There’s no better place to start than at the beginning – so, for the first episode of Die Hard With a Podcast, we’re taking a look at the making of Die Hard. For a film with so many incredible stunts and huge explosions, it’s hard to believe it’s based on a book – or is technically a sequel to a 1960s Frank Sinatra flick. On this show, we go from acquiring the rights to the story, crewing up the film, writing the script, casting its stars, and rolling at the Fox Plaza building in Los Angeles. Learn why Die Hard was fully expected to flop, why Bruce Willis’s salary was so controversial, and how exactly they pulled off Hans’s fall from the 30th floor.
- A/V Club, Die Hard humanized (and perfected) the action movie
- ABC News, ‘Die Hard’ turns 30: All about the film and who could have played John McClane
- Creative Screenwriting, “There is no such thing as an action movie.” Steven E. de Souza on Screenwriting
- Deep Focus Review, The Definitives: Die Hard
- Empire, Empire Essay: Die Hard Review
- Entertainment Weekly, Bruce Willis: “If I hadn’t done ‘Die Hard,’ I’d rip it off”
- Eric Lichtenfeld, Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie
- Film School Rejects, 31 Things We Learned From the ‘Die Hard’ Commentary Track
- Film School Through Commentaries, John McTiernan on filmmaking philosophy
- I Choose to Stand, Retrospective: Die Hard (1988)
- IMDb, Die Hard
- IndieWire, Cruel Summer: Die Hard (1988)
- Mental Floss, 19 Things to Look for the Next Time You Watch Die Hard
- Mental Floss, 30 Cold, Hard Facts About Die Hard
- Overthinking It, The Best of All Possible Die Hards
- Rolling Stone, Why the OG ‘Die Hard’ Still Rules
- Screen Rant, 15 Crazy Things You Didn’t Know About Die Hard
- Shmoop, Die Hard
- Shortlist, Die Hard: 25 Years On
- The Daily Beast, ‘Die Hard’: How Bruce Willis Changed the Movies
- The New York Times, If Willis Gets $5 Million, How Much for Redford?
- The Star Democrat, Five days of ‘Die Hard’ part one: ‘Die Hard’ (1988)
- Thrillist, A (Mini) Oral History of the Most Memorable ‘Die Hard’ Moments
- Viddy Well, 10 Fun Facts About Die Hard
- Vulture, How Die Hard Changed the Action Game
- Wikipedia, Die Hard
- Zimbio, 20 Things You Never Knew About ‘Die Hard’
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Full Episode Transcript
Welcome to the podcast, pal.
My name is Simone Chavoor, and thank you for joining me for Die Hard. With. A! Podcast! The show that examines the best American action movie of all time: Die Hard.
This is the first episode of this new podcast! It’s been a kind of crazy labor of love, putting the show together. Over a year ago, I started a podcast called Black Mass Appeal with the help of some of my friends. That show is about, shall we say… alternative religions… and it’s been a ton of fun to put together and I’ve learned so much doing it.
But now, I’m starting on a new project about something else I love.
I can’t recall exactly when I became a die hard Die Hard fan. I think my story is probably pretty typical; falling in love with the movie as I watched it at home on VHS, or badly censored on TV. I do remember that when I moved to Los Angeles in 2006 to take an internship on the Fox lot, I never got over my excitement at driving past the Fox Plaza building – Nakatomi Tower – every day. I got a gray sweatshirt and a red Sharpie to make my own “Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho” costume for my Christmas party. I attended the Alamo Drafthouse’s “Nakatomi ‘88”-themed screening in San Francisco. And yes, I became one of those annoying drunks who’d go on at length about why Die Hard is a Christmas movie after a couple of cocktails.
After yet another friend asked me for quick notes on whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie in order to settle an office debate, I sat down with a (couple) glass(es) of whiskey, rewatched the movie, and hammered out a four-page, fully-cited essay on the matter. (Which you can read on the website.) Yes, this is how I spend my Friday nights.
