nice about the building is that it had to be seen from far away. When Bruce sees it in the very beginning – when [limo driver Argyle] drives the car toward it, you only see it from a distance. As it comes in, the audience starts to get ideas about, ‘This building is special.’ Ultimately, it is. The whole story takes place in this one building, inside out, and what’s also important is what you’re seeing out of the building, you could see the outside. We weren’t in a studio looking at a blue screen or a green screen. It was always real. To make that real, the windows had to be extremely clear at night scenes and very filtered during the day time so there was a balance between inside and outside. We had to change those windows on two floors regularly. All the windows. It really felt like you were looking down and, there’s the city down there! That creates a lot of reality that is so much more important than cutting away and going to different locations.” (slashfilm.com)
About Director John McTiernan
A leading craftsman of dynamic, large-scale Hollywood movies, John McTiernan first made his mark as a prolific writer and director of commercials. His first feature, “Nomads,” was well received at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival and directly led to his first major studio action flick, “Predator” (1987). Set against a jungle backdrop beautifully photographed by McTiernan and his cinematographer Donald McAlpine, the film pitted a bickering interracial group of soldiers against an invisible alien enemy in a situation that was seen as a Vietnam allegory. “Predator” firmly established McTiernan’s Hollywood bona fides, which he not only confirmed but exceeded with his next blockbuster, “Die Hard” (1988), the surprise action hit that catapulted TV star Bruce Willis into the feature big leagues. McTiernan exhibited firm command of the genre with his soon-to-be signature Blitzkrieg action, extraordinary stunts and expert timing. Though McTiernan had his share of flops – “Last Action Hero” (1993) and “Rollerball” (2002) chief among them – he managed to cement his status as one of Hollywood’s most prominent action film directors. But that prominence crumbled to the ground in 2006 when he was charged with lying to the FBI in the infamous Anthony Pellicano case and spent years appealing his conviction, only to be sentenced to prison years later. Despite his criminal troubles, McTiernan’s career as an action director remained impeccable. (rottentomatoes.com)