‘The Movies that made us: die hard’

Netflix and The Nacelle Company’s The Movies That Made Us Docuseries continued with a segment on the celebrated action film from the late ‘80s, Die Hard, about a New York cop who comes to Los Angeles to reconcile issues with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) but gets caught amid a hostage crisis inside the infamous Nakatomi Plaza building while making friends with LAPD Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson) and enemies with German terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). This fast-paced documentary segment reveals loads of treasured information about the backstory of how Die Hard was adapted into a screenplay from a detective novel written by Roderick Thorpe called ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. Screenwriter Jeb Stuart (Lock Up, The Fugitive) is interviewed heavily in this segment, providing insightful information otherwise unknown by Die Hard fans alike. “The first thing he said was, ‘we’re changing the name of the movie to Die Hard.’” Jeb Stuart says, quoting the film’s producer, Joel Silver. “I also had to get the guy off the top of the building while blowing it up.” John McTiernan, who directed the third installment of the famed Die Hard franchise, Die Hard With a Vengeance, is interviewed within a great portion of this documentary segment, making it more valuable since the film’s very own director shares first hand information. We learn thatJoel Silver brilliantly decided to hunt down John McTiernan for the directing job, thinking he was the perfect fit. “I turned it down, because it was a terrorist movie.” Mctiernan said he kept turning it down. “I’ve got to start changing things. Nobody likes terrorists. Everybody likes robbers. Their fun. You can enjoy it.” McTiernan brilliantly altered the direction of the story, by changing the villain’s motives from terrorists to pseudo-terrorists – disguising themselves with a front in order to break-in to the vault inside the building that housed various bonds and cash.

Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard (1988) Twentieth Century Fox

John McTiernan’s Die Hard is the original, ultimate action movie that revolutionized the way action movies were made. The gut-punching, gun-blazing John McClane (Bruce Willis) isn’t your typical muscular character. He was a lean machine who used his wits to outsmart the bad guys, as opposed to fighting them head-on. Nominated for four Academy Awards, Die Hard grossed $141,482,154 at the worldwide box office in 1988. But, first, Twentieth Century Fox decided that Bruce Willis’  had to be taken off the one-sheet movie poster after the trailer previewed in theatres and filmgoers couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of Bruce Willis, who was established as the character of David from the ABC television fantasy/comedy series Moonlighting (1985) and the romantic comedy movie Blind Date (1987) when he played opposite of Kim Basinger. Both roles were light-hearted ladies men, setting Willis up as an actor who audiences believed wouldn’t fare well in a serious action movie portraying a cop with the NYPD. But, after word of mouth spread post-opening weekend at the box office, Fox put Willis’ face back on the one-sheet, and Die Hard was well on its way to revolutionizing action films throughout the 90s.

Twentieth Century Fox

The documentary discusses how Die Hard was offered to a long-list of actors before it reached Bruce Willis. It was turned down by Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Burt Reynolds and James Caan. “I don’t get the humor.” Clint Eastwood apparently said. Arnold Rifkin, the former talent agent of Bruce Willis, is interviewed about how Bruce Willis became involved with the project. “Women fell in love with Bruce.” Rifkin says, referring to his four-year TV series Moonlighting. Rifkin ingeniously negotiated a $5 million paycheck for his client Bruce Willis as collateral just in case the film flopped since his client had never performed as an action hero and the possibility of it ruining his career. It’s actually a blessing to the world of cinema that the established action stars like Stallone and Eastwood passed on the film; they wouldn’t be suited for a role that involved a sly cop who outwits his enemies through booby traps and mind games. The likes of Schwarzenegger and Burt Reynolds are front lined fighters who go for the attack, as opposed to playing hide and seek with defense and counter-attacking, like Bruce Willis’ John McClane.