But the fact that I did that made something abundantly clear: I love Die Hard. I have a lot to say about it. And I want to share it.
So here we are! This podcast is going to have nine episodes that each explore different aspects of the movie. We’ll look at action movies of the 80s, we’ll look at our heroes and villains, how women and minorities are portrayed, and why Die Hard is so popular again. There’ll also be a BONUS episode… You can find out more about that in just a minute.
So, before we dive in, a little housekeeping. Die Hard With a Podcast will release every other Thursday, wrapping up right before Christmas. If you want to get in touch…
Finally, if you like this show, kick me a buck or two on Patreon. Patreon helps to offset the cost of doing this show, so unless you have a vault with $640 million in bearer bonds you can open up for me, pledge a little bit on Patreon.
There are some cool bonuses you can get, like stickers, ornaments, and the bonus episode – and you can even help decide what you want the bonus episode to be on! So check that out, and pitch in if you can. And if you can’t – the best thing you can do is just listen and tell your friends. Leave a review on iTunes – that helps put this show in front of more people, so everyone can get in on the Die Hard love.
All right, on with the show.
For our first episode, I thought what better place to begin than where Die Hard began? So: this is the story of how Die Hard got made.
Die Hard doesn’t seem like one of those movies that started out as a book – there’s a lot of explosions in the movie and all – but it did. In fact, it started out as a sequel, to both a book and another movie.
In 1966, writer Roderick Thorp wrote a novel called The Detective. It was an adult take on the cop genre, with the main character, private investigator Joe Leland, taking on a gritty case of supposed suicide that leads him to uncover murder and corruption.
The novel was turned into a movie of the same name in 1968 by 20th Century Fox. The film starred Frank Sinatra as Joe, and the film did decent box office while Sinatra’s performance was well reviewed.
Over a decade later, in 1979, Thorp wrote a sequel to The Detective with the express intention of turning it into another movie for Sinatra. The book was called Nothing Lasts Forever (which sounds more like a James Bond movie if you ask me). In it, now-retired Joe Leland goes to visit his daughter – not his wife! – at her high-rise office in Los Angeles at Christmas. While he’s there, terrorists take over and… a lot of the rest is the same is the movie. Kinda. We’ll get into that on another episode. Anyway, it’s kind of like how author Michael Crichton wrote The Lost World expressly to be made into a sequel to the movie Jurassic Park, or Thomas Harris wrote Hannibal to be a made into a sequel for the Silence of the Lambs. (You’ll come to find out that Silence of the Lambs is another favorite movie of mine…)
Buying the rights
According to Thorp, future Die Hard associate producer Lloyd Levin showed the book Nothing Lasts Forever to future producer Lawrence Gordon. Gordon took one look at the cover, with a burning skyscraper and circling helicopter, and said, “I don’t need ro read it. Buy it.” So, 20th Century Fox bought the movie rights to this novel, too.
Now, Die Hard was actually produced by Silver Pictures, the production company founded by mega-producer Joel Silver in 1985. 20th Century Fox ended up being more of the distributor. (At some point in the early 80s, before Silver Pictures picked it up, the rights to Nothing Lasts Forever were actually owned by Clint Eastwood, who had intended on starring in the movie himself.)
Joel Silver was just coming off of a hot streak of iconic 80s action movies like Commando, Lethal Weapon, Predator, and Action Jackson, and he was able to pull from the talent behind those movies to put Die Hard into production.
Silver offered the gig to the director of 1987’s Predator, John McTiernan. Back in 1985, McTiernan had turned down directing Commando, and he almost turned down Die Hard, too. In fact, he tried a couple of times to turn it down. McTiernan said the material was just too dark and cynical for him. (And if you’ve read Nothing Lasts Forever, you’ll totally get it. That shit is bleak.) Eventually, he came around because he came up with a plot change that would “lighten things up.” “The original screenplay was a grim terrorist movie,” he said. “On my second week working on it, I said, ‘Guys, there’s 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.”
