A (Mini) Oral History of the Most Memorable 'Die Hard' Moments
The making of Die Hard wasn't necessarily fraught with peril, though John McTiernan's blockbuster masterpiece did take nine years to realize. From developing a depressing 1970s novel (Nothing Lasts Forever) into a self-aware action comedy, to the hunt to find the perfect John McClane, to the heated partnership of moguls Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver (responsible for launching franchises like 48 Hrs. and Predator) tearing at the seams, the production of Die Hard was a slow-motion version of star Bruce Willis' arduous climb.
In Die Hard: An Oral History, author Brian Abrams dives deep into Reagan-era Hollywood blockbuster culture by interviewing roughly 40 actors, producers, studio execs, and hangers-on who either worked on the original installment or hid in the offices at 20th Century Fox. Thrillist is proud to present an excerpt from chapter three of the Kindle Single, which drops onto the Die Hard set, inside the 710,767sqft Fox Plaza, better known to fans as Nakatomi Plaza.
Steve E. de Souza, writer: We actually filmed a lot of stuff in the real building. The room where he loses his shoes, and there's a giant fight, right? That was the floor that became Ronald Reagan's office. When they moved into his [34th-floor] office, there were bullets and empty cartridges all over the place. The brass was like, "Wait a minute. What's this?" For a couple of hours they're wondering like, "Did somebody do a drive-by in here?" Then they realized what it was.
Frank Urioste, editor: Oh my God, I do remember that day. We neglected to tell the FBI that this was going on. They thought it looked like a terrorist attack. It was pretty serious for about an hour.
Reginald VelJohnson, actor (Sgt. Al Powell): Bruce [Willis] had me come out earlier for his scene where he was in the bathroom with the cut foot. I was right there in the stall with him. He wanted me there. It was kind of strange, because when he was done and it came time for me to film my stuff, I did all my lines with the script girl. No, it wasn't fair, but, hey, it was my first time. I was just excited to have the role. I owe him my career. That's the truth. So I did everything with the little script girl. She was my Bruce.
John McTiernan, director: We didn't come up with the scene where he's taking glass out of his feet until after we had been shooting for two, three weeks. Our basic task was to show what Bruce's character was about. You had to let the audience in on it. He doesn't like himself. He is in pain, basically. You let the audience see all those things behind the smart-ass face. You let the audience see the hurt. Being a smart-ass turns into an act of courage instead of just being an asshole.
VelJohnson: McTiernan's a very intimidating kind of guy. I was a little afraid of him. I wanted to do everything that he directed me to do and do it well. I didn't have time to become friends with him or have small talk. He was always on the go. He's an excellent director for actors, I think, because he gets his point across very clearly. You know what he wants you to do. The fear of not being able to do that was, like, plotting over my head. So I said to myself, "Let me just do what this man wants me to do to the best of my abilities so he won't have anything to say to me."
William Atherton, actor (Richard Thornburg): I didn't get any notes. When you're shooting a scene, somebody would say, "go over there and do this or that," but I don’t remember anything structurally for me in terms of playing the character that we discussed. It was just what was written there. The one thing I asked at the end was how to play "Did you get that?" I think we had some discussion about that.
Andy Lipschultz, unit publicist: Remember when Takagi's brains get blown out? That was a night shoot. It had to be 4 in the morning. They had put an appliance on the back of his head. Joel said, "I need to see his brains leaving his head. I need to give something to the MPAA [to cut] because I want to get the other stuff passed. I don't want this for the movie." It was brilliant. Basically he wanted to give them something to censor.
de Souza: They brought me into the editing room. "Can you add more jokes?" If you pay attention to all of my movies, you'll notice there are some big laugh lines when you can't see anybody's lips moving.
Urioste: Any suggestions that I would have, I'd give 'em to John. Like the limousine driver, Argyle, he was basically out of the movie after he drove [McClane] to Nakatomi Plaza. We had to figure out a scene in the middle to keep him alive. That's when we added the scene while the action starts -- when the police car goes in reverse after they're shooting at him from the building and then he goes flying over a wall. Then, behind Argyle, who's on the phone, you see the police car go flying behind him. It was actually a funny scene.
Hart Bochner, actor (Harry Ellis): I felt that if I was going to do this movie, to play it straight would have been kind of boring and not something that I would be interested in. I hadn't really talked with McTiernan or Joel Silver about it. I just kind of showed up on set with my point of view, and it was met by McTiernan with "What are you doing?"
Jackie Burch, casting director: He was the comic relief. I wouldn't say a Jerry Lewis. I wouldn't go that far.
Bochner: I'm a non-drug guy, but I observed a few friends on blow and thought, "Well, their energy levels are heightened." I told [McTiernan] that the coke aspect of the character -- it being Christmas Eve and he's by himself -- would fuel the insecurity or help mask his insecurity and create a false sense of bravado. He said, "No, no, no, no, no, no. Just play it straight. Just think 'Cary Grant.'" I said, "Really? OK" And then I kept doing what I wanted to do. He got more and more flustered with me until he had a conversation with Joel Silver who was by the monitors. Joel was laughing and just said, "Leave him alone." So it was off to the races.
Jackson De Govia, production designer: We initially had six weeks. We got an additional two weeks, but that's absurd. It should have been, at a minimum, 10. There was so much construction. It was crazy. Also, all the stunts had to be worked out. We often made it up as we went along. Decisions were made, and, because we kind of mind-melded in the process, the decision-making was a lot faster because we came to trust each other's instincts. For instance, the logo for the Nakatomi Corporation was version two. I designed the graphics for the first one, and Joel Silver came [up] to me very nicely. He thought it looked like a Swastika on reflection and [asked for] something else. So I picked a samurai warrior's helmet as the basis for the logo.
Eric Lichtenfeld, author, Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie (2007): The big fall from the building that Hans does after the thing with the watch? They had Rickman on the rig. I think it was called "The Decelerator." They were going to drop him, let's say, 35ft. So he started practicing. "3-2-1, go!" They practiced first from, like, 5ft and into the air bag, "3-2-1, go!" Then from, say, like 10ft. They worked their way up to a certain height. They said, "Now we're going to do it for real."
De Govia: Alan Rickman had to drop into a blue screen stretched over a bag. It might have been 30ft, which is plenty scary. You'd break your back, especially if you were untrained, but this is the thing about it: What you see on his face when he lets go is real fear. It's one of the greatest shots ever.
Lichtenfeld: They get him up to 35ft or whatever it was, and cameras started rolling for the first take. Then [stunt coordinator Charlie Picerni] turns to the guy operating the rig and said, "Drop him on 1."
De Govia: He was terrified. Any of us would be. You saw a fear of death, and I think, as an actor, he just let his emotions go. He let us see what he was feeling, and it was a tremendous shot.
Lichtenfeld: You can't fake that look.
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