Reginald VelJohnson as Sgt. Al Powell in Die Hard (1988) Twentieth Century Fox

The documentary shows contemporary interview clips with Bonnie Bedelia who played Holly Gennero, William Atherton who played the news reporter, and of course Reginald VelJohnson who portrayed Sgt. Al Powell. “She was an independent, smart accomplished woman. Not a damsel in distress.” Bonnie Bedelia says, in reference to her character of McClane’s wife. “Die Hard gave me everything that I have today. If it wasn’t for that movie, I wouldn’t know where I would be.” Reginald VelJohnson says, with an emotional reflection upon the role of Sgt. Powell, which clearly inspired his character of Carl Winslow on the hit ABC series Family Matters (1989-1998) where he portrayed a cop from Chicago. “I was a youngster when I made Die Hard. Now I’m an old man, and here we are, still talking about this movie.” Reginald VelJohnson discusses the timelessness of Die Hard and its affect upon the masses. Up until last year, Die Hard was still a trending topic on social media in a debate as to whether or not it should be classified as an official Christmas movie. “I kept going to auditions, and then Die Hard came along, and my mom supported me. I went in an auditioned. Wesley Snipes was there. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do it better than he did.’ They gave me the job!” VelJohnson said. The documentary goes even beyond, showing archived videos of Alexander Godunov – the films arch-villain, Karl, who gets into an epic chain fight with McClane – as a professional ballet dancer in real-life. The contrast between the real ballet dancing Godunov and the character he portrayed in the film as Karl the notorious German terrorist is astonishing and comical. The fact that almost the entire cast of Die Hard were unknowns makes this film’s success a significant topic of discussion. Nobody knew who Alan Rickman was in 1988 other than the mere fact that he was a stage actor on Broadway. “Hans had to be upper class. Well educated; has to wear a suit.” McTiernan said, regarding Hans Gruber, the brilliant villainous mastermind of the German terrorists who seize control of Nakatomi Plaza, the fictional renaming of Fox Plaza in Century City, Los Angeles.

Die Hard (1988) Twentieth Century Fox

This documentary reveals a lesson behind the making of Die Hard, subliminally alluding to the cutthroat mentality of the Hollywood film industry, both then and in the modern-day. The documentary reveals how director John McTiernan and writer Jeb Stuart bumped heads in regards to the screenplay. “I was trying to get him to lighten it up and he didn’t know how.” McTiernan said about Jeb Stuart, while attempting to dial down the toxic masculinity ever-present in action films throughout the ‘80s. “The terrorist eats candy under the glass case. A SWAT guy gets stung by thorn bushes. Quite the opposite of the tough guy image.” McTiernan said. Jeb Stuart provided his side of the heartbreaking story of him getting terminated from the project. “It was devastating. I was fired. It was my movie. It was my baby. Somebody took my baby.” Jeb Stuart passionately adapted this novel into a screenplay and made it his own. All of his efforts and attention, through his creative vision, were unnoticed and immediately underappreciated since he was unable to complete the alterations requested by his film director. So, what’s the Hollywood solution to this common dilemma? Fire the writer, and rehire a new writer, while making everyone feel expendable, no matter how hard they work. They don’t care about passion and art. It’s all about the money. Stuart was fired and the new rewriter was Steven E. de Souza (Street Fighter, Beverly Hills Cop III). “De Souza has a style that’s basically silly adventures.” McTiernan said. But, since the production schedule was already locked-in, only 35 pages could be rewritten, leaving the majority of Stuart’s script untouched, remaining in the finished product.

Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber and Bonnie Bedelia as Holly Gennaro in Die Hard (1988) Twentieth Century Fox

This documentary does a great job on putting the spotlight on another fascinating fact about the making of Die Hard which added to its greatness and originality; its cinematographer Jan de Bont, who directed the Keanu Reeves thriller Speed (1994) which many critics labeled as Die Hard-on-a-bus. “We wanted to really change the action movie. There was a tradition of how those movies were made before, and we wanted to change that tradition.” De Bont says in his interview clip, referring to the way Die Hard revolutionized the action movie genre for the following decade in the ‘90s. If Speed was Die Hard on a bus, Passenger 57 (1992) was Die Hard on an airplane, Under Siege (1992) was Die Hard on a ship and Cliffhanger (1993) was Die Hard on a mountain. This segment of The Movies That Made Us brings justice to John McTiernan’s Die Hard by shining a light upon significant members of its cast and crew through up-to-date interviews that shed light on the true backstories of the film which resulted in a global phenomenon, spawning a franchise of several sequels throughout a span of 30 years revolving around the character of John McClane.

Die Hard was so successful that Twentieth Century Fox immediately jumped on a commercial venture by literally duplicating the film with a supposed sequel, Die Hard 2 (1990), placing John McClane in the same situation, except this time the location is an airport. Die Hard 2 by itself is a superior action film directed by Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger). But unfortunately, it’s practically impossible to ignore the fact that it’s an exact replica of its predecessor, due to a studio’s desire to duplicate the extravaganza caused by the original. It could be argued that Die Hard 2 isn’t a sequel, but a remake. Imagine that, two years after you make a successful film, all the actors and crew gather up to remake the film because it was so cool and successful. Except for John McTiernan, who clearly sat out of the venture, but returned for the third installment of the franchise in 1995, Die Hard with a Vengeance, which is arguably the real sequel to Die Hard, since it carries on the same storyline of German terrorists with Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) Hans Gruber’s younger brother, leaving Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2 almost in its own universe. All in all, Twentieth Century Fox gave the world a movie so cool that they decided to remake it two years after its release. That’s how good Die Hard was. And guess what? We all bought it. I’ll eat up Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2 with joy on any given night, but I’ll never forget why it’s so good; because John McTiernan’s original version set the standard for how it’s done.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s