So instead of terrorists, McTiernan’s bad guys would be pulling off a heist. “I liked the idea of imagining what would happen when one of those Baader-Meinhof types got tired of fighting his and others’ political battles and decided to show them what a criminal is,” he said.
McTiernan also changed things up with inspiration from an unlikely source: Shakespeare. The original story took place over the course of three days, which was way too long. Now, borrowing from the structure of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the entirely of the plot would transpire over a single night.
To hammer out the story, writers Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza were hired. Jeb Stuart wrote the original script, and Steven de Souza was responsible for a lot of the on-the-fly revisions that would take place during shooting.
Die Hard was Jeb Stuart’s first film credit if you can believe it, and after Die Hard he later went on to write Another 48 Hours, Fire Down Below, and the really really amazing The Fugitive. De Souza had previously written 48 Hours, Commando, and The Running Man, and he would go on to write Die Hard 2, Hudson Hawk, Ricochet, Beverly Hills Cop III, Street Fighter, and Judge Dredd. Basically, these are the guys to go to for action thrillers.
But who to go to to be the star of this action flick?
Contractually, because Die Hard is technically a sequel to The Detective, the role had to be offered back to Frank Sinatra… who was 73 years old at the time. Fortunately, Sinatra decided he was “too old and too rich” to be running around making movies anymore.
By not going with an older gentleman as the lead, the filmmakers were now free to explore new options for the lead role. Jeb Stuart describes how he discovered the core of the film:
“I had no idea how to make this into a movie,” he said. After getting into an argument with his wife, Stuart said he got into his car and took off. “It’s in the days before cell phones and literally the minute I got on the highway, I knew I was wrong and knew I had to apologize,” he said. He wasn’t paying attention to the road and ran into a refrigerator box. “I went through it at 65 miles per hour and, fortunately, it was empty,” he explained. “I pulled over to the side of the road, my heart was pounding and I thought, ‘I know what this movie is about!’ It’s not about a 65-year-old man… It’s about a 30-year-old man, who should have said he’s sorry to his wife and then bad shit happens.” He went home and wrote 30 pages of the script that very night. Hopefully he apologized to his wife first.
When it came to casting the role of the now-renamed John McClane, the filmmakers seemed to try every male movie star in town. The part was offered to…
Sly Stallone, Don Johnson, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Clint Eastwood (as already mentioned), Burt Reynolds, Robert De Niro, Charles Bronson, Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson, James Caan, Paul Newman, and Richard Dean Anderson (yes, MacGyver!).
These actors ran the gamut from musclebound he-men to more sophisticated sorts. “When I first started working on it, they were talking about Richard Gere,” said John McTiernan. “The part was very buttoned down. He’s wearing a sport jacket, and he’s very suave and sophisticated and all that stuff. It was a sort of Ian Fleming hero, the gentleman man of action.”
But what all those actors had in common was they all turned the role down.
Going to Bruce Willis was seen as a desperate move in the film industry. After all, he was a *sniff* television actor, not a movie star. Willis was currently on the show Moonlighting, which was a comedy-drama about two private detectives. He had been in two movies by then as well, Blind Date and Sunset, but neither had been hits.
Still, Willis was a charismatic, charming actor. Demographic data from CinemaScore, an entertainment polling and research company, said that Willis was popular with audiences. And once again, producer Lawrence Gordon stepped in to take decisive action. Bruce Willis tells it himself:
“I know that Larry Gordon was instrumental in me getting the job. What’s that expression? Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan? Well, a lot of people take credit for my appearance in the first Die Hard, but Larry Gordon was really the guy. He lobbied for me. And then got them to give me an outrageous sum of money for acting in the film.”
It really was an outrageous sum of money. Willis was paid $5 million – more than almost any other leading man at the time. (Dustin Hoffman got $5.5 million for Tootsie, and Stallone got $12 million for Rambo III.) But multi-million dollar paychecks were usually reserved for only the biggest names in the business. Even then, the figures were only in the $2 or $3 million range. A TV actor getting this kind of payday sparked a legit panic among studios. In a New York Times article titled, “If Willis Gets $5 Million, How Much for Redford?,” writer Aljean Harmetz calls it “equivalent to an earthquake. The map of movie-star salaries must now be redrawn.”
In response, Leonard Goldberg, president and chief operating officer of 20th Century Fox got a little testy. He told the New York Times for that article, ”Die Hard hinges on the lead. We had a very exciting script and a team of producers who delivered Predator and Commando. We reached out for Bruce Willis because we thought we had the potential of a major film which is a star vehicle.”
But even after all of that, the reason Willis could even take the role came down to his Moonlighting co-star, Cybill Shepherd. Shepherd announced that she was pregnant – and because the pregnancy couldn’t be written into the show, Moonlighting producer Glenn Caron put the show on hiatus and gave everyone 11 weeks off.
At last, Die Hard had its star. Casting the villain to McClane’s hero was less fraught, but still a bit of a gamble. The role was originally offered to Sam Neill, but he turned it down. Then, in the spring of 1987, casting director Jackie Burch saw Alan Rickman playing the dastardly Valmont in the Broadway production of Dangerous Liaisons – a role which earned him a Tony Award nomination.
Rickman was known for theater, but, at the age of 41, had never done a movie. When he was offered the role of Hans Gruber, his instinct was to turn it down. He didn’t want to be a terrorist in an action movie.
Rickman said (no, I’m not even going to attempt doing Rickman’s voice here): “I didn’t know anything about L.A. I didn’t know anything about the film business… I’d never made a film before, but I was extremely cheap. I read [the script], 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.'”
Of course, in the end, Rickman accepted the role.
Rounding out the cast were Bonnie Bedelia as John’s wife Holly, Reginald VelJohnson as Sergeant Al Powell, Paul Gleason as Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson, William Atherton as reporter Richard Thornberg, James Shigeta as Joseph Takagi, De’voreaux White as limo driver Argyle, and a whole mess of big tall dudes as Hans’s gang of robbers.
While Hans is supposed to be German, Alan Rickman is British, and his right hand man Karl, played by Alexander Gudunov, is Russian. The rest of the crew was portrayed as more… vaguely international. That’s because there were chosen more for their intimidating look and height – 9 of the 12 were over 6 feet tall. And they certainly didn’t speak German – most of what they said in “German” was pretty much gibberish.
As a final bit of casting trivia, there are three Playboy Playmates in Die Hard. Kym Malin (May 1982) is the woman discovered having sex in the office when the terrorists arrive. Terri Lynn Doss (July 1988) is the woman who hugs someone at the airport. And Pamela Stein’s November 1987 actual centerfold is the one on the wall of the under-construction building hallway.
Speaking of the under-construction building hallway – we have to talk about the set.
Now, back in 1975, Roderick Thorp saw the movie The Towering Inferno, and dreamed about a man running through a skyscraper chased by men with guns. It’s what led to the high-rise setting of Nothing Lasts Forever, and eventually Die Hard. If you’ll remember, the cover of the book, with the building on fire, was what convinced Lawrence Gordon to buy the rights, after all.
Call it coincidence or good luck or a sign of things to come. But 20th Century Fox was just wrapping up construction on their new office building, a brown steel-and-glass building at 2121 Avenue of the Stars in Century City, which would be named Fox Plaza. Or, as we know it better: Nakatomi Tower. It was production designer Jackson De Govia’s idea to use the building as Die Hard’s location.
Getting to use the building required extensive negotiations with Fox. They had to agree to no daytime filming, and no explosions (whoops). According to McTiernan, “We had to periodically run downstairs and apologize to the lawyer beneath us, saying ‘we’re about to fire machine guns; will you excuse us?'” The scene where the SWAT team’s armored vehicle knocks over a stair railing in the front of the building caused months of negotiations alone. But in the end, Die Hard got its location, and Fox not only got to showcase its shiny new headquarters – in fact, a lot of early promotional material featured only the building, and not Bruce Willis – but they charged themselves rent for the building’s use. That’s actually pretty common in the film industry. The bookkeeping in the movie business is… interesting.
The interior of the building was still incomplete, so any shots you see of under-construction offices were actually shot in the unfinished parts of the building. Other sets were constructed at Stage 15 in the regular studio lot. Using the half-finished areas allowed McTiernan and cinematographer Jan De Bont to place fluorescent lights in the ground and have half-finished structures in the foreground. The maze-like feeling of the offices and hallways was deliberate.
Jackson De Govia said, “When I first read the script, I saw a jungle maze. It reminded me of the book High Rise by J.G. Ballard, in which a modern building becomes a tribal battleground. I wanted to make a building where that kind of action could take place. When the building is a jungle, people revert to utter realism, which is savagery… There are entire sequences where McClane moves through the building not touching the floor, like a predator in a jungle.” Although you might think so with a quote like that, De Govia didn’t work on Predator with McTiernan. De Govia had previously worked on a variety of movies, including Red Dawn, so he did have some experience with everyday folks fighting terrorists…
De Govia did carry a visual element from McTiernan’s Predator to Die Hard, though: both Schwarzenegger and Willis crawl through waterfalls during the action. You see, the lobby of the Nakatomi Corporation’s office is a dead-on copy of the famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house Fallingwater, complete with stone walls and, uh, falling water. De Govia was inspired by Japanese corporations buying up American institutions – something that was freaking out Americans in the late 80s. He created a backstory where Nakatomi bought the actual house and had it reassembled in their lobby on the 30th floor of the building, waterfall and all.
Now, putting McClane under waterfalls, into ventilation ducts and elevator shafts, under tables, and swinging him from firehoses certainly play to that guerilla-jungle spirit of Die Hard’s set.
But the problem with a maze-like set is making sure the audience knows where everyone is, and where the action is taking place relative to the other players. Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, analyzed Die Hard for Rolling Stone magazine.
He said, “John McTiernan’s direction is an amazing piece of intricate craftsmanship. What a lot of filmmakers have trouble communicating is a sense of geography. For instance, one floor of a building under construction looks a lot like any other floor. But McTiernan put in little things, like a Playboy centerfold hung up by a construction worker. At first it seems like a visual joke, but it’s really there to identify that floor, so when Willis encounters it again, the audience knows exactly where he is. Many directors also shoot action very sloppily – they shoot up close and cut around a lot and put in all these big noises to distract you. But in Die Hard, you know where every character is every second of the movie. Things are going by at a fast clip, but you’re never lost.”
This kind of dynamic but geographically-clear directing was McTiernan’s signature style, already on display in his previous film, Predator, as Arnold and his crew battle a literally invisible alien in the South American jungle.
McTiernan is known for helping the audience understand the relative locations of people and things within a space by using as few cuts as possible; instead, he keeps rolling as he pans the camera from something on one side of the room to the other side of the room. For example, in Die Hard, when the building’s alarm goes off and the henchman in the lobby acknowledges it, the camera moves from the alarm on the right to the henchman on the left, without cutting – just like you’re there yourself, turning your head to see. You can tell he’s sitting just to the side of the blinking alarm. Similarly, McTiernan will rack focus from something in the foreground to something in the background, or vice versa. Again, this creates a feeling of depth within a single shot and allows the viewer to follow where things are with their own eyes. It avoids confusion, and is in a way more efficient as you allow the audience to track things themselves instead of having to explain things every time.
Connecting these shots with a moving camera also keeps things, well, moving. The camera roams around, taking in the shot in a natural way, the way your own eye would. The objects and people within the frame are arranged to guide your eye (and therefore the camera, as it mimics the movement of your eye) from one thing to the next, leading you to discover important clues to the story. McTiernan says, “The camera isn’t just moving for the sake of keeping it moving. The camera is an active narrator in a thriller. The camera has to tell you how to evaluate every piece information you get and put it into context.”
McTiernan was able to achieve this kind of visual storytelling with the work of his supremely talented cinematographer, Jan De Bont. De Bont was born in the Netherlands and had quite a body of work already; McTiernan was already fascinated by what was considered “European-style” camera movement, and had particularly admired De Bont’s work with director Paul Verhoeven in The Fourth Man.
McTiernan was trained in this so-called “European style” of filmmaking, and it fits right in with what we’ve already discussed about his style. You see, not only do McTiernan (with De Bont) move the camera to naturally create a sense of geography, they also enhance emotion and tension with “unmotivated moves.” By moving the camera (tilting, panning) and zooming in on someone’s face, they heighten their expression. It’s just like when you’re in an uncomfortable or tense situation, and the first thing you do is look at everyone’s faces to understand how they’re reacting, so you can know how to react, too.
Die Hard’s principal photography began on November 2, 1987. The film had a surprisingly low budget of $28 million – it’d more than double that for the sequel. Once everything was in place, things had to move fast – 20th Century Fox wanted to release the film the very next year. That lead to a lot of making shit up as they went. A lot.
The script wasn’t even entirely done when they began shooting. The heart of John McClane was still a bit of a mystery. Sure, they knew Bruce Willis was not going to be playing McClane like he would have the hardened cop Joe Leland from Nothing Lasts Forever, but there was still something missing. It wasn’t until halfway through shooting that Willis and McTiernan realized that John McClane simply doesn’t like himself all that much. You know that moment where John argues with Holly in her office at the beginning of the movie, and he bangs his head on the doorframe after she walks out? That was a reshoot done way later, once they’d clued in to what makes McClane tick.
McClane’s sarcastic humor was also the result of on-the-fly rewrites. Bruce Willis said about shooting, “I remember that the script was in flux. It would change and they would rewrite scenes and we would come in and there’d be new scenes. I’ll give you an example. The second biggest line in Die Hard was ‘Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…’ That line was written while I was in this mock-up of a ventilator shaft, trapped in there, I couldn’t come out. In those days, a cell phone looked like a shoe box, they were enormous. And someone had to hand me a phone with Steven de Souza, the writer for the rewrites on Die Hard, and he’d tell me a line, they’d turn the camera on, we’d shoot it.”
There’s some debate about whether or not the biggest line in the movie was the result of improv or not. In a 2013 interview with Ryan Seacrest, Willis said that “Yippee-kay-yay, motherfucker” was “just a throwaway. I was just trying to crack up the crew and I never thought it was going to be allowed to stay in the film.”
Then again, writer Steven De Souza recalled the creation of that line a little differently. “Bruce and I grew up watching the same TV shows,” he said. “Roy Rogers used to say ‘Yippee ki yay, kids.’ So it had to become ‘Yippee ki yay, 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.” Damn. De Souza shading both Willis and Stallone at the same time…
Aspects of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber were yet to crystalize, too. The filmmakers wanted John and Hans to have a “mano a mano” meeting somehow, before the final showdown. When De Souza learned that Rickman could do a “good” American accent (which… No disrespect, but I think good is up for debate…), he put it together with the fact that up until this face to face meeting, John had only heard Hans, and speaking with a German accent, over the radio. So, Hans, searching for his detonators, runs into John… and pretends to be a hostage named Bill Clay who has slipped away.
To stay on this scene for just a minute longer: there’s a bit of a “controversy” where it’s not explicitly explained how John figures out that Hans is only pretending to be a hostage. How would John know not to give Hans a loaded gun? Well, in an earlier scene that was cut from the final film, everyone in Hans’s gang synchronizes their watches – and they’re all wearing the same watch – something McClane, as a cop, would have noticed as he searched the bodies of the bad guys he’d already snuffed. Steven De Souza says, “When Bruce offers the cigarette to Alan Rickman, Bruce sees the watch. You see his eyes look at the watch. That’s how he knows that he is one of the terrorists.”
So supposedly this is some big plot hole caused by the cut scene. But if I can interject for just a second – and I can, it’s my podcast – I think that’s bullshit. It’s not a plot hole. We don’t need it spelled out for us how John figures out that Hans is one of the terrorists. John’s a cop, and clearly a good one – I mean, he’d survived that far into the movie, he’s gotta be pretty skilled. The audience can fill in that he caught something we didn’t. He can be smart; he can know things the audience doesn’t know. He can notice the watches, or he can have a gut feeling, or he can just have the common sense to not hand a loaded gun to a perfect stranger in a really dangerous situation. Anyway.
When it comes to plot holes, there is one in Die Hard that is easy to miss, but is, in fact, logically inconsistent. Up until two weeks before the end of shooting, filmmakers still didn’t know how the gang was going to try to escape. They decided that the gang’s plan would be to drive away through the chaos of the inevitable disaster scene in an ambulance that was hidden in the back of the box truck they used to drive into the building. Not a bad plan… Except for the part where they don’t bring the ambulance with them at the start of the movie. If you look at Hans and company arriving at Nakatomi Tower in their truck, you can see the truck is way too small to contain another vehicle… and besides, it’s not there behind the men as they wait to unload. Whoops.
But then, we’re not coming to Die Hard to pick apart its continuity. We’re here for some action!
Die Hard employed 37 stuntmen, under stunt coordinator Charlie Picerni. Stunt doubles were used for many of the action scenes – this is Die Hard, not Mission: Impossible, after all. Things always have the potential to go disastrously wrong, and there were a few on-set accidents, but fortunately none were too grave. When McClane goes down the ventilation shaft, you can see him fall – and that wasn’t on purpose. The stunt man was supposed to grab the very first ledge within the shaft, but he missed – and editor Frank Urioste kept his fall in the final film, cutting back to McClane catching himself on a ledge way below the one he was supposed to grab.
One of Die Hard’s stunt performers is actually a Technical Academy Award-winner for his Decelerator System, which is a cable system that allows stunt performers to “fall” more safely from a higher height, and to be shot from any angle. Ken Bates explains his invention: “When we did Die Hard, I started using a device called a Descender, to do controlled falls. In other words, we do a controlled fall from anywhere up to 105 stories. The fall is controlled because you’re descending on a small cable. If the film is undercranked, it looks like you’re falling.” Bates clearly knew what he was doing with his Decelerator System, since he was the one who acted as Rickman’s stunt double during his fall from Nakatomi Tower. (He also doubled Bruce Willis when he leapt off the top of the building with a firehose.)
Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman did perform a couple of stunts of their own. John McTiernan recalled, “The first time we got to the point in a scene where you would insert a stuntman, I told Bruce he would only have to take it up to here, and he then could go sit down. He said, ‘No, I want to do it.’ And all of a sudden, you saw that New Jersey street kid in him come out. It’s not that he did anything dangerous, but it was a side that he had not shown us before.”
Bruce Willis explained why he was so game. “I think doing my own stunts whenever possible adds a lot to the production value of the film… John can get the camera close, because he doesn’t need to disguise the stuntman. But on a personal level, it satisfies the little boy who still lives in me who gets to shoot guns, kill the bad guys and be a hero while doing jumps and falls and swinging from ropes.”
McClane famously ran around Nakatomi Tower without shoes on, but Bruce Willis got a little more protection. He was given a pair of rubber feet to wear – they make him look a little hobbit-like, since they had to slip on over his own feet. You can see them in the scene when McClane jumps off the edge of the roof as the FBI shoots at him from the helicopter.
McTiernan and weapons specialist Michael Papac also dialed up the intensity of the stunt weapons for added realism. As in most movies, the firearms in Die Hard are real weapons that have been modified to shoot blanks. But these blanks were specially handcrafted by Pacpac. McTiernan wanted the muzzle flash to be exaggerated and the sound to be extra-loud. He got what he wanted, but not without a price. When McClane shoots a terrorist from underneath a conference table, the gun was in such close proximity to his unprotected ears that the bangs gave Willis permanent hearing loss. Willis said, “Due to an accident on the first Die Hard, I suffer two-thirds partial hearing loss in my left ear and have a tendency to say, ‘Whaaa?’”
The deafening blanks got to Rickman, too. Every time he fired his gun, Rickman would flinch. McTiernan was forced to cut away from Rickman’s reactions so his expression wouldn’t be caught on film, but you can see one of them right after Hans shoots Takagi at the beginning of the movie.
The most famous stunt in the movie is Hans Gruber’s fall from the window of Nakatomi Tower. We’ve already discussed how stuntman Ken Bates was able to pull off the actual fall, but it’s the beginning of the fall, where we see Hans’s shocked face in slow motion, that makes it so heart-stopping. That, of course, is actually Alan Rickman falling, although from not quite as high a height.
“John McTiernan had to talk Alan into doing that shot because even stuntmen will generally not fall backwards – they like to see where they’re going,” said visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund. For Hans’s fatal fall, Alan Rickman was to be dropped from 25 feet in the air, with a blue air bag below him and a camera above him to capture his expression. The camera was shooting at 270 frames per second to capture Hans’s plummeting face at a rate ten times slower than normal.
Rickman was understandably apprehensive about the stunt. It didn’t help that, legendarily, the crew told him they’d give him a countdown of three, two, one, go – and drop him on “Go” – and instead… they dropped him on one. Rickman wasn’t exactly happy with the crew for that surprise bit of acting motivation, but miraculously, they convinced him to do a second take. Ultimately, the crew’s prank (?) worked – the first take is the one you see in the film.
Release and reception
Die Hard wrapped in March 1988, just four months before the film was set to be released. As the filmmakers got to work on post-production, the studio did not exactly demonstrate a lot of faith in the film. As mentioned earlier, the early publicity didn’t even have Bruce Willis on it; the poster featured the Fox Plaza building as the star of the show. The advertising campaign for the film was short, too – especially by today’s standards. In contrast, I think I saw the trailer for Mission Impossible: Fallout in front of every movie I saw for at least two years before it was released!
Everyone seemed worried. Test audiences rated the movie poorly, and “had no interest in seeing [Bruce Willis] dart around a skyscraper shooting terrorists.” The New York Times summer movie preview doubted Willis was “enough of a movie star to carry the film,” and Newsweek’s David Ansen was even more harsh, saying Willis was “the most unpopular actor ever to get $5 million for making a movie.” Film critic Roger Ebert gave it a mere two stars, and criticized the stupidity of the deputy police chief character, claiming that “all by himself he successfully undermines the last half of the movie.”
20th Century Fox was convinced it had a flop on its hands. The movie was released on July 15th, 1988, in only 21 theaters in 20 cities, where it earned only $600,000 its first weekend.
But then… audiences liked it. They loved it. They kept coming back. In the second week, the movie expanded to 1,200 theaters across the country. After Die Hard opened wide, it started out in third place at the box office, taking in $7 million. From there, strong word of mouth took it to the top, where it lived in the top five for ten weeks. It only dropped into sixth place in October. Die Hard finished its theatrical run with $83 million domestic and another $57 million worldwide – completely making up for that $5 million paycheck Bruce Willis got. It was the seventh-highest grossing movie of 1988. It also enjoyed a long, successful run on home video – something we’ll talk about later in this series.
Not only was Die Hard a financial triumph, it received Oscar nominations for editing, visual effects, sound and sound editing. And it turned Bruce Willis into a star. The kind of star who’d later join Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone – the very action stars he essentially replaced – in opening up a chain restaurant themed on Hollywood celebrity.
And so, that’s the story of how Die Hard got made. There are certainly parts I’ve missed, or pieces of the story that have changed over time. Filmmaking stories sometimes take on the quality of oral histories, especially when the resulting film becomes a legend.
Throughout the rest of this podcast series, we’ll explore why Die Hard has become so celebrated among action movies, 80s movies, movies in general. I’m excited to invite you to the party with me. Come out to the show, we’ll get together have a few laughs…
Anyway, thank you for joining me. Happy trails, and yippee-kai-yay, motherfuckers.